The future of collected letters of notable people is hard to predict. The ‘Collected Emails of…’ doesn’t really have an enticing ring. Who trusts email enough, anyway, to share intimate thoughts in them, as many of us have done, and may still do, in private letters to trusted best friends? Would anyone ever read The Collected Emails of… except for forensic purposes?
Poet Gwen Harwood told her close friends, Alison and Bill Hoddinott, to destroy her letters to them, then was piqued when they did. “Writers always say that. They don’t mean it,” she said; so they kept the rest. Alison Hoddinott has edited those from 1960 to 1964 in Idle Talk* covering some of Harwood’s most productive years. It is hard to imagine that emails would ever be so interestingly discursive, frank and gossipy as these letters are, but who knows what the future will bring? And letters are not done and dusted yet.
Literary scholars will be happy with this small collection of letters. And, as just a general reader, I felt involved for short time in Gwen’s life in a way that a biography might not have grabbed me. Events in published letters sometimes seem to be unfolding in real time. The reader may feel like shouting to prevent something happening, to warn of the likely consequences of something being cooked up. I did a bit of shouting at Gwen Harwood as she mounted her protests against sexism in the literary world. As she planned or executed yet another protest acrostic, or invented another identity to prove the extent and folly of the discrimination against her, the “lady poet”, “the Hobart Housewife poet”, I wanted her to stop. “Don’t Gwen. These guys know what they are doing, they’re loving your desperation”, (it’s recorded on the internet that one even pinched a line from one of Gwen’s poems that he had rejected for publication and used it as his own in a poem) “and they don’t care. You are not going to win this way against the boys club.”
But like so many women desperately needing an equal go, she thought that if she did just one more thing, excelled a bit more; if she could deceive them into recognising their unfairness, she would be accepted. I shouted a warning, but didn’t most of us try something similar in the ‘60s and ‘70s?
If you want to know what Gwen did in the post-Ern Malley years to try to force her way to acceptance as the fine poet she was, you should read this small book of letters. Of course she could not be ignored forever, and later decades brought lots of gongs and, in the end, the reputation she deserves in Australian literature. But it was a tough journey, hampered by domesticity, kids, expectations of hospitality… Despite my warnings of “Don’t Gwen”, when I feared she would just get smirks for her japes instead of acceptance, her value could not be suppressed.
In the same week as I bought Idle Talk, I received Racing the Boys**, about another woman’s determination to be and do what she wanted despite entrenched prejudice. Jacqueline Dinan, who wrote Between the Dances (2015), about Australian women in World War II, has chosen historical fiction as a way to present the story of Hedwick “Granny” McDonald, the first woman in NZ to be granted a professional horse-training licence. Granny’s star gelding, Catalogue, won the 1938 Melbourne Cup as an eight-year-old. Victorian Racing Club rules did not allow her to be shown as the trainer. It accepted female owners, but its prejudice against female trainers could not be budged for decades.
Hedwick “Granny” McDonald won around 1000 showjumping events before becoming a trainer
This is fact. The fiction is in the way Dinan imaginatively colours the facts, so there is almost heart-racing involvement in Granny’s determined struggle for acceptance.
Lucky Granny had performance facts and figures that contradicted every attempt to put her down because she was female; unlike poor Gwen whose work could be subjectively assessed and dismissed on opinion only.
It was officialdom that stood in Granny’s way, and officialdom, as Granny proved, could be quietly got around so long as she was willing to take a back seat now and then. And Granny had huge support from a horsey family held in high regard. She didn’t have kids like Gwen or feel much pressure to be anything other than she was: a tough small person with an enormous talent for training thoroughbreds. That doesn’t diminish her struggle. She was very smart at dealing with setbacks and prejudice, always at some cost, but at least she could afford to stick to her guns.
Jacqueline Dinan manages the invented conversations well. There is often awkwardness in invented direct speech inserted into historical fact but Dinan does better than most.
The name Granny that she was comfortable with, had nothing to do with age. She was an old soul, it seems, unconcerned by looks, from her early childhood when her family bestowed the name.
I’ll be thinking of Granny on Cup Day this year.
*Idle Talk, edited by Alison Hoddinott (Brandl & Schlesinger, NSW).
**Racing the Boys, by Jacqueline Dinan (Impact Press, NSW).