A Barbarous Tongue
Vintage New Zealand (first pub Hutchinson & Co, 1963), $24.95
Hazard Press, $9.95
Marilyn Duckworth stands alone in New Zealand fiction, occupying a lofty and lonely spot few others have had the tenacity to reach. Our writing women have been mostly childless: Mansfield, Baughan, Hyde, Scanlan, Mander, Bethell, Marsh, Dallas, Frame and Hulme. Or they have taken up the pen when their children were grown up: Edmond, Bridger and Anderson. A life of writing has seemed to imply a corresponding denial of domesticity and motherhood but a rare few have managed to combine work on both fronts simultaneously: France, Ashton‑Warner, Cowley, Kidman and Mahy. And of course, Duckworth who, when only 24 in 1959, published the first of her 11 novels, a prolific output when placed alongside the parallel accumulation of four husbands, four daughters and several stepchildren.
What of the discipline involved to create the freedom to write, the determination in sidestepping motherly guilt over divided loyalties? Janet Frame has described the audacity required by the dedicated writer:
Freedom to write is a very narrow freedom among the many personal imprisonments suffered by those who want to write, yet it is the master key and if a writer has determination to turn the key (heedless of the desire and warnings of those who don’t understand or who fear (rightly) the consequences of this outrageous daylight robbery of the imagination) then [s]he may be able to put [her] dreamed works into words.
Duckworth described how she was feeling in 1963 about the twin ties of writing and domesticity:
I was really feeling the conflict between living a family life and trying to get a book written. By that stage my children were old enough to need me more and so I was riddled with the guilt thing that women writers have … I think it’s a difficult thing for a woman to be a writer because it requires putting her needs first and so it goes against all her female conditioning that tells her she should do all the other more important things first before sitting down and writing. And that was reinforced by people’s attitudes which implied that you were indulging yourself in a little hobby and neglecting the real things ‑ which in a sense I was.
Duckworth’s task was not made any easier by the fact that she did not seek simply to enter the traditional male world of fiction, to embrace its themes and modes. To a certain extent this was what she felt Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot had done. She preferred to take a line from Virginia Woolf, champion of a separate female vision expressed through a distinctively female style of writing. In 1960 she gave three radio talks on the nature of women’s writing, pleading a case for its peculiar and valid differences from the male norm. It was not a plea many contemporary readers and critics wished to hear. Her first novel, A Gap in the Spectrum, had been despatched in 20 withering lines in Landfall by a male academic who seemed to be holding his nose at the same time: in particular he was unsettled by “frequent grotesque vignettes … thrown off by an eye which readies into dark corners like a flashlight”.
Something nasty seemed to be stirring under the skirts of Duckworth’s female characters which the gently‑nurtured wished left undisturbed. In 1963 A Barbarous Tongue (a threatening title) lifted the skirts completely to reveal women as sexual beings, sentient, passionate and instinctive. Under puritanism’s rigid code women were either perceived as madonnas or whores and nothing in between. How then to deal with Frieda, who feels everything, even high emotions, through her body? She smells her own “animal scent”; she feels loneliness in her abdomen; she feels her lover devouring her. Such sentences as “I think I feel a rubbing against the wall of my womb. Christ, how I love those little teeth, and how weakly I am falling away” must have caused many a reader to breathe rather shallowly. R A Copland’s review in Landfall has about it the whiff of a man only just revived by sal volatile.
For Copland Frieda was a “commonplace girl”, with a body, but not a mind: in “her shallow, animal fortitude she is a sort of milkbar Moll Flanders” and her creator seemed to be offering to Copland the “grotesque” image of the female body as an empty room in which “a human communion might take place”. From a later perspective it is clear that Duckworth had run up against the unyielding wall of received notions about the nature of literature. In the sixties, F R and Q D Leavis were the royal pair of literary critics and their dogma that good literature should be morally uplifting and life‑affirming was taught in all university English departments. It is no wonder that Copland saw Duckworth operating in a “moral void”, with her main character “in free fall”, responding to no recognisable moral imperatives. Frieda is indeed the barbarian beyond the walls of polite society, speaking a barbarous tongue which, Copland conceded, was the “language of a generation most us cannot properly comprehend”. The unspoken rider, of course, is that most of Copland’s generation would not wish to comprehend it.
Duckworth did have her male champions. In 1959 James K Baxter wrote an angry letter to Landfall claiming that male academic critics were dealing unduly harshly in its pages with women’s writing (in this instance, Duckworth’s), refusing to acknowledge that by its very nature it would be different but still valid. Baxter suspected that most male readers believed the female psyche to be something invented by Freud and would “cease to exist if we tell it plainly enough that we do not like or understand it”. Duckworth must have been cheered also by David Hall’s review in the Listener: He liked the novel, feeling that by using “the real idiom of our fellow countrymen, however barbarous it may seem”, Duckworth had written the “most adult novel” yet conceived in New Zealand. With a “mastery of her material”, handling successfully “such a complexity of emotional material”, Duckworth had created “a vigorous, uninhibited study of people who live in this country today”.
