Tag Archives: Australia

A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville

I seem to be in the middle of a spate of novels about the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is such an interesting period. I was fortunate enough to study the 1790s under the late EP Thompson at the University of Warwick, when I specialised by studying Mary Wollestonecraft. At that time there was no biography of her.

A Room Made of Leaves had several things to recommend it. In the first place it was given to me by my dear friend Sarah. Her recommendations are always interesting. Second, the author was known to me as the writer of The Idea of Perfection (2001) which I remember won the Orange Prize for Fiction, as the Women’s Prize was then called. It made a strong impression on me at the time. Then the cover is splendidly exotic, designed to reflect the lush vegetation that settlers found when they arrived in Australia. And finally, it set in the period of my interest, beginning in Devon, and moving to the other side of the world to the new penal colony of Australia.

A Room Made of Leaves

The novel is framed as the recently discovered memoirs of Elizabeth Macarthur and so is written in the first person. Born in humble beginnings in Devon, Elizabeth became unwanted by her mother, and although devoted to her grandfather, a sheep farmer, she was taken in by the local vicar and made his ward partly on account of her close relationship to his daughter. But her friendship with the daughter ends when Elizabeth unwisely becomes involved with a reckless and volatile soldier John Macarthur. His prospects are poor as he is on half pay at the end of the French wars. A brief conquest beside a hedge leads to pregnancy, marriage and life controlled by Macarthur. 

Elizabeth finds herself to be the wife of a man who is almost pathologically interested in his own advancement, desperate to be recognised as a gentleman. A posting to Australia is one step in his plan for advancement. Nothing will get in his way, not a weak leader, aboriginal inhabitants, even his own temper. In fact, he uses these to his own advantage.

Elizabeth learns to manage her situation as the wife of this very difficult man. She is one of the few women among the military society of the colony. She establishes a salon where she learns to understand and manipulate the men and situations that come to her. She recognises that she had to become as devious as her husband in order to maintain her integrity.

Key to her independence of mind is her affair with the astronomer, Mr Dawes. Men with his skills and knowledge were required by the Royal Navy at this time, to read the stars and navigate successfully across the oceans of the world. Mr Dawes, like Elizabeth, was an outsider in the new colony. He was unlike the other naval officers for he was a man of science, interested in the indigenous peoples of the area around Sydney, and in the fauna of this unknown land. Lessons for Elizabeth in astronomy became trysts for the lovers, meeting in the bower he created that gives the book its title: a room made of leaves.

John Macarthur manages to gain land in the new colony, and after a while his power extends and he is also able to acquire some land in Parramatta, now a suburb of Sydney. The farmland proved excellent for sheep and drawing on the expertise of a convict, transported for stealing a sheep, and her own experience in Devon with her grandfather, they developed an excellent breed of merino sheep. 

As Sarah said to me in an email, 

The thing I loved about the Kate Grenville – well, one of the things – was the way Elizabeth builds a true life for herself out of a very shitty situation

The ‘editor’ of Elizabeth’s memoirs says

Australian history, like most histories, is mainly about men. (1)

She has suggested a plausible alternative to the official history.

Australians of my generation had it dinned into them that ‘our nation rides of the sheep’s back’ – meaning that wool was the basis of our economy – and that John Macarthur was ‘the father of the wool industry’. Streets and swimming pools and parks all over Australia are named after him in gratitude. 
But here’s the thing: the Australian merino – the sheep we rode on the back of – was mostly developed during the years that John Macarthur was in England. It looks very much as though the Father of the Wool Industry must actually have been the Mother of the Wool Industry: his wife. (3)

The book has lots to say about the position of women, and a life lived in the shadow of a bully, and about colonialism and racism and its effects on the indigenous peoples in early Australian history. The descriptions of the countryside in Devon, the landscape of London and the lush area around Sydney are all vivid and enjoyable. 

Kate Grenville

Kate Grenville, WikiCommons Daniel Bagnato March 2017

The author was born in 1950 as is known for her writing about early Australian history. She has won many awards, for her nine novels, and has also written The Writing Book guidance for writers, for example (2010). She had a career in films, which perhaps partly explains her strong visual writing.

My thanks to my friend Sarah, for the gift of this book, and for the many conversations we have had about novels and other writing over the years and those to come.

