‘Eugenia: A Man’ by Suzanne Falkiner

I recently read Mark Tedeschi’s book Eugenia.  It raised quite a few methodological and narrative questions for me, and so I was interested to see how other writers dealt with the same material.  You might  want to read my review of Tedeschi’s book too, because my response to this book was formed after reading it.

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1988, 243 p.

The blurb on the back of this book reads:

In the spring of 1917 an apprentice from the Cumberland Paper Mills, just outside Sydney, was walking along a bush track beside the Lane Cover River when he discovered the partially burnt body of an unidentified woman.  The arrest three years later of a 45 year old Italian woman, Eugenia Falleni, for murder, led to an investigation that fascinated the people of Australia.

Known in the newspapers as the ‘Man-Woman Case’, the trial revealed that from the time she had left New Zealand and gone to sea as a cabin boy, Eugenia had lived at least 20 years of her life in the guise of a man.

There is a entry on Eugenia Falleni in the Australian Dictionary of Biography if you’re not already familiar with her story.

The title of the book is quite definitive- “Eugenia- a Man.”  The image Falkiner has used for the front cover shows Harry Crawford as a young man and is taken from a photographic postcard created between 1900 and 1917 in Sydney.  On the back of the postcard are the words “I am sending you my photo for (a) keepsake, with love from H. Crawford”.  We do not know who wrote these words, as Harry Crawford himself was illiterate; nor do we know to whom they were written.

This book is written is two parts.  Part I, comprising twenty one chapters,traverses Eugenia’s life: her early life, his marriage, the crime and the trials.  It doesn’t take long to get to the death: just 25 pages. Unlike the Tedeschi book, Falkiner is careful to note the source of her information in the text itself (without footnotes), and I must admit that I felt more comfortable with such an approach.  I knew who said what, and when.  Also, this book differs from the Tedeschi book in that it is absolutely silent about what happened on Eight Hours Day when the death of Annie Birkett occurred.

Much of Part I is taken from the trial transcripts, especially those printed in the newspapers.  The press took a close and rather prurient interest in the trial: you only need do a Trove search to find the many print columns devoted to the trial. Falkiner goes through each of the witnesses in turn, and spends almost as much time on the magistrate’s court hearing as the Supreme Court trial.  Like Tedeschi, she is critical of Eugenia’s defence lawyer McDonnell, but it is the appraisal of an onlooker rather than the critique of an insider, as Tedeschi Q. C.  is.

There are occasional chapters during Part I where the author herself comes onto centre stage.  She explains at the outset how she came to be interested in Eugenia; she visits the locations where the death occurred; she traces the houses where various characters lived.  The ‘quest’ narrative is quite a common framing narrative for us now, both in fiction and through shows like ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ and I must admit that it’s becoming a little hackneyed- but perhaps less so in 1988 when this book was written.

In Part II, the author shares the limelight with Falleni as she tries to get behind the trial to find some sense of Falleni as a person.  She tracks down relatives,  visits them in New Zealand, she even visits Eugenia’s birthplace in Italy.

Histories always exist within an historiographical context, and this is true of Falkiner’s book as well.  You can sense the presence of the 1980s in her interest in the migrant experience and the gender roles of  men and women in the early twentieth century.  She does address the issue of trans-sexuality, but in nowhere near the depth that it might be explored today (and in Tedeschi’s book)  and not at all from the perspective of lesbian history or queer theory.  A recent review written as background material for the play ‘Passing’  tackled the author for her sentimentalized view of Eugenia:

Falkiner’s book is perhaps the most detailed study of Eugenia Falleni’s life but its insight value is diluted by Falkiner’s sentimentality and subjectivity. Falkiner projects unabashed sympathy and no small amount of pop-psychology about gender and sexuality towards her subject – she frames Eugenia as a misunderstood gentle soul suffering from a vague kind of gender identity crisis to such a point that Annie Birkett’s murder, which Eugenia was tried and convicted for and later admitted guilt to, is relegated as a footnote.  (From Passing Research Notes: ‘Trans theory- a brief guide)

I’m not sure that in 1988 there was the  interest or theoretical frameworks at the popular level for queer theory analysis.  If there is sentimentality, I think that it springs from the emotional investment that any biographer makes in her subject, especially where the research springs bottom-up from interest in the individual and their story rather than from a top-down interest in a theoretical phenomenon.  I’ve been aware recently of research into European migrants to Australia at the turn of the century from the perspective of whiteness studies, which is a 21st century twist on the 1980s’-era multiculturalism that Falkiner explores in her book.  One thing that came through very clearly was the marginality and fluidity of a working class existence where housing, jobs and, in Eugenia’s case, identities were temporary and rootless.  I was surprised, in both this book and in Tedeschi’s, about the silence about World War I and its effect on working-class communities and men.  Perhaps the silence is in the documents, but it did strike me as strange.

The book itself is a very easy read, not dissimilar in tone and approach to a Good Weekend article in the weekend’s newspaper.  Perhaps it doesn’t have the little stabs of insight of a Helen Garner (e.g. Joe Cinque’s Consolation) or Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man, but it is similar to both of them in that the book deals with a crime and the consequences in court and afterward, and the observer’s response.

Should you read this book, or Tedeschi’s?  I’d say “read them both”- perhaps reading this one first.

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7 responses to “‘Eugenia: A Man’ by Suzanne Falkiner

  1. That is fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

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