Monthly Archives: March 2018

Podcasts: Rear Vision

I still grieve the loss of Hindsight on Radio National. It was a 50 minute podcast on historical issues that had enough time to tease out a question, and it had good historians as contributors. However, as part of Radio National’s quest for younger, flightier audiences, 50 minutes was obviously deemed to be too long, and Hindsight’s stunted sibling Rear Vision survived where Hindsight was axed.

Nonetheless, even in its truncated 30 minute form, Rear Vision an interesting podcast.

So, two Rear Vision podcasts that accompanied me on the bus while the railway works are taking place this week:

  1. Church and State in Australia which first aired on 15 October 2017, in the midst of the marriage equality survey.  It features Roy Williams who wrote Post God Nation and Michael Hogan from the University of Sydney.  Michael Hogan points out that under the Australian constitution, the states (but not the Commonwealth) still have powers to impose religious observance, not that they would exert them and they would be constrained by other laws passed since.  Roy Williams makes the interesting observation that the Church and State were most in synergy during the first twenty years of the twentieth century, when the social legislation governing temperance, gambling and prostitution laws were passed. Michael Hogan talks about the toxic effects of Ne Temere, the edict issued at the beginning of the 20th century by the Vatican which invalidated marriages between Protestants and Catholics.  The podcast concludes with Chris Soper, one of the authors of The Challenge of Pluralism; Church and State in Six Democracies, who compares the State/Church relationship in Australia with US, UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands.
  2. A Brief History of a National Obsession, which aired on 20 August 2017, examines home ownership in Australia from a historical perspective. The program features a number of economists, urban designers and policy specialists, but it also features one of my favorite historians, Graeme Davison, who makes some really insightful contributions.  He is best known for The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, Car Wars and he has a recent book City Dreamers, the Urban Imagination in Australia which I have here on the shelf and must read one day. (He also wrote his memoir Lost Relations which I reviewed here). The topic is approached chronologically, leading up to about the last 20 years.

 

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‘The Trauma Cleaner’ by Sarah Krasnostein

krasnostein

2017, 257 p

After I finished reading this remarkable book, I tried to think of other biographies (as distinct from memoirs) I had read of living people. I found myself rather stumped.  There’s Bernadette Brennan’s recent literary biography of Helen Garner Helen Garner and her Work but at that point, I came to a dead end. I don’t read celebrity biographies. I suppose that the political biographies issued under the Quarterly Essay imprint (e.g. on Turnbull, Abbott, Gillard) might qualify, although I tend to think of them more as commentary than biography.

But The Trauma Cleaner is a biography of a living, breathing woman, of whom you would have known nothing had not Sarah Krasnostein written this book.  Sandra Pankhurst is a cleaner, based in Melbourne, engaged in cleaning the places you would not want to be.  The rooms in which people have died unnoticed for months; the apartments where young people have died abruptly of a drug overdose; the homes where filth exudes out from under the doors into the unkempt front yards; the homes with a veneer of order on the outside that harbour an interior palimpsest of hoarded squalor that the owner cannot control.

Sandra , who owns and manages Specialized Trauma Cleaning (STC) Services, is a hands-on worker. Not only does she know all the tricks in the trade of stain removal, but she knows the limits that timber, carpet and plaster can bear: that sometimes a built structure just cannot be salvaged from the human misery it has contained. She handles people with professional skill, particularly hoarders who have either self-referred or been referred by agencies, but she gets her own hands dirty too.  She disguises her judgment of people’s weaknesses and trauma well; or perhaps she genuinely doesn’t judge.  Because she has had her own trauma too.

Told in alternating chapters, we learn that Sandra was born Peter. She had a terrible childhood in Footscray – and just as the houses that STC deals with are surrounded by normality, so too a childhood of abuse and emotional deprivation was surrounded by neighbours, other kids, street kerbs and suburban disinterestedness.  She had been a husband and father before her sex reassignment surgery; she had also been a drag queen, sex-worker, hardware store owner and wife.

