The Bay of Noon – Shirley Hazzard

As you can see from the cover I bought this novel many years ago. I would have been attracted by the title and by the setting – Naples. I must have started reading it and found it not to my taste. Looking for something (OK, I admit it – shortish) for the Australian women writers’ reading challenge, I plucked it off my shelf and attacked it anew – only twenty years on the ‘to read’ pile.

I know why I didn’t like it first time around: the prose is difficult and mannered, cerebral and artistic, rather than rich and evocative. It reminds me of Henry James or Patrick White, two writers I’ve never warmed to. Another writer that Hazzard reminds me of is Iris Murdoch with her distancing, clever prose and forensic character analysis. I can’t say I loved this novel but I think Hazzard is up there with Murdoch.

The actual plot of The Bay of Noon is pretty thin. It’s the 1950s and a young woman, Jenny, takes up a job to translate a report at a military base near Naples. Before leaving England she gets a letter of introduction from an actor acquaintance to a woman in Naples who has something to do with films. Immediately she meets her, Jenny feels at home with Giaconda and strikes up a friendship. Jenny is introduced to Giaconda’s married lover, Gianni, a film director from Rome. Meanwhile Jenny is compelled into a friendship with another expat, Justin, a Scottish scientist working in Naples.

With these characters in play, nothing much happens on the surface but it is the undercurrents of love, need, jealousy and betrayal that Hazzard is interested in. If the words ‘love, need, jealousy’ sound trite they are anything but in Hazzard’s hands. The characters, especially Giaconda and Gianni, are too sophisticated, or perhaps too damaged, to reveal themselves easily, and Jenny, from whose focalisation the story is told, is both brutally honest, and something of an innocent.

When I first bought this novel, Naples would have sounded terribly exotic: sun-bleached cliffs, blue bays, Pompeii – but having been there in the interval, I can now appreciate the characters’ ambivalence about it. Hazzard notes how there is really only one open civic square in the whole city; the rest is enclosed, narrow lanes, humanity piled on top of each other. Giaconda lives on the top floor of an old apartment block on one such lane while Jenny escapes the claustrophobia by renting a small apartment overlooking the Bay of Naples, (hence ‘the bay of noon’) affordable because of the difficulty of access.

There isn’t a lot of description of the city in this novel and what there is is certainly not postcard perfect. As with the characters, Hazzard is restrained, detailed and oblique.

I may not have loved this novel but I am glad that I read it; it reads like a classic, by that I mean, a guiding intelligence conveyed through masterful hands.

Puberty Blues – novel versus screen

I loved the recent TV series of Puberty Blues on Channel 10 and prompted by this decided to read the original book by Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette. The novel was published in 1979 about the authors’ time as 13 year-old wannabe surfie chicks in Sutherland shire in 1973.

I remember the book was a sensation at the time and I vaguely remember a certain amount of disapproval. This normally would have sent me out to beg, borrow or buy a copy, but I didn’t – probably because I was scathing of surfing culture having spent some of my formative years in a beachside suburb in Newcastle.

I wonder what I would have made of the book at the time? I wouldn’t have been shocked; the carryings on were pretty familiar even if I wasn’t in the ‘bad girls’ gang of underage sex and regular drug taking. All the same, I guess I would have read it avidly, empathising with the girls.

But all these years later, and having seen the TV series, I was surprised that the book has none of the appeal of the TV show: no ravishing mise-en-scene (description), no sympathetic complex characters, nothing, in fact, beyond the closed world of the two teenage girl principals.

The book’s strength, on the other hand, is that it portrays a sociological snapshot of a particular subculture at a particular time. It is like reading a teenager’s diary with its preoccupation with friends, boyfriends, appearance and going out. That the authors were so young when they wrote it meant they could capture that claustrophobic, limited world where you’re still dependent on your parents yet you live in a tribal reality with your group.

But for an adult reader it is pretty dull and unrewarding. The traditional YA novel usually has a sensitive loner at its heart, someone who looks on the world they inhabit with fresh eyes and an understanding beyond their years (the gap between the adult writing the book and the teenager they are ‘inhabiting’).

