Category Archives: LibriVox

Refresh: January

I started my reading year by signing up for things:

I rejoined Good Reads, mostly out of curiosity to know how many books I read.  There was some discussion over at Facebook on my book club’s group page about people’s individual book counts.  Our most prolific reader had a total of eighty-eight, which made the person who had read thirty-six feel very humble in comparison.  I had no idea how many I’d read, but I’m fairly sure it was fewer than thirty. I’ve set myself the very modest goal of reading twenty-six books in their 2014 reading challenge.

My reading count would almost certainly have received a boost in the last months of 2013 after I rejoined the local library.  I’d avoided the library for years after accruing a fine for keeping a copy of American Psycho out until they sent me a bill to replace it.  I returned the book (yes, I did read it), but avoided the library out of shame for at least a decade.  Yes, I knew all about the end-of-year amnesty, but I was too scared to face them.  Anyway, I plucked up my courage and it turns out there was no record of my misdeeds in their system at all. And in the meantime, the ebook has arrived, so I’ve been spending my time happily catching up on the Harry Potter series, both books and films, as well as The Hunger Games series, and a few missed childhood classics, including The Narnia Chronicles.

It’s through the library that I’ve been able to supplement my book club’s first novel of the year, the Man Booker Prize winner for 2013, The Luminaries, with some eye-saving audiobooks for the Australian Women Writers Reading Challenge, which I’ve signed up for again in 2014.  So far, I’ve read and reviewed Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and I’ve just started listening to Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. 

Actually, neither of these books are part of the official challenge I’ve set myself, which is again focussed on creating audiobooks via Librvox of works in the public domain by Australian women writers. I started the first book for this project, Human Toll,  towards the end of last year, with the intention of completing Barbara Baynton’s catalogue. I have planned to record another two works in addition to that for the AWW2014 challenge, but I haven’t decide which.

I’m looking at anything I read or listen to and review beyond the Librivox recordings as a bonus with respect to the AWW challenge.  I’ve come to the conclusion that just as writers must read to be better writers, then audiobook readers must listen in order to become better readers. It’s with this thought in mind, in addition to the pleasure of the stories themselves, that I’m listening to other audiobooks, taking mental notes of the various factors that make for a good telling of another’s story.

Meanwhile, January is also the Month of Poetry, an event I only became aware of via the tweets of Penni Russon and Anna Ryan Punch. I’m following both of their MOP14 efforts  and attempting to retweet the links to their poems via my @ReadingSheilas account. I’m not sure how I would count these if I included them in the challenge; perhaps, as two anthologies? No matter. As a reader, I look forward to the tweeted announcements of both of these writers. It’s a great way to ease into a new year of reading.


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*


Reflections on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

I hadn’t initially planned on writing a post reflecting on my participation in the AWWC 2012. I confess it hadn’t occurred to me, even though, no doubt, it’s something the organisers planned all along. I think this is symptomatic of my overall involvement in the AWWC 2012. I’ve been a bit haphazard in my approach, never really sure what level of involvement I’d committed to:  Stella, Miles, or Franklin-fantastic. (Indeed, this is more broadly symptomatic of my approach to life, if the truth be told.)

I do know I seized on the challenge as a way of furthering my participation in the LibriVox project of making available recordings of all works in the public domain. I decided I would record four works by Australian women writers and make notes about the books and the recording process along the way.

To that end, I suppose my first AWWC 2012 achievement was that I established this blog after a hiatus from blogging of about two years.  I don’t know that I’ve networked consistently with other AWWC 2012 bloggers, but for myself I’ve rather enjoyed having a very narrowly defined blog project. If I’ve gone off topic at all, it’s only been to talk about my teaching and other reading and writing related things.

It’s difficult to say how many reviews I did, since for a couple of the books I recorded—Katharine Susannah Prichard’s The Pioneers and Maud Jean Franc’s Two Sides to Every QuestionI wrote multiple posts. It was with these two novels that I settled into the recording process. To that point I had only contributed chapters to group projects at LibriVox, which is an entirely different level of commitment. I felt extra responsibility doing the solo recordings; I wanted my recordings to stand as good audiobooks.

