This is Winnifred’s story, told and written by her – I merely transferred it from Floppy Disk to Hard Drive, adjusting the altered format, and typos at her request. Emma is Winnifred.  Mother changed the names for two reasons – she didn’t want to upset any family members still living; and for her anonymity, and her reputation, as what she wrote would deconstruct the public persona she had created for and of herself.  Also I think to distance herself as she wrote.  If it had been in first person I think it may have been too traumatic, even after all those years.


     “Mrs Roberts?  Please come in.”  Emma entered the tiny cubicle, closing the door behind her.  Struggling to compose herself and suppress the familiar surge of panic, she looked around the confined space.

     The attendant looked at the notes in her hand, then pointing to a pile of folded garments on the end of the seat, said kindly, “Just change into one of these gowns.  We’ll call you as soon as we’re ready for you.”

     Emma’s mouth felt dry.  Licking her lips, she asked, “How long is that likely to be?”

     “Only a few minutes,” replied the nurse, looking at her more closely.  “Are you all right?”

     “Yes, for the moment,” she murmured.  “But Nurse . . . please don’t shut the door.  It’s rather cramped in here.”

     “Just as you like.”  Smiling, the girl withdrew, and she was alone.

     Clad in a white gown, Emma sat down on the narrow bench-seat and looked at the opposite wall.  How close it was!  The room was so small – like a cupboard!  She leaned back, trying to relax, but the words she had spoken stayed with her, and in the shadowy recesses of her mind faint images were stirring, while in her ears sounded the plaintive plea of a child: “Please Nurse, don’t shut the door.”

          She closed her eyes . . . . . .  remembering.

* * *

      It was dark in the cupboard, except for a narrow strip of light which showed beneath the door as it closed behind the tiny form, shutting her in.  the sound of footsteps faded, and she was alone.

     Unable to see, she was sharply aware of the scent of clean linen and the musty smell of mice.  She didn’t cry, conditioned to passive acceptance of a punishment she didn’t question, though could not understand.  Shivering in her thin nightgown, she lay down across the doorway, pressing herself as close as possible to the fragment of light, as if to draw some warmth and comfort into her small body.

     She closed her eyes to shut out the dark, but could not shut out the sounds – the furtive scurrying of tiny feet somewhere near her.  “Please God,” she thought, “don’t let them touch me.”

     How she wished she were safely back in the dormitory!  Perhaps, if she wished hard enough, it might come true.  She tried, but nothing happened.

     Quietness descended on this House of Charity.

     Charity?!  The mind screams at the word.  Dear Heaven!  Were their windows closed?  Did no-one care?  Did no-one see – or hear?  None, it seems, save the inscrutable walls standing guard over the helpless child as she lay thinking of the other girls asleep in their beds.

     Presently, in spite of her fears, she too fell asleep.

     Here at The Home, bedtime was always the best time of day.  Bed was the one place you looked on as your own personal territory which you did not have to share.

     Of necessity, in such an institution, nothing you had – the clothes you wore, the books, pens, pencils – none belonged to you.  All were on loan.  The prettiest dress had been worn by someone before you, and you had to take care of it, for someone else would surely wear it when you’d outgrown it.

     The Home itself was not your home.  You were a visitor, and that feeling never faded.  No room was your room.  There was no corner into which you could creep and feel at home, no chair which was your own place.  You took it for granted that you would be asked to move up and make room for someone else.  There was always someone else!  You did not have your own space – except in bed!

     Here was your won world, where no-one could touch you or intrude upon your privacy.  Here, with some secret treasure tucked under your pillow, you could escape from the bewilderments of the day, whisper your own special prayers, play ‘Let’s pretend’ and wish yourself to sleep.  “Perhaps . . . perhaps I’ll wake up in the morning and find myself still at home on the farm, with Dad out milking the cows, Mother feeding the baby, and all this just a dream.”

     Yes, it was a good time of day.

     And it was good too, after ‘lights out’, to lie and talk to the other girls in the comforting semi-darkness of the dormitory.  From this place of her own each could be, for a time, herself.  As the uniform clothing of the day was put aside, so the uniformity which cloaked their personalities gave way to individuality.

     The soft shadows seemed to cast a spell over the room and its inmates, healing the hurts inflicted by angry, unkind words; soothing the cruel sting of indifference, the ever-present pain of aloneness and the yearning for close family contact – a goodnight kiss and a loving hand to tuck them in.

     In the darkness they reached out to each other.  Quarrels were for a time forgotten; confidences could be shared.  This was the best time for talking.  But talking after ‘lights out’ was against the rules!

     And so here she was, alone in the dark with only the mice to keep her company.

     Always she slept soundly, for in sleep she could enter that other world where everything was possible.  But tonight, after a few short hours, she stirred, moving her cramped limbs.  She felt cold and uncomfortable.  Reaching for her bedclothes she became aware of the hard floor beneath her and sat up, opening her eyes.

     Why was it so dark?  Straining her eyes to see, she listened for the sound of breathing from the other sleepers in the room.  All was quiet and still.

     Sudden realisation brought her fully awake!  This was no dream.  She was still in the cupboard.  They’d forgotten her!  A wave of desolation swept over her at the thought.  Then a further flash of insight told her the awful truth.  But surely they wouldn’t  . .  they couldn’t leave her here all night!

     The little head drooped and the plucky little figure crumpled, as the courage which had sustained her thus far ebbed away . . . and slow, creeping fear took its hold.

     She sank down and lay quite still, curled up against the door, unable to move, scarce daring to breathe in the oppressive silence.  Her chest felt tight, her throat ached with pent-up feelings clamouring for release, while closer and closer as in a nightmare, pressed the impenetrable darkness, enveloping her, stifling . . . smothering.

     In terror she started up desperate to escape.  Her searching fingers found the door-frame, slid upwards until they touched the large, cold door-knob.  How smooth, how cold and real it felt!  Grasping it with both hands, she turned it and the door moved inwards.  It was unlocked!

     For a moment her heart stopped beating, then began pounding with hope of freedom – and fear of discovery.  Opening the door she crept out, drawn towards the faint light at the end of the dark passage.

     Across the vast common-room, which seemed incredibly larger in the pale glow of the night-light, she could see the doorway of her dormitory . .  and just inside – her bed.

     Her bare feet made no sound as she stole across the floor towards it.  What a journey it seemed!  She was alone in a world of silence and shadows – an overwhelming sensation for a hapless mite, seeking the sanctuary of her bed and blankets, shaken by the experience – and the reasoning behind it.

* * *

      Emma felt a light touch on her shoulder and opened her eyes.  The nurse was bending over her.

     “You can come through now dear,” she said.  “Sorry to keep you waiting.  How are you feeling?”

     Gladly Emma rose and moved through the open doorway into the large room beyond.

     “I’ll be fine now thanks,” she replied.  “And thank you for leaving the door ajar.  Those cubicles are very small aren’t they?”

     The nurse smiled, sympathetically.  “A little claustrophobic are we?”

     “More than a little I’m afraid,” Emma replied.  “It goes back a long way.”