Krasnostein accompanies Sandra as she is at work, flinching at the stench and drawn by the same fascinated horror that I felt as I read about the different jobs.  That same fascinated horror pulls the reader through Sandra’s story too.  Krasnostein talks with Sandra, who admits that there are whole chunks of her story and chronology that are missing through drug use or psychological blockage. She also talks with Sandra’s associates, tracks down people who have known Sandra over her life, trawls through documentary evidence. She clearly likes Sandra, and admires her, but at one point in particular, she is very angry with her. She knows that her relationship with Sandra is as brittle and contingent on acceptance as every other relationship that Sandra has had.

This is a beautifully written book. As it goes on, Krasnostein reveals herself as well, although I found this less satisfying, almost as if as author she was bumping her subject out of the spotlight, with a ‘look at me too- I’ve suffered’. Perhaps that’s unfair.

I commend Text Publishing for the photographs.  They’re colour photographs and well placed in the text, tethered in the chronology of the surrounding pages instead of pre-empting the story. They come in three groups, oddly spaced throughout the narrative. You see Peter and Sandra right at the point you’re reading about.  I found myself turning back to these photographs often.

I have been asking everyone I know ‘Have you read The Trauma Cleaner??’ and urging them to do so. I found it absolutely compelling and disturbing, and literally stayed up all night to finish it.  It won the Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Non-Fiction in 2018, and it fully deserves its success.

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I’ve read this as part of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge.

Movie: The Shape of Water

I loved this movie.  Old-fashioned and wistful, heart-warming, with very bad baddies and enough magic realism to make you smile. I’ve heard it likened to a cross between ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’, which rings true to me.

My rating: 5 out of 5.

Podcasts: Wrongful

This is a series of Australian podcasts, produced by ABC Radio National for their Earshot program. They explore five cases of wrongful conviction that have occurred in Western Australia over recent decades.  They are well-produced and chilling.  Most of the time there was a journalist digging away in the background, sometimes for decades, and the wheels of justice creak very, very slowly.

You can download each of the podcasts from this link:

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/earshot/features/wrongful-stories-of-justice-denied-and-redeemed/

 

‘A Week in the Future’ by Catherine Helen Spence

spence_weekinfuture

Available online here.

Catherine Helen Spence’s short story A Week in the Future was published serially in the Centennial Magazine between January and July 1889, then later published independently as a book later that year.

I’m not  actually accusing her of plagiarism,  but in writing this book she borrowed very heavily from her friend Jane Hume Clapperton’s Scientific Meliorism and the Evolution of Happiness, which Spence had reviewed in the Adelaide Observer in 1887.  Clapperton’s book itself picked up on George Eliot’s idea of ‘meliorism’ (i.e. that the world tends to improve and that humans can aid its betterment). She remained friends with Clapperton, so obviously this borrowing was not the breach of copyright that we would see it as today.

Basically, the story is that Miss Emily Bethel, a Scottish lady resident in Adelaide who had recently lost her mother (as had, indeed Spence herself when she wrote it) suffered a heart attack and was given a choice of 1-2 years of enforced invalidism or a week in the future instead. She chose to spend one week in the future in England a century hence- i.e. in 1988.

On Monday, she visited an Associated Home, where twenty families lived communally, each having a financial share in the house.

On Tuesday she visited a co-operative farm, travelling by nationalized railways that had replaced the crowded roads, in order to observe the large scale agriculture that has revolutionized food production. There has been global distribution of excess population: Australia including New Zealand, now has a population of 50 million!

On Wednesday she visited a communal nursery, a school and a university. Schooling is between 8 and 14 years of age; men and women attend university in equal proportions.

On Thursday she attended a wedding, where she learns that early marriage is encouraged and that birth control is freely available. Divorce is easily obtainable if there are no children, and after a month, people can remarry. If there are children, the process takes twelve months and the relatives on both sides are chosen as arbiters of guardianship.