Puberty Blues, the novel, doesn’t have this. The main character, Deb, merely narrates in a deadpan fashion her daily life as she and her friend Sue infiltrate the ‘cool’ kids gang and then have to drink, have back-of-the van sex and sit on the beach watching the guys surf. Deb is mildly ironic and this helps make the whole palatable but she is not, for the most part, reflective or critical – unlike in the TV series where Deb and Sue rescue Frieda who is regularly gang-banged by the boys, in the book, Deb thinks, ‘well, that’s what happens when you’re fat and ugly and can’t get a boyfriend’.

In the book Deb and Sue are fairly indistinguishable but in the TV series the writers (Tony McNamara, Fiona Seres and Alice Bell) present two distinct individuals – Sue more confident and sensible, Deb, flighty, imaginative and sensitive. In the book the parents hardly figure, while the TV series created a rich portrayal of 70s sexual experimentation, gender roles and social strictures. The two worlds in the series, the parents and the teenagers, play off each other giving a context to why the kids act the way they do, lending the viewer a much more nuanced, involving experience than that of the book.

It was interesting to see all those parents in flares, clogs and caftans: I guess some parents must have, and let’s face it, in those days, a teenager’s parents were probably only in their early thirties. My mother, I’m sure, was more like conservative teacher, Claudia Karvan, with her A-line skirts and belted-at-the-waist dresses, no trousers, no jeans (yes, young ones, there was a time where it was frowned on for women to wear pants). But, I have to say, I paid no attention to what my mother wore in the 70s. I was like Deb and Sue – the ‘olds’ didn’t exist.

I also take my hat off to the stylists in the TV show – I had the exact same horoscope poster on my wall that Deb had – however, apropos of the flares in the scene from the show above, Carey and Lette make it clear that the girls’ only ever wore straight-leg Levis!

Fortress – Gabrielle Lord

This is one of those books I missed reading as a young person. I remember it being referred to as confronting and a thriller, but also a children’s book. As far as I was concerned being Australian and a kids’ book, I was unlikely to read it (I missed out on so much through my youthful prejudices!).

Six years after its initial publication in 1980 it was made into a film starring, Rachel Ward.No wonder the novel was adapted for the screen: it’s tight and suspenseful.

Sally teaches at a one teacher school in an isolated town. The school day starts with Sally getting ready and reflecting on her personal situation (billeted out to stay with local families, thinks she might be pregnant from a one night stand, despite all the difficulties she wants to see her posting through). Immediately the reader is drawn to Sally: she’s smart, a bit cynical, amusing and, although she’s tough, she also has self-doubts.

When Sally arrives at the school house, she organises the little kids into a reading group in the yard while the older ones start cleaning up the classroom preparatory to the inspector coming the next day. Like all good horror the ordinary has to be established before the scary things begin. We don’t get much ordinary, though, before four men wearing comic masks and carrying sawn off shotguns appear, and it all begins.

Lord uses a very small canvas: Sally and her class of twelve are kidnapped, taken away in a van and held in a cave. For the most part we stay with Sally and the kids and only know what they know, trying to piece together what’s happening and what the men want. The tension is ratcheted up nicely. The beauty is that Sally doesn’t only have to save herself, she has to save the kids – this means marshalling them, telling them only what they need to know, using the skills of the older ones and comforting and cajoling the young ones. She is effectively on her own having to

rely on her own resources but with the burden of the children restraining her.

Sally and the kids are tested to the limit but this is not a simple narrative. Again and again we think they are going to escape, only for them to be thwarted by the men, sometimes in the most brutal fashion. There is murder, there is violence, there is the threat of rape. Like The Lord of the Flies the children are not simply victims, they have agency like adults and the will to survive. Often I thought I had the measure of this book, only for Lord pull out an unexpected twist.

Fortress is a successful book. It was reprinted in 1988 after the film, then in 1998 and 2001. I read one reviewer who said they had read it in school in Year 9 – a writer knows they’ve made it when they’re on the school curriculum. There is also some discussion of whether it is a children’s book or not. It is probably what we would call now a ‘cross over’ novel; a book that can be read with enjoyment by both kids and adults, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time or Mister Pip, for example.

We of the Never Never – Jeannie Gunn

We of the Never Never is one of those Australian classics, I never got around to reading in my school years, thinking it would be too twee. How wrong was I. We of the Never Never was not at all what I expected. I thought it would be a family story, they’d be children involved, it would cover the establishment of a station, that there would be trials and tribulations and Jeannie Gunn would grow to love the land and nature etc. etc. In fact, the novel does not read like a novel at all; it is basically a series of sketches written in an arch, comic, ironic style – reminiscent of what was printed in the newspapers of the time, or in the Bulletin.