Throughout this settling-in period, I worried about character voices and accents; whether to sing or not when characters did; getting the recording levels right; and minimising bird, traffic and other noises that were audible in the recordings. I think I’m more relaxed about all of these now, although I do have to stick to recording in the evenings to avoid most extraneous noises.

As for my judgement of the books themselves, I enjoyed aspects of them, insofar as they’re historical documents of colonial Australian life from the perspective of women, but I did find both Prichard and Franc’s works a bit sentimental for my tastes. To some extent, I wonder if the sentimental leanings in both authors works weren’t of the time? For example, I’m fairly sure anyone writing these days would very firmly be told to cease and desist from flowery descriptions of the particular shade of their heroine’s blushes. It may be a matter of genre.

When I began my third recording—Rosa Praed’s Lady Bridget in the Never-never LandI established a dedicated Twitter account, @ReadingSheilas. I use it in the sense that Twitter was originally described – as a microblogging site. I transcribe quotes from what I’m reading, that I want to share because I find them moving or funny. I use it to express the thoughts that occur to me as I’m reading—many inane, but others that will inform my eventual reviews on this blog.

It was after I established the Twitter account that I live-tweeted one of my book club meetings. I participated in the AWWC 2012 through my book club too. Each of us selected a book and there was a plan to blog a summary of every book club meeting. In all we selected nine books – the first two months were taken up with previously nominated books and we always have December off. I did write a post on the January book: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 541 because I thought it raised a number of issues about literary values that were pertinent to the then-forthcoming challenge. It’s quite telling that  the Fahrenheit 451 post is the most visited post I’ve written.

As part of the book club I read Jessica Rudd’s Campaign Ruby and enjoyed it as a good example of its genre. I find it difficult to get excited about shoes and shopping though and I suppose I often resent this assumption about women as a group. I’d already read Addition by Toni Jordan and I probably should have read it again, but when I’d first read it, I’d gotten annoyed about its stance on medication for mental illnesses and disorders (Who needs it? All mental illnesses are social constructions!) and I didn’t feel like revisiting it. Although I can’t include it in my 2012 reading, I much preferred Sophie Cunningham’s Geography when it touches on this topic. There are a few lines in that novel that I like to return to again and again. I live-tweeted Janet Turner-Hospital’s Orpheus Lost using the hashtags #bookworms and #aww2012. I really enjoyed that book, partly out of nostalgia for Far North Queensland, but also for its subtle exploration of terrorism, its characterisation, and its intertextual use of the Orpheus myth and counter-tenor aria.

I reviewed Nicole Watson’s The Boundary as part of my book-club reading and nominate it the book of my reading year.

After The Boundary, the wheels fell off my book club reading as, suddenly, I seemed to do nothing but mark assignments from one university or another. That didn’t stop me from reading the first chapter of Delia Falconer’s Sydney, however, and complaining bitterly.  I did read a few more chapters, but I never did get over feeling alienated, as someone not from Sydney, by the tone of the first chapter. My reading of Sydney resonated with other members of the book club. Indeed, I confess that one member was struggling with it, read my blog, and then felt entirely vindicated in abandoning it.  Our objections did seem to arise from not being Sydney-siders. One of the other book club members had read Matthew Condon’s Brisbane and thought that everything claimed for Sydney had already been claimed for Brisbane, especially humidity and jacaranda trees. I must say, the claims for humidity in Sydney put me in mind of the time I thought that Brisbane’s humidity was as bad as Cairns’s–until I went back over the summer holidays once. The same person who had read Brisbane did note, however, they’d attempted to read it before  coming to Brisbane and had abandoned it unfinished until they lived here. This led to speculation about the series as a whole, at which point I will stop writing on this topic because I have contributed to a group blog with three of the authors of the other books in the series.

