Kissing and telling, Heather Murray

Camping on the Faultline: A Memoir
Marilyn Duckworth
Vintage, $29.95,
ISBN 1 86941 413 6

Writing in the London Review of Books (16 March 2000), nga Clendinnen notes the changing reader attitude to autobiographical writing. While once a reader came to such work with the expectation that:

the autobiographer would try to tell it more or less as it was, or at least as he or she remembered it, [that is] a reasonably honest insider account reasonably free from conscious distortion, invention and too much narcissistic fiddling …

now the alert (less naive) reader is wary of the writer’s motive, no longer expecting The Truth, but A Truth as the writer sees it. A little of Deconstructionism has rubbed off on us all. We suspect one or several possible motives behind the autobiographical impulse: that the writer is really talking to him- or herself, or to a person who may or may not feature in the book; or as a pre-emptive strike against biographers or potential character assassins (not necessarily the same thing); or as a desire to cover the tracks rather than to reveal them; or to put a far from disinterested case against spouses, children, lovers, or colleagues; or as a means of trying to recreate the past long after it has faded from easy memory.

With all that as a given, and taking our pinch of salt, there is usually something to enjoy in other people’s lives, if only as a means by which to measure our own. Marilyn Duckworth’s life should be interesting, particularly to those who follow the course of feminism. Whereas most women writers have remained childless, Duckworth has, almost without peer, immersed herself in domesticity. She has published 13 novels, the first Gap in the Spectrum when aged 24 in 1959, and with few contemporary exemplars to follow. Her early fiction did not fit the tradition of Sargeson and the “Reality Gang”, and caused male critics palpitations: something nastily female was emerging from under the sofa, if not from the woodshed. Duckworth’s inspirations were not New Zealand male realism, but Henry Green, with his reliance on dialogue and his refusal to pass moral judgements on his characters (something considered essential by Sargeson, and by Robert Chapman in his “Fiction and the Social Pattern”); also Muriel Spark, who wrote simply and without sentimentality, and Janet Frame, whose recent Owls Do Cry also rose out of left field with such “startling, natural clarity”.

The daunting climate into which Duckworth propelled her early novels is revealed by the reviewer who wrote (may he still be alive to blush a little):

[A] Wellington housewife has discovered that though her hands may be too often in the sink, her thoughts may, to advantage, soar in less mundane directions. Slight, golden haired Mrs H Duckworth, mother of two enchanting, Dresden-like baby daughters, is surely one of the youngest to join the ranks of successful novelists.

Duckworth earns respect for sticking to her art and demanding the right to write, come what may from reviewers, husbands, lovers, children, stepchildren, and aging parents. Money has often been tight. She is a precursor of the Me generation who expect to have it all.

For readers interested in the writing life, Duckworth offers little, a weakness of the book. Perhaps she does not relish talking shop or philosophising, preferring to get on with the job. Duckworth’s concern is her daily life, and she assumes it will be ours as well. Conscious always of “the tension between needing love and needing independence”, she charts the battles engaged in as the two often mutually exclusive conditions fight it out. Marilyn and her older sister, Fleur Adcock, were children of the war, taken to England by their father who needed to complete a doctorate, shunted from house to house, school to school between 1939 and 1947. Hence a feeling of dislocation and temporariness, and often absent parents. Back in New Zealand she found it disappointing, “grubby and hot and homemade looking”, where people with horrible nasal accents lived in “wooden tents pitched in a campsite”.

It is with Duckworth’s engagement at 18 to Richard (Ritchie) Rawnsley that the narrative (and the life) begins to take on its inexorable Mills and Boon tone. Leaving Ritchie at home while she flees to London to await marriage consent from Ritchie’s Catholic parents, Marilyn meets and marries instead Harry Duckworth, she wearing a grey coat leavened by lilies-of-the-valley, and leaving unused the white wedding gown she bought in London to wed Ritchie, with Harry dressed in the suit she bought for Ritchie to wed her. The sporting Ritchie turns up at the couple’s Wellington welcome-home and wedding party, and if he does take the new bride off for a long walk round the block, leaving husband, parents and friends with pursed lips waiting to cut the cake, it is only par for the course for what is to follow.

