On the Wallaby with a Victorian Lady.
'When I was asked to write something about the country which had extended its hospitality to me, and given me bread and cheese, sometimes no cheese, it is true and more often than not no butter, but always bread, and an ever increasing appetite--I must confess that I felt frankly scared.'
'There is a very good, if somewhat vulgar, expression in use out here, which speaks of anyone who attempts what is beyond them as "biting off more than they can chew." And the thought frightened me. There seemed to be so many people who had lived all their life in the country, and were therefore much more capable of writing about it than I could ever hope to be.'
When Elinor Mordant came to Australia in about 1901 Melbourne was her first Port of call. Soon after she arrived she gave birth to a son. She had practically no financial resources. Her husband a resident of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean had left her. She was a very independent person and did not write to her family in England for help. She organized a passage to Australia and was kindly treated by the Captain and crew of the ship on the voyage. As she reported in her Autobiography she undertook a whole series of different jobs and occupations in Melbourne although hampered with a baby son. She couldn't write for a living because she claimed the returns took so long to arrive. She had in fact recently published in London a book The Garden of Contentment about her experiences in Mauritius. She was artistic and began a series of artistic works and handicrafts. The elaborate decoration of houses was popular at the time so she started at designing and painting fabrics. It was a period of the art nouveau with curving lines of flowers and vines. She also took to designing embroidery patterns for needlework in the art nouveau style. This gave her enough to eat and a place to live in a not very nice room in downtown Melbourne.
Her book On the Wallaby is not a fiction book and it is not strictly autobiography. It is really her impressions of life and people in the State of Victoria in the first decade of the twentieth century. This was the period then called Edwardian but now often referred to as the Federation period. The book gives a fascinating view of Australians as seen by a working English woman's view. She was certainly not a wealthy upper class tourist.
She commences by giving a brief history of the settlement of Melbourne and then her first impressions of the young city. When the ship docked it is the stevedores and dock hands that impressed her and as she said they were incredibly different from those in England. They were bigger and broad shouldered and they looked better fed. 'They walked with vigour and spring--indeed with a sort of swagger moving more from the hip than the English dockhand and less with that weary lurch of the shoulders ... above all, they are extraordinarily clean ... while many of them were in spotless white overalls. However she did say that the Australian workmen were 'bumptious, he is cocksure, he is condescending 'I don't mind if I do' is his one form of accepting any proffered favour. He also does not cadge for tips and often resents being offered money. They know their own value they will give freely but they will not haggle or accept being underpaid.
The women are also commented upon. There is an amusing story of Mrs. Mordant waking the first morning in the Melbourne Coffee Palace. She was hiding under a sheet from the glare, there being no blinds. The maid awakened her and stood there saying 'My word you do look comfy'. She was dressed in 'a neat black dress and apron, with a suggestion of a cap, all quite orthodox but in addition she also wore a string of large imitation pearls.. This symbolized the difference in Australia. It was the same when she asked for some hot water to wash in. The maid gave a surprised stare. Then jerked her thumb in the direction of the door 'Bathroom room turn left.' The maid however did offer to run a bath for her. Then again the maid commented on her nice 'air. Her own hair was fair. Then when she asked how the maid knew she was from England she got the reply 'Know? Echoed the chambermaid scornfully. 'Why every kid 'ud know that--it's sticking out a mile.'
Then there was the man who got in the lift in the Coffee Palace and did not remove his hat and continued to smoke his cigar. Then she asked directions to the dining room she was told there were two. One dining room was up stairs where 'the toffs grub' and one down stairs but both serving the same food. The price up stairs was high and the down stairs was 'two courses for a bob' (one shilling) The only difference she discovered was that the up stairs the diner was given a serviette, (a table napkin). Ordinary people usually ate down stairs. Paper serviettes had not yet been invented.
One of her complaints about the city that will delight Sydney people and annoy those of Melbourne. She disliked the orderly arrangement of Melbourne Streets. She longed for a curve or a square. There was no open space with no trees or spot of green in the centre of the city. There were lovely gardens but too far away to be use to sit and have your lunch or just to sit and have peace for a moment or two. The streets were all too long and straight. She would have loved Sydney with its jumble of streets and its patches of green but she never commented on that city. She did discover one 'secret garden' beside St, James Church, the old Cathedral, in the centre of Melbourne and was able to retreat there. It was the only building that gave her a sense of age, so dear to the English. Australians always wanted to get out of the city to the bush or the beach on Sundays and not sit listening to sermons in some brick church. It was this desire to escape to the bush that fascinated her. She claimed that Australians had the bush in their blood and perhaps they had a different sense of God and Nature.
