Local Girls Made Good: The Expatriate Careers of Two Women Writers
'… Golden lights touched the pale-iced cream-piled splendour of the cakes, and the little green jade tea-cups gave an odd clear note to the dim brown-gold gloom. But strangest of all were the little old ladies themselves. The light brushed heavy coiled white hair, sparse grey locks, tight-screwed, little decorous black frills, little tightly held black hand-bags, little bowed shoulders, and old shoulders rigidly straight. It lit withered lips and sharpley gleaming black eyes and more gentle glances of faded blue; and they chirruped together like so many strange small birds, preparing for migratory flight; which after all they were; for all the long pageant of life was behind them, with its fruit blossom of youth, its storms, its agony, its splendor of noon, and they were left just a little while to chirrup in the gold sunset.' ‘The Singing Gold’ Dorothy Cottrell
The resident careers of Crist and Curran between the wars make interesting comparisons with the expatriate careers of two women prose writers who spent some of their youth in Toowoomba. Dorothy Cottrell and Margaret Trist spent most of their lives in metropolitan centers but the Darling Downs continued to play an important role in their creative imaginations.
Dorothy Cottrell was born in Picton, New South Wales, in 1902. She contracted poliomyelitis at the age of six and spent the remainder of her life in a wheelchair. Her mother Ida (Fletcher) Wilkinson was a member of a large pioneering family who ran properties in Tasmania, New South Wales, and from 1894, South-West Queensland.
Cottrell's mother separated from her husband soon after the birth of her daughter and for a time Dorothy was raised by her unmarried aunt in Sydney. She returned to her mother who was housekeeping for her brother on the family stations, Eminia and Ularunda, and spent some time with her grandmother in 'Simla', a large house on the eastern escarpment in Toowoomba. In 1922 she secretly married Walter Mackenzie Cottrell and after eight months and with Dorothy still underage the couple eloped to Dunk Island, where the naturalist E.J.Banfield and his wife lived. On Banfield's death they moved to Sydney where they lived in poverty at the Salvation Army People's Palace. In 1924 they returned to Ilarunda at the suggestion of the Fletcher family. [i]
It was here between 1924 and 1927 that Cottrell wrote her first novel, The Singing Gold, which was published in America by the Ladies Home Journal and then Houghton and Mifflin, followed by Hodder and Stoughton in Britain. Angus and Robertson did not publish an Australian edition until 1956. The Singing Gold is a loosely autobiographical romance come bildungsroman narrated in the first person by the heroine, Joan Whatmore.
Joan is inspired by her intimate connections with the natural geography of south-west Queensland and the plot of the novel follows some of the events in the author's own life. In the novel, however, it is her husband's death in Sydney that precipitates the heroine's return to the family property where she gives birth to twins. The death of her husband, mother and her dog in quick succession and the ageing of her father precipitate a crisis exacerbated by the difficulties experienced by a woman in running the family property. Joan is ultimately redeemed by her love for a childhood friend who returns from the war and subsequent adventure to complete the young family. Jerry shares Joan's connection with the rural environment and their union is consecrated by a journey to the gulf country to hear the larks, 'the singing gold', often referred to in her father's stories. 'The Singing Gold' is a principle motif of the novel and suggests the fragility of beauty and sensibility and its need for masculine protection. The narrator's curious 'whimsical' almost naïve attitude to events robs many of the narrative's tragic turns of their existential horror and the conventional romantic ending would now fail to satisfy some audiences.
