Tirra Lirra by the River has been on the list of novels about older women for several years, recommended by Whispering Gums, an Australian blog. It was first published in 1978. I think that the strange title put me off exploring it, but what a shame that was because this is a very interesting novel, and one which many Australian school children have had as a set book in the past. And that title is a reference to The Lady of Shalott, that long ballad by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
This is the 58th 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.
Tirra Lirra by the River
The novel is narrated by Nora Porteous. She begins her story with her return to her childhood home in Brisbane. Nora is in her late 70s and describes herself as old.
Through the long mirror in the big black hall stand I see a shape pass. It is the shape of an old woman who began to call herself old before she really was, partly to get in first and partly out of a fastidiousness about the word ‘elderly’, but who is now really old. She has allowed her shoulders to slump. I press back my shoulders and make first for the living room. (4)
Nora Porteous has returned from several decades spent in England, because she has run out of options, of places to escape to, and this house was the bequest of her sister, to her nephew, not to be sold in Nora’s lifetime. In fact, Nora also has pneumonia and spends the first weeks of her return in bed recovering. During this time, she considers and revisits her past.
This is not so much the story of her life retold, but more her attempt to understand her life, the decisions she made and the influences upon her. She finds the courage and energy to examine some of the seminal episodes and people in her life, some of which she has hidden from herself: her marriage, the fate of her friends, some adolescent dalliance with a young lad and so forth.
The title refers to the Lady of Shallot, who wove tapestries under a curse that she should never stop. She can only see the world through a mirror, and in it she must watch people passing her tower. One day Sir Lancelot rides by. The Tirra Lirra of the title is what Lancelot sings as he approaches.
As he rode down from Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flash’d into the crystal mirror,
‘Tirra lirra, tirra lirra:’
Sang Sir Lancelot.
She left the web, she left the loom
She made three paces thro’ the room
She saw the water-flower bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
The Lady of Shalott.
Nora has been sewing tapestries as a young woman. She comes to see that her only skill is in needlework, but it is not well developed. On her return she is shown some of those early tapestries, and is impressed by them, as were the recipients who kept them.
For Nora the allure of Camelot was a longing to live in Sydney. Her Sir Lancelot is Colin Porteous, not a very convincing stand-in. But they marry and move to Sydney. Collin will not allow her to work. While she likes the city, and meets new artistic people there, when Colin moves them to live with his mother, Nora’s life shrivels to nothing.
After several years Nora eventually makes another escape when Colin seeks a divorce to marry Pearl. This time she sails to Southampton. The voyage took six weeks, and when she landed she was pregnant.
In London, she found a doctor who performed an abortion,
But the bleeding stopped at last, and never again did I have any sexual contact, of any kind, with anyone. (94)
She tries various jobs always planning to return to Sydney but the war intervenes, and she finds work she enjoys, making costumes. And she makes friends and lives with them in West London for many years in a shared house. The ending of that arrangement sends her back to Brisbane.
In returning to Brisbane she is able to explore incidents in her life which she has previously hidden from herself, like on a globe where she keeps the dark side away from her gaze. And she catches up with the lives of people she had known and who had been important to her in her childhood. She describes how her time in London, in Fred’s house with Hilda and Liza was full of storytelling. In Brisbane she misses her fellow storytellers.
I am often lonely for that audience, and yet, if it were possible to return and regain it, I would not go. An audience, especially so sympathetic an audience, imposes restrictions I now wish to do without.
… I have made things, concocted things, all my life. Perhaps I shall do so again (and indeed there are times when I do prefigure some small hand-made object), but at present my concern is to find things. My globe of memory is in free spin, with no obscure side, and although at times it is swelling and spinning it offers the queer suggestion that imagination is only memory at one, or two, or twenty removes, my interest now is in repudiating, or trying to repudiate, those removes, even if it ends by my finding something only as small as a stone lying on pale grass. (160)
Nora is engaged in a frank exploration of her past, her creation, finding the obscured memories to look at them full in the face. We can only admire this effort. She will not die in a barge on the river like the Lady of Shallot.
Jessica Anderson was born in Brisbane in 1916. She lived until 2010. She was a late starter to writing. Her first novel was published in 1963, when she had remarried and she was able to spend time devoted to writing. She lived most of her life in Australia, in Sydney.
Many have believed that Tirra Lirra in the River was autobiographical, but Nora was born about 16 years before the author and spent many more years in the UK. The novel was published in 1978 and was very successful in Australia, winning the Miles Franklin Literary Award, among others.
You can find The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson here, on the Poetry Foundation website.
Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson first published in 1978. Reissued by Melville House in 2014. 181pp
The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.