(C) Winnifred Knight  2000 – 2007

Transcribed and Edited by Jud House 2007

(C) 13/06/2013

* * * * *


They had lived with the knowledge of their mother’s childhood almost all their lives.  The horror of how Winnifred and her brothers, the middle three kids, were taken by their father from their siblings – to lighten his load when their precious mother died from complications from the ninth baby’s birth – to live in Morialta Children’s Home on the edge of the Adelaide Hills, hung like a guilty cloud over their lives.  It coloured their perspectives, it undermined their sense of security – if it happened to her it could happen to them – and it made her overly precious to them.

And as time passed, as they moved from childhood to teens, they were constantly aware of the progress she made in her life – her attainments were like stepping stones, each praised and complimented when reached, with the knowledge that there would be more to come.  What a role model!  Not that they thought of her in that way – it wasn’t a phrase bandied about back then, but in retrospect that is what she was.  Yet it left them feeling that they could never catch her.  She was always way out in front, ahead of them, and when they did later pass her they didn’t notice it.

For them, there was a drawback to this as well.  She was so busy attaining her own goals in her careers – musical and educational – that she failed to assist them to attain theirs.  She knew they could all sing, that they could all play instruments, could write well and were artistically creative, but her notions of what constituted a working career didn’t apply to their talents.  Consequently, they were encouraged and organised into teaching and nursing careers that suited none of them, instead of into music, stage and art careers.  Inevitably they opted out, felt like failures, then tried to resurrect their particular talents later in life, when they had ‘missed the proverbial boat’!

Too late in her life she realised that she had done this.  Too late, after competing with them as they made their musical way into amateur renown, did she acknowledge that she had failed to support them, had ignored them – still in the ‘children are to be seen and not heard’ mode that was one of the legacies of her terrible upbringing – had considered their talents as multiple but only hobby-worthy.  They did not reach her brilliance.  They could not reach her brilliance.  Not in her mind or theirs.

But as age crept in, and the avaricious ambition of other singers in the amateur musical societies that she frequented began to stress her, she withdrew and looked at this one failure of hers with startled wonder of growing guilt.  How had she remained oblivious to this self-centred characteristic?  Her life had been about her – a created life.  Her husband was seen as part of her support system – his baritone voice complimented her glorious soprano in myriad duets – they were the stars of all the shows.  Her children were seen as a credit to her, dressed properly at all times in public, taught to not embarrass her in public though there were many slip-ups intentional and unintentional as they aged, but always in her shadow.  They were an adjunct to her.

She began to write her story so it wouldn’t be lost when she was gone.  The chapters poured out of her, written about a character she called Emily.  But it was her story.  Her daughter helped her get it in order, transferred it onto computer disks, tightening it slightly but sticking as closely to her mother’s written word as she could.  There were copious hand-written pages that needed transcribing – some were done, some still waited.  All were gathered together, but it was emotionally hard to transcribe, as the terrible abuses that she suffered in the Home were resurrected in black and white.  Not just something told, but there on the page, inescapable.

Then the thing she’d been dreading all her life occurred – reoccurred.  She was put back into a Home!  She contracted a debilitating illness – Cerebral Nuclear Palsy, similar to Motor Neurone Disease – where though her mind remained sharp and intelligent, her body gradually shut down over a dozen years till she could no longer speak or move.  She had to go into a Nursing Home.  Her husband, now in his nineties, could no longer look after her.  Not could the Carers who came daily to assist.  She needed medical facilities.

Their guilt at ‘putting her into a home’ after years of promising this would never happen because they wouldn’t allow it, bore down on them with each visit.  They had no choice.  They told her so vehemently, lovingly, continually.  They had held it off way past the point of no return.  They all loved her – a love/hate of decades of baggage churned around them  – extremes of adoration mixed with resentment, encased in shrouds of guilt.  How could they do to her what her father had done?

When her time came they kept a vigil for six days, rostered between them, keeping her beloved music playing, not leaving her alone  – she must not be alone.  The relief was tangible when she slipped away.  How could fate choose someone so brilliant, so intelligent, to play such a cruel trick on.  But she had made it to 86!  She had hung in there and not let it beat her, as she had done all her life.  The warmth and glow of her personality, her star-quality was gone, but the treasured memories of these and of her attainments overrode the negative feelings, the baggage.  They clung onto the positives and gave her a star’s send-off.

(C) Jud House  10/06/2013

* * * * *

THESIS – THE WRITING OF ‘MADAM PELE: A Contemporary Fantasy Novel’

What led me to write my novel ‘Madam Pele’, as a contemporary Mythical Fantasy novel – including discussions of both literary theory and influential authors of several genres.

For those of you who wish to view the complete Thesis, the following Link takes you directly to my Thesis page within the Edith Cowan University Repository.   Click on Madam Pele: novel and essay to open, then scroll and read the complete Thesis.

Below is a Synopsis laying out the format of the Thesis.


In this essay I cover contemporary theoretical considerations, such as Modernism, Postmodernism and Fantasy, and the influences of various authors’ writing techniques, descriptive language and narrative-plot genres, that led me to want to write my novel Madam Pele as a contemporary mythical fantasy.

Naturally, my personal experiences form the foundation of the novel, especially those in Hawaii which contribute to its scope, but writing style is of equal importance.  In order to demonstrate what has led me to this stage of style development and position of perceptions, my early reading history and an analysis of the influential authors is a necessity.

‘Travelogue’ novels.

My definition of a ‘travelogue’ novel is one that describes the details of a journey to another country or location, as the vehicle for the story which is often secondary to those details.  I discuss two influential ‘travelogue’ novels: A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble, and Faraway by J B Priestley.

Crime novel plotting.

Having, over the years, accumulated an extensive library in Crime/Mystery fiction, with their often complex logical plots, I have learned not only to apply my analytical mind, by focussing on minutiae, but have gained a firm grounding in plot construction.

Analysis of influential authors.

Moving through the works of various authors I rejected many and was drawn closely to others.  I found that the novels that remained embedded in my mind contained the elements of satisfying plots, and mystery that was not always criminal, as I was drawn towards fantasy fiction.

Modern and Postmodern characteristics.

I discuss what characteristics constitute Modernism and Postmodernism, listing them as gleaned from my studies of Literary Theory, and reinforcing it with quotes from  Lewis and Moss.

Descriptive Language.

I define some literary terms, such as metaphor, simile, metonymy and synecdoche, and the specified or unspecified tenor of these language tropes which were often used figuratively.  They could all evoke an image that was instantly recognized, including the connotations of the chosen likenesses, and the baggage of intertextuality, the resultant image suggested – imagery contributing to the clarity of the wit, humour and landscape of the authors’ texts.

A particular knack with words.

Under this heading I deal with those authors whose works demonstrate this particular language use, plus aspects of literary theory that have been influential to my writing style.

Dylan Thomas:  I discuss Dylan Thomas’s use of evocative language in his prose, in some detail, referring to works such as Quite Early One Morning, HolidayMemory, and Under Milk Wood.  I love his prose.  It is easy, enjoyable, and engaging to read, written to be read aloud so that the music of the language can be heard.