The Singing Gold represents some interesting attitudes to islanders, aborigines, and migrant servants. When Joan's unmarried Aunt Austace visits in search of a violent husband who had deserted his wife, for example, the two characters are drawn into an argument that ends in Joan being dispatched to her grandmother's house in Toowoomba, and an education deemed more appropriate to her class position. Aunt Austace is a religious hypocrite who uses her community work to bully people into compliance with her prescriptive code of morality. Her criticism of aborginals and socialists, however, is not allowed to pass unchallenged by the spirited fourteen year heroine: "'What right have you to condemn those who differ from your class-bound opinions? To assume that you speak with the voice of God? To … to … to go jamming nice comfortable little brown babies into ugly slips, just because you like them…'" [ii]
The banishment of the heroine to Toowoomba enables an amusing satire on the class snobbery of provincial female society in the early part of the century. When Joan's grandmother decides she will be 'at home' for tea with a group of lady friends, for example, the young bush girl receives an insight into the social conditions which produced her Aunt Austace:
I wore my new brown velveteen, my grandmother was 'at home', and there came to her tea-table numberless old ladies in jet and black, who looked as if they had only been born out of consideration for an unworthy world, but wouldn't have done it if they had known how unworthy it really was, haughty old ladies these with black pompoms in their bonnets and black silk gloves. There came also certain fat old ladies with artificial flowers in their little toques, and grey or yellow gloves, old ladies that looked as if they would have got on very nicely with the world if it had let them. I discovered later that they were periodically butchered by the old ladies in jet and pompoms not to make a Roman holiday, but a Toowoomba 'at home'… [iii]
What follows is a perceptive and amusing description of the social embarrassment of the wife of a wealthy butcher at the hands of one of the ladies in black. The narrator-hero then pulls back to contextualise the obviously class based social interaction of the women in gendered and generational terms:
… Golden lights touched the pale-iced cream-piled splendour of the cakes, and the little green jade tea-cups gave an odd clear note to the dim brown-gold gloom. But strangest of all were the little old ladies themselves. The light brushed heavy coiled white hair, sparse grey locks, tight-screwed, little decorous black frills, little tightly held black hand-bags, little bowed shoulders, and old shoulders rigidly straight. It lit withered lips and sharpley gleaming black eyes and more gentle glances of faded blue; and they chirruped together like so many strange small birds, preparing for migratory flight; which after all they were; for all the long pageant of life was behind them, with its fruit blossom of youth, its storms, its agony, its splendor of noon, and they were left just a little while to chirrup in the gold sunset. Very strange and whimsical, and comically sad the way they pecked each other-and the setness of their little old-lady ideas. They had been loved and tasted the bitter-sweet of life-giving, had agonized over the death of love, and the death of life, and now they sat in the amber glow, and chirruped and fed and pecked, before flight-none knew wither. [iv]
Cottrell is an unfairly neglected writer who has probably suffered for the sins of expatriatism. Soon after writing The Singing Gold she moved to the United States where she published a second novel Tharlane (1930), known as Earth Battle (1930) in Britain. The villainous hero of this novel, Henry Bart Henrics (HB), labours long and hard over many years to develop a property with a history of financial failure, only to see it destroyed by fire as a retribution for his part in the imprisonment of an innocent man. It is a tragedy of outdoor adventure with some epic qualities as well as the sensitive attachment to landscape which characterised the earlier novel. Tharlane reached second place on the American bestseller lists, but with the onset of the Depression the Cottrells were once again in financial difficulties. Dorothy now worked to break into journalism and she published stories and articles on Australian, American and Caribbean topics in British and American journals such as Liberty, Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal, and the Saturday Evening Post. In 1934 she published a small book, Winks: His Book, about the adventures of a small terrier, and followed this up in 1936 with Wilderness Orphan, another children's story about the 'life and adventures of Chut the kangaroo'. Wilderness Orphan later formed the basis for Ken Hall's film Orphan of the Wilderness which was also shown in Britain and the United States (Ross, 'Drawn'). In 1954 Cottrell published The Silent Reefs, an adventure mystery novel set in the Caribbean.
Margaret Trist was born Margaret Beth Lucas in Dalby on 27 November 1914 and educated at a small convent school there. On leaving school she moved to Sydney where, at the age of nineteen, she married Frank Trist. Trist spent most of the remainder of her life in Sydney, apart from a small period in the early years of the war when she and her husband lived in Blaxland in the Blue Mountains. Despite publishing all of her literary work while in Sydney, she deserves to be included in any account of Darling Downs writing. The key to many of the characters of her novels and short stories is often to be found in their rural past and Trist makes frequent use of her own upbringing in Dalby.
Her first two collections of short stories, In the Sun (1943) and What Else is There (1946), were appreciated for their 'quiet strength and serenity' but her concentration upon 'ordinary people in ordinary places and situations on the land' was seen as limiting [v]. 'She shows the minds of her characters cleverly' but 'they are very often minds which are mediocre and indistinguishable from dozens of other minds' [vi]. The recurrent theme in Trist's fiction is a bittersweet experience of local place. The local provides a community that can offer a sense of belonging, particularly to older people, but the familiar codes of accepted behaviour and vocation that come with it tend to stifle those who yearn for a more satisfying life in keeping with the deep instinctive drives and urges of the human psyche.
