Review: The Anzacs by Patsy Adam-Smith

Cover of the Anzacs

The Anzacs by Patsy Adam-Smith, (Melbourne: Thomas Nelson Australia, 1985)

The fog rolled down the river and engulf our house. The cold and damp penetrated the walls and windows. Our only view, an opaque whiteness. Through the stillness, the sound of a lone bugler playing the Last Post reached us from the nearby cemetery. Another old soldier had died.

This was the house our family was living in when Patsy Adam-Smith published The Anzacs, her iconic history of Australian participation in World War I. Adam-Smith recognised that the 1970s were the last chance to talk to many of the surviving soldiers, so she interviewed veterans for her book as well as reading copious letters and diaries written during the War.

The Anzacs sold over 100,000 copies after it was published in 1978, at a time when Australia’s population was 14 million. But like other popular books, publishers were not very keen on it when Patsy Adam-Smith approached them seeking a contract. “It won’t sell. It’s about war,” one publisher said. This was the era of the peace movement and revulsion about the war in Vietnam. Compared to now, war histories were not prominent in bookshops. Continue reading

Maybanke Anderson: suffragist and social reformer

Change in a culture often occurs in fits and starts, in confusing whirls of ideas and protest followed by quiet periods where old orthodoxies percolate through society again but in a different guise. Reform digs in its heels. New form orthodoxies flex their muscles and then we find the times of protest, ideas and reform are upon us again. As we cycle through complacency, protest and reform injustices are gradually addressed.

This has been the life of the quest for equality of women and men. Undoubtedly enormous progress has been made over the last two hundred years. Yet despite hard-won gains, there is still so much that can be improved. An important aspect of the movement to equality is reviewing the history of human achievement and telling the stories of women’s achievements which have been forgotten over the passage of time or never properly recognised and told in the first place.

Book Cover of Maybanke Anderson bio

Maybanke Anderson 1845-1927: Sex, suffrage & social reform by Jan Roberts, published by Ruskin Rowe Press. This review is of the second edition published in 1997.

In writing the biography of Maybanke Anderson, Jan Roberts has ensured that the contributions of a leading educationist and prominent leader of social reform in New South Wales continue to be recognised. Maybanke Anderson was a leading public figure in the debates about the problems women and children faced in New South Wales during the 1890s and the early twentieth century. She established a school known for its high standard of education, was a leading light in the campaign for women’s suffrage, spent years working to establish free, high-quality kindergarten education and was the founder and editor of a feminist magazine.  She was one of a small group of women and men who pushed the issue of a better life for women to the front of public debate time again.

Jan Roberts has written an illuminating biography about Maybanke Anderson but Roberts faced a struggle to cover the early years before Maybanke became a public figure. A biography ideally covers the entire life of a person and accounts for the time before the subject became well known. Yet the documentary record before a person comes to prominence is often sparce  Continue reading

‘Thank you to my wife’ – unpaid work by women

1 man standing holding paper next to a woman typing

This photo from 1950 says it all. For much of the twentieth-century men wrote and dictated while women typed. Photo courtesy of the Museums Victoria. (Museums Victoria has an excellent open access policy and a large collection online – check it out)

Research and writing involves a lot of repetitive time-consuming tasks such as typing, editing, transcribing and formatting data. All the public hears about is the amazing discovery. The bulk of the work is essential but it can be rather monotonous and certainly not news-worthy.

Over the last few of days #ThanksForTyping has emerged on Twitter to recognise the wives of academics who did a huge amount of this unglamorous and unpaid but essential work for their husbands in the past.  Often the only public acknowledgement they received for this was a sentence noting the debt owed to ‘my wife’ in the acknowledgements of the book or thesis.

Bruce Holsinger from the University of Virginia started the hashtag and found some extraordinary examples:

That woman must have been a world champion in multi-tasking and juggling, but how much sleep did she get? She was a part-time lecturer in chemistry. Has she been properly recognised for her expertise in this field? Continue reading

Vale Jill Roe

Head and shoulders of Jill Roe with sandstone background

Jill Roe 1940-2017

It is with sadness we heard about the passing of Australian historian Jill Roe late last week. During her life she made a significant contribution to Australian history. Through her passing Australia has lost a great contributor to our society, but her work lives on and enriches our lives.

Jill Roe is best known for her biography of Australian literary icon, Miles Franklin. Stella Miles Franklin: a biography is the book she is most renowned for, and for good reason. It is not only a literary biography, it provides a window through which we can understand what it was like for an enterprising Australian woman to work and support themselves during the first half of the twentieth century. Stella Miles Franklin took Jill Roe twenty-six years to research and write. It is both highly regarded as an academic work and an engaging read for people wanting to read it for leisure. You can read the review I wrote of this impressive book in 2012.