Four husbands, and a myriad of lovers follow in procession: Ritchie and Harry D. and Maurice S. and Maurice D. and Maurice S. (again), Roger, Ian, Maurice S. (coming and going), Harry S., John N., Harry S. and John N. (at the same time), Dean, Dan, David, and (up to date now) John B., from whom she lives amicably apart in separate, contiguous properties. The two Maurices she shared with Fleur, causing Fleur to observe, before sensibly decamping for England, “how circular and interconnected are friendships and relationships in a small country”, there being “no end to the crosscurrents and coincidences”.

If only Duckworth had brought a little self-irony to the narrative, but she seems bereft of that undercutting agent:

In the evening I went downstairs again to the office and wrote a real letter, pouring out all the pain I’d been feeling. “Dare to tell the truth,” I reminded myself. Just how much was I daring by writing that letter? How much truth was there in Maurice’s? There was a postbox down the road. I took a deep breath and ran to it, puffing back up the hill before I could be missed. I felt wicked and in danger, but sparking with energy. I didn’t feel guilty.

Death claims a Maurice, but the other lives on, a continuing threnody in Duckworth’s life, sometimes as lover, sometimes as friend, but their relationship always essential to Shadbolt: before Gill, during and after Gill, during Beverly, before Barbara, during and after Barbara, after Bridget, after Elspeth, and before Barbara (again). His very personal presence in the narrative raises one of the central problems of autobiography: in relating one’s own life, how much right has one to include and reveal the lives of others, particularly those who are still alive? And would others give the same or similar versions or interpretations of events?

It may seem old-fashioned now, but once a gentleman did not bandy about the name of a lady, and well-brought-up young ladies did not kiss and tell. Such discretion may erect blank walls for future historians, but it is plain good manners towards the living. It is all a matter of timing. To avoid losing friends, and to maintain decorum, the writing of autobiography requires a proper sense of when the time is right. Good to record one’s life for posterity in as much detail as possible, but best to deposit it in an archive (as Charles Brasch has done with his diaries) until all those who might be affected by its revelations are safely dead. Otherwise, as in Duckworth’s case, husbands such as Harry and Ian have their faults laid bare when set down for all time by the practised pen of their writing wife, with little chance to put their side of the story; and lovers such as Shadbolt are left without a shred of privacy.

And how to judge whether the autobiographer’s version of people and events is accurate? In the present case, we are able to contrast Duckworth’s version of the affair with Shadbolt’s. In Duckworth’s narrative, Shadbolt occupies a large and continuing place, as a man who cannot do without her. In his letters (which she must have had permission to quote) he proclaims himself a frantic lover, veering “violently between hope and despair”, variously delirious, hallucinating, literally blasted apart, paralysed, manic, bleeding, aching, and burning. Yet Shadbolt’s own autobiography (From the Edge of the Sky: A Memoir), gives a lesser weighting to the affair. In their first sexual encounter, Shadbolt presents himself as rather naïve prey, lured into the web of a predatory spider: “Alarm bells should have been ringing. They weren’t.” She is the instigator; he the unhappy and guilty follower. Later, after having discovered “more and more ingenious ways of making each other miserable”, they part, until Marilyn sends a coded message to him via a story published in the Listener. It all starts over again. To Shadbolt, Duckworth is a minor temptation along the way; to Duckworth, the affair is continuous and important, and, as she sees it, something Shadbolt cannot do without.

Two versions of the love affair; and here perhaps is the motivation for Duckworth’s memoir: in a 1993 interview in Quote/Unquote, Duckworth said that she probably would not write an autobiography, since her life was full of “unpublishable material”, with “too many people involved”. But one thing would lead her to write one: “if someone else was going to write a version that … conflicts with mine. I’m very concerned about truth – my version of the truth.” Shadbolt beat her to the draw, but Duckworth has fired the last bullet.

Perhaps, as Denis Glover once said to Shadbolt, writers are their own worst enemies. Camping on the Faultline suggests that it behoves the discreet and introverted among us who do not wish to appear in glorious technicolor in someone’s later memoirs to avoid affairs with the literary crowd, amongst whom relationships are notoriously ephemeral (if the narrative under review is a typical portrait), since everything is grist to their mills.

Heather Murray is a Dunedin writer and critic.

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