Trist's first novel Now that We're Laughing (1945) is set in the Blue Mountains and uses a romantic triangle to examine the class structure and moral codes of a small provincial community. Jimmy Blair, the only child in the most well to do family in Upper Glen, is on leave from the RAAF. He spends most of the narrative trying to seduce Shiela Carlingford, a modest lower middle class girl from a respectable but unpretentious family. Jimmy is more interested in sex than a relationship and yet he prefers Shiela's feminine restraint to the sexually interested Joyce Henderson, who belongs to a sprawling lower class family of sexually active girls. Trist explores the tensions between an instinctive sexual desire and the repressive expectations of the moral classes and these tensions are interestingly inflected by the different social expectations associated with gendered identities.
When a sexually frustrated Jimmy finally seduces Joyce outside the local Dance Hall, Shiela, with full knowledge of his infidelity, decides to commit herself to him:
She clasped her hands together and clenched them. I mustn't be squeamish, she thought. There are things that don't matter, only you feel they matter. The thing that is important is the relationship between two people. Their relationships with other people don't touch on it. I brought this on myself. I wouldn't think for myself. I looked at it from everyone's angle but my own and Jimmy's. Jimmy might have given me a little more time; still, he didn't. He's Jimmy, that's all. I accept him as he is. I take you, Jimmy, and with you, life. I accept you both and what you bring to me.[vii]
The interest in sex and marriage continues in Daddy (1947). Robert Lloyd is a minor poet and litteratur with bohemian ambitions who undertakes clandestine affairs while his naïve but good-natured wife looks after their home in the northern suburbs of Sydney. The Lloyd's three daughters have relationship problems of their own. Barbara is plump, maternal and affectionate and is married to another womanizing man, George. Enid is frustrated with her loyal, hardworking but rather dull husband, Alf, and seeks extra-marital diversions of her own. The youngest and only unmarried daughter, Diane, is independent and world-wise and this leads to ambivalence about the future of her own long term relationship. Trist's narrative tone is light, humorous and uncensorious and she derives her social comedy by presenting the incompatibilities between respectable moral codes, sexual desire and human fulfillment. Alf puts an end to Enid's budding affair by belting her in the face after the English Society's dance. Diane is dumped by her long-term lover and cheers herself up with a one-night stand with Barbara's husband, George. While the pathetic hero of the novel Robert returns to his wife after he is exposed as a coward and a bully by the return of an old flame who humiliates him with a newfound metropolitan confidence borne of overseas experience.
Morning in Queensland (1958) is Trist's last novel and it is considered her best. In it she returns to her own childhood on the black-soil plains of the Darling Downs in the years between the wars. The novel is a bildungsroman which deals with the growth from infancy to adolescence of Tansy.
Tansy's early experience of landscape and the rich characters of her extended family are fulfilling, but as she matures she discovers a familial history of gender, class and generational division, which she identifies with the prescriptive limitations of a small Darling Downs community. In the conclusion to the novel the heroine leaves her mother and sister behind and boards a train to Sydney:
… behind her lay her own town, Meredith and Marny alone in the small house on Palm-grove Street. Behind lay Land's End, where the walls still whispered old stories to those who wished to hear. Behind lay Granny and Granddad and the Sawpit tree. Behind lay Grandfather, sleeping peacefully in the grave from which one could see the blue line of hills, and over which blew the free wind from the plain. Behind lay her childhood. … From now on she would cross any border which she wanted to cross. [viii]
[i] Barbara Ross, ‘Drawn by “Dossie”,’ Voices 1.4 (Summer 1991-92): 21-30; and ‘Dorothy Cottrell’s Grey Country: Extracts from Wheelrhyme,’ Coppertales 2 (1995): 7-16.
[ii] Dorothy Cottrell, The Singing Gold, 1928, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1958, p. 42.
[iii] Cottrell , p.60
[iv] Cottrell , p.61-2.
[v] Bulletin 26 May 1943, p.2.
[vi] C.J.H. O’Brien, ‘Of the Earth Earthy,’ Southerly 8.3 (1947): 175-78.
[vii] Margaret Trist, Now that we’re Laughing, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1945, p.201.
[viii] Margaret Trist, Morning in Queensland, London: W.H.Allen, 1958, pp. 252-53