P G Wodehouse:  While his plots and characters provide some comic nature to his stories, I believe the main contribution comes from his use of language, his surprising descriptive imagery, his use of metaphors and similes.  They engender chuckles that swell to gales of laughter.  I discuss this aspect of his writing, referring to Galahad at Blandings to illustrate my views.

Tim Winton:  Like P G Wodehouse, Tim Winton is a crafter of words, with the gift of creating evocative imagery.   I discuss his novel Lockie Leonard, HumanTorpedo, with its colloquial Australian language; followed by a detailed analysis of his novel The Riders and the Postmodern aspects of its text, including fantasy elements.

William Golding:  In his novel, Pincher Martin, Golding depicts the plight of a man lost at sea during the war, struggling to survive the elements while stranded on an isolated rock.  This novel demonstrates a Bakhtinian notion of ‘self’, as the protagonist strives to retain his identity without a reflected image or his view of himself as seen by others.


            After defining Fantasy, Imagery and the Imagination, arguing for the legitimacy of fantasy as a general product of the imagination in line with Coleridge, Tolkien, and Le Guin’s opinions, I indicate the different types of Fantasy – High Fantasy, Sci-Fi Fantasy, and Realistic Fantasy – pointing out that my novel, Madam Pele, falls between High Fantasy and Realistic Fantasy, containing as it does authentic mythology presented within a real setting.

Analysis of influential authors.

High Fantasy.

I discuss J R R Tolkien’s views expressed in his essay On Fairy Stories, using an extract from my Honours thesis most of which I have included as an Appendix.

Sci-Fi Fantasy.

Briefly I discuss the works of Julian May, and glanced at “the increasingly inaccurately named Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy” byDouglas Adams.

Realistic Fantasy.

            The authors under this heading constitute my main focus as they deal with the area that I have chosen for my own novel.  Each has its own area of fantasy that is relevant to my work as indicated.

William Golding:  one step outside reality in The Inheritors.

Patricia Wrightson:  re her rock character in The Nargun and the stars.

Daphne Du Maurier: her temporal slippage between medieval and current Cornwall in The House on the Strand.

Susan Cooper: re her detailed use of medieval myths and symbols to authenticate her Dark is Rising series

J K Rowling: re the compounding complexities of her wizard world narratives.

Contemporary Fantasy.

This refers to other authors using postmodern format for fantasy, who opened doors for me to future writing possibilities.

Madam Pele : the novel.

My goal was to recreate an authentic myth into a contemporary literary myth including sufficient elements of the realistic novel to provide access to modern readers.  This section illustrates the methods that I used to achieve this.

Madam Pele – outline.

This gives a brief synopsis of my narrative, covering both the Hawaiian holiday taken by Di and Paul, but also their present predicament in Perth and their interaction with Madam Pele.

The importance of Madam Pele.

I discuss the importance of the character of Madam Pele to my narrative, through which her own story interweaves.

Postmodern characteristics.

I relist these characteristics and discuss their relevance within my narrative.

Geometric plotline.

This explains my geometric way of looking at the plotline, and includes a diagram.


After defining the term, devices, I then discuss each device individually, showing how and why I have used it as a writing technique, under the subheadings: Dialogue; Non-essential descriptions; Patterns; Voices; Active Verbs; Free Verse; Inserts; ‘Travelogue’ nature.



I mention that I hope my demonstration was successful regarding my reasons for writing my novel, Madam Pele, as a contemporary mythical fantasy, and that it indeed stands up as such – the implausable becoming reality with the Pele myth incorporated into the contemporary world.



In the novel, BLISS, Peter Carey used a number of narrative devices to facilitate the conveyance of the story.  The most significant of these was his use of storytelling – he created narratives within a narrative, or what Robert Scholes called fabulation in his book ‘FABULATION AND METAFICTION’ (Scholes, cited Dovey, 1983)  For example, by the means of Vance’s story of New York:

In New York there are towers of glass.  It is the most beautiful and terrible city on earth.  All good, all evil exist there. . . . If you know where to look, you can find the devil.  That is where he lives. . . . But New York is full of saints, they . . .” (Carey, 1982 p. 18).

Carey was able to introduce the ideas of power, evil, goodness, and fascination with America generally, and New York in particular into the story.  This fabulation was varied and involved many of his characters.

Primarily the stories told to Harry by his father, Vance, then retold by Harry to his family, friends and work associates, were the basis for Bettina’s dreams and aspirations of success, while they became a security blanket for Harry in times of stress.  From them sprang the lies and dreams of his son, David, who wanted to be able to tell stories like his father.  When he discovered that he had no talents for narration, he determined to live out a story of his own devising, even though it led to his death.

Alex Duval’s secret, truthful reports were another variation of storytelling, and another device for bringing the theme of cancer and corruption to the attention of the reader.  It also re-introduced the message of punishment for wrong-doing which gradually built up within the story.

Honey Barbara’s stories of her commune home, of Krishna and folk-law, and even of the ‘dream police’, were also a form of fabulation.  They suggested an alternative lifestyle to the corrupt, degenerate one that Harry was currently living – a tempting Paradise as a foil for the Hell in which he felt trapped.

Bettina’s advertisements, and her dreams of New York, were also fabulation, providing her character with substance and a sense of reality.  At the asylum the old man, Nurse, who wrote down his memories so he wouldn’t forget them after treatment; the matron, Alice Dalton, who told the boy scouts about the business of running an asylum; at the restaurant Aldo, with his  story of his cancer and its treatment with marijuana; from the circus, Billy de Vere, who told the elephant story which became a reality, and a nightmare for Harry – all added their individual stories to the composite narrative.

By using these individuals to tell their separate stories, Carey was able to present the reader with a variety of viewpoints, despite the fact that he had the overall narrative being presented by a single narrator, who was eventually revealed as one of Harry and Honey Barabara’s children.

In the movie this use of narrator was altered, although it was still a device used to draw the viewer’s attention to the theme of storytelling throughout the movie.  It opened with Harry (in the present) telling a story, which he called ‘The Vision Splendid’ as told to him by his father.  This immediately introduced the viewer to the religious nature of the coming movie, yet what followed didn’t initially seem so.  Rather the next scene showed family and friends at the aftermath of a dinner-party, drinking, smoking, swearing and appearing generally debauched.  This device of visual gluttony and degradation was used as a device several times in the movie to draw attention to the Hellish nature of Harry’s existence.

The next narrator, who we recognised as an older Harry, then took over the narration to tell of Harry’s deaths, madness, and final move to Paradise.  At this point the narration changed from third person to first as Harry’s identity as the narrator was affirmed.  But the final scene was narrated by his daughter, as he was unable to tell of his own final death.

Carey used this story-telling device to work for his characters as well as against them.  When Harry got caught up in the elephant story he lost control – he was in a story not of his father’s making or of his own telling.  But it was significant that he solved the problem by telling the only original story he was ever to tell.  Unfortunately, this clever use of the device was omitted from the movie, with Harry’s reward of freedom being attributed to the relinquishing of the marijuana to the police.  Ultimately, however, Harry was able in both book and movie to attribute his freedom to being good, and thus begin his ascent out of Hell.  This was indicated in the book when ‘ . . .  the taxi drove him across the bridge, the river below appeared as black as the Styx.’ (Carey, 1982, p. 73).