The story starts with ‘the Missus’ (based on Jeannie Gunn herself) arriving at Katherine, having come from Darwin with her husband, on the way to Elsey Station where ‘the Maluka’ (a thinly disguised Aeneas Gunn) is the new manager. A white woman is unheard of ‘in the interior’ and the bush telegraph (the station men) makes it clear they don’t want any woman bringing her fussy ways. The dramatic tension rests on whether the Missus will make it or not. There are undoubted hardships, but the Missus first shows her pluck by agreeing to be winched across a swollen river, and not complaining about it. In fact, the Missus takes most things in good spirit and is not above mocking herself.

When they reach Elsey things are not much better and the ‘homestead’ is really an open frame with the verandah being the only thing that is covered. The men, though, are mighty surprised she’s turned up at all. That she is willing to put up with hardships, earns, if not respect, then at least, not open hostility. The strange thing is that the Missus has her husband there but he doesn’t seem interested in smoothing things out for her, or taking her side against the blokes. He makes jokes at her expense and looks on wryly when she has to face new trials. Most annoyingly of all, he likes t call her ‘little ‘un’ (apparently Jeannie Gunn was slight and only 5 feet tall). But the Missus takes it all in good humour and presents these early slights in an entertaining manner.

Before too long things look up a little. They get a Chinese cook, Cheon, who is a born organiser, their belongings finally come in by bullock team after the rivers have gone down, and Johnny, a rough carpenter starts to work on walls and a ceiling but this work is constantly interrupted by more important things like going out bush for branding or mustering.  Despite some little comforts, like sheets, things are extremely primitive. I was shocked that they thought it was perfectly all right to shoot enough wild birds to get feathers to makes some pillows (the billabong surrounds were, after all, thick with them, birds that is).

One of the most irritating characters is Dan who thinks it soft that anyone should want live in a house. He thinks the Missus needs educating and much is made of this ‘education’. Of course Jeannie Gunn makes it all sound so humorous: as the Missus is exposed to hardships, Dan chuckles – that’s educating her. Like women entering a male-dominated profession, the Missus has to become one of the boys, and there is nothing they do that she disapproves of, even dog fighting. The novel is really a paean of praise, to the bush folk i.e. bushmen.

Perhaps this makes it sound less sophisticated than it is. Jeannie Gunn is a talented writer who evokes well the environment she finds herself in, she has a comic ear and no one can doubt the verisimilitude of what she describes. There is a reason that this novel was a best seller and was revised for use in schools. I wonder what the kids thought of it, though. As far as I can see there’s not a lot that they’d be interested in – while there is drama in small scenes, wild bulls rampaging through a camp and scrambling up trees to escape them, for example, as a whole it is episodic with little unfolding story.

These days, it seems dated and reads like a piece of documentary about colonial life and early settlement of the interior of the Northern Territory. I have to say I found the treatment of the Chinese condescending and verging on racist. Gunn gets away with it with Cheon because he is such a great, larger-than-life character but the only quasi-villains in the whole book are some Chinese cattle buyers.

The treatment of Aboriginal people is also problematic although, I suppose, at least, they are a part of the tale and not excised from it – like the invisibility of Aboriginal people in much of the literature of the time. But I was shocked, totally, when one of the men mentions they need to go on a ‘nigger hunt’. Okay, it was not a massacre, just moving on some Aboriginal people from where they were camping along the river (no doubt on their own land) but the term must have held an echo of real violence to the men using it at the end of the 19th century. Gunn, in typical fashion, makes light of it and the Aboriginal people have left before the ‘hunting’ party gets there anyway. But today, it is hard not to feel a chill at that term used so casually in 1902 (and accepted in 1956).