On Friday she attended Parliament, where she observed the indirectly elected President (i.e. elected by Parliament), the popularly elected House of Commons and House of Lords and the absence of royalty.

On Saturday she indulged in Literature and Arts by visiting the enlarged National Gallery and attending the opera.

On Sunday she attended a church. There was still worship, but a change in the idea of the Being they worshipped. No ‘miserable sinners’, no hell, no destruction. And Sundays were a day of entertainment and rest, just like Saturday.

At the end of all this, Miss Bethel  departed, breathing the prayer “Now, Lord, let thy servant depart in peace, now that I have seen the salvation wrought by the brotherhood of the families of the earth.”

As you can see, the story is very much a vehicle by which Spence expounds on her views of the way society should run, largely influenced by her Unitarian faith. Like Unitarians in England, she favoured co-operative housing, she believed in girls’ education, and embraced a religion that did not grind its adherents under the burden of original sin.

A Week in the Future is in effect a political tract, wrapped in a story. Still, given that for us 1988 has been and gone, it’s interesting seeing the aspects she highlighted, which in many cases still have yet to come to pass.

Bill Holloway at The Australian Legend site wrote a fuller review of the book that’s well worth reading.

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This review has been posted on the Australian Women Writers Challenge page.

‘Ever yours, C. H. Spence’ ed. Susan Magarey, with Barbara Wall, Mary Lyons and Maryan Beams

everyours

2005, 356 p & notes

The autobiography is a strange beast.  Unlike the diary which may or may not have another reader in mind, there is usually an assumption on the part of the writer that someone is going to read it, one day.  Although the distinction between autobiography and memoir is fuzzy (see here and here), I tend to see an autobiography as a chronological account, driven by the passing of time, where a memoir is a more consciously created ‘literary’ object, shaped by themes and tropes and where time is elastic.

In this book edited by Spence’s major present-day biographers, Susan Magarey and Barbara Wall,  we get autobiography, diary and letters carefully and usefully annotated. Taken together, they build up a vivid picture of the transnational networks that Spence developed and drew upon, confounding our picture of a little old lady in black dress and lace cap.

More than half of the book is devoted to Catherine Helen Spence’s autobiography. It appears to be a good old-fashioned autobiography,  starting at the start and ending at the end.  But it’s not. Only about 2/3 of it was actually written by Catherine Helen Spence herself.  It was always destined for publication in serialized form in the South Australian Register and when Spence died in 1910 she had the first three chapters typeset ready to go, and the following 13 chapters in manuscript.  Indeed, she was working on it when she died. Her friend Jeanne Young, a fellow-activist some fifty years Spence’s junior, completed the other eight chapters after some tussling amongst surviving family members.  In an attempt to make the change in authorship appear seamless, Young completed the remaining chapters in the first person, drawing on Spence’s diaries and her own knowledge of Spence’s movements from their mutual friendship.  It’s not a particularly successful ghostwriting strategy as the autobiography loses its ‘oomph’ as it goes along, and it becomes increasingly bogged down in the campaign for proportional representation, the passion shared by both Spence and Young.  It’s true that many people, including Spence herself, said that she was obsessed by proportional representation, but in Young’s hands it dominates the final chapters of the book, unleavened by the reflection and self-deprecation found in the first chapters.

Of course, Susan Magarey and other writers about Catherine Helen Spence have picked the eyes out of the autobiography, as you would expect them to do, and their approaches are easier reading than this autobiography.  But it’s good to read an extended length of Spence’s writing to pick up on her clear, but very 19th century narrative voice, and to observe the digressions and asides.