A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville, published in 2020 by Canongate. 321pp

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The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

There is no sudden change when a woman becomes old, in my experience. What I see is that women from their youth spend their days doing things: reading, pursuing interests, gardening, maintaining relationships, worrying about their bodies, money, relationships and their children. And as they get older they continue to be absorbed by these things. And one day they realise that they are ageing, and another day they come to see that they are old. And they continue to read, pursue interests, work in the garden, maintain relationships, worry about their bodies, money, relationships and their children.

There is a quartet of older women – the main characters – in The Weekend. Charlotte Wood has not so much written about ageing as about a group of women who have been friends for decades and are now in their 70s.

This is the 56th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the links at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed.

The Weekend

Four Australian women have been friends for decades, and now they are in their 70s. One of them, Sylvie, has died and the others have agreed to clear her beach house before it is sold. It is about a year since she died. The weekend they choose to do this is Christmas, and it’s very hot.

Sylvie owned the house and is still present through her possessions, and the memories that the women have of her, sparked by the items in her house. They have an expectation that they will be grieving for their friend individually and as a group during the weekend. Wendy finds some postcards that Sylvie has kept, sent by friends as they travelled the world, including one from her in Paris. She is amazed to find that she knows very few of the people who sent the cards. I have had this experience at a funeral of finding that my knowledge of my friend was partial. There were parts of his life of which I knew nothing, despite thinking of him as a close friend. 

Dominating the work of clearing Sylvie’s house is Jude, a woman of fine taste and a very controlling manner. She can communicate contempt in a few words about, say, stale bread. She has been living with a secret for forty years – she is the kept woman of a very rich man. The group know this, but they have never met him. Jude’s non-verbal communication is one of the most creative aspects of Charlotte Wood’s writing: she bangs plates and pots, raises an eyebrow, glares, sighs, rolling of eyes and none of it is in pleasure.

Wendy is an intellectual, who has lost control of her body. She owns the dog, Finn, who intrudes upon every scene with his tremors and incontinence, his smell and his anxiety. She is too fond of Finn to contemplate putting him down. This attitude mirrors, perhaps, a dominant and contradictory view of the very old: with love but frustration at a life lived beyond independence.

Adele is an actress, now permanently resting, but with high hopes of a comeback and maintaining a punishing regime to keep her body and good looks. She meets a rival actress who has been getting the parts that she wished for, and the battle between these women is a feature of the central section of the book. The struggle between Sonia and Adele for the attention of the younger man, a theatre producer provides some comedy, at the expense of all of them.

These women are not so much battling old age as dealing with the issues with which they are presented at this moment in their lives. Their lovers, and children, their financial situation, their preoccupations and their antagonisms have been arising throughout their lives. They have not always supported each other and have exacerbated the each other’s difficulties at times. 

As the three women are reminded of Sylvie, and her foibles and strengths, they see the other two friends against the backdrop of her life and death and begin to wonder why they are still friends, or indeed ever were friends.

Over the weekend each of the three women meets a crisis, and after some very difficult moments, they also find strength in each other. But it is painful, not just because they are ageing, but also because life and friendships are hard. 

I thought this was an excellent novel. It depicts women in their 70s but is not about living in fear of death, despite the death of one of them; nor is it about nostalgia and memories and trying to regain a vanishing past; nor are they amusingly handicapped by forgetfulness; nor are they querulous and demanding; nor do they have magical powers of insight bestowed by advancing years. Their lives are not so different from my friends in their 70s, or indeed my own.

Adele reflects the continuity of life that is a feature of this novel: 

Life – ideas, thinking, experience, was still there to be mastered … She had not finished her turn, would not sink down. She wanted more.

Charlotte Wood

This award-winning writer lives in Sidney and is in her 50s. In 2013 she was appointed as the inaugural Writer in Residence at the University of Sidney in the Charles Perkins Centre, a research facility that brings science and art together, for example, to look at the complexity of old age. The Weekend is her sixth novel and is very successful, being awarded prizes and picked as Book of the Year by many publications.

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood, published in 2019 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 258pp

Related posts

The Boookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.

Simon Lavery prompted me to get a copy of this novel with his review on his blog: Tredynas Days, last December. You can see his review here.

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My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin

I had known about this book for many years, but I had been put off reading it by the rather colloquial title: I got the sense of going bung, but in my prim way thought it was a bit vulgar. I found a copy in a second-hand bookshop soon after I had reviewed My Brilliant Career and was intrigued. I so wish I had come across it earlier, because it was fun and I would have enjoyed it as a much younger woman too.

