Monday, October 19, 2009

As it Leaves her Open

More published diaries. This time, The Diaries of Miles Franklin. I picked the book off the library shelf on a whim, opened it, saw that she was talking about "C. Stead", who was, I guessed, Christina Stead (for a moment I wondered if she meant the New Zealander C.K. Stead, but he began publishing in 1964, ten years after Franklin died, so no), and borrowed it. The editor Paul Bronton tells us in the introduction that

No one who has had the privilege of working among the literary papers of this indomitable and brave Australian writer could fail to love and admire her.

She hated Dame Mary Gilmore ...

... a most egregious tout and self-booster and politician [who] has also written some verses and undistinguished memoirs (which in all parts I can check are unreliable)

and was critical of The Harp in the South, written by Ruth Park, who, many years later, won the Miles Franklin Award, a literary prize established by Franklin in her will -

My private opinion of 'The Harp' is that it entirely lacks architecture, that there is a withering lack of an independent or able intelligence about it

- and liked Virginia Woolf:

The sensitivity of her writing is delightful as well as its lucidity. It would be nourishing to talk with her over this. She should not have let us who loved her down by committing suicide as it leaves her open to such accusations as detract from the value of the lovely searching behind the veils that she did.

She mentions Stead in connection with three books: The Salzburg Tales, Seven Poor Men of Sydney, and Letty Fox: Her Luck. Salzburg Tales, the first one,

shows an immense talent, industry, scope and vocabulary. The writer is fecund in delightful images of nature & life & people but doesn't escape a great dullness though some of her tales as short stories are equal to the best … If only Miss Stead had known Australia and let loose her combination of talents for sustained fiction in presenting it she might have attained something absorbingly interesting & new

Seven Poor Men:

As in The Salzburg Tales, there is Teutonic massiveness and also therefore there is clumsiness and much dullness but no thinness nor lack of ability. Many attempts to put our bush into novels have suffered from the dressing up in too much bushranger, brutality, etc, in imitation of N. America where they were richer in rougher elements & actual Indian raids … Now there seems to be a tendency to dress up the thin banality of our cities with post-Freudianism -- all the license of the [word indecipherable] of the subconscious under the charter of psycho-analysis & in post-war chaos, take the vomit from Bloomsbury & Washington Square & belch it upon Sydney. This will be commended by overseas intelligentsia … who know nothing of its relation or the contrary to Australia, but who are pleased because they can understand their own idiom.

She complains that the characters are not likable, a complaint regularly made about Stead's fiction. A reviewer in Time called the cast of A Little Tea, A Little Chat "loathsome and amoral" and when Eloise Miller evaluated Letty Fox at the Guardian's bookblog she decided that its people were characterised by "unkindness." A New York Times reviewer named William McFee picked "scabrous." "This novel about Letty Fox and her scabrous collection of relatives and lovers ..." he wrote.

"The book [Seven Poor Men] is modern in its chaos," Franklin writes.

There has been no attempt made to organize the material … It is only saved by the vigorous talent of the author from being mere case observations of the unfit: & the investigation of perverts is only valuable insofar as it helps normality to supernormality in the upward trend of man.

By the time Letty Fox is published years later, she is angry.

This Australian girl has gone abroad and brought her production up to international standards by writing a handbook on whores … I found 'Letty' as repellent as this writer's other books, but not so boring as 'Salzburg Tales' and 'House of All Nations' … C. Stead seems to suffer from neurasthenia of the soul and depicts characters in tune with her state. Not a decent person in her gallery, if one abstracts Jacqueline & the mother - who is merely a poor conventional creature - and Lili Spontini, a fool and hanger-on.

She writes scornfully for two pages about extramarital sex, a thing I think it's fair to say she wasn't keen on -

I deplore the mad waste and degradation of the great power of life-giving in doubtful pleasure which inevitably ends in disease, disillusion, pain and poverty of soul and body.