In fact a paper written in 1990 by Peter Forrest about the settlement of the NT says that there were massacres of Aboriginal people in the Territory in 1903 (after Jeannie Gunn left) because they were accused of harassing and killing cattle that were being introduced to new areas. Forrest says: ‘According to strong oral tradition in the area, one of the ringleaders in these episodes was Jock MacLennon, the Sanguine Scot [one of the characters in the novel]’. I was also fascinated to read Forrest’s thesis that one of the reasons the men were so against white women coming to the stations was a fear they would interfere with the men’s sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women.*

Gunn’s narrative treatment of the ‘station blacks’ was probably enlightened for the day. She shows that they are part of the everyday life of the station – with the ‘boys’ being stockmen and the ‘lubras’ working in the house, or at least some of them – there is some comedy made of the competition between the women to get jobs in the homestead. There is a symbiotic relationship – the Aboriginal people get food and a place to live (in humpies in their own camp) and the station gets workers. Of course, the whites do not remotely question their right to the station, or to exploit Aboriginal people as workers. The Aboriginal people are seen as humorous, and childlike (although, I have to admit, so are many of the white people).

My edition of the novel, published in 1956, still had reference to the *n* hunt but I believe, in the recent reissue, this was expurgated which is a pity because it’s important to realise what attitudes were in 1908 when the book was first published, not to mention the whole issue of censoring literary works. I also understand the 1982 edition, which was published along with Gunn’s only other book, The Little Black Princess, also had these references edited out.

There is not a lot of description of the natural environment in the novel but what there is, is beautiful and evocative. Elsey station no longer stands but there is a replica at Mataranka in the NT and the quite stunning warm mineral pools Gunn describes below are still there in the national park (Elsey station was finally handed back to the Mangarayi people in 2000) – the water is preternaturally clear and, set among palms in the arid environment, they are truly as gem-like as Gunn paints them in the book:

Clear, beautiful, limpid … set in undulating field of emerald-green mossy turf, shaded with graceful foliage and gleaming in the sunlight with exquisite opal tints – a giant necklace of opals, set in links of emerald green, and thrown down at hazard, to fall in loops and curves within a forest grove.

* They of the Never Never, Northern Territory Library Service 1990

The Mystery of a Hanson Cab – Fergus Hume

One of the Text Classic series The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was published in 1886. The introduction tells us it was the biggest selling crime novel of the 19th century — quite amazing as it was written and set in Melbourne, and first published in Australia. In the scheme of things, it was not the first instance of detective fiction, usually ascribed to Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841), and in novel form to Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868), but it is a very early example.

The novel starts with a murder. Oliver Whyte, a man about town is found dead in a hansom cab. The cabman describes a man in a soft hat wearing a light coat, coming up to Whyte, who is drunk, and helping him hail a cab. The man seems to then recognise the deceased, cry out ‘you’ and walk off. He then returns a while later and gets into the cab with Whyte, is dropped off at a street corner with the cab taking Whyte on to his destination, where the cabman discovers he is dead.

It transpires that Whyte was paying his attentions to the heiress Madge Frettlby, who is engaged to our hero, Brian Fitzgerald. Brian, of course, is soon fingered for the murder and stands trial for it. He has an alibi for the time of the murder but will not divulge it because he is protecting someone. So far so good, and this takes up the first third of the novel. I won’t spoil it by saying what happens next but, suffice it to say, this particular complication is resolved (mostly by Fitzgerald’s lawyer Calton) but, in the resolving, another mystery is uncovered.

The next part of the novel takes us into the drawing rooms of ‘marvellous Melbourne’ and the lives of Brian, Madge and her father Mark Frettlby. In the first part we were taken into the slums off Little Bourke Street. The mystery in the second part of the novel is then ostensibly solved (the reader has pretty much worked it out any how).

But there is another twist and this is worked out in the remainder of the novel where the taint of the slum threatens to invade the upper classes, and a final revelation is made (and vindicates the ‘hunch’ of one of the detectives on the case, Kilsip).

The novel is plot-driven and this kept me reading when it sagged a bit in the middle. Other pleasures are the physical descriptions of Melbourne and the depictions of social life. I suppose the plot does cleverly fit together but it didn’t feel like it; there is not one central detective, and there is a sense, a lot of the time, that characters are jumping to conclusions only to be found wrong, and the ball is then taken up by someone new in a somewhat repetitious way.

Well done to Text for bringing back one of our overlooked 19th century texts. So far there aren’t any by 19th century women writers included (My Brilliant Career coming in at 1901). Barbara Baynton’s Bush Studies, is scheduled for publication in October but, again, they are early 20th century (1902).