Carey used shift in time as a device to introduce Vance’s stories from the past, and to take us into the future to see David’s demise.  However, although the directors had the ideal medium for exploiting time-shift scenes, they rarely took advantage of it, showing the adult Harry with his father as a dream rather than a true jump back in time.  By contrast, Carey’s adroit use of this time-shift device, linked as it was to the story-telling device, kept the reader involved and gave them a hindsight for what was to follow.

While sex and cancer were themes of the story I believe that they were also devices which were used as markers in the story.  Initially sex was graphic and rampant, used to mark people’s relationships with each other, and thus to the whole story.  The fact that Harry was unaware of the debauchery around him was used to heighten the shock experienced by him when he did see it.

Sex was also a commodity, to be bought and sold – Lucy with David to buy her drugs, Honey Barbara with Harry for the first time as a means of giving in to the Hell in which he lived, Bettina with Joel as a mark of power to be gained in their prospective futures.  But sex had a double edge – it could be used for good or evil.  Honey Barbara represented the good, wholesome capacities of sex, while Bettina and Joel’s led to self-destruction.

The text was marked by sexual episodes, both in the book and the movie, until Harry found Honey Barbara in the car on his front lawn.  That episode marked the attaining of sexual bliss, and after that sex was only implied for the rest of the story – even when Harry finally reached Paradise and won Honey Barbara back with his tree-planting love-letter we only knew they’d had sex because we discovered the offspring as a narrator.

When sex ceased directly to mark the text, and as the arguments slowly disintegrated the household and Honey Barbara’s strength, we saw her reduced to her original status as a commodity.  Sex as a device was supplanted by the device of money as a power to be controlled in the lives of all at Harry’s house.

Cancer was a very important marker in the story, creeping insidiously into the story, as it would through a body.  It was used three times specifically to make the reader more aware each time of its importance to the story.  Aldo was the first cancer victim to mark the narrative.  His case was dealt with in a low-key way.  The second cancer marker was the wife of Harry’s client, Adrian Clunes, who described quite graphically how his wife had cancer.  “She weighs four stone and six pounds and everyone comes, like ghouls, to look at her.  Our friends are nice enough to stay away, . . . ” (Carey, 1982, p. 117)

At this point the Cancer Map was introduced, a device which strengthened Harry’s resolve to fire his client as his first constructive step towards being good and getting out of Hell. The map was the concrete evidence of the cancer symbol that was used to show that life in the city, and in society, was like a cancerous growth festering and nurtured from within – fed on foul air, drink, smoke, pollution, petrol fumes, in fact most commodities.

Bettina’s cancer was the final marker, closest to home, affecting the reader directly because she was one of the main characters – not just a friend or an associate’s wife.  Her explosive death, and Joel’s subsequent suicide signalled an end to Harry’s Hell, and his enslavement by Bettina to the advertising business.  He escaped to Paradise and safety, yet seemed to take some of his Hell with him, as he found the rainforest initially unreceptive, and Honey Barbara hostile.

Death was not only a theme throughout the narrative, but was also a device with which Carey manipulated both his characters and the reader.  We knew in advance, for example, that Harry would die by the end of the story, as the opening lines were “Harry Joy was to die three times, but it was his first death which was to have the greatest effect on him,. . .” (Carey, 1982, p. 7)  This statement/opening device prepared us for the story to follow, though not for the extremes that it would take.

The text was liberally sprinkled with deaths which were either drug-induced, cancerous, or suicidal – all unnatural deaths.  Even the final, ultimate death of Harry was caused by a branch of one of his beloved trees falling on him – even in Paradise he wasn’t really safe from death.

In the movie symbolism was used as a narrative device implying by its presence the presence of its associate.  An example of this was the use of cockroaches which first appeared emerging from Harry’s chest after his open-heart surgery.  They represented, by their connotation of the lowest-of-the-low, the embodiment of Hell.  Later they were to appear crawling across Harry’s bedroom wall, with its pseudo-Paradise mural, in the scene where Honey Barbara was reduced to her commodity status – Harry told her that she knew how much she cost him to keep, so she was not to say she didn’t love him.

Another device used in the movie to represent the presence of Hell was a musical motif – a sliding down a semi-tone on a violin string, slightly distorted, creating an unnerving, uncomfortable yet sad feeling.  This was effectively used during the period of time following Harry’s operation, and his second imagined death, until his escape to Paradise – the rainforest.

The movie directors were able to use many devices symbolically.  Apart from the cockroaches, music, and sardines to represent the evidence of sexual misbehaviour, they were able to show visually the degradation of the city, its traffic, its pollution from smoking chimneys, car fumes, rubbish, and its greyness.

Allied to this the degradation of the people was seen by showing the stained linen, both bed and table, the clutter of unwashed plates, cutlery, glasses, full ashtrays that filled a scene, with the people an integral part of the debauchery.  All characters were shown smoking, a symbol of cancer, continually, during meals, meetings, sex, arguments, parties, and working.  This device showed how evil and Hell had pervaded all of society.

Against this the directors were able to portray the rainforest as green, glistening, clean, filled with singing birds and rippling streams.  When Harry entered this Paradise he had to pass through a fire, symbolic of cleansing, to reach safety – the precarious nature of which was noted-by-device of having a burning branch fall directly behind Harry as he thought of safety.

The ultimate movie device was the viewpoint of the camera – used most effectively to show Harry’s out-of-body experiences at his first death, including the Heaven and Hell visuals, and his final death as he rises to the tree-tops to be inhaled by the trees.

Carey in his book endeavoured to present the narrative by using devices as a movie director would – cutting from scene to scene, shifting in time, using markers as a director would use symbols.  And most effectively, he allowed the story-telling of his characters to tell the story for him.

(C)  Jud House  28/08/2005


Carey, P. (1982).  BLISS.  London: Picador, Pan Books Ltd.

Carey, P. (1981).  EXOTIC PLEASURES. London: Picador, Pan Books Ltd.

Dovey, Teresa “An Infinite Onion: Narrative Structure in Peter Carey’s Fiction”, ALS, Vol 11, No 2, Oct 1983, pp. 195-204.

Sibree, Bron “Carey Faces up to Fame”, WEST AUSTRALIAN paper, Saturday August 10, 1991

Turner, Graeme “American Dreaming: The Fictions of Peter Carey”, ALS, 12, 4, 1986, pp.431-441.

Willbanks, Ray. (1992) SPEAKING VOLUMES: Australian writers and their work.  Melbourne: Penguin.

* * * * *


The construction of the female characters in the book text of ‘My Brilliant Career’ was different from their representation in the movie text.  In the book we are exposed to the narrator’s biassed view of the relevant characters, while in the movie, despite Sybilla still acting as narrator, we are presented with a more general characterization of women in turn-of-the-century Australia.

In the story women were portrayed as of lesser importance than men, with various roles according to their status – Sybilla was fair game to Harry Beecham as a servant in a blossom tree, yet out of bounds as the grand-daughter of the house.  Within her household Sybilla’s mother is a powerful figure, but her husband still dictated where they lived and worked.

