Current Issue #488

Dr K’s Curious Chronicles

Dr K’s Curious Chronicles

The Poisoned hat Pin

The Edwardian Age is often depicted as a time of prosperity and innocence — a peaceful interval — that punctuated the vigorous brutality of Victorian industrialism and the horrendous devastation of World War I. Many who survived the carnage of the Great War later recalled how the sun appeared to cast an enchanted light upon what they then assumed to be the eternal garden party of the British Empire.

The languid lull of the age indulged a new sense of South Australian exceptionalism, particularly in Adelaide. The early decades of European settlement had been influenced by social reformers dedicated to making their colony better planned, better managed and much more respectable than the garish penal outposts and vulgar gold-rush towns of Sydney and Melbourne. The years that followed Federation in 1901 witnessed a swing towards self-congratulatory conservatism in South Australia, licensing what Derek Whitelock evocatively described as the reign of ‘gimlet-eyed funereal zealots’ who insisted upon Sundays of ‘black sweltering clothes and bone numbing pews, padlocks on playgrounds, banned beaches’, and worst of all, no alcohol.

Into this world of pious – even peevish – respectability entered the firey and florid Thistle Anderson. A well-read, much- travelled Melburnian-Scot who had toured with J. C. Williamson’s theatre company, and published a little raunchy verse before marrying a well-to-do stockbroker from North Adelaide, Thistle refused to conceal her contempt for the narrow- minded ‘Churchianity’ of Adelaide society. Indeed, in a small book entitled Arcadian Adelaide, which she published in 1905, she energetically ridiculed the ‘self-constituted halo of excessive virtue’ worn among those she mockingly described as ‘villagers’.

Thistle bristled at the locals’ celebratory assertions regarding ‘Adelaide, Adelaide’. Contrary to the rapturous and repetitious praise of those who had never left what she considered an isolated town backing onto a great expanse of desert, Thistle had seen ‘the world’ and confidently declared to the villagers;  ‘your hills are not the greenest, or your morals the cleanest, or your shops the brightest’.

Contrary to assertions of refinement, Thistle considered the women ‘passing plain to look upon’, and the men almost all ‘narrow-minded bores’ she sneered. However, of the city’s many failings, which included ordinary pubs, sordid hotels, dirty lodging rooms and a tram system that brutalized horses, it was Adelaide’s false piety that most infuriated Thistle. ‘Ye people of Adelaide’ were ‘ostentatious in their charity’ and ‘outward respectability’ she riled, and yet there was, ‘little depth beneath the surface’, and certainly not much sincerity.

Despite their assertions of moral purity, Thistle insisted that brothels, prostitutes, opium dens and drunkards were significantly more numerous in Adelaide than the more densely populated Melbourne. Furthermore, and aiming where it would inflict the gravest injury, at least by today’s standards, Thistle declared the local wines were ‘the worst ever made’. ‘May a merciful God forgive Adelaide her wine’, she provoked with a flourish, advising residents that in the face of such a litany of woes, they would do well to relinquish their false pride and strive instead to ‘be a little more humble’.

Thistle had drawn blood, and within days all of Adelaide was rushing out to buy her book, then raging like a kicked hornet’s nest at what they read within. Outraged by what one commentator condemned as ‘forty pages of forty poison hat pins’, gossip writers responded to Thistle’s barbs by inflecting their newspaper columns with thinly veiled and genteel malice, which only ensured the book became a best seller, enjoying 10 impressions in the first year of publication. Thistle was surprised that she had tapped such a venomous and vitriolic vein; but she did not shrink from the attention, nor regret the considerable book sales.

After her husband died in 1912, the handsome Mrs Herbert Fisher, aka Thistle Anderson, left Adelaide to enjoy the liberal pleasures of Paris. Some 20 years later, in the spring of 1932, as South Australians struggled with the crippling humiliation of the Great Depression, a Mrs Clavering-Sherwin was spotted at the greyhound races in Adelaide. She had been an amateur journalist all her life, the 50-something year old conceded to the reporter from The Mail, and was here to report upon the dogs.

Yes, she had remarried and yes, she was the author of ‘that book, but …’, and we might imagine her gazing wistfully along North Terrace, ‘seeing it all now’, she confessed that she had ‘never realised how beautiful the city really was’. Perhaps the horrors of war and the hardship of the depression had humbled Adelaide, or at least softened its sanctimonious edges.

It is equally possible that after a glut of European sophistication and wartime suffering, our lady of the poisoned hatpin was better placed to appreciate the simple delights that her caustic cleverness had previously obscured.

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