Tirra Lirra by the River – Jessica Anderson

This short novel was published in 1978 and I must have read it in the 80s some time and forgotten about it because when I started reading it some images were familiar. What stayed with me were the parts of the novel set on Sydney Harbour in a 1920s bohemian household. Reading the novel now, I was much more taken by the complexities of the elderly narrator, Nora Porteous.

The novel starts with Nora returning to Australia as an old woman after thirty of forty years away living in London. The return to her childhood home in Queensland, after the death of her sister, sparks memories both comfortable and uncomfortable. So far, so not very extraordinary, but there is something about the novel that has made it a favourite for many readers, and the best known of Jessica Anderson’s works. I put it down to the strength of Nora’s voice, the controlled, beautiful writing and a sense of, not so much nostalgia, but of a sad, defiant unearthing of the past – I’m sure the Germans have a name for that. There is also a wonderful structure to the work; I haven’t often seen the interweaving of the past and the present done so seamlessly.

Nora is such a successful character because she is unsentimental; she has always been an outsider – as a child in her family, and as a young adult making a disastrous marriage to a husband who never wanted anything more than a conventional wife. Nora casts a critical eye on her younger self, her self-effacement, but also her coldness to those she thought ‘ordinary’. Once Nora escaped from her marriage, and from Australia, the reader is led to believe she finally found her place – the companions at ‘no.6’ to whom she can say anything, amongst who she is finally ‘understood’. But we are not quite sure why Nora has returned to Australia now, and slowly we find out.

It’s unsettling, but Nora’s humour and sardonic attitude brings the reader along. Jessica Anderson was 52 when Tirra Lirra was published yet it is a convincing portrayal of a woman at the end of her life. In fact, so convincing is the whole novel, that many people (including me) thought it was autobiographical, but this doesn’t quite add up. Nora was in her mid-thirties when she leaves Australia to go to London in the lead up to WWII, so she would have been born around the turn of the century, while Anderson was born in 1916.

Geordie Williamson, in his blog entry on Jessica Anderson’s work (a retrospective prompted by her death in 2010), ponders why her work is not better known beyond Tirra Lirra. He thought part of it was her own ambivalence about her work, part because her work (though not vast) was too varied for a devoted following. And she may have fallen foul of the success of Tirra Lirra with readers wanting ‘more of the same’.

I’m very glad I was reintroduced to Anderson’s novel (in tone similar to an amalgam of Helen Garner and Elizabeth Jolley) and will seek out more of her work.

A Kingdom by the Sea – Nancy Phelan

Nancy Phelan was born in 1913 and wrote this memoir of her childhood at The Spit on Sydney Harbour in 1969. The book captures the enthusiasms, the excitements but also the discomforts and questionings of childhood and adolescence. But perhaps the strongest thread is her love for the beautiful setting of their house by the harbour, and summer days spent exploring and swimming. In the 1920s, this area of the North Shore on the harbour was semi-bushland. Nancy’s father was a keen sailor and much of Nancy’s time was spent on boats, where she and her siblings were expected to become expert sailors.

Nancy’s childhood was also populated by numerous aunts and uncles, many of them eccentric figures. Her mother’s sister was Louise Mack, Australia’s first female war correspondent, romance novelist and writer of books for girls. Her novel Teens (1897) figures sporadically in A Kingdom by the Sea and was obviously a favourite with Nancy and her sister Sheila (they could work out the thinly disguised portraits of their relatives). Another of her mother’s sisters was Amy, much more lovable than the mischievous Louise. Amy edited the women’s page of the Sydney Morning Herald for many years and wrote bushland stories for children.

Nancy’s childhood home was full of music with the children able to sing the scores of Mozart and Bach. Her mother missed out on the literary careers her sisters achieved but channelled her creativity into music. Both parents were eccentric in their ways. The father was a successful lawyer but, in the manner of the times, Nancy knew nothing of his work and indeed he didn’t bring it home, instead indulging in amateur inventions, sailing, reading and listening to music in his spare time.

Nancy also creates a loving but complex picture of her mother: sharp of wit, given to mockery of others, like her sisters, but also reserved and timid. Nancy gives the anecdote of going to the theatre with her mother and her Aunt Louise. Louise decides to sit in better seats belonging to someone else. Nancy’s mother doesn’t stand up to the usher and allows him to move them, to the utter scorn of Louise:

“I told you so!” Louise hissed white with rage as we trooped back the way we had come. “I told you not to ask! You should have just looked as though they were our seats!” Nor did the arrival of owners in any way lessen her fury.”