I didn’t read the books nominated for September and November and while I didn’t attend the October book club, I had already read the book, Charlotte Wood’s Animal People. Again, through social media, I have conversed with Charlotte on subjects entirely unrelated to her work as an author, but still, it feels like a conflict of interest  to review her work. Let’s just say, I’ve been known to blurt out, ‘They’re not chef pants; I got them from Aldi!’

Finally, I haven’t entirely finished my final recording for the AWWC 2012, a selection  of ten short stories from The Detective’s Album series published in The Australian Journal  in 1880 by Mary Fortune.  I have managed to blog about it though, so I’m hoping for the purposes of the challenge that counts as a review? I did make a controversial comparison with the Sherlock Holmes series that, just a couple of recorded stories later, I’m rescinding. I’ve tweeted my thoughts, but I’ll write a more thorough consideration in the new year.

So, that’s my Australian Women Writers challenge 2012 year in review. I think I made the Franklin-fantastic category? Is there a category for writing more reviews than books you’ve read? I’ll let you judge if I completed the mission.

I’ll continue to record books for Librivox as part of the challenge in 2013. I hope some of you will listen to the recordings I’ve done for the challenge in 2012 in the year ahead and would welcome your feedback on them as well as suggestions for future recordings.


Detective Work

The final recording I’m doing for the Australian Women Writers’ challenge for this year is a selection of short stories by Mary Fortune. This isn’t the review proper, as I’m only part way through the full recording, but I did want to say something about choosing and finding the stories I decided to record, because that story is, I think, a little more interesting than for my previous recordings where I easily found the works on Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive.

When I was thinking about what my next recording would be, I knew I wanted to read something distinctly different from the books I’d done so far. In my wanderings around the web, I happened on Mary Fortune, also known variously as Mary Helena Fortune, Waif Wander, or W.W. for short. Like so many female writers, Fortune published under a pseudonym so her writing was more marketable. Another aspect to Fortune’s pseudonymity was, no  doubt, that she wrote in the detective genre and, from what I’ve read so far, her work is decidedly gory, which was no doubt deemed an unsuitable subject for ladies to write about.

What really sparked my decision to pursue recording some of Fortune’s work was the fact she remains virtually unknown and out of print, despite the fact that for forty years—forty years—her stories, featuring Melbourne detective, Mark Sinclair, appeared in The Australian Journal The Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) entry on Fortune, notes that her identity as the author of The Detective’s Album series wasn’t revealed until 1950, quite some time after her death in 1910, so I suppose it makes some kind of sense that she faded into anonymity.

In recent years, the author of the ADB entry, Lucy Sussex, has written a biography and edited a couple of collections of Fortune’s writing, which I’m yet to look at. (To be honest, I didn’t think the library had any of Sussex’s works, but I guess I wasn’t looking properly, because, just now, I found several in the catalogue, as well as—O joy!—a bibliography of Fortune’s work that Sussex compiled with Elizabeth Gibson.) So, Mary Fortune is slowly being drawn in to share the light of Australia’s significant writers.

Now that I’ve been recording some of Fortune’s stories from The Detective’s Album series that appeared in The Australian Journal throughout 1880, I’m especially glad that Sussex has done the work she has, and that I can, through my recordings for Librivox, make further accessible some of this pioneering crime writer’s work. I found a bound collection of some of Fortune’s stories, photocopied from The Australian Journal, in the special collections Fryer Library at the University of Queensland.  Normally readers would have to visit the library themselves, but I was able to photocopy the photocopies and now I’m using them to record from home.

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A photocopy of a photocopy of ‘The Window Among the Willows’ by W.W. in The Australian Journal, March 1880

While reading this, you may have been able to gather that I’m enjoying the stories I’ve read so far. I want to say that she’s a better writer than Arthur Conan Doyle—the most obvious comparison one might make in this genre. I’m sure that’s sacrilege to some, which is why I’m a bit hesitant to declare it without reserve, but honestly some of the revelations and resolutions in the Sherlock Holmes’ series are in my opinion quite ridiculous, and I was very pleased to read Fortune’s finely wrought stories, none of which, so far, have sacrificed logic for an ending.


