Identity crises, Ruth Butterworth

Cherries on a Plate
ed Marilyn Duckworth
Random House, $25.95
ISBN 1 86941 287 7

Six Clever Girls Who Became Famous Women
Fiona Farrell
Penguin Books, $24.95
ISBN 0 140 25356 4

England has social class; India and America have families extended across states and continents; France gets to have capital “L” Literature and the towering controversies that beat about the Académie Française. Australia engages seriously with teeming cities and terrifying spaces alike. New Zealand? New Zealand seems sometimes perpetually caught up in some big but mostly little identity crises; the ultimate exemplar of the “other directedness” of David Reisman’s 1950s classic work.

All fictions, including history-as-literature, are about generational conflict and competitions for material and emotional resources and the clash of autre temps, autre moeurs. The really tough stuff, though, has always a graspable, even didactic social, economic and political context. And nowadays the big boys of New Zealand history and literature are writing books too big to be read in bed. Even a king-size gets crowded when all those generations are called up to underwrite an id.

Much of what is published, however, is small, “me-ist”, the chrysalis-to-crumpled-butterfly as in various comings-outs and claustrophobia revisited at the school reunion. These are the domesticated, small-town horridness that creaks through New Zealand’s fictional accounts — accounts rendered but seldom paid or cancelled. Which calls for an explanation.

The women whose diaries and letters were mined to produce My Hand will Write what my Heart Dictates do not appear to have suffered from crises of identity. Nor did they compose finely wrought documents — perhaps because they never went to Menton or were required to make their obeisance to Mansfield. Nor had they been tyrannised by the morning story ritual of the primers, been fed social studies in lieu of history, or had their journals graded for course credit.

In the latter part of this century, though, the economics of writing and publishing is another explanation. Why publish Cherries on a Plate, which is a collection of women writers “talking”, note, not “writing” about their sisters? Silly question. Because it sells, of course. And why? Because we all enjoy a perv, a bit of inside gossip about our own as well as about Di and Fergie and any other gash collection of stars and personalities as in Hello and sundry women’s weeklies. Why do the writers do it and mostly, albeit within too narrow confines, do it so variously and well?

First, as to the “why”, to record — in letters to close friends, parents, siblings, children, absent spouses — has long been a female task in literate societies; and to confide in journals has been for women a way of conducting unavailable conversations. The “why” for women publishers as well as writers over the past 20-odd years reflects a determination that women’s lives, experience and consciousness should not this time round be left to the chance of musty attic trunks and small bequests to cash-strapped archives.

Second, then, why are these prose pieces so variously and finely crafted in such small compass? Most of the reason — apart from graft and talent — is economic. What built the New Zealand tradition? Predominantly the Department of Education and the Library Service, the old Listener and Radio New Zealand’s predecessors — all dead or dying and hardly compensated for in the scheme of things by literary fellowships, short story contests and the fortunate, albeit necessarily rare, occurrence of the odd centenary. So women write as an extension of letters and journals and usually on a corner of the kitchen table and, between-time, exercising other, multiple talents for survival otherwise referred to as “pin money”. These circumstances provided an ingrown, narrow canon as surely as the small-town conformity rasped and honed it. And quite a number of these sisters seem nastier to share with at times than a houseful of provincial Mrs Grundies; though the sheer awfulness of multiple parental abandonments experienced by Duckworth and Adcock in wartime England owes nothing to that.

Quite a lot of Cherries on a Plate is untouched by that narrow greeching and whingeing which mutters and natters through New Zealand’s literary acres in an endless non-celebration of small-town horridness. The squalid is actually elected by Elizabeth Knox and her sisters and actually in Brooklyn, Wellington; squalidness is de rigueur round there, round then. There is a whole antipodean aesthetic to be explored, but it never gets a look in in such small and personal work. A small thank you, then, for poverty as hand-to-mouth fact rather than as malevolent leitmotif in the piece from Renee that ends the collection.

So it is possible to escape from the conformities decreed by Women’s Weekly diktats and not die of consumption. Your (real) sisters will remember who you are whilst your married persona unravels. Distance is bridged with a phone call, or a plane trip — presumably when the lit. grant or the mat. prop. kicks in. “Presumably” because there isn’t much sense of the times, of engagement with the social and economic beyond. Well at least, I suppose, it may be a blessing these personals are not political — and apolitical personals are certainly tops for the summer reading market.

Time does pass (1960-1995) and contexts do change. In Six Clever Girls social and sexual realism is all about us, even the sleazy boom among the professional acolytes of Mammon and the bad scene that is social work with band-aids. This came out of Menton! Even Creative New Zealand shelled out a bit to Penguin. So it should but why the publisher had the gall to ask for support for such a patent bestseller is another question entirely.

Maybe it was nerves; maybe it feared the very clever Ms Farrell had just gone too far. She has, splendidly, and the humourless have had a serious read of it.

Six Clever Girls is six short stories, topped and tailed, ingeniously connected by Anne Crichton’s drawings of six famous women straight out of the romantic history purveyed to young women in school library books. These inadequate role models are given a thoroughly modern squelching in the real time encounters of the clever girls turning into proper grown-up people. Elizabeth Fry/Heather did not reform the prison to which one flawed son had steadily progressed the while she wrestled social welfare placements through the system. Missionary Margaret/Greer was sexually assaulted by her jungle missionary station colleague and displayed po-faced cultural sensitivity about a penis doll. Oh, yes, and then she did get to draw spiders for Educational Publications and save once-pretty Susan from an abusive husband.

And there is more; more of the old time schoolgirls’ parents favourites; more of Angela Brazil and even a touch of transgendered Greyfriars. Louisa M Alcott breathes again in Kathy’s story; but the woman who had learned too many proper lines too well for her own good churns through the real crisis of identity that such good wives-and-mothers come to. The famous six reading Peyton Place behind the toilet block is Enid Blyton with period pains added. Then they all save the naughtiest girl who lives above a shop from falling off a cliff and proper Caroline the doctor’s daughter stays guiltless. The naughtiest girl is actually the only famous one, but her end, dead in a high mountain crevasse and reported on world radio bulletins, leaves us with a Blyton five all hearing the news in various un-famous situations.

The real news is that the seriously playful Fiona Farrell has written a smashing book, an iconoclasting, feminist parody for our times.

Ruth Butterworth is senior lecturer in politics at Auckland University

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