Nancy writes that she was singled out by Louise to be a writer early in the piece, and while her aunt was placing a burden on young shoulders, such encouragement did send Nancy out on a life of travel and adventure. She travelled extensively through the South Pacific and wrote about this in Atoll Holiday (1958). She also travelled through Turkey on her own and related this in Welcome the Wayfarer (1965). Her experience of post-war Japan appeared in Pillows of Grass  (1966).

But this was all in front of Nancy at the time of A Kingdom by the Sea. By the end of this memoir Nancy is on the brink of adulthood, and that cusp between the security of childhood and the opening up of the future is beautifully portrayed:

Months passed without a sense of time, golden days running together. Each morning I looked out on the glittering bay, the eternal dark form of the fisherman in his frail boat, each night fell asleep to the sound of water, whispering, washing the sand…

… though the sun shone, the bay glittered and living went on, I knew that childhood was over.

This is a lovingly remembered portrayal of childhood, funny and insightful, which captures the young Nancy’s paradoxical naivety and shrewdness. It is also one of the most effective portrayals of the beauty of Sydney Harbour in the 1920s. In one chapter the older Nancy, who is writing the memoir, goes back to try to find an aunt and uncle’s grand house and garden in Hunters Hill. There is, of course (and this is in the sixties) precious little left.

In the wilderness is a grove of Kitty’s camellias, high and covered with buds. It is astonishingly poignant that they should have escaped, gone on growing without her. Trying to get my bearings from here, from the pine, the ghost of the lawn, I stand wondering. Where was the house? If I could just find a trace, a tangible sign. Nothing. Only the adamant arch of the new Gladesville Bridge overhead, the crumbling stone embankments above the drive, which, in my childhood, were covered with moss and ferns.

This nostalgic regret, the modern reader feels at Nancy’s depiction of the lush wildness of a bygone harbour, and simple lifestyle of sun, bush, sea, music and literature.

Reviewed for Australian Women Writers Challenge

Lady Audley’s Secret

By Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Wordsworth Classics

Lady Audley’s Secret is apparently an example of ‘sensation fiction’ – ‘a genre that flourished in the 1860s’ according to Catherine Wells-Cole who writes the introduction to this edition. Sensation fiction catered to the Victorian interest in ‘the lurid, scandalous and melodramatic’. Lady Audley’s Secret certainly has melodramatic elements and it does deal with potentially scandalous material such as bigamy, murder and blackmail. But, by these criteria, Charles Dickens and Charlotte and Emily Bronte would also be writers of sensation fiction. Nevertheless Lady Audley’s Secret was incredibly successful in its day and never out of print during the lifetime of the author. It was first published as a magazine serial and this shows with some pretty annoying padding in the third volume.

What’s particularly effective in the novel, and what raises it above the melodramas of the day, is Braddon’s use of ironic distance in the central character Lucy, the governess who becomes the second Lady Audley. Lucy is childlike, beautiful and everyone’s favourite, and appears to be genuinely fond of her aging, wealthy husband. The reader may not exactly warm to her (she is spoilt and given to a love of luxury) but she is not obviously a villain. The fun of the book is waiting for her to slip up as her husband’s nephew, Robert Audley, doggedly pursues answers to the disappearance of his friend George Tallboys, and begins to suspect Lucy has had a hand in it.

Braddon also has a way with words and I love her Gothic descriptions of Audley Court:

A fierce and crimson sunset. The mullioned windows and the twinkling lattices are all ablaze with the red glory; the fading light flickers upon the leaves of the limes in the long avenue, and changes the still fishpond into a sheet of burnished copper; even into those dim recesses of briar and brushwood, amidst which the old well is hidden, the crimson brightness penetrates in fitful flashes, till the dank weeds and the rusty iron and broken woodwork seem as if they were flecked with blood.

Needless to say the well does play a part in the denouement later on.

I did enjoy the novel, especially the detective aspects as Robert Audley (who is depicted in the early section as an amiable, lazy, pipe-smoking, dog lover and somehow morphs into an active and determined nemesis) runs around the countryside interviewing people and pulling burnt remnants of letters out of fireplace grates. I hoped that Robert would hitch up with Sir Michael Audley’s sharp and witty daughter but he goes, instead, for the po-faced, purer than pure sister of George Tallboys.