Jill Roe dedicated much of her life to biography. She was the chairperson of the editorial board of the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) between 1996 and 2006. During this period the organisation won a substantial grant which allowed it to make the biographical entries freely available online. She is described in ‘The ADB’s Story‘ as “energetic, decisive and knowledgeable” and during her period at the helm observers noted she was an “effective negotiator”. During her life she contributed twenty entries for the ADB either as sole author or collaboratively. Just two months ago the ADB presented her with a medal for her services.

Continue reading

Challenge Completed!

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 logo

This review is part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

One of the joys after I finished my history degree was reading a book from cover to cover. This is the way most authors expect people to read their books, but when studying or working I found the pressure of deadlines meant that I simply mined a book for information through the index or a reference in another article or book. Worse still, my reading was terribly skewed towards male authors. At the beginning of 2012 writer, Elizabeth Lhuede started the Australian Women Writers Challenge to encourage bloggers to read more books by Australian women and to write reviews on their blogs and Good Reads. I joined and have enjoyed reading and reviewing histories, biographies and memoirs by Australian women for the last five years.

This year I have been working and have also been researching for my book about the beliefs of Australian men during World War I. I thought it would be a quiet year for book reviewing on this blog, but the universe had other plans. At the tail end of 2015 I stayed at a Canberra hotel which just happened to supply a history about the hotel written by Australian women historians in each room. So I started 2016 on this blog with a review for the Challenge – ‘A Quirky Hotel with a History’. Continue reading

A Lesson in Life: Book Review of Auntie Rita

Warning: This post contains references to Aboriginal people who are now deceased. The books and links referred to in this post may also contain references and images of deceased Aboriginal people.

ilw-2016Each July, book blogger Lisa Hill encourages bloggers to review books written by indigenous authors from around the world. She chooses ‘Indigenous Literature Week’ to coincide with the Australian annual celebration of indigenous culture, NAIDOC Week.

Book cover of Auntie Rita

Auntie Rita by Rita Huggins and Jackie Huggins (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1994).

This week was NAIDOC Week so I searched my book shelves for a book to read by an indigenous author. As I have already reviewed two new books by Australian Aboriginal authors this year (Finding Eliza by Larissa Behrendt and Pictures from my memory by Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis) I decided to review a highly regarded book from the 1990s. Twenty-two years after it was first published I have finally read Auntie Rita by Rita Huggins and Jackie Huggins.

Rita Huggins shares her life from her earliest years living on her country in what we know as Carnarvon Gorge in Queensland. The land sustained her Bidjara-Pitjara people but born in 1922, Rita Huggins and her people were in the sights of a government which was forcibly removing Aboriginal people from their land and into reserves. Rita Huggins tells of the traumatic day when she and her family were herded onto a crowded cattle truck and taken on a long journey south to what became known as the Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve. She never lived on her country again.

This book is not a standard memoir. It is also a dialogue between Rita Huggins and her daughter Jackie. At various points through the narrative Jackie Huggins expands on points her mother makes, add her memories and sometimes challenges her mother. In doing this both mother and daughter are unsettling the memoir genre. We are all social beings. We not only live in a social context, we are challenged and have to adjust our thoughts and behaviours in response to those we live and work with. Yet writing a memoir is one of the most solitary practices. The dialogue in this memoir gives us a peek into a mother/daughter relationship. While Auntie Rita quite rightly dominates the book, the reader at times has the feeling that they are at a kitchen table listening to Auntie Rita talk about her life with Jackie sometimes chiming in with a comment about what her mother is saying. Auntie Rita says: Continue reading

National Reconciliation Week Review: Pictures from my memory

Book cover

Pictures from my memory: My story as a Ngaatjatjarra woman by Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2016).

It is Reconciliation Week this week. An important aspect of the act of reconciliation in Australia is non-indigenous Australians listening, pondering and accepting the experiences of the first Australians. There are many ways we can participate. I chose to read the recently published memoir of a woman from the centre of Australia – Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis.

Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis is a Ngaatjatjarra woman who was born near the border of Western Australia and Northern Territory. Her parents met white people for the first time around the time she was born. Ellis explains that it was a time of extended drought in the desert which is why Ngaatjatjarra people decided to live in white people’s settlements. This is a reminder that first contact and colonialism occurred unevenly across the Australian continent.

Pictures from my memory is a story of achievement. Marrkilyi Ellis tells her story in a straight-forward manner. She proved adept at straddling the cultural divide from a young age. “I loved school”, she says. “I loved learning to read and write.” But she was also learning much from her family and community. While sharing her life story she explains to the reader some aspects of her culture in chapters about “belief systems”, “working and sharing”, “Aboriginal nights”. These chapters fit well within the narrative flow of her story. Continue reading