- then gets back to the book again, finishing weirdly:

[Stead's] vocabulary is unexciting: I did not have to look up any word.

Nowhere else in the Diaries does the diarist get so incandescent about a book's indecency. Mary Gilmore irritates her because Franklin thinks she's a celebrated phony, and various other writers irritate her because she thinks they're too tame - evidence of Australia kowtowing to British tastes, timidly pulling the forelock where she wants her fellow countryfolk to be bold and indigenous - but here she is, faced with one of the more inimitable writers the country has produced and she doesn't know how to handle her because she's not moral. I'll point out here that Letty Fox is not a whore, she's an ambitious young woman who enjoys sex, who forms emotional attachments easily and quickly and sometimes loses them easily and quickly too ("I had had an affair not worth mentioning, with the young Zionist, and now that he had transferred to another girl in the office, I found everything intolerable"), and who, finally, wants to find a man who will marry her. Marriage is a matter of personal pride. To her mind it will legitimise her, it will give her a place in the world. Once she has this bit of stability she can go on and do everything else she wants.

In the last paragraph, after she has finally found her groom, she explains:

It's a question of getting through life, which is quite a siege, with some self-respect. Before I was married I had none; now I respect not only my present position, but also all efforts I made, in every direction, to get here ... I have a freight, I cast off, the journey has begun.

The author's tone is satirical, bitter, frank: rumbling and bubbling. Letty wants things, all sorts of things, and she discusses this with us quite openly.

None of my daydreams was secret. In one of them which I told very often, regiments of men stood before me, dreaming of my favours. I went down the line, selecting one, throwing out another. All kinds of reasons occurred to me. I loaded them with blistering insults. They fell on their faces and howled, or fell backwards and mangled themselves in some juicy way.

Reviewers were scandalised, the book was banned for a while in Australia from mid-1947 onwards.

Letty has some things in common with the lead of Franklin's debut My Brilliant Career; they're both determined people who push ahead with huge energy. But Letty is not nice, not neat, she is not, as Franklin's young woman is, admirably, tomboyishly headstrong, she is not easy for a reader to place. She thrusts herself onwards, eager for betterment - so far so feminist - but she's more full-blooded than young women in novels are expected to be, more earthy, more careless, more selfish, more cruel. Stead writes as if she has somehow managed to short-circuit the part of her brain that makes a novelist afraid of upsetting the reader. "Create a character that people can sympathise with," goes the wisdom of the creative writing course, but if anyone said those words to Stead then she ignored them, or, better: she understood them her own way, which few reviewers seem disposed to share. Her example is one of eccentric and stubborn courage. A quick outline of the book makes it sound like a coming of age novel, for example, "Girl grows into womanhood, discovers an attraction to boys, has boyfriends, loves, is heartbroken, forms a philosophy of life, marries, leaves home," but the likelihood that anyone will read Letty Fox: Her Luck and come away thinking, "This is me, this persevering young woman is a role model," seems slender. "[A] a picturesque novel," suggested Millar at the Guardian, and it has the heartlessness of an old picaresque, the kind in which the hero, a fighting man, charges off on his horse, sword on his hip, duelling with a knight on one page, seducing someone wife on the next, always passing on restlessly, eagerly, to the next adventure.

What I had in me that gave me the most joy were two things: the capacity for an enormous output of work, and the ability to enjoy myself regardless of expense, regardless of others; a healthy trait, if a bit barbaric.

Reading these Diaries, I'm going to suggest that Miles Franklin saw female energy as a potentially elevated power, somehow divorced from lust, and that she was furious when she saw Stead discussing it as if it might be something ambitious, ambiguous, and animal. Franklin never married, despite offers, and, as far as I've been able to find out, never had affairs. Whatever sexual desires she had, she denied. Remembering a time when friends invited her to try their "fevers and experiments in living," she delivers this judgment:

They were revolting to me.

And looking for a way to sum up the female characters in Letty Fox, she decides on this word:


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