Perhaps Braddon gets away with the sensational aspects of the novel by framing them (more and more as the narrative advances) within a conservative moral framework. Robert goes from fop to staunch supporter of his Uncle’s honour, Lady Audley goes from clever schemer to a beaten, pathetic figure and the nasty, cold father of George Tallboys turns out to be an upstanding figure all along. Basically the male characters (except for some of the lower class ones – Lady Audley’s drunken father and the violent husband of her maid) come out squeaky clean in the wash and all the opprobrium is heaped upon Lady Audley. According to Robert Audley his friend George Tallboys is the best of men despite deserting his wife when she had just given birth to a child (he goes to make his fortune in the goldfields of Australia but he neglects to tell her that). Robert also thinks his uncle is something akin to a saint although he married Lucy when she was a governess and 21 years old, and then favoured her over his daughter of the same age. Of course Lucy takes over from the daughter in looking after the old codger.

I think there is a structural flaw in the novel in that it appears to come to a climax about two thirds of the way through and then tapers off before the final unravelling. Apparently Braddon wrote the last volume in two weeks and it shows. Nevertheless Lady Audley’s Secret is clever, often amusing, and Lady Audley’s depiction is an interesting example of an unreliable narrator (or at least unreliable character).

The Distant Hours review

This is the third novel by the very successful Australian author Kate Morton. Her first book The Shifting Fog was an international bestseller and this was followed by The Forgotten Garden. Morton’s novels might be called literary mystery romances and they centre around family secrets that play out over generations.

I didn’t read The Shifting Fog feeling suspicious of a book that was over promoted. I did buy The Forgotten Garden (who could resist that title) but it languished on my bookshelf for some reason. Then The Distant Hours came along and the blurb was too irresistable.

Elderly sisters living in a castle, their reclusive father, Raymond Blythe, a famous author, a long lost letter that connects our heroine’s mother to the castle, a tragic romance causing insanity, mysterious deaths etc etc

At the time I bought it The Distant Hours was only for sale in hard copy in Austalia (huh? that usually happens only for a beautifully produced lit fiction title, or that last Harry Potter) so I bought it as an ebook. This worked out very well as I didn’t have to lug a 600 page book around on holidays.

On the whole I enjoyed the novel but found it very patchy as if a different author had written various parts, and the plot was very convoluted with turns upon turns upon turns. Add to this different time frames and numerous points of view and I found myself exasperated in parts and bored with the overly detailed narrative in others.

This is a pity because Morton can write very effectively. Her portrayal of the dynamics of the relationship of the Blythe sisters is acute – the stiff, controlling but quite funny Percy, the seemingly soft and yielding but, in reality, tougher than she seems Saffy, and the fey and unwordly Juniper is wonderfully done especially in the long section near the beginning set in 1941 when they are waiting at the castle for Juniper to return from London with a ‘young man’.

The period (wartime) setting of the novel is effectively evoked as is the moody, crumbling castle but I found some of the ‘contemporary’ (though in reality this section is set in the early 1990s) narrative forced and annoying. Why on earth our heroine Edie’s father comes in to the story as he takes an interest from his sick bed in Raymond Blythe’s Gothic children’s book The True History of the Mud Man is beyond me.

And it is really Edie’s mother, Meredith, who has a direct link to the castle (and for whatever reason has kept this period of her life secret from her daughter and her husband). But Morton does not choose Meredith, although it is she who has something at stake, but Edie to follow the trail of clues and mystery back to the castle. Perhaps Morton wanted to show Meredith’s boring life as a consequence of decisions she made long ago and thus felt Meredith could not be a compelling enough character, so young, literary Edie is given the role.

There is a trend in genre publishing for these sort of novels that meld the present with the past. Like Edie we, the reader, want to unravel a mystery and Edie becomes our proxy as we follow clues and find out snippets of information. But Morton goes one step further and allows us into the heads of characters in the past so, for example, we see how Percy Blythe feels and acts in the present (through Edie’s eyes) and also how she thinks, feels and acts in the past (although the whole is referred through the modern protagonist of Edie).

I wonder about the extraordinary popularity of these books. Readers don’t merely want to read about a fiction occurring in the past, they want it resolved in the present ie they want total control and everything has to be meaningful to a character, today.

