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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.

Comments

( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
bunn
6th Sep, 2014 19:40 (UTC)
I think I first read the copy that was in the St Hilda's fiction library, which gives it multiple nostalgic echoes for me: the timeless echoes (punting, May Morning), the 'coming back to Oxford as a grownup' thing and the memory of reading it and noticing all the changed and unchanging things...

Dated...? I suppose it is, but after all, it was written in 1935. I tend to think of it as a period piece, interesting for the way it reflects the complex attitudes and ideas and worries of its time.
arrowthroughme
6th Sep, 2014 17:48 (UTC)
Hi there, you don't know me, but the new LJ app suddenly forces new posts by any user on me instead of just my friends page, which is how I came to read your post. I know both books and I wanted to say thank you for reminding me; I think it's more than 20 years since I read Sally Morgan, so I definitely want to read it again now. And it never occurred to me to place those novels side by side. So, from a fellow reader - thanks again!

arrowthroughme
bunn
6th Sep, 2014 19:46 (UTC)
Hello! That sounds odd, but I'm glad you found the post serendipitously interesting!

I wondered if anyone on my list would have read 'My Place' - I think it's a tad obscure here in the UK. Can I ask if you are Australian, or did you pick it up outside of its immediate market as I did? I think it merits a wide readership but I get the impression that Australian writers often don't get much attention in Europe.
arrowthroughme
6th Sep, 2014 20:27 (UTC)
I'm German actually, but I spent a year in Melbourne after graduation, teaching, and while there I tried to read as much Australian literature as I could. I read My Place during a holiday in Perth, I remember that. You're right, I didn't know anyone outside Australia who knew the novel before reading your post, however, I just remember that our English textbooks for year 9 feature Rabbitproof Fence. (I'm a teacher.)
bunn
6th Sep, 2014 20:42 (UTC)
Ah, right - I find reading the stories of the local area adds an interesting extra layer to a new place too.

Rabbitproof Fence I've come across, and also Thomas Keneally, of course.
arrowthroughme
6th Sep, 2014 21:19 (UTC)
I read some Thomas Keneally; I remember liking Jacko. I'm trying to decide on a favourite author, but I can't really. I read about everything by Peter Carey and Tim Winton still. Katharine Susannah Pritchard? Miles Franklin? Lots more, I'm sure.
houseboatonstyx
6th Sep, 2014 20:24 (UTC)
Sayers herself had an undisclosed illegitimate son whom she sent off elsewhere to be raised, paying his expenses and [iirc on holidays writing him formal iirc] letters signed "Your Mother". I don't remember where he was sent off to; some private arrangement I expect.
bunn
6th Sep, 2014 20:30 (UTC)
Did she really? Interesting, I never knew that and it certainly adds a sharpness to those already-uncomfortable exchanges about the 'womanly woman'.
houseboatonstyx
6th Sep, 2014 21:00 (UTC)
My memory sources that item as from some respectable recent biography of Sayers.

What I, USian reader of Brit Golden Age Christie and such, was shocked by in Gaudy Night was this. Near the end, the suspects were gathered for the conclusive sorting-out and solution, during which, as customary in the genre, the guilty person broke out with a long position statement and confession, thus exonerating them all and saving their careers, and the reputation of the college. The Warden's immediate reaction was to apologize to the suspects for allowing such an embarrassing scene.


Edited at 2014-09-06 21:01 (UTC)
bunn
9th Sep, 2014 07:29 (UTC)
If in doubt, apologise! It is the British Way. Or at least, the British Way in situations where nobody has actually done anything to apologise for, apologising *when actually at fault* is a Whole Other Thing.

It hadn't even struck me as odd. Interesting perspective!
houseboatonstyx
10th Sep, 2014 07:19 (UTC)
It's the way of us U.S. Southerners, too. I'm sorry ;-) that I forgot to say I was thinking of the film, in which the Warden looked stricken, as though she felt actually at fault. In the book (I just checked), her apology came as anti-climax, lacking even an adverb.
heliopausa
9th Sep, 2014 03:18 (UTC)
It was not only illegitimate children who were placed in homes in the 1920s and 1930s; my (Australian) mother-in-law and siblings were sent to a home when their mother died, and retrieved later when he remarried. It was a horribly traumatic experience for her.
bunn
9th Sep, 2014 07:26 (UTC)
Ooh that's horrible :-(

You look at it now and think: who thought that was a good idea??? It's just mad.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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