Women’s histories, Elizabeth Crayford

The Ventricle of Memory
Shelagh Duckham Cox, 
Shelagh Duckham Cox Co, $35.00,
ISBN 9780473363864

Casting Off
Elspeth Sandys
Otago University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780947522551

Shelagh Duckham Cox’s memoir, The Ventricle of Memory, begins in June 1940. Aged five, Shelagh and her younger siblings are on a train bound for north Wales, having left behind their substantial upper-middle-class home in Surrey, and “the people who used to look after our family”: the gardener, the gardener’s boy, nanny, housemaid, kitchen-maid and cook, as well as a much-loved grandmother. Her parents sit opposite them, and Shelagh watches her mother’s “secret smile” as she lights a cigarette, only to be interrupted by baby Katherine’s cry. “Do something,” her father says, and returns to his book.

The Ministry of Food for Britain moved from London to Wales because of the war, and Jim, Shelagh’s father, was one of the 5,000 civil servants whose job it was to organise food rationing. Her parents’ deep love for each other and her father’s inability to relate emotionally to his children form the basis of her childhood. That her mother never once challenges his “rigid rules and emotional distance”, the legacy of a strict Edwardian upbringing, both fascinates and horrifies their daughter.

This memoir covers the next 30 years of Cox’s life, ending with her emigration to New Zealand with husband Terry Cox and their three children in 1966 as “ten-pound poms”, their six-week passage paid for by a New Zealand government keen to recruit skilled workers. Their first three years in Levin, where Terry had secured a job as a weed research scientist, are interrupted by flights back to England as her mother’s health deteriorates.

It must have been a deliberate decision to end this memoir in the late 1960s, and clearly there is much more to tell, possibly in a second volume. Shelagh arrived in New Zealand as a full-time mother; how she became a sociology lecturer at Massey University, divorced and, amongst other things, a co-founder of New Zealand Books, is a story for another time. What The Ventricle of Memory does so well is to weave the personal details of her childhood, and of her life as a young woman in England, into the wider social and political events of the time.

As the scene in the railway carriage indicates, Cox’s memory of the physical details of her past and their emotional heft is remarkable. An observant and thoughtful child, she studied her parent’s marriage for whatever clues it offered for her own path to adulthood. It’s clear that, even after six or more decades, her father’s distance and her mother’s collusion in it still rankles with the author. The few instances of his attempting to connect with his children are excruciating, as are the glimpses we get of a passionate, complex and loyal husband. Perhaps he suffered in his own way from “the stern, inflexible British upper-middle-class family life that was so often my life,” as Cox notes.

Jim Cox must have acquitted himself well in Wales. After the war he was appointed Agricultural Attaché to the British Embassy in Washington DC, and the family moved to America for five years. Away from the post-war austerity of Britain, Shelagh revels in the liberation of a new way of life, freed from the shackles of the British class system. Even banishment to a boarding school in Canada provides her with a springboard for a life-long love of literature and languages. Not surprisingly, their five years “stateside” up, returning to Britain in the early 1950s was a dreadful come-down, with rationing still in place and London pockmarked by bombsites.

Shelagh scrabbles together enough A-levels to get her into Reading University (where her mother studied in the 1920s), studies English and philosophy, but is barred from doing post-graduate study by the institutionalised sexism of the time. Equally indicative of the zeitgeist of the 1950s, with its unspoken imperative that the “fertile young . . . breed as quickly and as often as possible”, is that Shelagh hadn’t been at university a week before she gained her first (and only) boyfriend, whom she married in 1956. All she can remember of their bleak honeymoon in October 1956 is listening to the developing Suez crisis on the hotel radio.

By the time she was 30, Shelagh and Terry had three children and are settled in New Zealand; a wonderful photo of the young family appears on the front page of the Dominion, which is reproduced in this book along with other family photos. A shot of Levin’s main street brings to mind Janet Frame’s The Carpathians, silent and empty with never a soul at home, although the first house they buy looks gracious and substantial with its sweeping drive, established trees and deep verandas.

Parallel with the outward stability of Shelagh’s life is an increasing awareness of what Betty Friedan called “the problem that has no name”. Three beautiful children, a successful husband and a substantial house in a “new and lovely land” are not enough and her university degree feels increasingly redundant; joining the Quakers, befriending photographer Marti Friedlander, visits from English relatives, the liberation of flying alone to England and back, suggest that there are other ways of being and endorse her rejection of the life she sees her New Zealand peers leading, in which women “bottled, baked, gardened and sewed”. The female role models she describes throughout this book, from her ignominious Latin teacher who is shamed for having had a child out of wedlock, to her Aunt Margaret (a rare instance from her childhood of an unmarried professional woman), to bold and confident women glimpsed fleetingly during her travels, provide suggestions of what Shelagh Duckham Cox would become over her next 30 years and more.

Casting off is Elspeth Sandys’s second volume of memoirs and begins in Dunedin when she is 16. The book opens with her listening to British Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s speeches on the radio about the Suez Crisis (the same broadcasts, possibly, that Cox listened to on her disastrous honeymoon). In some ways, Sandys’s book tells a similar story to The Ventricle of Memory: married at 20, to a young law clerk she meets while still at university, she interweaves international current events with the personal story of her three marriages, two children, and her remarkable achievements as a playwright and novelist.

After a brief stint with New Zealand Broadcasting Service in Rotorua, and considerable success in amateur repertory theatre, she and her husband set sail for England in 1962. A series of grotty bedsits and dead-end jobs, and better career prospects for her husband, see them return to New Zealand the following year, via the United States of America, where – like Cox – they revel in the dynamism and prosperity that contrasts with post-war Britain. Stints as a professional actress in Auckland, the birth of her first child, post-graduate study, and the end of her first marriage, happen in quick succession.

Demeaned by matrimonial law in late 1960s New Zealand, which forced her to take the blame for the divorce, Sandys remarried (Bruce, an actor this time) and vowed never to live in New Zealand again. Although born a Kiwi, Bruce had already established himself in professional theatre in England, and for the next 20 years Sandys lives there, first in London, and then in Oxford. Her second child was born and she began to find her voice as a novelist and dramatist. Catch a Falling Star, a novel about the metaphysical poet John Donne, meets with considerable acclaim, and she works for a time with actor Ben Kingsley on turning it into a film script. Other novels followed, based on her Dunedin ancestors and on conscientious objectors in WWII, and plays sourced from English village history are broadcast on British radio. Most remarkably, her 23-part radio adaptation of The Forsyte Saga proves to be “the most successful classic serial the BBC has ever produced”.

Bruce drank too much and was profligate with their money, and while they lived a full social life, with Kiwis on their OE drifting through and partying after rehearsals with the crème of the English theatre world, Sandys resigned herself to “distancing from the dream of intimacy”. Not surprisingly, Bruce returned from having worked in New Zealand on the filming of Sue McCauley’s Other Halves with the news that he was in love with another woman. Well shot of him, she focused on her writing, until Maurice Shadbolt reignited a despicable proposal he made to her years earlier. What is surprising is that she fell for his declarations in a series of torrid letters, only to be met at Auckland airport by “a thin, stooped, grey-haired man on the threshold of old age”: no better evidence needed that Sandys can skewer a character with a few well-chosen words.

Memoirs like these are much more than family histories along the lines of “whatever happened to Aunty so-and-so”. This is women’s history in the collective sense, as well as being the stories of two remarkable women. Both Cox and Sandys are also important voices in the history of New Zealand letters. Older readers may find themselves and people they know in these two books; younger readers will gain a sense of just how elusive were the hard-won freedoms we take for granted.

Elizabeth Crayford is a Wellington teacher.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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