My Career Goes Bung

My Brilliant Career was not a sophisticated novel. The storyline follows the history of the Australian writer, written with a great deal of energy and brashness. According to the introduction by Carmen Callil, Miles Franklin said that she ‘conceived and tossed it off in a matter of weeks’. It was published in 1901. The reception of this novel caused her to refuse to allow it to be reprinted. 

She wrote My Career Goes Bung in 1902, when she was in her early 20s, but felt that it would be unacceptable to readers until much later. It wasn’t published until 1946.

In My Career Goes Bung the first novel having earned much notoriety for its young author, Sybylla has to deal with the reactions of people within her limited community, and then later from the cultural set in Sydney. Both novels are based on what happened to Miles Franklin. 

I loved this second volume. The heroine/narrator exposes so much hypocrisy about the role of young women at the start of the twentieth century in Australia, even though women had gained the vote by 1902. The surprising success of her first novel is regarded as below comment in ‘Possum Creek, although she becomes the centre of gossip and attention. There is no local person who takes her talents seriously, except her father. He is not a successful businessman and is interested in politics, but not very successful at that either. 

Her mother tells her that if she is against marriage she will have to take up a profession. Sybylla considers her options:

This brought me to consider my prospects and to find that I hadn’t any. I loved to learn things – anything, everything. To attend University would have been heaven, but expense barred that. I could become a pupil-teacher, but I loathed the very name of this profession. I should have to do the same work as a man for less pay, and, in country schools, to throw in free of remuneration, the speciality of teaching all kinds of needlework. I could be a cook or a housemaid and slave all day under some nagging woman and be a social outcast. I could be a hospital nurse and do twice the work of a doctor for a fraction of his pay or social importance, or, seeing the tremendously advanced age, I could even be a doctor – a despised lady-doctor, doing the drudgery of the profession in the teeth of such prejudice that even the advanced, who fought for the entry of women into all professions, would in practice “have more faith in a man doctor.” I could be a companion to some woman appended to some man of property.
I rebelled against every one of these fates. (20-21)

Sybylla finds it impossible to stay at home, for there is no one with whom she can be friends.

From ‘Possum Gully to Spring Hill and round about the Wallaroo Plains there wasn’t a real companion of my own age, nor any other age. The dissatisfaction of other girls stopped short of wondering why life should be so much less satisfactory to them than their brothers, but they accepted it as the will of God. None of them was consumed with the idea of changing the world. (31)

The opportunities for a feminist are limited at home, especially for one who does not wish to marry and would rather change the world. So Sybylla’s mother arranges for her to spend time in Sydney with an old lady who would be pleased to have her to stay. Here her notoriety is the object of considerable interest, and Mrs Crasterton’s standing in Sydney society is enhanced by the presence of her curious guest. Men seem to find her fascinating, and it takes her a little time to work out how to deal with them, their attentions and their offers of marriage. 

She demonstrates great perceptiveness at the hypocrisy of the society which still believes that a woman’s duty and calling is marriage and motherhood, while playing court to her originality. She is determined not to marry and escapes all attempts to lure her. Most of them think she will grow out of writing when she is married. But it was to stand up for herself, young, female and without much ‘EXPERIENCE’. She rejects all their suggestions and returns home, her writing career going nowhere.

Warned by a loyal suitor back home that she might become despised as an old maid Sybylla responds:

Despised for being an old maid, indeed! Why are men so disturbed by a woman who escapes their spoilation? Is her refusal to capitulate unendurable to masculine egotism, or is it a symptom of something more fundamental? (227)

Finally, she decides to go wider than Sydney, to the world beyond Australia, to London.

One my strongest pleasures in this vibrant, heart-felt novel is the language she uses, with such freshness. Here’s a favourite as her mother pours cold water on any idea of Sybylla going on the stage.

She finished me to squashation like a sucked gooseberry. (44)

I loved her observations and wit, her determination not to be seduced by the dominant ideas about women, love, marriage and motherhood. Miles Franklin largely kept to that. She never married and before returning to settle in Australia in 1932, encouraging Australian writing, she spent more than two decades in America and in England.

My Career Goes Bung: purporting to be the autobiography of Sybylla Penelope Melvyn by Miles Franklin, first published in 1946. Republished by Virago Modern Classics in 1981. 234 pp

Related posts

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin on Bookword January 2020

Heavenali included a review of this novel on her blog in September 2015.

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My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

My Brilliant Career, written by 16-year-old Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin and published in 1901, is the start of a new series on the blog. This precocious writer grew up in New South Wales and knew something of the hardship of pioneer life. The title is ironic, the career of her main character, Sybylla, like her own, was not brilliant at the end of the novel.