Jeanne Young went on to write her own biography of Spence (which I haven’t read), and in doing so she used the diaries that Catherine Helen Spence had kept every day of her life.  However, she refused the entreaties of “Mr Pitt of the Archives” to place them in a public repository, and it seemed that the “diaries had gone out with the newspapers”, once Jeanne Young had finished writing her book (p. 214). However, there was one left -Spence’s diary for 1894- and Magarey (I think – it’s not clear in this book which parts were contributed by Magarey and which by Wall) was able to borrow the diary from the protective and nameless private owners for a week to make notes from it.  However, in a letter to the editor of the Australian Book Review in December 2010, following a review of Unbridling the Tongues of Women, Magarey indicated that the State Library of South Australia had been more persuasive than she herself had been, and that the diary was donated to the library and is now transcribed and annotated by Barbara Wall on the Wakefield Press website.  [I must confess to not being able to find it there].

The diary covers only the year 1894, when Spence travelled to America, the UK and Europe. There’s an entry for nearly every day, and while they list her rather exhausting activities and meetings, there’s not really a great deal of reflection here.

The volume finishes with a collection of Spence’s letters to two of the feminist activists from this time: Alice Henry, who was to go to America where she was joined by Stella (Miles) Franklin, and Rose Scott from Sydney.  These letters are more engaging than the diary, and also reflect the buzz of activity in this indefatigable woman’s mind. They’re also affirming of the network of shared interests that  stretched across distance and age to further the causes that people – women and men included- had as their passion.

Source:  Readings bookstore (where they have this on special for $9.99 in hardback at the moment. Just do a search on their website)

Read because: I’m preparing for a giving a talk on Catherine Helen Spence at the First Unitarian Universalist of Melbourne Fellowship service this week.

This review has been added to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018 database.

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‘Unbridling the Tongues of Women’ by Susan Magarey

Unbridling175

2nd edition 2010, (1985) 214 p.

Available as free PDF at https://www.adelaide.edu.au/press/titles/spence/

Catherine Helen Spence observed once that law and custom had “put a bridle on the tongues of women”. When in 1871 she actually read her own lecture to the South Australian Institute, instead of handing it over to a man to read, she said she did so “to make it easier henceforth for any woman who felt she had something to say to stand up and say it”. (p. viii)

“Stand up and say it” was exactly what she did over her long life.  As a novelist, journalist, board member, preacher, political figure and suffragist, she put her words before the public.  Magarey has chosen her title well in this biography, which highlights the breadth of Spence’s interests and why she well deserves the praise bestowed on her at her 80th birthday party as “the most distinguished woman they had had in Australia”.

Magarey’s second edition starts with a new introduction where she corrects and supplements some of the observations that she made in her original 1985 text.  I suppose that an introduction to a new edition does need to go at the start, so that your antennae can start quivering when you come across a point that she later corrected. But I must say that I found the introduction far more interesting after I had read the book.

The book does not follow a straight chronology as such, because it slices her life thematically. In the Introduction to the original 1985 edition, she gives an overview of Spence’s life, starting with her arrival in Adelaide in 1839, just after Adelaide’s establishment as a Wakefieldian colony. She quickly traces Spence’s career, claiming her as “Australia’s first feminist” – not so much in terms of political action, but through her ability and determination to break into the national conversation.

Chapter 1 ‘Acquiring a room of her own’ backtracks on Spence’s childhood, starting with her parents’ marriage in Scotland and the family emigration to Adelaide.  After her father died, Catherine was spurred to earn money through teaching to help support her mother and siblings.  Although she had two proposals of marriage, she decided not to marry because of the independence and pride earning her own money: a decision which opened up opportunities that might not have otherwise been open to her. But it was an inheritance through her aunts back in Scotland that made it possible for her mother to purchase the house in which Catherine could have the ‘room of her own’ that Virginia Woolf saw as crucial to a writing life, living alongside her mother (with whom she had a very close relationship) until her mother’s death.

It was in her ‘room of her own’ that Catherine began her novelistic career, which Magarey deals with in Chapter 2 ‘The line of least resistance’.  Having not read any of Spence’s fictional work, I found this chapter a little opaque, although I am impressed and fascinated by Magarey’s summary two of her later stories.  Handfasted seems to promote a particularly liberated view of marriage for the time, and A Week in the Future, set in 1988, seems to be a loosely-disguised fictionalization of Spence’s political ideas.