Lady Bridget in the Never-Never Land

Following a failed love affair in England, Lady Bridget O’Hara accepts an invitation to travel to colonial Australia as companion to Lady Rosamund Tallant, the wife of the newly-appointed governor of Leichardt’s Land. In Leichardt’s Town, Lady Bridget, also known as Biddy, is reunited with her old friend and collaborator, Joan Gildea, special correspondent for The Imperialist newspaper. While visiting Joan, Biddy meets Colin McKeith, a roughly-hewn, Scottish-born pioneer, drover, miner, sometime-politician, and magistrate in the north-eastern colony. Biddy and Colin fall in love: she with the adventure a life with him promises, he with an ideal of her noble heritage. In spite of Joan Gildea’s misgivings, Biddy and Colin are soon married and leave Leichardt’s Town to travel several days north to Colin’s cattle property in a region known as the Leura. As Biddy and Colin embark on their life together, the contemporary issues of colonial Australia are revealed: the extreme environment, labour shortages and organisation, police brutality, immigration policy, and the plight of Australia’s First Peoples. The couple discover fundamental differences in their perspectives on many topics. When Bridget’s former love, Willoughby Maule, newly-widowed and affluent, visits her in the Leura, the couple’s strained relationship is further tested.

That’s the summary I wrote for the Librivox catalogue of  my next audiobook, Lady Bridget in the Never-Never Land by Rosa Praed (aka Mrs Campbell Praed). I’ve just finished uploading the final chapters to the Librivox database for proof-listening and cataloguing, which makes it time to write my reflection for the AWW2012 Challenge.

I took a different approach to documenting my experience  of recording this book than I adopted for the previous two audiobooks. I decided to create a dedicated Reading Sheilas Twitter account to make shorter observations about the book along the way, with the aim of looking back over the tweets to inform my writing of the final review. You can see the most recent tweets from that account in the right-hand margin here, or click through to read back further over the time-line.  I’ll be doing the latter myself, while I write this post, because it’s taken me four months on-and-off to complete this recording;  I got distracted by book club novels in between, so I often went off-topic.

I can see from one of my earliest tweets about Lady Bridget that I was immediately taken with Biddy’s propensity for grand statements. She said the following in reference to the mores of the upper class marriage market that dogged her independent spirit:

Certainly, later in the novel, during Biddy and Colin’s courtship, I did wonder whether Bridget might never have married if it weren’t for  social pressure on a woman of her rank to do so. Indeed, much of her motivation for travelling to Australia seems to have been to escape from the sense that her family and society regarded her as something of a lost cause in that endeavour. Without any marriage prospects, she had little choice but to serve as a companion to Lady Rosamund Tallant in order to secure her keep.

Bridget’s initial attraction to Colin is surely largely physical and perhaps metaphysical, in an esoteric fashion,  for they rarely agree on matters of social justice affecting Australian life in the colonial era. From the beginning, they are at odds over his attitude towards Aboriginal people generally and his treatment of particular individuals who work for him. Praed gives Colin a back-story which explains his animosity to the ‘blacks’ in part; but, in colonial society, surely  no individual settler’s  personal tragedy is sufficient to expurgate the systematic dispossession of Aboriginal people upon which European settlement is founded. As Biddy protests in a conversation on the occasion of their first meeting: ‘How cruelly unjust! It was his country you were stealing.‘ And moments later:

While Praed, through Lady Bridget, offers a necessary and still relevant criticism of established colonial practices in the figure Colin McKeith, her writing also bears evidence of the less transparently discriminatory attitudes of her era (and perhaps ours). The narrator refers abstractedly  to  the ‘less developed brain’ of Oola, a young Aboriginal woman, and  the spoken dialect of the Indigenous characters is on par with that of the housekeeper’s small son.