Elinor gave an account of an unusual happening that will give you some idea of her work. She had created some curtains using dye for painting with some Tudor roses on them. The woman who had commissioned them was slow in paying. She recorded that she was reduced to lying in bed for three days out of sheer weakness from want of food. Then 'on the fourth morning things changed. She had written a small book called Rosemary and sent it to a local publisher. By the post on the fourth morning there came a postal order for five shillings for some design or other; then a cheque for thirty pounds for my book [Rosemary], followed by twelve pounds for the curtains and as well a small cheque from Heinemann for royalties on Garden of Contentment.' She was too weak to dress herself so she sent a char woman out for some bread and butter and half a pound of chops to cook on her gas stove. She thus demonstrated that she was writing, designing and painting curtains, She had never thought of asking for help.
Having dealt with some aspects of Elinor's life in Melbourne she moves on to Australian politics that produced some amusing anecdotes. First there is the question of 'Empire Preface'. This was an agreement to give British manufactures special preference, a reduced tariff to that imposed on foreign imported good. She points out how British Manufacturers cheat on the system. For example they often sent cotton material to the Continent to be dyed and printed and then send it as preference material to Australia that should have been completely manufactured in Britain. Then as now businesses usually find a way to cheat. Her other complaint was that Firms in Australia often cannot obtain what they want from Britain. They are sent any old thing. 'That is good enough for the colonials'. When follow up order is requested the British firms send anything saying the other goods are not available.
She does get confused at Australian politics, mainly in relation to Victoria referring debates in the House of Representatives as like Alice in Wonderland's Mad Hatter's tea party. The role of the Governor is another matter for satire.. Qualifications for the Governor's wife mean she must be of the bluest of blood, she must dress beautifully, 'for she is of little use unless she wears things that other local women can copy.' I quote an account of a garden fete at the State Government House.
'The visitors were so eager for the frivol that they arrived before the scheduled time (3.pm). Motors and carriages were politely dissuaded from entering the gates, while Aides peeped unhappily round the pillars of the varandah, and sent agonized messages upstairs. But the Carmichaels [Governor and his wife]were getting into party duds as fast as they could. They had been opening the motor drive out to Toorak at 2.30, and the lady's return home and quick change into a dream of a lilac gown had all to be compressed into one brief hour. When at last the pair came out, the dress--a trailing circumstance of nonchalant coolness--was received with murmurs of admiration. Someone has been redrawing the lines of the Carmichael lady's figure; it has a new slenderness necessary for the new dressing.'
She concludes this chapter by saying 'The Bulletin would say the report was written by a 'wowser'--a wowser being a being, an advocate of everything dry, of temperance and all the virtues, who expresses his opinions in such a manner that the good he advocates appears as offensive as he is himself.
Elinor Mordant then moves on to a chapter of 'The Working-man'. 'The working man in Australia is being made a into demi-god, with all sorts of frills added, so that the fact of him possessing feet of clay, like the rest of us, may be hidden even from himself. He does not really care about it all. He wants if he is a real working man to do his job, smoke his pipe in peace, while all he asks for is fair play, or all he has asked for in the past; because now, like all spoilt children, he has come to a state of mind when he really does not know what he wants. He is like a boy naturally full of the spirit of adventure, of pluck and endurance, who has been kept at home and papered by an over fond mother. It is not his fault that he missed the bracing atmosphere of the greatest of all schools the adverse world.'
This is how she begins her chapter on the 'working man' in Australia in 1911, one hundred years ago. She does give a side attack on the British. 'Luckily, the working-man, for the most part, regards his political supporters as any normal John Bull regards his womenkind. The are all very well in their way, but they are not, for a single moment, to be taken seriously and he refuses to be made a fool of.' I am not sure what today's feminists would say about that statement from a woman who worked for her living while in Australia.
