1922, 286 p.
I had never heard of this book, and probably would never have, without a review by Debbie Robson as part of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge. I was intrigued: an Australian book about the home front written by a woman in the years immediately following the war. I wasn’t aware- and please correct me if I’m wrong- of many other books that fit into this category.
In the RHSV conference I attended recently, Bart Ziino spoke of the deep anxiety that pervaded the home front during the war. It’s here in this book as well, underneath a chirpy little domestic story about a family of adolescents negotiating the drudgery of housework in a motherless home when domestic servants are hard to find. One of the sisters takes on too much and has, in effect, a nervous breakdown until the rest of her siblings step up and take up their responsibilities. Not much about war, you might say, but it’s there in the surrounding characters: the melodramatic schoolgirls who are certain that a young man of their acquaintance has enlisted as a form of nationalistic suicide because of a broken heart; a young wife aching with loneliness with her husband on the front; the teenaged boy too young to enlist and keenly aware of ‘manning up’ in a community where men are largely absent; the creation of ‘comforts’ for the men overseas; the injured men coming home. In a sudden jolt of setting and speed near the end of the book, it does shift to the trenches of Europe, before returning ‘home’ again.
Reading it ninety years later, it has certainly dated. It reminded me a little of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (where you’ll remember that the father was absent at the Civil War) and Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians- although without the emotional fidelity of either of these books. However, I’m sure that any attempt to replicate the time and setting by a modern-day author would over-emphasize the small home-front details that arise almost unconsciously in this contemporaneous book.
I was interested to see how it was received at the time. It was marketed as a children’s or young-adult book, and published- as was customary at the time- in England, and attracted English reviews. The Christmas edition of the Bookman of December 1922 described it in a rather vague review as:
a story of Australian girls in the suburbs of an Australian town, is of very general interest because, to a great extent, it is a story that might have happened anywhere. At the same time its surroundings and its outlook give it a freshness for English readers which adds to its charm. It is a book for a child-girl, or for a girl in her teens, or for one in her twenties- and a pretty love story threads its way through.
The Sydney paper, The World’s News reviewed it on 5 January 1924
In Vera Dwyer’s latest Australian book, “The Kayles of Bushy Lodge,” the author has presented a suburban family, every member of which, in some way, finds a place in the reader’s heart. The book is alive with incident, and the characters, evidently drawn from life, as is the habit of this author, pass through varied scenes to which they are drawn in the effort to realise their aspirations. Shirley, the young violinist, upon whom tremendous responsibility is thrown in a motherless family, is a beautiful human study. There is a good deal of romance in the story, as well as humor, and a tinge of pathos, and the interest is not engrossed by the chief characters entirely. There is a shy bush boy in the book, a real boy, who takes upon himself the responsibility of guarding and protecting the wife of a soldier who is at the war. No one but the boy himself knows that he has taken this work on, and his efforts are highly entertaining. The two little girls who construct the romance round the life of Adam Deering are intensely amusing.
The Albury Banner and Wodonga Express of 23 November 1923 described it as:
a picture of domestic life in Sydney during the war. Mr. Kayle is a dentist who, as a result of his own improvidence and lack of foresight, sees his practice growing less and less, and his motherless children are hard put to make ends meet. The Kayles are delightful young people, especially Shirley the heroine, who takes her responsibilities very seriously. In spite of their troubles, the whole family have a sense of humour that enables them to get the best out of life, and carries them through triumphantly to a happy conclusion.
Vera Dwyer seems to have written several books, which seem to focus on girls, and certainly the Kayles of Bushy Lodge offers an insight into early twentieth century girl-life. The girls in the family are seen to rally around the ailing Shirley (after she work her fingers to the bone), with varying futures beckoning them within a still-circumscribed domestic sphere: romance and marriage; a successful but thoroughly respectable boarding house; an art-school career and overall resilience. Miss Dwyer, who married the rather splendidly named Captain Warwick Coldham-Fussell, died in 1967 and deposited her papers with the Mitchell library, where there is still a sealed box of restricted letters!
The Kayles of Bushy Lodge is the only one of her books freely available online,
This review posted to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014