It is Duckworth’s sophisticated vision and technique, by which the seemingly “slight” and disoriented character, the trivial incident and banal conversation are elevated to an importance her detractors are not prepared to acknowledge, coupled with a dearth of any clear idea on Duckworth’s part of how society should be, that has alienated many readers since the 1960s. Duckworth espouses no ideology for, as one must guess from her works, she has not yet found one that will do. Quite simply, she says: “I write about women the way they are … I don’t want to agonise and analyse …”
We must respect her free-fall mode. As an inveterate realist, Duckworth tries to be a conduit, putting on paper as clearly as she can the mystifying events of daily life to achieve some sanity for her characters. While it is impossible for a writer to empty herself entirely of bias, Duckworth does it more thoroughly than most, clearing out the intellectual and moral baggage which might divert her gaze from what is “really” there. In the 1960 radio talks she spoke of the dangers, apparent in the work of Doris Lessing, of allowing one’s own voice to break through with something of the preaching tone of a politician and of loading novels with one’s own burdensome morals. It is perhaps because of her self‑effacement and her refusal to dress her novels in the current colours of political correctness that A Barbarous Tongue stands up so well in reissue.
Duckworth’s characters may be short on moral underpinnings and have not yet found the meaning of life, but they continue to search, perchance to make sense of the existential void in which they haplessly float. By searching, they validate their own lives and achieve some sort of accommodation. In A Barbarous Tongue, teenage unmarried mother Frieda (Duckworth’s plots sound soapy when boned out) is cut adrift from her family ‑ “a loosely knit, indifferent mob of faces”. She hopes to find happiness through clinging to John in Wellington. He is also adrift because his parents were killed in the war, but he has his own problems with a clinging sister who is dying of cancer.
A second lover in Dunedin (but it might as well be Wollongong for all the difference place makes), one-armed, older, and worldly-wise, warns her: “Only children expect to be happy.” Yet he is the agent in cutting Frieda’s ties and forcing her to independence:
“One more corner. I was nearly there. I was all right on my own, like he said. All at once I felt exhilarated and proud and confident. I could. Yes.”
Ros, Duckworth’s latest female hero in Fooling (a brief novella of 95pp) continues Frieda’s search for happiness. Named Rosalind Kim by her romantically inclined mother (“Kim Novak couldn’t act her way out of a pavlova but was beautiful enough”), at 28 she believes true love will come although the signs are not encouraging:
Her problem is that she finds young men tedious and old men complicated. Where are the simple ‑ that is, un-neurotic, unmarried, childless ‑ men of 40? Who will fall exclusively, imaginatively in love with Ros?
The 1990s are not easy for a single woman:
What does she want? What does any woman want? It used to be easy. Her mother had known what she wanted ‑ romantic love easing into marriage down that curious bottleneck called a white wedding. Her mother had wanted three children, a devoted husband, the approval of friends. Instead she had one child, a faithless husband and a measure of disapproval. Knowing what you want is no guarantee of getting it. A woman of the nineties is expected to want control of her life ‑ but not necessarily self‑control ‑ to be centred and self‑sufficient, but not, of course, self‑centred. It isn’t easy.
Ros is something of an anachronism: she still expects to find the truth if she is brave enough to take a risk or gamble to find it. But everyone she meets is wedded to deception ‑ of themselves as well as of others. Gambling is in the air, with licensed gambling in casinos just around the corner and the false promise of riches via Lotto embedded in the New Zealand psyche. At a race meeting, Ros takes the risk and picks up Neil who seems to be “interested in her as a person, not a collection of body parts. The idea is a heady one. It rocks her.” But Neil is well down the road of deceit, a compulsive gambler with debts and needing a firm home base. Ros has a house and money. Ros loses her control as the parasitic Neil clings ever tightly.
Because of Duckworth’s usual clear‑eyed view of her female characters and her refusal to embrace their cause sentimentally, Ros’s gradual disillusionment is all the more poignant. She is a victim, but she retains some dignity. She finds that no one speaks the truth or acts disinterestedly. They are all fooling. Even sex, once a source of personal validation for Duckworth’s female heroes, has proved an illusion: sexual orientation is no longer fixed, gender is fluid as women are revealed to be men, daughters ponder whether or not they are lesbians. And in the post‑Aids world sex enslaves rather than liberates. Just as Frieda was warned it was childish to expect happiness in 1963, Ros in 1994 receives the same message:
“Ros, you’re going to have to grow up one day. You’re 28 years old ‑ aren’t you? ‑ and this is the real world. The freaky old real world.”
To those already deep in self‑deception, what Ros has experienced is merely a temporary setback, a minor tummy ache: “So this is what it is to be real, no fooling. She links her hands across her stomach and rocks “. She will pick herself up and, in the tradition of Duckworth women, continue in her isolation to look for a truth. But at the end the feeling is inescapable that in 1994 there are fewer chances of finding it than there were for Frieda in 1963. Where will Duckworth look next?
Marilyn Duckworth’s long career as pre‑eminent portrayer of the daily life of women has not been accorded appropriate recognition. She has suffered from the continuing puritanism of her compatriots. They expect a fixed and universal moral code where clearly she does not find one. They expect her to fight ‑ via her fiction ‑ their narrow political and social battles, whereas she sees her writerly task depending on emptying herself of their ideologies. But in particular she has suffered from a surfeit of critics who have forgotten that critics are the servants of literature, their task to comment on how writers write, not to judge them on how well their work fits into the straitjacket of any preconceived literary theory.
Heather Murray is a Dunedin editor and writer on New Zealand literary history.