I suppose the similarities between the infantile English of Oola, Wombo, and Cudgee and that of Tommy Hensor struck me particularly as I had to vocalise  the utterances of each character. I felt embarrassed as my mouth formed the broken, pleading utterances of Oola and Wombo as they sought protection at the McKeiths’ property. The same is true of the voices of other non-white characters in McKeith’s employ: the ‘Chinamen’ cook and gardener, Chen Sing and Fo Wung; and Kuppi, ‘the Malay boy’, as they performed unstinting servitude. Like every textual form, Lady Bridget is a product of its social and cultural context, so perhaps what is most important for now is that this characterisation, even as it was sympathetic and progressive for its day, does jar, just as many widely-held convictions today will be revealed as prejudices to future generations.

By way of contrast, there were some parts of Lady Bridget that I felt immediately at home with. When I read the opening chapter, I knew the setting was Brisbane by another name:

From where Mrs Gildea sat, she had a view of almost the whole reach of the river where it circles Emu Point. For, as is known to all who know Leichardt’s Town, the river winds in two great loops girdling two low points, so that, in striking a bee-line across the whole town, business and residential, one must cross the river three times. Mrs Gildea could see the plan of the main street in the Middle Point and the roofs of shops and offices. The busy wharves of the Leichardt’s Land Steam Navigation Company—familiarly, the L.L.S.N. Co.—lay opposite on her right, while leftward, across the water, she could trace, as far as the grape-vine would allow, the boundary of the Botanical Gardens and get a sight of the white stone and grey slate end of the big Parliamentary Buildings.

Later, when Lady Bridget is rowing around the point from Government House to Joan Gildea’s home, I could picture in my mind’s eye the spike of land, fringed with mangroves, on which the city campus of  QUT now sits, abutted by the Queensland Parliament on one side and and the Botanical Gardens on the other. I think Joan Gildea must have lived somewhere on Kangaroo Point (indeed, I’ve just realised the name Emu Point is a clear allusion).

You can explore this map on which I’ve marked my understanding of the places mentioned in the description of Joan’s view.

Of course the other clue that Lady Bridget is set in Queensland is the reference to the explorer Ludvig Leichhardt in the colony’s name. As I was reading, I wondered whether McKeith’s property wasn’t somewhere in the Darling Downs region, from where Leichhardt embarked on his first expedition that took him from Moreton Bay, inland up to the Gulf of Carpenteria and eventually to  Port Essington in the Northern Territory.  There’s mention of Bunya nuts at one point too, which further narrows the location down to the Bunya Mountains area.  If you’re interested in seeing some photos of that area, a few years ago now I wrote a series of blog posts about a long weekend I spent in the Bunya Mountains, which ended with a visit to the property (and now winery) Jimbour Estate–Leichhardt’s official departure point.

Overall, I found Lady Bridget in the Never-Never Land to be a somewhat mixed read. For me, the romance between Biddy and Colin wasn’t compelling, but the middle-section of the novel, where Bridget becomes increasingly isolated from her husband–who hitherto has been her only ally at the property–moved me immensely.


Two Sides to Every Question: 8-20

Oh, the power of a bad write-up.

While I was looking for a synopsis for Two Sides To Every Question:  From a South Australian Standpoint, to accompany the recording on the Librivox site, I came across a rather condemning summary of Franc’s novel.  I thought it was on Gutenberg Australia, but when I went back to find it, recognising how much it had affected my attitude towards completing the recording of Two Sides, and wanting to explore that further, I couldn’t locate it again.

The words from the summary that lodged in my mind were ‘didactic’ and ‘Christian’, and the tone was decidedly pejorative in both cases. When I read that summary, my heart sank.  Oh, I thought, I don’t want to read a novel that will preach to people.  I don’t want to endorse, or appear to endorse, a novel that preaches or seeks to convert.

