TEXT review

Mid-century well-meaning?

review by Victoria Reeve


Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Desktop:southerly-72-1-cover.jpg
David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (eds)
Southerly: Mid-century Women Writers
Volume 72, Number 1
Brandl & Schlesinger, Sydney 2012
Pb 276pp AUD26.95


Southerly gathers together poems, short stories, reviews and themed essays. The collection’s focus this issue is mid-century women writers and the essays that address this theme explore works by Jessica Anderson and Eve Langley, and the cultural, ideological and political contexts relevant to the working lives of Thea Astley and Dorothy Hewett.

One of the best creative works Southerly: Mid-century Women Writers has to offer appears early in the collection. Jennifer Maiden’s poem, seemingly a fragment from a much larger work, invokes the narrative form of the epic in an externalised depiction of subjectivity blended with lyrical descriptions of the events taking place. It is a beautiful and beguiling poem, but it left me wondering at its underlying derogations. The protagonists, a middle-class professional couple, Clare and George Jeffreys, are addressed in ironic terms by the poem’s speaker: ‘Clare, forever / the Mt Druitt girl-child, said, ‘I love that / purple entrance colour. I just gave / our baby a toy that shade.’ The child turns out to be the child of a woman Clare rescued ‘from an abusive husband’ in France. This blithe account of parenthood provides a clue to the purpose of this couple’s visit to China: they are there to help, although the details of their exact intentions remain ambiguous. These ‘do-gooders’ are beautifully drawn and the poem’s formal elegance together with the couple’s highly wrought ennui is fascinating. The couple are so self-absorbed that they seem inured to the possibility that they are putting themselves in peril by meeting up with a dissident in China. Indeed, they seem thoroughly and deliciously bored with the whole situation, which, with its drolly aloof protagonists, resembles an episode in a James Bond film. I liked this poem so much that it disappointed me when I realised what was being represented: a wry look at the middle-class left, a sly dig at social activism, and a glib portrayal of various forms of oppression.

Fiona Morrison’s essay on Dorothy Hewett’s changing literary form (from realism to modernism), and the relationship this bore to Hewett’s shift in intellectual and political allegiances, is fascinating. But I was left wondering whether conservatism motivates this excavation of what might be termed ‘unworthy’ moments in Hewett’s career as critic, viz.: Hewett’s misogynistic criticism of Katherine Susannah Pritchard, which Morrison identifies as an episode of transference—of Hewett exorcising her frustrations at having allowed her allegiance to the Communist Party of Australia (and socialist realism in particular) to cramp her literary style for so long. I’m not suggesting this is inappropriate as the subject of study, but rather, that it seems to situate responsibility for unattractive stances almost wholly in the individual—that is, without giving due weight to the ideological impacts of wider stances, choices and approaches within society itself and the authority that these discursively delineate.
This emphasis on the individual as a figure worthy of shaming (in contrast to the critical attention that might be given to ideas, processes, organised responses, and what are abstractly designated social forces), is apparent in Karen Lamb’s bewildered reaction to Thea Astley’s excessive humility (and sense of shame and humiliation) at finding herself in a male-dominated profession in an androcentric world. The heavy-handed ironic awareness of B. R. Dionysius’s poem, ‘Ghouls’, is another instance of shaming. The emphasis on the strange proclivities of the individual is also apparent in a short story by David Cohen, the humour of which depends upon the depiction of its guileless narrator, a character whose naivety and awkwardness in response to ordinary situations seems to have been modelled on a particular and highly stereotyped syndrome.

Although I enjoyed Lucy Treep’s essay on an unpublished novel by Eve Langley, ‘Bancroft House’ (c.a. 1954), and found it insightful in its reading of ‘contact zones’ within colonial contexts, her argument — which persuasively identifies the white Australian, Sutcliffe, as the metaphorically construed indigene through the excessive representation of his Argentine associations — fails to address the displacement taking place in Langley's novel. This silence is iterated in Helen Verity Hewitt’s short story, ‘Sugarloaf’, disturbing for the narrative’s failure to comment in any meaningful way upon the appropriation of culture and place that underpins this story. It seemed to endorse the protagonist’s conflation of her personal suffering with that of Indigenous Australians through the ‘healing’ ceremony offered by the dancers of East Arnhem Land. Although it is possible that the character’s predilection for cultural appropriation—evident in the blurred mysticism she practices—is being called into question throughout, I found it hard to tell whether the narrative was presented as sympathetic or ironic in the staging of this.

With my sensitivities already heightened, it was with relief that I read A. S. Patric’s short story, ‘Boys’, and Damien Barlow’s excellent essay, ‘The Queerness of Jessica Anderson’s Fiction’. But why, I wondered, follow it with a poem that elaborates and reinforces heteronormativity in its account of the oppression of an adolescent girl who dares to act upon her sexual desires (and gets pregnant)? I’m not suggesting that the topic is unsuitable, but it is fairly well rehearsed in popular culture these days and its position in relation to Barlow’s essay seemed rather pointed. The ubiquity of that narrative—its normativity—seems to function competitively. This may not have been intended at all, but I think it is a consequence of what is in effect a formal matter, and something the editor might have borne in mind.

R.D. Wood’s ‘In the Desert’ (a page of closing parentheses) was amusing but consistent with the closing off of thought that I had already experienced in reading the collection. I doubt the connection of ideas as I relate them here was intended. My reaction to this work was, after all, affected by my reaction to the collection of writing that had preceded it. I found Southerly: Mid-century Women Writers problematic in many ways; a deep, moralising tone that seemed to blame the victims of oppression had seeped through to its outer layers of inquisitive ‘good-will’. Whether this oppression was partisan, socio-economic, or based on gender and sex, much of the writing offered the same kind of misguided ‘help’ that Maiden’s poem lampoons: blithely well-meaning, dressed up in radical rags, perhaps, but ultimately patronising—a mid-century ideological tone, perhaps.

It is certainly an interesting and well-presented collection. The themed essays are informative, well researched, insightful and provocative. Read it for interest, for pleasure, for enlightenment, but read it deeply and critically, rather than superficially—unless you are happy to identify with its sometimes confused and submerged motivations.



Victoria Reeve teaches literary and cultural studies at The University of Melbourne.


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Vol 17 No 2 October 2013
General editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste