By Elisabeth Holdsworth

Brilliant Careers: A Quintet of Australian Writers

There can be no more pleasurable task than to read and reflect on books and their creators over the course of an Australian summer. Sprawling enraptured with a book, under a shady tree, while a hullabaloo of Christmas, cricket and cicadas whirls about, is a singular experience, unique to this country.

The Australian writers I chose to think about this summer are all women; some of their books are old, beloved acquaintances, others are new friends. Henry Handel Richardson, Christina Stead, Shirley Hazzard, Helen Garner and Delia Falconer: to me, this quintet are all technically idiosyncratic writers. They possess the élan of recognisable voices; they unsettle; they are inheritors as well as originators. Selected aspects of personal history are threaded through their works. I think of my quintet as bassoon, piano, violin, clarinet and cello.

Like Miles Franklin, George Eliot and George Sand (among others), Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson (1870-1946) chose a male pseudonym when she began to be published. ‘Ettie’ left Australia in 1888 to study music at the Leipzig Conservatorium and emerged in 1908 as Henry Handel Richardson, with her debut novel, Maurice Guest. This work of sexual obsession in the bohemian, musical circles of Leipzig was imbued with a sensibility that caused contemporary critics to compare the obviously male author to the realist writers Emile Zola and Leo Tolstoy. Twenty thousand words considered too racy had to be cut prior to publication. Richardson clung to her male pseudonym for all of her subsequent publications. She returned to Australia once, in 1912, to research what would become the major literary endeavour of her life, the trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahony (1930) , based on the life of her father Walter Richardson. After 1904 she lived with her husband in England.

Forty years ago, at university, I laboured over the Fortunes – that brick of literary nation-building – and detested The Getting of Wisdom (1910), judging it priggish, moralistic and dated. Re-reading it this summer, I am shocked by its modernity and appalled at my misreading all those years ago.

The work, based on Richardson’s own school days at Presbyterian Ladies College in 1880s Melbourne, now leaps out at me from the early twentieth century. It reminds me of the bewitching bassoon notes that open Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. ‘The four children were lying on the grass’: it’s a conventional enough beginning. But the children, led by Laura, are recreating an English story about ladies and princes, when they are interrupted by a flock of bright green parakeets. We have been jolted into an Australian rural scene. Laura is about to be sent away to Melbourne to be educated; the interruption to her life is as sudden as the eruption of parakeets into the fairy story.

This is Laura’s introduction to her school fellows:

‘What’s your father?’ ‘He’s dead,’ answered the child. ‘What did he die of?’ ‘Consumption.’ ‘How many servants do you keep?’ ‘One.’ ‘How much have you got a year?’ ‘I don’t know.’

This exchange shocks me. Is this how colonials behaved? Yet, exactly one hundred years later, in an eerie echo of Richardson, Delia Falconer reports in Sydney (2010) that when she transferred to a new school she was asked by her schoolmates, ‘How old are your parents? How much do they spend on groceries?’ She writes, ‘There were correct answers, but I did not have them.’

The girls in The Getting of Wisdom are for the most part daughters of wealthy squatters. One reads Emile Zola’s Nana in bed – and smokes under the sheets. Laura attempts Ibsen’s A Doll’s House while playing the piano, thinking it a child’s book. Late in Laura’s school life, she forms an obsessive attachment to an older girl that goes way beyond a schoolgirl crush.

The wisdom acquired is a novelist’s truth. After an instance of fibbing to make herself more interesting, Laura attempts the rigorous truth on her first presentation to the school’s Literary Society and is reprimanded by fellow members for being boring. The next time, she narrates a story about a bush picnic, complete with ‘vagrant blacks’. Not a word of it was true, ‘but every word … might have been true,’ Laura reflects. ‘As soon as you put pen to paper, provided you kept one foot planted on probability, you might lie as hard as you liked: indeed, the more vigorously you lied, the louder would be your hearer’s applause.’

Richardson’s Laura Rambotham is a square peg in a round hole whom we know will go on to lead a successful life as a novelist. Louie Politt in Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children (1940) is another square peg. The reader hopes that Louie, who describes herself as an ‘ugly duckling’ will have a brilliant career. She certainly believes so.

In the battlefield, the off-key orchestra that is the Politt household, Louie negotiates her childhood as go-between, arbiter, victim and finally executioner. Her father Sam (‘Sam the Bold’) is a sickening seducer of young minds, calling his daughter ‘little womey’. He impregnates his wife at regular intervals, thus imprisoning her. He claims, ‘I love my children as no man has ever loved his before.’ Louie learns from her stepmother Henny to drink the ‘brackish well of hate’. These two resist ‘the depraved healthiness … of the Politt clan’ and form a ‘natural outlawry of womankind’.

Louie is Stead’s alter ego. Sam Politt bears more than a close resemblance to David Stead, Christina’s father. Christina, too had a stepmother and half-brothers and sisters. At the insistence of her publisher, Christina Stead (1902-1983) transposed the setting of The Man who Loved Children from Sydney, where she grew up, to Washington DC. I believe the American setting works. Sam Politt works in Roosevelt’s New Deal bureaucracy of the 1930s; that idealism illuminates his narcissism. Henny’s languorous Southern belle background is an apt foil for the manic frenzy of Politt excess, while her clinging to an older, more genteel time offsets Sam’s determination to be a modern man. Washington’s extremes of climate provide another backdrop for the novel’s extremes of behaviour and heighten the family’s financial decline.

Standing on Munich Central Station last year, on the way to Salzburg, I noticed that on the adjacent platform you could catch a train to Dachau; I thought of both Richardson and Stead. Richardson’s last novel, The Young Cosima (1939), details the infamous affair between Cosima Liszt and Richard Wagner, played out in Munich under the watchful gaze of the Wittelsbach court. Crossing Bavaria to Salzburg, an hour away, one arrives at Stead’s setting for her collection of short stories, Salzburg Tales (1934), interlinked narratives woven around the music festival.

Like Richardson, Stead had a deep appreciation of music and the ability to write about it. It is Stead, not Richardson, who I think of as the pianist in my quintet, mastering the almost impossible fingering of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz.

Stead’s biographer, the late Hazel Rowley, compares her writing to James Joyce; long passages of Politt-speak are reminiscent of Ulysses. The last part of The Man Who Loved Children (1940), published within months of Richardson’s last novel, evokes the foetid Southern atmosphere of William Faulkner. Louie Politt is a portrait sketched in a stream of consciousness that ends in death and a walking away from the scene of battle.

In my quintet, Shirley Hazzard’s pellucid, soaring sentences are played on a violin. The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams (composed at the outbreak of the Great War) comes to mind. The first paragraphs of Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus (1980), a mere 120 words, encapsulate the tragic portent, the whole narrative arc of the book. The significance of the ‘mention of a body’ in a newspaper article about a great storm is obscured, deliberately so, by Hazzard’s sublime description – ‘Purple silence petrified the limbs of trees.’ Apart from the storm, something tantalisingly important has occurred, yet all that appears to have happened is that a man, Ted Tice, ‘entered from the left-hand corner’ of the scenery as though he is part of a play. Tice is an astronomer engaged to spend the summer working with the venerated scientist Sefton Thrale, who wants to build a telescope in Britain to watch the transit of Venus across the sun.

Thrale tells two Australian girls, Grace and Caro Bell, ‘You owe your existence to astronomy.’ He is referring to James Cook’s 1769 voyage in the Endeavour to observe the transit of Venus from Tahiti – and incidentally, to map part of the east coast of Australia. Thrale singles out Caro, who embodies the goddess qualities of beauty, love and sensuality, as the one who must be made to listen to his lecture. Ted Tice, the young astronomer, and Paul Ivory, a playwright about to enter stage right, will both fall in love with her.

On his first appearance Tice is described as ‘a callow ginger presence in a cable-stitch cardigan’. When Paul Ivory enters (wearing espadrilles), the sound of his shoes ‘inaugurated, softly, the modern era’. But it is Tice who has seen the ashes of Hiroshima; who refuses to kowtow to class in post-war Britain or to modify his Mancunian accent.

Paul Ivory’s dubious distinction as a ‘modern’ man is hilariously challenged in the description of his play. ‘At a time when Shakespeare was played out in modern suburban dress or leather jackets, Paul Ivory’s contemporary, working-class play was acted out in royal robes.’

A minor character in the novel carries one of the great dramatic burdens of the twentieth century: feminism, the evolution in the role and status of women. Valda, who works with Caro in a civil service job, refuses to prepare tea or procure sandwiches for the men in the office at lunchtime or ‘ever again’.

Reading The Transit of Venus, I am awestruck by Hazzard’s skill as a wordsmith. Every page contains killer sentences like this one: ‘She saw the room, tame with floral charm and carpeted, like England, wall to wall in green.’ Characters, minor ones included, unfold at a leisurely Tolstoyan pace. We don’t understand the crux of the tragedy until the final pages. ‘The tragedy is not that love doesn’t last. The tragedy is the love that lasts.’

Shirley Hazzard is often described as an accidental Australian, as her family only lived here for some twenty years. This is to deny one of the central lessons of the twentieth century: that the place of one’s birth, the locus of your formative experiences, marks you for the rest of your life. Near the end of The Transit of Venus, Caro considers a trip to Australia. Her sister Grace re-lives ‘certain summer nights-walking through a dark house, every door and window wide … an entire city turned, expectant, toward the sea.’ Neither sister will ever return.

Helen Garner was infamous before she became famous. In 1972 the Victorian Education Department dispensed with her services ‘for giving unsolicited sex education lessons to her students’. My husband, a union organiser of the VSTA at the time, was one of the strikers who marched and argued her case. For a few years Garner was as notorious and as divisive in Melbourne as Lindy Chamberlain was to become throughout Australia in the 1980s.

Garner’s debut novel Monkey Grip (1977) preceded Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus by three years. Garner is my clarinet; hers are the opening glissando notes of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, that wail of the Jazz Age. I lived on Toorak Road during the seventies and worked with soldiers in Victoria Barracks. How shocked we were by the sex, drugs, addiction and the music. The setting too, a share-house in Fitzroy, was totally alien to my world. The way Monkey Grip is written in snippets and slabs of prose (one moment introspective, the next with authorial distance), reminded critics of everybody and nobody. Richardson’s Maurice Guest dealt with similar themes; Christina Stead’s anarchic, messed-up Pollit family with their extremes of emotion is perhaps a distant influence. Ultimately, it is Garner’s genius that she has invented her own genre. She is a gifted social observer, espying social changes and dysfunction on one hand; barracking for order and stability on the other.

It is in The Spare Room (2008) that I hear her clarinet most clearly. The counter-culture characters of Monkey Grip are ageing; their next significant date is with death. Dying, however, is the immediate problem. The narrator, ‘Hel’, has to care for a few weeks, for a friend who refuses to acknowledge she has a terminal disease. The descriptions of Nicola’s self-inflicted suffering as she attempts crackpot cures administered by charlatans are awful and uncomfortably familiar.

‘Rain fell in the night, quiet and kind. I woke at six with a sense of something looming, the same anxiety I felt before a writing deadline: the inescapable requirement to find something new in myself.’ This subtle metaphor – comparing the anxiety of writing with the privilege of offering succour, the blessing of a few drops of rain in drought-stricken times; the isolation of two women fighting death, each other and themselves – is particularly affecting. Most shattering and confronting are the scenes when Hel’s overwhelming, futile kindness alternates with cruelty – ‘“Will you fucking listen to me?” I said shrilly. “I. Can’t. Do. It.”’

The ragged emotion of the work is leavened by the charm and vitality of ‘the children next door’ – Hel’s grandchildren. From the time Nicola, the patrician Sydneysider, is met at the airport by Hel and granddaughter Bessie, the child emits poignant echoes of her grandmother’s rage and confusion. ‘I want to tell Nicola I’m five-and-a-half. I think she’ll be very surprised,’ Bessie says. But they meet a Nicola who is ‘staggering like a crone’. In an unbearable scene, Bessie – staring with fascinated panic – is ‘pushed away’ from her grandmother and wrenched out of her childhood to find a wheelchair for the dying woman.

The line, ‘The air, Australian air, met them like a prickling champagne,’ comes from Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom, as Laura walks toward Collins Street. I was reminded of Richardson when, a century later, Garner writes of walking with her dying Sydney friend down that same street. ‘I saw the beauty of my city and was proud that she saw it too.’

In the inland city where I live, not far from Hy Horner’s Elite Studio where Miles Franklin posed for her first celebrity photograph in 1902, we speak of going ‘up to town’ and mean Sydney. The word never crosses our lips.

Sydney, the only Australian city to have experienced the eighteenth century, is the subject of Delia Falconer’s most recent book. In my quintet, Falconer plays the elegiac cello of Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

A lauded novelist, editor and reviewer, she grew up on the Lower North Shore at McMahon’s Point, an only child born in the mid-1960s. Glimpses of her personal story provide the uniting thread that weaves throughout Sydney. Armed with Ruth Park’s Companion Guide to Sydney (1973), her head full of Kenneth Slessor’s essays and his great poem ‘Five Bells’; with Patrick White, David Williamson, Christina Stead, Jessica Anderson and with a conviction that ‘the most feral, interesting thinkers are to be found in Sydney,’ Falconer sets about her town. This is a ‘violent’ love affair between the author and her place.