I had originally chosen to record Two Sides because it was different to The Pioneers, principally in terms of its location and setting: South Australia and urban, as opposed to Victoria and bush or rural.  However, I was also interested in the promise of some insight into the lives of colonial textile workers through the figure of Nettie Alton, who, following the death of her father, helps support her mother by taking in sewing.

Well, whatever I had initially expected, and however reading the errant summary had tarnished my subsequent expectations of Two Sides, I had made a commitment to complete  the recording.  I procrastinated for a month or so and then began again in earnest.

The quote in the title of Two Sides to Every Question is referred to in the novel as one of the invalid Mrs Alton’s quirks to which her children, Tom and the aforementioned Nettie, are subjected. On every occasion she urges them to think more deeply about why people make particular decisions and act the way they do and, thus, reserve judgement. Mrs Alton’s constant questioning, her allowance for context and motivations is  a source of affectionate humour for her children, but her philosophy is also evident in the narrative voice of the novel; indeed, it informs the very structure of this meditation on life and fortune in colonial South Australia, where individual characters embody the state of  wealth (the Clintons) or poverty (the Altons), or represent the ethical issues that arise from pursuing the former (Arthur Delta).

I’ve used ‘philosophy’ quite deliberately in the previous paragraph because, although the novel does ultimately settle on a belief and trust in Him as a way of resolving the questions raised throughout Arthur Delta’s story, in particular, it is, most often, the Sophist philosopher, Protagoras, who is credited with the ‘two sides’ quote through his ‘man-measure statement: the notion that knowledge is relative to the knower’.

By embracing the ethical questions at the heart of this novel, then, I found enough to engage me as an atheist. I was interested, for example, in the discussion of mining shares, simply because mining and who should benefit from it is still such an issue in Australia. (I also tend to be a bit sceptical about the ultimate social cost of shares, if  for workers and the traditional land-owners rather than the well-being of the share-holder.) Similarly, there are some meditations on housing in Franc’s novel that I think are still very relevant to the issues around housing affordability now. I did enjoy the insight into how Nettie earned a living from her sewing machine, working from home while caring for her mother. And I confess, I don’t mind endless descriptions of flowers, although all the sweetness and perfection attributed to Nettie and some of the other women did become cloying.

The charge of didacticism is not entirely without substance. Two Sides does wear its Protestant morality on its sleeve. For example, no empathy is evident for the very poor;  you could be forgiven for concluding that the inhabitants of the back streets of inner city Adelaide were all populated by drunken ne’er-do-wells and their feral offspring. Here, the Sophist philosophy seemed to be put aside in favour of fire, brimstone, and the injunction of an honest day’s work.

Overall, I don’t think Two Sides will suit the  tastes of many contemporary readers, but there is enough to be gleaned about the social and economic history of some sections of pre-Federation Australian society, along with its interest as a novel by one of colonial Australia’s most popular and reprinted authors, to make it worth a glance (or an ear, as the case may be).

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The summary of Two Sides to Every Question: From a South Australian Standpoint that I wrote for the Librivox catalogue:

Two Sides to Every Question’: From a South Australian Standpoint is a meditation on poverty, wealth, and social aspiration set in the free settlement of Adelaide in pre-Federation Australia. The novel follows the lives of a cast of characters from different social classes as they negotiate the twists and turns in their respective fortunes. The newly-bereaved Alton family—an invalid widow and her two grown children, Tom and Nettie—sell their rural property and move to the slovenly back streets of the inner-city; they are determined to hold onto their dignity and values as they turn to earning a living for the first time. The wealthy Clinton family runs the stock supply business where Tom finds employment as a clerk. Tom’s boss, Robert Clinton, supplements his business income through trading mining shares. His financial success ensures his wife and daughters, Elsie and Lily, have access to the higher echelons of colonial society. Meanwhile, the Clintons’ cousin, Arthur Delta, arrives from England to take a position in his uncle’s business. Arthur’s mother has called on her brother’s charity to help her family in their time of need. When Arthur and Elsie fall in love, the scene is set as he attempts to build his fortune to secure her father’s favour and, so, her hand in marriage.



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