Sybilla’s grandmother was also a powerful figure at Caddagat (with authority even over Uncle Jay Jay in relation to Sybilla), Aunt Helen below her, then Sybilla, followed by the maids on a much lower level and having power only between themselves and their relative positions in the work-force.

Yet they were all women, with feelings, needs, hopes and desires, all of which were considered, by themselves as well as by men and society in general, as secondary to those of the men around them.

. . . it was only men who could take the world by its ears and conquer their fate, while women, metaphorically speaking, were forced to sit with tied hands and patiently suffer as the waves of fate tossed them hither and thither, battering and bruising without mercy. (Franklin, M. 1979, p.33)

Against this second-rate status Sybilla rebelled openly.  And she saw, as the main culprit for maintaining this, marriage that subjugated a woman’s independence of thought and personality.  She stated “Marriage to me appeared the most horribly tied-down and unfair-to-women existence going . . . . I laughed at the idea of love, and determined never, never, never to marry.” (Franklin, M. 1979, p. 31 & 32)

In the movie Sybilla’s mother was portrayed as she’d have been in reality – with the film-makers’ hindsight of the period – as hardworking, weighed down by the struggle to keep the family fed and together, despite the drought and a lazy, drunk husband, yet maintaining a semblance of refinement.  As evidence of this, although the house was little more than a timber shanty, there were clean lace curtains at the windows, photos in silver frames, and an in-tune though honky-tonk piano in the parlour.

She remained practical in the face of a continually growing family (due to no contraception), yet could not face the humiliation of fetching her husband from the pub – that was for Sybilla to bear.  She saw the need to send Sybilla away to work, to help support the family, as an obvious practicality, rather than as Sybilla saw it – as a punishment.

In the book her Mother was shown as hard, unyielding, lacking in kindness and under-standing, and intolerant of Sybilla’s ideas and desires.  She appeared to treat Sybilla as a possession to be packed off to Grandmother, then redirected to the M’Swat’s as it suited her.  Yet we do see, underlying this characterisation of her mother by Sybilla, the latter’s understanding of the forces that have reduced her beautiful refined mother to behave as she did.  We see this from Sybilla’s point of view and are sympathetic with her (from our own position of acceptance and equality in society).  Yet we are able to recognise her mother’s hardships, her subsequent bitterness, and her need to take this out on her eldest daughter, who she saw as unmarriageable due to a lack of beauty, and a rebellious and outspoken nature.  She saw her as being an indefinite burden on her stretched resources.

Sybilla’s grandmother was characterised, in both book and movie, as very Victorian, with rigid views about a woman’s place in society and the home, how she should behave with decorum and modesty, show refinement and manners.  She was affronted at the idea of Sybilla going on the stage – but more because it was her granddaughter – and totally disregarded Sybilla’s views on the matter.

Against this arbitrary decision-making by others, on her behalf and without any concern for her thoughts or feelings, Sybilla also rebelled.  Likewise, upon receiving her mother’s letter informing of her transfer to the M’Swat’s as a governess, her indignation and horror was extreme.  “The steel of my mother’s letter entered my soul.  Why had she not expressed a little regret at the thing she was imposing on me?” (Franklin, M. 1979, p. 162)  When asked by her grandmother for her response she exclaimed, “Say?  I won’t go!  I can’t!  I won’t!  Oh, grannie, don’t send me there – I would rather die.” (Franklin, M. 1979, p. 162)

In the movie Grandmother was shown as caring for Sybilla, but as less kindly than she was portrayed in the book – as a foil for the character of Aunt Gussie, who though out-spoken was more understanding of Sybilla, in whom she seemed to see herself as a girl.  In the book she was a less dominant, more formal figure – Sybilla called her Miss Beecham – and seemed to be there only as a chaperone in the background to add respectability to Sybilla’s visit.

While the movie portrayed these characters a little differently, and compressed the events to suit its running time it did portray the M’Swat family perfectly.  Although it omitted details such as Mr M’Swat’s diary, it did show Sybilla’s degradation, as she gradually became dirtier and more depressed.  The power struggle between Sybilla and Mrs M’Swat was clearly shown, as was the futility of the existence in the cultural desert of the M’Swat’s squalid home.  However, in the scene where the children read the story from the pages of newspaper that lined their walls, the movie also left the viewer with a feeling that Sybilla’s time had not altogether been wasted.

In the book, I was held captive by Sybilla’s misery and frustration with the injustice of her situation.  It was hard to believe in the kindness of the M’Swats, although Sybilla stated quite clearly that they were kind, or in the degree of their squalor and ignorance – the movie, however, clarified this giving it reality.  Aunt Helen and Grandmother could not believe in this squalor when they received Sybilla’s pleading letters.

Just as the M’Swats were ignorant of the refinement and better quality of life and possessions to be gained by the use of their money, so was the wealthy Grandmother at Caddagat ignorant of how base the lives of others, like the M’Swats, could be.  Both the book text and the movie text showed this fact clearly – the movie with a cut to a quick scene at Caddagat, its lush green formal surroundings a stark contrast to the mud and haphazard hovels of the M’Swat’s farm.  Aunt Helen, in her elegant clean gown was seen discussing another letter from Sybilla with Grandmother, their disbelief apparent.

Miss Derrick was portrayed in both media as representing everything that a woman should be in society:

Miss Derrick brought herself and her dress in with great style and airs. . . . She sat down with great indifference, twirled her bracelet round her wrist, languidly opened her fan, and closed her eyes as she wafted it to and fro. . . . She would adorn the head of his [her husband’s] table.  She would never worry him with silly ideas.  She would never act with impropriety.  She would never become a companion to her husband. (Franklin, M. 1979, p. 121, & 122)

Obviously, Miss Derrick was everything that Sybilla rebelled against being.  In both media the latter was represented as a strong character, outspoken, intolerant of the attitudes of society towards the downtrodden generally, and women in particular.  She was treated as an adult, expected to marry well to help the family , yet sent to her room like a child as punishment for a prank.  Another example of this dual treatment was evident in the ultimatum she was indirectly given – marry Harry Beecham or be sent to the M’Swat’s farm as a governess/servant.  She was expected to make a decision about marriage, but not allowed to make a decision against going to the M’Swat’s.  Virtually all other decisions were made for her by her mother or hergrandmother.

Sybilla’s character in the book text was more confused and unpredictable, less outwardly loving and maternal than in the movie.  In the book she hated being touched by a man, resisted all attempts at being kissed – one very violently with a whip, which  symbolized power throughout the story, and male dominance over female – and yielded antiseptically to a parting kiss from Harry when he left, broke – it was accepted, but not enjoyed.  Yet in the movie she was shown romping in the parlour in a man’s arms, and pillow-fighting in the meadows, openly trying to provoke Harry into taking some form of action.  When he finally did she rebuffed him, as mentioned, with a whip.