But who am I to quibble? Morton is hugely popular, and readers seem to like the plethora of twists and turns in her plots; and even, it appears, are prepared to overlook the dead ends and the boring, irrelevant bits.

The Three Miss Kings

Ada Cambridge

Ada Cambridge is an Australian author of the late 19th century. She was born in Norfolk in 1844 but came to Australia after marrying a clergyman at the age of 26. She lived in many rural towns in Victoria before settling in Melbourne. Like many 19th century women writers she wrote to supplement the family income. Ada was a very popular novelist in her day (she wrote 18 novels and this one The Three Miss Kings was published by Heinemann in the UK in 1891 after being serialised in the Australiasian in 1883) but like many 19th century Australian women writers such as Rosa Praed and “Tasma”, Jessie Couvreur, she is virtually unknown today.

This is a pity because The Three Miss Kings is not only an enjoyable read it also provides a portrait of colonial Melbourne and paints a picture of the mores of daily life at that time. While the novel is essentially a romance, like writers such as Elizabeth Gaskell, Ada also deals with social themes such as philanthropy, religious belief, the role of women, and class – but with a light touch.

The three Miss Kings are: the maternal Elizabeth, the eldest; Patty, outspoken and artistic; and the youngest, the more susceptible, Eleanor. At the outset of the novel they are in their twenties and recently orphaned living in a remote cottage “overlooking a wide bay of the Southern Ocean”. Their parents lived in obscurity but brought up their daughters in a romantic way, steeped in music, foreign languages and the natural world. After their father’s death the sisters determine to make their way in Melbourne on the small amount of money made on the sale of the cottage. Landing in Melbourne by steamer they are initially taken under the wing of Paul Brion, a journalist and the son of the sisters’ solicitor.

Of course it’s “improper” for an unrelated male to involve himself with the women alone so he introduces them to a society matron, Mrs Aarons. Paul is mistaken in his opinion of Mrs Aarons who snobbishly slights the unsophisticated sisters. However at one of Mrs Aarons’ soirees Patty plays the piano and impresses a German maestro. It is here we begin to see there is more to the sisters’ past than meets the eye. Paul also falls for Patty partly through her music – he listens to her playing from the balcony of his rooms which are next door to the modest house where the sisters live.

Also at the soiree is the kind-hearted but overbearing Mrs Duff-Scott. She sees the innate refinement of the sisters and hopes they will becomes the daughters she never had, showering them with fine clothes and introducing them to society.

Historical events of the day provide backdrops to two crucial scenes in the novel. At the procession for the International Exhibition in Melbourne in 1880, Elizabeth becomes separated from her sisters and finds herself crushed by the press of spectators on the Treasury steps only to be saved by the strong arms of Kingscote Yelverton. And at that Australian institution, the Melbourne Cup, the sisters experience a social triumph. Shown to advantage in their special outfits they are universally admired as society beauties, but the Cup is also the scene of a misunderstanding between Patty and Paul that sends their budding romance onto the rocks of despair.

A turning point in the novel occurs when the sisters retreat from the tensions of their obligations to Mrs Duff-Scott and the choices to be made regarding suitors and return to their old home (conveniently bought by Paul’s father – the solicitor). Here a sightseeing trip to the local caves helps Elizabeth make up her mind about Yelverton and a chance discovery in the house leads to an unravelling of threads from the past.

Ada Cambridge sets up an intriguing dichotomy between “natural” worth – innate qualities such as artistic sensibility, sympathy to others, self-awareness – against social values such as wealth, position, custom, and I had hoped this would be developed more fully. However, as Audrey Tate states in her perceptive introduction, “in the earliest chapters the novel appears to be on the verge of developing an exciting feminist theme … but the pressures of society of one’s time are not easily disregarded”.

The novel may end as a conventional romance but Ada’s humour and irony shine through. Like Austen before her she employs a knowing omniscient narrator. When Elizabeth flings her arms around Yelverton’s neck, the narrator comments:

“It is not, I own, what a heroine should have done, whose duty it was to carry a difficulty of this sort through half a volume at least, but I am nevertheless convinced that my real Elizabeth did it, though I was not there to see—standing as she did, within a few inches of her lover, and with nothing to prevent them coming to a reasonable understanding.” p.249

For other reviews of Virago Modern Classics go to Book Snob or A Few of my Favourite Books and click on Virago Reading Week.