Chapter 3 is titled ‘Faith and enlightenment’, and it was for this chapter that I read the book, as I’m giving a presentation (oh, the presumption!) on Catherine Helen Spence at our Unitarian fellowship this coming Sunday (details below). Spence was a Presbyterian, but she was ‘converted’ to Unitarianism, a verb which does not sit comfortably with Unitarians today.  She was brought to Unitarianism through contact with her friend Emily Clark, and was attracted to Unitarianism’s emphasis on rationalism and faith. Spurred by the example of Martha Turner, the Unitarian minister from Melbourne and the first woman preacher in Australia, Spence was a regular speaker at the Adelaide Unitarian Christian Church.  Her addresses from the pulpit covered a wide range of topics, even if the minister at the church sometimes felt that the politics expressed were not appropriate.

Although she complained that the Adelaide Unitarian church was rather insular, she (and other members of the congregation) moved into secular philanthropic enterprises as an expression of their spirituality. In Chapter 4 ‘Edging out of the domestic sphere’ Magarey addresses the philanthropic work in which Spence was involved which built on her Unitarian connections. In particularly she deals with the Boarding Out Society which took children from impoverished homes and placed them with more respectable working class families.  It’s a strategy that does not sit well with our attitudes today, and Magarey bats off (rather stridently, she admits in the introduction to the new edition) the criticisms of other historians including Kay Daniels who see the scheme as a form of middle class imposition onto working class culture.  It was Spence’s philanthropic work that was to lead to her speaking at the International Congress of Charities, Correction and Philanthropy in 1893 in Chicago,  conducted alongside the World Fair, bringing her to an even wider international audience.

Chapter 5 ‘Learning for the future’ traces through Spence’s work in education, noting the evolution in her views over time from her own work as governess and school-owner, through to her support for the state-run secondary Advanced School for Girls. She wrote a textbook that was used for many years ‘The Laws We Live Under’.

Her public writing is dealt with in Chapter 6 ‘Round woman in her round hole’ where Magarey emphasizes the range of topics that Spence dealt with in her newspaper columns, many of which bore her byline. As she notes in the new introduction, Spence is now recognized as a formidable economic thinker and was an advocate for greater economic equity- although not uniform distribution of wealth.

However, it was her political and economic thinking that led her to become a passionate (to the point of obsession) supporter of proportional representation, dealt with in Ch 7 ‘Prophet of the effective vote’. Her quest for ‘effective voting’ was taken up by the Reform Movement that emerged in South Australia in the 1890s which included the Land Reform League, Single Tax League and Fabians, among others.  She stood for the Federal Convention to discuss the coming federation of Australian states. Although she was unsuccessful, she was the first female political candidate in Australia’s history.

Largely because of her obsession with proportional representation, she came late to the agitation for women’s suffrage, as seen in Chapter 8 ‘The New Woman of South Australia: Grand Old Woman of Australia’.  However, once she turned her attention to it, she was warmly embraced by women’s groups who had been working towards it for years because of her strong and formidable reputation on all sides of politics.  After it had been achieved in South Australia (the first state in Australia), she maintained a strong interest in the suffrage question right up until her death.

When you think about it, there are just so many ‘firsts’ in her life.  I take my hat off to her, and I’m proud of the Unitarianism that I share with her. I wish that she was still there on the $5.00 note as she was in Australia’s bicentenary year.  I take my hat off to Susan Magarey too. This is an engaging biography of a woman with a long and varied life. I’ve been enjoying reading Magarey’s other writing on Spence too, most particularly an essay ‘The Private Life of Catherine Helen Spence 1825-1910) in Body and Mind: Historical Essays in Honour of F. B. Smith.

And my talk? It’s on Sunday 18th March 2018 at 2.00 p.m. at the First Unitarian Universalist of Melbourne fellowship, 506 Elizabeth St Melbourne, opposite the Victoria Market. You’d be very welcome to attend.

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AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300 And I’ll put this review towards the tally for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018.