She went on to say that in England that 125 people died of sheer want of food in 1909. From that she goes on to point out at the cheapness of meat in this country as compared in England where the working-man's family seldom had meat to eat only once a week. She gives reference to a restaurant in Melbourne where you could get a three course meal for 6 pence. Then there is a vivid description of the Melbourne Market especially at Christmas with piles of fruit and flowers. There was only one vegetarian restaurant in Melbourne in a basement that was originally a cellar. She does not describe the customers but does say that she preferred the appearance of people who 'cheerfully and persistently in the face of all food faddists still consume three meat meals a day. What would dieticians of the twenty first century say to that statement?
There is a funny description of 'Holts' in Melbourne. Which is a matrimonial agency. The Australian man from the country could go there to find a wife. There was no way for a man to meet suitable women anywhere else. And in Melbourne there were often six advertisements for a wife every day in the daily papers. Some are amusing and some pathetic but they did produce answers. The famous bookseller in Melbourne of Cole's Book Arcade advertised for a wife. He found one and they were married and lived 'happily' ever after. A woman whose husband was a metal worker who assisted in arranging the marriage of the successful couples conducted Holts' agency.
The book is filled with lots of statistics on rates of pay for all kinds of workers. Bricklayers and carpenters received 10 shillings a day with unskilled workers on 6 pence a day. (There were 12 pence in the shilling)
Her comments on living in the bush might echo Henry Lawson. 'Poverty at home [England] is truly terrible, but I doubt if any poverty has ever been as unbearable as the utter loneliness and strangeness as this country. She does comment on the heat, the distances. Many men want land to farm but she does say that many immigrants would not waste their money buying land. They want the government to break up the great estates and give them the land, Then there is a long description about the distance to schools or doctors. 'The best and strongest f immigrants will battle on and grow to love the gum-trees, the sunshine and the silence of the Bush.'
Then there were references to the millions of sheep and the question of the shearers. Machinery was use at this time for shearing and many young shearers were unable to use hand clippers any more. Elinor Mordant obviously saw these wool sheds at first hand. Her description of the Shearer's accomodation could only have been written by someone who had been there 'The shearer's live, that is sleep and eat, in what is known as 'the Hut', a long narrow structure with bunks on either side in two tiers ... The table which runs pretty well the whole length of the hut, is made of sheet iron tacked on rough frame, with benches on either side and there is little else save the atmosphere, which is thick and portentous, an intermingling of tobacco, wool, beer, spirits, clothes, boots, blankets, and men. The better sort of shearers declare the noise and the stench, the constant fidgeting and stirring all night, the snoring, the coughing, spitting and swearing, make it impossible for anyone to get a descent night's sleep in the huts and retreat to a tent. The shearer's constant complaint is about the food and the cook a usual complaint for any gathering of groups of men.
However after she has given her impressions on the 'working man' she then produces a chapter on the 'Working-Women'. She is not talking about the 'society women' or the suburban housewife. This is about women and girls who go to work in the city of Melbourne. They are shop girls, typists and telephone girls and so on. By 1910 there were typewriters and telephones in Australian cities, not quite as sophisticated as these are in 2010 bit still the same technology.
The life style of these women was not always an easy one. They were fairly well paid and lived often in one room in buildings in the city that had been adapted for residential occupation but originally designed as offices. They usually had a bathroom on each floor with hot water but these facilities on each floor were shared by the residents with the male residents on one floor and the women on another. In fact Elinor Mordant lived in one of these buildings and describes how everyone used the bathrooms for washing their clothes in spite of the regulation that such use was prohibited. These were not slums and were kept clean and tidy and cooking was often done on a gas ring or a primus in even small rooms. Each room was furnished by the resident with very little in it except a bed and some packing cases for cupboards. The girls entertained friends including boy friends in these limited spaces. They would put on their best dress or blouse and 'play ladies' making anchovy sandwiches and sometimes even a bunch of flowers in the vases. 'These girls worked incredibly hard and live the straightest, simplest lives, every day of which is a series of petty privations and self denial, in spite of small pleasures. She does say that a few of the 'gayer' damsels used this life of liberty to the fullest extent and gave a place a 'bad name'. Many girls were involved in the dress making trade. There are again lots of statistics in this book on the various wages for these workers, even down to those who sew underclothes and the 'washer' who washes and irons the garment when finished.