Later when Harry came to claim her, in the movie she turned him down compassionately, and maternally kissed his forehead.  Yet in the book this scene was much more passionate.  In answer to one of his many pleas she said bitterly, “. . . leave me; go and marry the sort of woman you ought to marry. . . . A good conventional woman, who will do the things she should at the proper time.” (Franklin, M. 1979, p. 221 & 222)  There was no farewell kiss – instead, she wrote him a note which she gave to him as he was leaving the next day.

At this point in the narrative, I as a reader lost some sympathy for Sybilla.  Admittedly she was very confused – she seemed to want to marry him, yet resisted, believing “I am not good enough to be your wife, Hal, or that of any man” (Franklin, M. 1979, p. 222)  To me this statement was hypocritical – she did to him what she resented being done to her – she made a decision on his behalf.  In the movie, however, the audience’s sympathy is maintained as her reason for not marrying was quite clear – she wished to remain independent, and believed that by marrying and joining her life with someone else’s she would lose this independence.

As a sixteen year old would probably be, Sybilla was very confused, and constantly referred to her egotism, which she didn’t want to become sublimated to a man.  Her egotism seemed to be a lifeline – a means of preventing her from becoming just another woman in society if she could manage to keep it intact.  In the movie egotism was not mentioned, her character was much clearer, less confused and more mature, and her objectives in life were more defined.

The movie ended with her standing at the gate in the peaceful and greening landscape.  A feeling of hope for the future and contentment with choices made was the overriding effect.  Sybilla seemed to be finally at peace with herself.  Although the ending of the book was similar, I was left with a feeling of dissatisfaction for things left unresolved.

In conclusion I believe that the differences in the construction of the female characters between the book text and the movie text were important and justified.  The film-makers needed to portray the story that Miles Franklin wrote in a believable and balanced fashion.  An audience would not really credit Sybilla’s mother as being as hard as her daughter depicted her, and it was important that this audience be kept in sympathy with Sybilla.

The Directors, by being able to cut from scene to contrasting scene, to make their visual and audible media work for them, were able to show in moments what Miles Franklin took pages to describe.  After all, they had a limited time in which to tell their captive audience a story that could be read over any period of time at liesure.  So despite needing to compress scenes, omit characters, events and symbols ( e.g. the power symbol of the whip), the Directors were able to portray the essential elements of the book – in particular the struggle needed to attain womanly independence in the Victorian society of turn-of-the-century Australia.

(C) Jud House 28/08/2005


Clancy, Jack  Bringing Franklin up to Date: The Film of My Brilliant Career Jack Clancy in ALS, Vol 9, 1979-80, pp 363-367

Coleman, Verna (1981). Miles Franklin in America: Her Unknown (Brilliant) Career. London: Angus and Robertson.

Franklin, Miles Childhood at Brindabella, My First Ten Years  Sydney: Arkon (paperback), Angus and Robertson.

Franklin, Miles (1979).  My Brilliant Career.  Sydney: Arkon  (paperback), Angus and Robertson.

Franklin, Miles (1981).  The End of My Career.  New York: St.  Martin’s Press.

Mathew, Ray (1963) Miles Franklin, Australian Writers and Their Work series, Melbourne: Lansdown.

McInherny, Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career and the Female Tradition, ALS, Vol 9, 1979-80, pp 275-285.

* * * * *


Picture story books give children the opportunity to experience multi-layered narrative, to read and write a text at the same time in that they can be entertained by a text on its simplest level as well as becoming engaged in the active pursuit of complex meanings.  Such books are saying: ”there is not one story one voice here, but many”.

* * *

The experiencing of multi-layered narrative in any book, fictional, non-fictional or pictorial, comes under the umbrella of post- modernism.  Geoff Moss writes:

Broadly speaking, postmodernism pictures a subjective, relativistic world which is …. perpetually in construction, perpetually contradictory, perpetually open to change. (Moss, 1992, pp. 54-55)

Texts may be written with several narratorial voices, giving different perspectives, points-of-view – “not one story one voice … but many”.  There may be many different stories told within the one book, or gaps left in the text for the reader to fill in as they think appropriate – “becoming engaged in the active pursuit of complex meanings”.

In children’s picture books this can take the form of pictures that do not match the text, pictures without any text at all, or pictures that give more details to the story than the text gives – children “read and write a text at the same time in that they can be entertained by a text on its simplest level”.  This applies equally to children who cannot read, to whom the story is read, as well as to those who can.  All gather information from the pictures accompanying the text, according to their understanding, to their perceptions.  According to D Lewis:

we attend to and ‘read’ both pictures and words.  They act upon each other so that … we read the pictures through the words and the words through the pictures…. This … interaction between word and image in the picture book is [a] … reason for the form’s extraordinary openness and flexibility. (Lewis, 1990, p.141-142)

Come away from the water, Shirley by J Burningham is a good example of a postmodern children’s picture book.  The book is divided into two different narratives told on opposing pages – the parents’ dull world on one, facing Shirley’s exciting imaginary world on the other.  The illustrations are contrasting in style – box-framed, pale-tinted, line drawings with little background for the parents; and boldly colourful, detailed pictures for Shirley – thus underlining the difference between the two.

The cover and the title page, with map in between, give an indication of the type of story about to be experienced – that of a little girl’s pirate adventure with her dog.  The opening story page shows, in a white-bordered picture, the mother, father and an eager Shirley (shown running happily) crossing the shingles beside a groin wall, with a dog following and presumably with them.  The parents are laden with adult beach paraphernalia, while Shirley is unencumbered.  The text already sets the tone of what is to follow – a negative re swimming for Shirley, usually top on most children’s list for beach fun.  When the page is turned the reader sees that that bordered, first page illustration belongs to the adult narrative.

The next and succeeding pages show the parents sketchily illustrated and always confined by a line-border on the left hand page, while Shirley and the dog, with various props and imaginary people, are on the right hand, framed by a fuzzy-edged white border.  This form of bordering the pictures indicates to the reader that in Shirley’s fantasy world there is more freedom.

The adult world is boxed in with constraints, which the text in the form of a continuing dialogue endorses.  A subversive feature of this dialogue is the lack of periods at the end of each sentence (until the final page), creating the impression of a continual stream of negative directives issued by her mother to Shirley as to how she should play.  Many pages contain the word “don’t”.  Meanwhile, the parents, their faces registering mild contentment, do boring adult things – put their chairs up, fill and smoke a pipe, read a paper, knit, pour coffee from a thermos, sleep, then wake and leave.

There is not much to hold a child’s attention on the parents’ pages – mundane events with little detail to look at equates with little interest.  On the opposite pages, Shirley embarks on a sea voyage with the dog, which during the course of the parents’ text we learn does not belong to her: “Don’t stroke that dog, Shirley, you don’t know where he’s been”. (Burningham, 1977, p.8)  Not only are the pictures bright and eventful, but they lack an obstructing text, thus allowing the readers to invent their own story – that is, write their own text – from the pictorial details provided.