Town Hall and Central Stations are built on convict cemeteries. (I didn’t know that! I’ve scribbled in the margin.) Beyond the eighteenth-century foundations of the city lies the elusive history of the indigenous people. With considerable verve, Falconer describes their ghostly presences and how they underpin the city. She recalls as a child being taken to a park, ‘where the soil beneath the swings was studded with particulate and limey fragments of shell,’ and realises now this was probably the remains of a midden ‘turned under by the construction of the playground’. Falconer finds remnant words from the Eora that have crept into the language – for instance, Yellow Monday cicadas might have been known to the Aboriginal people as Yarramindi.

Unusually, Falconer grew up in a ‘sunstruck and empty’ city. The exodus to the suburbs was in full swing, as was the desertion of industry from the inner harbour. One of Falconer’s few playmates was Arkie, ‘a gentle white-blonde, blue-eyed girl’, daughter of Brett and Wendy Whiteley, fellow residents of McMahon’s Point.

Falconer is superb when she describes the contradictions that abound everywhere in Sydney – the very settlement of the east coast of Australia is due to accident rather than design. The search for a southern continent was secondary to Cook’s mission to observe the transit of Venus in Tahiti. There are the tantalising images recorded by Watkin Tench of women bodysurfing on bark across the same part of the harbour where the bridge now stands – and most poignant of all, an expedition along the Hawkesbury that finds only a few smallpox-scarred natives and corpses.

The most beguiling image in this book is the recurring one of the woman Delia, first mesmerised by her city as a child, wandering the streets seeing things you and I might not. Her relationship with the geography is almost synesthetic: ‘The harbour smells like sex’. For Falconer, Sydney is a city that has not evolved from the ground up, but is ‘dug in’ to the landscape: alternately obliterating and celebrating.

I’m about to summon my quintet onto the stage. I have no idea what they’re about to play. See, there is Christina Stead at the piano, back turned to the others. Ettie Richardson, who would have preferred to be the pianist, has found her voice on the bassoon and is having a quiet chuckle before she starts blowing. Shirley Hazzard, cool as always, fingers her violin nervously: the notes have to be played just so. Helen Garner is practising a few experimental notes on her clarinet. There is a ukulele at her feet, in case she feels the need to stir things up a bit. Delia Falconer’s cello is held firmly between her legs, bow held ready to drag across the strings.

Portrait of Elisabeth Holdsworth

Elisabeth Holdsworth

Elisabeth’s writing has been published in Best Australian Essays, Heat, Southerly, Island, The Monthly, Mattoid and Transnational.

Born in the Netherlands just after WWII in the south-western province of Zeeland, Elisabeth’s name is de Rijke-Nassau, one of the branches of the Nassaus sharing the common ancestry of Charlemagne and Willem and Juliana de Rijke. The de Rijkes, and their identification as part of the fabric of Middleburg and the island of Walcheren, can be traced back to the thirteenth century.

Elisabeth came to Australia with her parents in 1959. Apart from her writing, she is involved in arts patronage and is an active collector. She lives with her husband in Goulburn, NSW.

Further reading

Henry Handel Richardson: The Getting of Wisdom

For our Australian Literature 101 event this Thursday 15 March 2012, Ramona Koval and Rodney Hall will be talking about Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom. It’s free, but bookings are recommended.

A review of Michael Ackland’s biography, Henry Handel Richardson: A Life in the Age.

Christina Stead: The Man Who Loved Children

Read Jonathan Franzen’s rave review of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children in the New York Times.

Watch Ramona Koval, playwright Daryl Emerson and writer Rodney Hall talk about The Late, Great Christina Stead in this Wheeler Centre video.

Luke Davies, Sophie Gee, Jason Steger, Marieke Hardy and Jennifer Byrne talk Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children on ABC TV’s The First Tuesday Book Club. You can read the transcript.

Shirley Hazzard: The Transit of Venus

Interview with Shirley Hazzard in the Guardian on working for the UN in New York, befriending Graham Greene in Capri and her body of work.

The New Yorker book club discusses Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus. You can download the podcast here.

Di Morrissey, Malcolm Knox, Jason Steger, Marieke Hardy and Jennifer Byrne talk Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus on ABC TV’s The First Tuesday Book Club. You can read the transcript.

Helen Garner: Monkey Grip

For our Australian Literature 101 event on Thursday 26 April 2012, Ramona Koval and Kerryn Goldsworthy will be talking about Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip. It’s free, but bookings are recommended.

‘Truly Helen’: An interview with Helen Garner by Kate Legge for the Weekend Australian (2008). They talk about Monkey Grip, fact, fiction and The Spare Room.

Delia Falconer: Sydney

Listen to Delia Falconer talking to Richard Fidler about Sydney for ABC Radio’s Conversations.

Drusilla Modjeska reviews Delia Falconer’s Sydney for The Monthly.

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