Category Archives: AWW2013

AWW2013 in Review


My Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2013 started off with the completion of a large Librivox project, where I  found and recorded ten short stories by Mary Fortune (aka Waif Wander) published in The Australian Journal in 1880. The stories were from a long-running series by Fortune, The Detective’s Album, mostly narrated by Victorian detective, Mark Sinclair. The stories are less about an idiosyncratic detective, however, than a detailed account of a series of crimes from inception through discovery, investigation, trial and punishment. So, to make a comparison with more familiar detective fiction, the series is less like the Sherlock Holmes stories than Law & Order: Criminal Intent, based on the conceit that these are real cases investigated by the Victorian police at the time. There are investigations on the goldfields and in vineyards, of  bush rangers in hiding, and femme fatales. The stories are Victorian, in the sense of the era, too, with contemporary concerns about the social scourge of alcohol, and the link between crime and madness is ever-present. 

Stories from The Detective’s Album is freely available for download from the Librivox site and the Internet Archive

While completing  ‘Stories from The Detective’s Album‘, I listened to a Librivox recording of Henry Handel Richardson’s Australia Felix, the first in her three part series, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. I very much enjoyed tabithat’s reading, as well as the story itself, which begins on the gold fields of Ballarat on the eve of the Eureka Stockade rebellion. Here, the character of Richard Mahony, trained as a doctor in Edinburgh, is running a grocery store–with very little aptitude, it must be said. Richardson conveys the goldfields of Colonial Australia as a place populated by people of  multiple classes, ethnicities, religions, and political persuasions, who, while not entirely living in harmony, are united in their opposition to the corrupt authority of the law. Mahony is, at heart, an intellectual and very much out of place, difficult in his relations with others and often unwell with depression. Nevertheless, he meets and marries Polly, who encourages him to return to his medical practice. Together, the Mahonys build a life in Ballarat, Polly growing into a consummate diplomat and hostess for her husband, as well as her brother’s political aspirations. Two things have stayed with me about Australia Felix. The first is Richardson’s talent for drawing difficult characters via niggardly, everyday interactions; and the second is the evolution of Polly from a teenage bride to a remarkably poised young woman, signified in her later use of Mary, to avoid confusion with her new sister-in-law.

In part, I listened to Australia Felix, in anticipation of reading The Getting of Wisdom, also by Henry Handel Richardson, which was my first full recording for AWW2013. It was also one of my book club’s novels for this year. While not everyone in the book club liked Richardson’s coming of age tale, it’s here that her talent for drawing difficult personalities is first evident in the character of Laura Tweedle Rambotham. Again, this recording is available at Librivox and the Internet Archive. At the time of writing this post, the recording had been downloaded over 100, 000 times, a statistic of which I’m very proud.

In between reading and listening to Librivox audiobooks, I read a memoir by Michelle Dicinoski.  Ghost Wife is Michelle’s telling of her and her partner Heather’s decision to travel to Canada to get married, a union that would have no legal status on their return to Australia. In between are woven other stories from Michelle’s family history of events and persons never acknowledged by institutions and their documentations, present only in hearts, memories and anecdotes. While I can’t review this book, I can and will recommend you read it as a way of thinking through one of contemporary Australia’s most pressing ethical issues.

Before discussing the final book I recorded for the year, it’s worth mentioning a seminar I attended as part of the University of Queensland’s events for the 2013 Brisbane Writers Festival, where Rob Spillman, the editor of Tin House magazine, spoke about his publication’s response to VIDA’s campaign and survey of bias against women in US literature. I made some notes and tweeted a summary of them afterwards:

Bush Studies by Barbara Baynton was the final complete recording I did in 2013. In preparation, I listened to a recording of Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife by way of seeing what Baynton’s writing was responding to in the national cultural imagination of the time, since, after the number of her marriages, her reaction to the writers of The Bulletin School, seems to be the next most frequent way of discussing her (work).  Lawson’s wife is hard working and often alone with her children, but she is ultimately safe and content in her life. In contrast, the women in Baynton’s stories are used and abused by their husbands and itinerant swagmen. Similarly, the bush man is intolerant and exploitative of Aboriginals and (principally) Chinese settlers, while the bush itself is full of dangers. For me, The Chosen Vessel was utterly chilling, while Bush Church runs the gamut from charming, amusing moments where the naivety of a newly arrived clergyman is exploited by the less God-faring population (I was going to use citizenry, but that would be inaccurate), to the grimness of everyday violence.

Upon reflection, I had a good, if sporadic AWW year in 2013. From reading over my first post for the year, I basically set my own challenge and I seem to have covered everything I mentioned in that, if I didn’t say much more about the poetry. But more on that in the 2014 challenge. See you there!


Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson

I’ve finished my recording of The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson.  I decided to record a second version of it for Librivox to take advantage of the fact that it was also  one of my book club’s reads for this year.  I think we were supposed to read it last year as part of our AWW 2012 list, but it got pushed aside because it seemed to be by a male author. So, for the uninitiated, let me begin by clearing up that misunderstanding: Henry Handel Richardson is the pen name of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson.

The Getting of Wisdom follows Laura Tweedle Rambotham from the eve of her departure to boarding school at the age of twelve to the moment of her leaving that school at sixteen. When we first encounter Laura at home in country Victoria, she seems precocious, bossing her younger siblings and causing her mother no end of frustration with her antics. After she travels to Melbourne to attend school, however, Laura becomes far less assured, both socially and academically, as she struggles to be accepted by her peers and teachers. The Getting of Wisdom is effectively a coming of age story in which Laura’s  trials and tribulations are many.

