bunn (bunn) wrote,

Two books at least partly from the 1930s

In which I witter on at considerable and probably tedious length about two books that I read, and my uninformed and confused ideas that those books sparked off each other in my head.

My Place by Sally Morgan
Tells the story of how Sally grew up in Perth, Western Australia after WWII and the story of her mother and grandmother. I found this a fascinating story, engagingly told.  The book is structured as a mystery which is gradually uncovered by the author, rather than a chronological history, and is all the more readable as a result.

Sally's father was a second world war veteran who committed suicide, and the story starts with Sally's childhood, her early memories and then describes how she was brought up by her mother Gladys and grandmother Daisy, with no contact with any wider family.

Sally became curious about her family history, having been told that her grandmother Daisy was of Indian origin, but soon began to realise that her grandmother was part-aborigine rather than Indian. She eventually convinces her mother to tell her about her own childhood, discovers an aboriginal great-uncle and tells his story too, and finally and after much protest persuades her grandmother Daisy to tell at least part of her story too - although without her 'secrets', which Daisy will tell nobody.  Finally, Sally goes to visit Corunna, the estate where her grandmother grew up, and meets some more remote aborigine relatives.

The story goes that Daisy's father was Howden Drake-Brockman, the local landowner who employed her.   There is a strong, horrible implication that Daisy's daughter Gladys, Sally's mother, was also fathered by Howden.  Daisy became a maid for the Drake-Brockman family as a child, and was brought up by them away from her mother. Her daughter Gladys was sent away to live at a Children's Home, although she was allowed to come and stay with her mother from time to time for holidays.  Daisy was told she was 'one of the family' - although she was paid a small salary and expected to work long hours. Daisy felt that she had been promised an education by the Drake-Brockmans, and that the family had exploited her.

I can't remember now how I came across this book, but I vaguely remembered that there was some controversy about it, so having read it, I went looking for the controversy, and found it here - from the Drake-Brockman family, specifically Howden's daughter Judith, who refutes the allegation of rape by her father, and claims that Daisy's father was someone else, and what's more, that Daisy was treated well by the standards of the culture of the time, and that any hardship was simply because she was part of a Depression-era household that was struggling to make ends meet.   Sending her daughter to a children's home was just what happened to illegitemate children in those days.

This is one of those very difficult things to make any judgement about.  It is part of the charm of the book that we are never quite sure how much of what Daisy finally decides to reveal is complete and accurate, that she is very clear that she's not sharing her secrets.    And I have to admit that reading the 'Daisy' section of the book just as an uninformed reader, it came across as.... oddly ideological.  The kind of ideas that jibed a little oddly with a vernacular-style accent and a narrator who spent her life pretending not to be of Aborigine descent, who was fearful of the authorities, lest they take away her grandchildren - the narrator who taught her daughter and grandchildren nothing about her original culture, the narrator who never learned to read.

Judith Drake-Brockman was there when Daisy was young, and she knew everyone involved. If she says that Sally has, for example, exaggerated Daisy's accent for effect, then I think probably she's accurate on that.   But of course, as a child, she was unlikely to have been taken into any confidences about her father's sexual misbehaviour with the local ladies -  or indeed with his maid.  You'd expect Judith to  staunchly defend her father's reputation, but that doesn't mean that she is right.

I feel a weird sort of stake in this, because my grandfather had a long-standing secret affair - and a daughter -  with his secretary, and the whole thing only came out after both my grandparents and father had died.  I'd wager a large sum that my father would have been appalled by the very idea and would have ruled it out as impossible, just as Judith considers it impossible that Howden was Daisy's father (or worse).

At any rate, it was a book that made me think a lot, not least about where the edges of ethnicity lie.  Sally Morgan thinks that she had one aboriginal great-grandparent.  Even if she had two, she's still mostly of European descent, and is quite clear that she was raised and educated with no access to any aboriginal culture, because her grandmother deliberately hid all that. But clearly that connection is still enormously important to her, and after all it's her connection and that of the women who brought her up - so she should get to judge its weight.

Gaudy Night - Dorothy L Sayers

I'd read this before, of course.  Pure fiction. Detective novel, set in Oxford, written and set in 1935, with detective novelist Harriet Vane and aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey. Unusually for a detective story, there's no murder, and perhaps even more unusually, a great deal of discussion of academic ethics, and the role of women in academia.  I won't go into detail: I think most people reading this will have read this book, and I don't want to spoil it for those that haven't because it's a great read.
But reading it immediately after My Place was interesting.   The Oxford college scouts (servant/cleaners) who feature in the book are not, of course aboriginal.  Annie, one of the scouts, is  an Englishwoman, a middle class widow fallen on hard times.  She has to work long hours to make a modest living scrubbing floors and doing other menial work - and she is expected to live full time in college, with her children sent off to board with a convenient local couple.  The scouts quarters are kept locked up at night, ostensibly to protect them from break-ins, although there seems no reason why if that were the only reason, all the scouts should not have their own door-key.  The fact that the college has arranged for accommodation for the children so that their mother can work as a scout is shown as rather generous.     Another middle-class widow in the book, working as a secretary, must send her son off to boarding school so that she can work.

 Most of the rest of the staff live in enforced celibacy, because working AND having children is really Not Done, (and nor is living in a childfree relationship by choice).     Maybe you can get away with either of those, if you are the disgraceful Harriet Vane, and you aren't marrying into the normal modes of respectability.  But respectability is still a terrifyingly powerful force...

I have to admit that of all the weird, weird periods of history, I find the mid twentieth  one of the very oddest. It seems to have so little space for people to just be people.  It's so recent, and yet it always has me squinting my eyes and putting my head on one side to try to make sense of it.

Maybe  it was 'normal' in the 1930's for children to be working long hours as maidservants and illegitemate children to be shipped off to children's homes and boarding schools by default, that doesn't make either of those things any less weird and horrible.   And maybe if you were born into a completely other culture, you look at the culture where that sort of thing is normal, and you think: whoa, this culture is weird and scary! And if that culture is the dominant, rich successful one where you live, then how on earth do you even begin to work out how to not conform with it?   And I wonder too, if you would tend to assume that you were being done down because of your ethnicity, when at least part of the problem is simply the universal and difficult-to-avoid crime of being poor.
Tags: books, wittering
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