During the ‘real’ time it took her mother to get out the thermos flask, pour coffee, hand it to her husband, and return the flask to the basket, Shirley spent hours in her ‘fantasy’ time: walking the plank, fighting and defeating the pirates, diving from the ship with the pirate flag and treasure map, reading the map while sailing with the dog in her boat rigged with pirate flag sails.  ‘Time’ is shown by the gradual setting of the sun in the consecutive illustrations, and makes perfect sense to a child who would see no disparity with the ‘time’ depicted by her mother’s actions on the parents’ pages.  While it races for adults, time drags for children.

In the parents’ pages, adults are represented as inattentive, overprotective, nagging and boring, while Shirley is created as a child in need of guidance by the mother’s commentary.  In Shirley’s pages adults are represented in pirate guise as violent, bullying, then inept, while she is portrayed as brave, resourceful, empowered (by the crown she finds in the treasure chest), and independent.  Bradford remarks:

the indeterminacy to which David Lewis refers, the gap between the two sequences … articulates and enacts the gap between Shirley’s world and that of her parents. (Bradford, 1994, p. 206)

In the penultimate pages the text on the left finally aligns with the picture on the right – the mother wakes the father:

“Good heavens!  Just look at the time.  We are going to be late if we don’t hurry.” (Burningham, 1977, p. 20)

On the right hand page, Shirley and the dog are seen travelling at night with a rising moon back towards the beach.  The blackness of the night sky gives a sense of urgency to the picture – children should not be out alone after dark.

The final full-page unbordered illustration sees Shirley firmly implanted in the adult world again, reluctantly leaving the beach dragging on the end of her mother’s arm.  There is no sign of her companion, the dog.  The story has returned to the one voice, the united story of Shirley and her parents.  In between coming to the beach and leaving it, there existed for Shirley, and for the reader, an escape from the boring ‘real’ world of parents.  If she could do it there at the beach, maybe she could take her fantasy life home with her, as indicated by the lack of confining border – “the child’s imagination [is] a powerful defense against the adult world.” (Bradford, 1994, p. 206)

There are a number of complex meanings underlying the text.  A subversive commentary on gender roles expressed via the illustrations, but not the text, is one.  Usually pirate adventures belong in the realm of boys, but here the protagonist is a girl who is just as brave and resourceful as any boy would be.  As blond-haired Shirley approaches the pirate ship, rowing the dinghy expertly, the male pirates spill over the sides waving their cutlasses threateningly.  The figurehead on the prow of their vessel is a stereotypical mermaid – naked to the waist with long blond hair.   Initially overpowered, Shirley walks the plank as a defeated female, but when rescued by the dog, turns the tables on the pirates and, like a boy would, wins the treasure map.

An important submerged meaning, I think, is that children can entertain themselves using their imagination if given the chance to do so.  They don’t necessarily need to be directed in play, monitored every waking minute of their day.  A good example is the picture of Shirley and the dog with the treasure chest (Burningham, 1977, p. 19) – the colours are ‘happy’ ones, pinks, mauves and yellows, and Shirley smiles with pleasure in her achievement – treasure can be found in the form of fun and self-entertainment if children will just use their imaginations.

Another example of a postmodern children’s picture book is My Place by Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins, aimed at a primary school age audience. Initially a history of a house in a street recorded backwards through the decades, it speaks with many voices of many races, recording not only the geographical changes but also the sociological ones.

A history book with a small ‘h’, the authors challenge ‘what’ is history, and ‘who’ is important in history – ordinary people rather than important political figures, marginalized people such as women, convicts, aborigines, ethnic groups, all given a voice in this book. Often with its sources as oral histories, rather than documentary, it breaks boundaries, and challenges the expectations of a History book. Most Australian history books start in 1788, written by white people about events seen from the white perspective.  This book goes beyond that, with its multiple points-of-view reflecting the  multicultural mix that is Australia.

Metafiction, an aspect of postmodernism, continually reminds the reader that texts represent life, that they are books. My Place may be a metahistory as at all times the reader is aware that the historical narrative is contained in book-form.  Refusing to be categorized, it may even fit into biography/fiction.  It is also a book that the reader can return to frequently to find details they missed previously, a thing children tend to do regularly – reread their favourite books gaining insight with each reading.

Comprising a text, with dates instead of page numbers, its complementary random illustrations frequently overflow their partial borders, giving an openness to the text plus additional information about the location and its occupants.  Geoff Moss writes that

because the picture book is a series of frames, materially marked by borders or page edges, and the portrayal of character or landscape is necessarily fragmented, it follows that each picture relates to a different subject position; each picture gives a new viewpoint. (Moss, 1992, p.63)

This is particularly true of My Place.  The history appears to be straightforward, until the map is scanned in detail.  The complexity and multiplicity of the history then becomes apparent as the reader focusses on the tree, the big house, the Millers/Mullers, the brickpits, the canal/creek, the drink factory, the pub and so on.

“In active pursuit of complex meanings” the reader flips back and forth from decade to decade in an attempt to place each separate place and family in the previous and following time-slot. The Aboriginal flag barred behind the window frame in the first page, 1988, is reflected in the final double-page landscape; the Aboriginal lifestyle in 1788, was vastly different from their lifestyle in 1988 (posing the question: is it better now?) – details obtained by interaction between the reader and book.

Moving in a circle there were aboriginal dwellers at the beginning and at the end of the book – but which is which?  Another boundary-breaking facet of postmodern texts is that they can be picked up and read from the middle outwards, from front to back, and from back to front, still forming an overall whole – subverting the way books are usually read.  This book does just that.  By writing from 1988 to 1788, backwards through time, is the book itself written back to front? Chronologically the decades run from the back of the book to the front, posing the question: is the back the front?

The multi-cultural nature of the occupants, not only of the house, but of the street, also provides a variety of narratorial voices.  Moving backwards, the families in residence were Aboriginal; Greek; Irish; Australian; German, with Chinese gardeners; American; English aristocracy, servants and convicts, and finally Aboriginal.  Many nationalities have many stories to tell, from their cultural viewpoints.

The revelation of the change in life-styles from the progressive 1988’s back through the two centuries to the more simple and less polluted times is quite ironic.  It questions what ‘progressive’ really means.  Are times better now with our technology, scientific knowledge, supposed social tolerance, and pollution problem, or were they better for the land when there were less people, less development and harder times socially and economically for the population?  This irony makes children, the book’s primary audience, aware that there is more than one way of looking at their world, and that “there is not one story one voice here, but many”.

(C)  Jud House   2/09/1997


Bradford, Clare. ‘”Along the road to learn”: Children and adults in the picture books of John Burningham’, Children’s literature in education V25(4) 1994, pp. 203-211.

Burningham, J.(1977) Come away from the water,Shirley  London: Red Fox Books

Lewis, D. ‘The constructedness of texts: Picture books and the metafictive’  Signal Vol 62, May 1990, pp.131-146.

Moss, G. (1992) ‘Metafiction, illustration and the poetics of children’s literature’ in Hunt (ed.) Literature for children: contemporary criticism.  London: Routledge.

Wheatley, N. & Rawlins, D. (1987)  My Place  Melbourne: Collins Dove


Bradford, Clare. ‘The changing picture book’ in Magpies v.5(5) Nov. 1990, pp.5-8.