I first encountered The Getting of Wisdom in my final year of secondary school as an elective book for English.  My teacher recommended it to me and I wrote an essay about it.  I have two memories of The Getting of Wisdom from that time.  The first is the striking final image of the book, and the other is the comment made by my English teacher on reading my essay: ‘Did you read it?’

I recall have quite a lot of difficulty concentrating on The Getting of Wisdom. I’m not sure why, but looking back now, I credit my teacher with a great deal of insight in her recommendation. Reading it again, I felt a lot of empathy with Laura as she struggled to gain her mother’s approval, as she tripped over unfamiliar mores and distinctions in an elevated social environment, as she failed to meet her own expectations of academic success, and as she longed to connect with her peers. Perhaps Laura’s awkwardness is familiar to many, and, to that end, may explain the endurance of Handel Richardson’s story.

From the perspective of having recorded a few books by Australian women writers for Librivox now, The Getting of Wisdom is the most approachable for a contemporary audience. No doubt this is due to Handel Richardson’s clear admiration for Henrik Ibsen‘s realism, evident in Laura’s encounter with  A Doll’s House  as part of her covert reading in the principal’s drawing room during her piano practice.  While Laura isn’t that enamoured of Ibsen’s work, only choosing it because its title promised an altogether different kind of story, her comments provide some insight into Handel Richardson’s philosophy of writing:

… it was all about the oddest, yet the most commonplace people. It seemed to her amazingly unreal—how these people spoke and behaved—she had never known anyone like them; and yet again so true, in the way it dragged in everyday happenings, so petty in its rendering of petty things, that it bewildered and repelled her: why, some one might just as well write a book about Mother or Sarah! Her young, romantic soul rose in arms against this, its first bluff contact with realism, against such a dispiriting sobriety of outlook. Something within her wanted to cry out in protest as she read—for read she did, on three successive days, with an interest she could not explain. And that was not all. It was worse that the people in this book—the extraordinary person who was married, and had children, and yet ate biscuits out of a bag and said she didn’t; the man who called her his lark and his squirrel—as if any man ever did call his wife such names!—all these people seemed eternally to be meaning something different from what they said; something that was for ever eluding her. It was most irritating.

Writing amidst a lingering tradition of nineteenth century romanticism then,  Handel Richardson offers a portrait  of a girl on the cusp of womanhood. The Getting of Wisdom does not offer the  ‘miracle’  of Laura’s preferred choice of literature, but squarely faces the ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ of growing up–in a way that continues to resonate.

Happy New Year!

I thought I’d begin the year with a round up of my reading so far and the announcement of a reading resolution or two.

In the first instance, I’ve signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge again in 2013. I was going to continue doing the Librivox recordings and writing about them here anyway, but what fun to do it in company!  A couple of people have expressed an interest in listening to the stories from ‘The Detective’s Album’ by Mary Fortune that I’m currently recording—unfinished business from AWW2012—for their own AWW2013 challenge, so there’s continued incentive to finish that sooner rather than later.

There has, however, been something of a pause in finishing that recording. Christmas, marking, and noisy garden machinery are some of the reasons for the delay, but now I’m working on reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies for my January book club, so that too has diverted my attention. At this point, I’m finding that having watched The Tudors has helped enormously with keeping track of all the characters and intrigue. I do think that The Tudors is quite an extraordinary television achievement, which is in accordance with the critical assessment of Mantel’s work. It’s certainly a hell of a story, irrespective of execution. (No, I didn’t mean that pun. Initially.)

Meanwhile, on other fronts, I’ve been listening to Australia Felix by Henry Handel Richardson aka Ethel Florence while I’ve been out walking. I thought I’d listen to this as a prelude to doing a recording of The Getting of Wisdom. I noted in a couple of tweets that one of the people from book club had nominated to read The Getting of Wisdom, irrespective of the AWW2013 challenge, which we’re not doing as a book club this year (if the Mantel choice didn’t give it away). In a desperate ploy to get someone I know to listen to one of my recordings, I thought I’d make a solo recording of it for the Librivox catalogue. I figure if there are six versions (and another forthcoming!) of Pride and Prejudice, then two of The Getting of Wisdom is downright restrained. Anyway, I’ll write a bit later about Australia Felixsince I’ll count that as one of my AWW2013 books.

I’ve also decided to count towards the challenge a series of poems that Penni Russon is writing over at her blog, Eglantine’s Cakefor  the month of January as part of her participation in the Month of Poetry 2013 challenge. I’ll just read them rather than reviewing them, however. Partly because I’m not qualified to review poetry—it seems to take a special kind of sensibility and knowledge that I’m not sure I have—but also because, as social media has enabled relationships that might otherwise not exist, we’ve followed one another on Twitter for some years now. Now, that’s not to say I would write a negative review–I think her poems are wonderful (‘exquisite’ I believe I tweeted)—but perhaps I’m not the most impartial judge. A-a-and I think I’m about to go down a rabbit hole of self-justification and embarrassing apologies, so I’ll stop.

The whole conundrum makes me wonder about people who review professionally. Can they avoid reviewing the work of someone they know? How do they distance themselves? Or isn’t that necessary?

Another thing that’s occurred to me while writing this is about the presence of poetry in the AWW challenge. I haven’t really thought about this before now. I’ll investigate.

Alright, that’s it from me. Here’s to a happy new year of reading ahead! *raises glass*

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