Welcome to the Bookword 2020 Decades Project. This year I return to adult fiction and to my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. To shape my choices I am using the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. I will choose one from each decade every month. My choices will include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. I hope you enjoy this as much as I plan to.

My Brilliant Career

Sybylla’s story forms the narrative thread of this novel, told in the first person. Her circumstances change dramatically several times before she is 18, starting with the idyll of her early life in the bushlands, the family’s decline due to her father’s dissolution. The poverty that the family endure on a selection, trying to run a dairy farm, is grinding and Sybylla escapes when her grandmother invites her to live in her house, Caddigat. Here she meets Henry Beecham, who is as good a man as any and they are attracted to each other. But Sybylla refuses to commit to marrying him, preferring to retain her freedom. 

Her mother soon requires her to work as a governess to a family who have lent her father some money. She leaves the comfort of her grandmother’s house and takes up her position. But she finds the conditions too awful and has a breakdown. She returns home and Henry follows her, vowing he still wants her. She tells him that she does not want the servitude of marriage. She wants a brilliant career!

The main driver for this story is how this uppity, not beautiful young girl will evade or succumb to marriage. Her mother, aunt and grandmother all pressure her to make the best marriage she can. Her grandmother makes her views very clear, as here when she responds to a young man suggestion that Sybylla has the talent for a career on the stage.

‘Career! That’s all girls think of now, instead of being good wives and mothers and attending to their homes and doing what God intended. All they think of is gadding about and being fast, and ruining themselves body and soul. And the men are as bad to encourage them.’ (64)

Soon after Sybylla explains to her grandmother why she has rejected an offer of marriage.

‘… I would not marry him or any one like him although he were the King of England. The idea of marriage  even with the best man in the world seems to me a lowering thing,’ I raged; ‘but with hum it would be pollution – the lowest degradation that could be heaped upon me! I will never come down to marry any one –‘ here I fell victim to a flood of excited tears. (72)

It seems surprising to me that a sixteen year old writer dared to put these thoughts into the mouth of another young woman in 1901. This sentiment was hardly expressed until much later in the century I believe. At times Sybylla’s life is very hard, but she is never tempted to escape the drudgery of a woman’s lot in Australia in the 1890s by making a favourable marriage.

Another theme is the grinding difficulty of surviving, as a family and as an individual. One’s standing in the community matters and is guided by known truths (eg that women will marry or that a clean home is a godly home). Assistance when necessary comes from community and family although no one has much to spare. Another notable feature of the book is the political implication of the struggle to make a living in very difficult circumstances. She has a sympathetic reflection on those who pass through Caddagat as tramps, for example.

Sybylla appears to be a headstrong and opinionated girl, who  believes she knows better than those who are more experienced and educated than she is. To some extent she voices every girl’s experience of chafing the norms of girlhood, but Sybylla lives by her principles and will not marry. Her brilliant career was nowhere in sight at the conclusion of the book. Miles Franklin never missed an opportunity to send up her protagonist’s ambitions and failure to achieve them.

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin

Google Doddle 2014

Miles Franklin was born in New South Wales in 1879. She lived a long life, publishing many novels before she died in 1954. My Brilliant Career was assumed to be her autobiography and she refused to allow it to be republished following its first reception. She went to America and Britain before returning to Australia in 1932. She never married. 

This is not a sophisticated novel. The storyline follows the history of the writer, written with a great deal of energy and brashness. According to the introduction by Carmen Callil, the author said that she ‘conceived and tossed it off in a matter of weeks’. I am tempted to describe the writing and the main character as ‘spirited’, but I am conscious that only girls get described in this way. 

In her later life Miles Franklin encouraged other writers and especially Australian writers. She left a bequest that initiated the Miles Franklin Award in 1957. This award is given annually to a work of fiction of high literary merit which promotes Australian life. 

There is a second award in her name: the Stella Award for Australian women writers. 

Two blogs with reviews of My Brilliant Career:

Heavenali reviewed it on her blog in November 2013, noting its extravagant expression.

BookerTalk also reviewed it, in January 2019. She enjoyed it but regrets a tendency for Miles Franklin to get on her soap box in this novel.

The Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction includes an extract from the opening pages of the book where she describes the excitement of being a girl in the bush with her father.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, first published in 1901 and published as a Virago Modern Classic in 1980. 232pp

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