There are other women workers who are described as char-ladies. They were mostly married women with husbands incapable of providing sufficient to keep them and their children with many of them deserted wives whose husbands have 'gone west' looking for a job and never came back. There was great difficulty for the suburban 'ladies' in finding a servant of any kind. At the agency the questions asked by prospective servants were such as 'Do you keep a piano for maids?' 'Are their children?' 'Is she [the maid] allowed every evening out and half a day a week and all day Sunday?' 'Is she expected to wear a cap?' 'They will not call you madam, says Elinor but say, "Hey, you there" and "all right" in response to an order.' Thus employing a maid and dealing with one was not easy and keeping one was almost impossible.
There are some married couples living in these chambers in the city but they also were hard up and scraping together enough money to live and eat. One of the interesting comments is about the reading habits of some of these girls who come in from out of town by train to work. The penny English papers like 'Home Chat' were most popular but the authorsto top the reading list was Mrs. Henry Wood and she was followed by Dickens and Thackeray, no mention of Australian authors.
In On the Wallaby there are chapters on Victorian youths and on the punishments as well as on children as wards of the state. There are some comments on education and he behaviour of children indicating differences between Australia and England. For example she speaks of girls preceding their mother into a restaurant and examining the menu before handing it to their parent. She claimed that Australian mothers were meek. She puts all this to the fact that there is no stationary class. 'The people are always going up or down in the social scale.' 'There must be a distinct reason, beyond mere years, to persuade a youth to show deference to anybody, and some reason, beyond that of youth, for humility on their own side.
All of this indicates the emerging sense of equality in Australian society. It is firmly fixed in the country before the First World War. I think I have given you enough of the observations of Elinor Mordant on life in Australia.
Before I finish this article I want to mention some her comments about, 'The Amusements and the Arts'. Firstly there is 'The Cup', the Melbourne Cup that occupies a central place in thoughts of amusements. Everything closes on that day in Melbourne it is a public holiday and it has a long history. Football and cricket and other sports followed this fixation on horse racing in general. Next in importance was the theatre as large crowds of people went regularly to the theatre especially on Saturday night. Special mention is made of Nellie Stewart who was generally adored by theatre-goers. She was overwhelmed with flowers but the young girls all admired the actors especially if they were handsome. No mention is made of their acting skills. There was one music-hall in Melbourne but it was considered rathe poor 'but the whole affair is rather dull in comparison with any European show of the sort, and overhung with a rather gloomy air of middle-class propriety.'
It is in literature that she expresses her surprise at its main quality. As she expresses it, 'It is strange that, that in the face of all the indomitable pluck, the light-hearted gaiety these people show, that their literature should be permeated with that uncouth melancholy which gives other nations so false idea of the country and the people. That it is not prosperity, wide sheep runs, good seasons, horse-racing, and theatre going that has produced the literature of the country, but loneliness of heart and soul; the terrifying size of the country; the poverty and misunderstanding.. She goes on to mention some of the names of early poets, Harpur and Kendal and Adam Lindsay Gordon whom she dismisses as English. Then come Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson. Among the novelists she mentions Marcus Clarke (also English) and then goes on with Mrs. Campbell Praed (new usually called Rosa Praed), Mary Gaunt and Guy Boothby, Roderic Quinn, Brunton Stevens and Rolf Boldrwood. They are all names still familiar a hundred years later.
Art is usually dismissed with reference to the crudity of Norman Lindsay but that Australian's seem to want something pretty and large in art. She criticises the Victorian Art Galley for the purchase of Corot's 'Bent tree' with crowds of people flocking to see it. Very little admiration was expressed except for the frame, as usual an ornate gold one. Australian had not yet produced any great composers but Mr. Marshall Hall received praise especially for his concerts at the Town Hall but is criticised for his erotic writings that may surprise some modern readers.
That sums up the opinions on Australian culture in 1910 by Elinor Mordant. I wonder how different would be a survey of Australia one hundred years later. Would society and the social structure be the same? What would we say about the youth of today by comparison with Australian youths of the past. Would working conditions of both men and women be any better? Would restraunts be any different or as cheap? What would rural life be like today or politics in such a survey? Perhaps some English lady might come to visit and try and support herself in Melbourne or Sydney and write about Australians today. She probably would still not find a publisher for her book in this country exect for some little ephemeral one just as did Elinor Mordant, Her book on Australia was published in London in 1911 by William Heinemann entitled On the Wallaby through Victoria written by E. M. Clowes which was one of her various names.
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|Publication:||M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2010|
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