Bradford, Clare. ‘The picture book: Some postmodern tensions’ in Papers: Explor- ations into children’s literature  v.4(3) 1993, pp.10-14.

Grieve, Ann. ‘Postmodernism in picture books’ in Papers: Explorations into children’s literature  v.4(3) 1993, pp.15-25.

Moseley, A. (1988)  ‘The journey through the “space in the text” to Where the wild things are’ in Children’s literature in education  Vol 19, No 2.

Nodelman, R. (1988) ‘Pictures, picture books and the implied viewer’ in Words about pictures: The narrative art of children’s picture books. Uni. of Georgia Press.

Rasmussen, B. (1987)  ‘Irony in picture books’  Orana  November 1987.

Richard, O. & MacGann, D.  ‘Audacious books and liberal education: The art of John Burningham’   WilsonLibrary Bulletin, May 1994, pp. 26-31.

Segal, Elizabeth (1981) ‘Picture books and princesses: The Feminist contribution’ Proceedings of the eighth annual conference of the Children’s Literature Association  in Ord, P. (ed.) University of Minnesota.

Sendak, M. (1977)  ‘The artist,as author: The strength of the double vision’  in Meek et al (eds.)  The cool web  pp. 241-256  London: Bodley Head.

Sorenson, M. (1993)  ‘The best job in the world’  A.B.R. No 154.

Stahl, J.D. (1990) “The theory and artistry of picture books’ in Children’s literature in Education. Vol 21, No 2.

Trites, R.  ‘Manifold Narratives: Metafiction and ideology in picture books’  Children’s literature in education  Vol 25(4), 1994, pp. 225-242.

* * * * *

DOROTHY PORTER – the monkey’s mask

Dorothy Porter opens her narrative verse novel with a poem from Basho:

Year after year
On the monkey’s face
A monkey’s mask. (vii)

and ends with these lines:

Mickey’s ghost walks
in this tropical rain

she swings in the fig trees

her voice
glistens green and wet

she’s growing dark

she’s wearing a monkey’s mask.

In the first quotation, the face of a monkey is its mask – we never learn what lies behind it, what it thinks, feels or experiences because monkeys have no language with which to express and reveal these things.  In the second quotation, Mickey, dead and no longer able to speak for herself, remains an unknown quantity where her thoughts, feelings and experiences are concerned.  She is only known by conjecture, based on the evidence of her poetry, and other people’s descriptions of her.  But even that ‘grows dark’, fades away as time passes and those who knew her, in person, and like Jill, by reputation, begin to forget her.  The memory of her will remain as a mask, unchanging, fixed in the ‘facts’ according to the person remembering her.

In between these references, Porter wrote, via the voice of Tony:

‘Once upon a time –
Mickey the Monkey
all knowing cunning

little hands

she knew where the  nuts

were hidden

and, jesus, she knew

how to squeeze – ….
Mickey the Martyr.’  (p. 194)

This endeavours to attribute monkey traits to Mickey – those of cunning, knowledge and control (really human characteristics that have been granted by humans to monkeys on the strength of the latter’s behaviour) – and see behind the mask of her identity: “’petite, pretty and only nineteen’”. (p. 52)

Throughout history masks have been used to conceal identity, whether for fun (like a masked ball) or for crime (armed robbery).  An additional benefit accompanying the anonymity is the freeing of the wearer’s inhibitions – as unknowns they need feel no behavioural constraints, often leading to quite bizarre actions by normally sober individuals.  The mask gives a facade, and hides the thoughts and feelings of the person behind it.

Metaphorically, society, and in particular the poetry society into which Jill moves during her investigation, is masked. Things are not what they seem, or are seen to be on the surface – in public, large ‘intimate’ gatherings for poetry readings; while behind the scenes the issuing of grants to struggling poets controlled with bigotry, animosity, and spite.

‘It’s a grabby, grotty world
not much to go around.
Blame patronage, Jill,
grants, fellowships,
all that crap . . .(p. 150)

                     …. the deadshits
with the contacts
and gift of post-modernist gab
grab what’s going.’  (p. 151)
[Apologies for misaligned text – computer will not comply.]

By presenting a public face, while hiding a private face, an individual is masked.  An example is Diana’s apparent superficiality – she teaches poetry at University, is sophisticated, “her hair honey-blonde/ streaks … she’s gritty/ she’s bright” (p. 26), and, as indicated by the books of “academic stuff” (p. 70) on her shelves at home, is “[i]ncessantly intellectual.” (p. 70)  That is her public persona.  But privately she is bisexual, promiscuous, devious, arrogant, and disloyal to all except her husband, Nick: “you love the bastard/ you cover his shit.” (p. 227)

Her behaviour with Jill is carefully orchestrated as a disguise to prevent the truth about Mickey’s death from emerging.  To Mickey’s poem called Bullets and knives Diana points the finger at Bill McDonald: “’stupid little fool/  mistaking born-again Bill/ for St Francis.’ (p. 108)  When after reading Your floating hair  Jill comments: “’This couldn’t be Bill McDonald /…he’s going bald’ , Diana replies: “’Infatuation is blind/ … and anyway she nicked the floating hair/ from Coleridge.’ (p. 111)  In reaction to If love was just talking, Diana identifies Bill as the recipient of the verse; and claims that the mysterious goddess is “’… a red herring./ We’re looking for a boy.’” (p. 123)  As Jill gets closer to the truth, Diana steps up her diversionary tactics, until at the end, when it is obvious that Jill knows that Nick accidentally strangled Mickey, her mask has been removed.

‘You can’t make
the mud stick, Jill,
you open your mouth
we’ll sue.’

she’s smiling
her eyes
show the black pit
of the old woman
she’ll become (p. 254)

Jill’s mask is only applied when tact is required of her, for example with Mickey’s parents, or when interviewing the students at the University and the flat, and the poets at the readings.  The rest of the time the reader is allowed behind the mask, seeing the narrative from Jill’s self-deluded point-of-view.  At first she compared her being in love with Diana with being Legless: “the cops should pick me up/  I can’t walk a straight line.” (p. 45)  As disillusionment set in, as she realised that Diana did not love her, she acknowledged that “she [Diana] always/ poisons everything /  enjoying herself/ behind her shades”. (p. 135)  Finally, realising that it was over with Diana, she indulged in a rave:

‘She’s worthless ….
She’s a virus …
she’s an opportunistic infection
she’s a tongue load of thrush
she’s needles and shingles
she’s the kiss of herpes
she’s a wasting flu ….
she’s gone ..’ ( p. 225)

I don’t believe that the use of poetry affects the significance of the title, as such.  But by the reading speed it grants the reader; by the gaps in the text of the narrative permitting and requiring reader participation; by the use of ‘pornographic’ language in frustration, exaggeration and anger, to shock the reader metafictionally back to the narrative; by the economy of language resulting in excellent imagery – “Tianna -/ looks like glandular fever/ and nicotine poisoning/ on legs -“ (p. 18); I believe the verse form facilitates and enhances the search for identities and the unmasking of the characters.

(C) Jud House  16/11/1997


Porter, D (1994) The Monkey’s Mask  South Melbourne:  Hyland House Publishing Pty Ltd

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