by Jessica White
This review was originally published as a contribution to the Australian Legend’s Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week in January 2019. Jess’s hybrid memoir/biography of Rosa Praed’s institutionalised, deaf daughter Maud – Hearing Maud – came out later the same year.
Rosa Praed’s oeuvre stretches from 1880 to 1931. In the late 80s and early 90s she was at the height of her fame, but I’ve chosen her penultimate novel to review, because I need to revisit her works ahead of the edits for my book. However this review has turned into a minor essay full of spoilers, so if you plan to read the novel, you might want to shelve this until afterwards.
Sister Sorrow was published in 1916, and after that there wasn’t a novel until 1931, with Soul of Nyria: The Memory of a Past Life in Ancient Rome. Rosa’s companion Nancy, whom she met in 1899 through theosophist friends Alfred Sinnett and Arthur Conan Doyle (who was friends with Nancy’s father), had the capacity to go into a trance and take on the persona of a German princess who was abducted and made a slave in ancient Rome. As Nancy spoke as the princess Nyria, Rosa wrote down the story and turned it into a novel, Nyria, published in 1904.
Nancy died in 1927 and Rosa was heartbroken. To assuage her grief, she consulted a famous medium, Hester Dowden, so that she could continue talking to Nancy. Rosa believed that when people died, they continued to live on the astral plane, which she called ‘The Memory of the Great Whole’, described in a letter to her sister as ‘‘a sort of “Talking Film” region in space where everything that ever has been is preserved.’ She thought that she could use a medium to reach Nancy in this region after Nancy had died. She also believed that she and Nancy were reincarnations of people who had lived since Atlantis, and that one of their incarnations were as Nyria and the woman she adored, Valeria.
A few years after Nancy died Rosa hired an historian (and former editor of the Occult Review), Ralph Shirley, to prove that the events in Nyria were true and that Nancy couldn’t have made them up. Eventually they came to blows because Shirley was being pedantic, which suggests that he couldn’t verify everything in the book. Rosa was by this stage nearly 80 and the amount of effort she spent on the book was extraordinary for a woman her age. It illuminates how much she missed Nancy and longed to be with her again. It seems to me that Rosa believed if she could prove Nyria was real, then the reincarnations were also real, and she and Nancy would be together again in the future in another incarnation.
It’s an amazing love story, but I do think that Rosa was off her scone and that Nyria is fiction (and that Nancy was acting to please Rosa, or because she enjoyed it), but Rosa firmly believed that Nyria’s story was true (hence her attempts at verifications). In his excellent and exhaustive bibliography of her work, Chris Tiffin has listed Soul of Nyria under non-fiction.
Rosa was a woman born out of time, because she was full of contradictions. She loved Nancy but couldn’t admit she was a lesbian; she thought her husband was a brute (and from her novels I expect there was some domestic violence) and wrote a bestselling feminist novel (The Bonds of Wedlock) about the dud deal women got in marriage, but still she refused to divorce him; she expressed some sympathy for Aboriginal people and their treatment by white people but is almost uniformly derogatory in her descriptions of them.
Sister Sorrow returns to Rosa’s love for Nancy, but not just in the garb in which she usually clads it ie. a spiritual connection, although this makes its usual appearance. Rather, she renders it in terms of sisterly love. The novel, though published in 1916, is set a few years after Tess of the D’Ubervilles was published in 1891 (the protagonist Agatha mentions reading this with the governess Dolores), which places it around the mid-1890s. There are some mentions of contemporary (ie. 1910s) life for women, in that girls have nursing training, and in the opening, in response to some male burliness, Praed writes of the protagonist, Agatha: ‘My whole Australian soul determined upon asserting its feminine rights’ (11). Robert Dixon has described the healthy fortitude of Praed’s Australian girls in Writing the Colonial Adventure, but the mention of ‘rights’ is new I think.
The story opens in a hotel in Liechardt’s Town, Praed’s name for Brisbane (her father travelled with the explorer to Moreton Bay in 1843; she always spelled the name without the extra ‘h’). In the dining room, Agatha encounters two men, and speaks to one of them, a Mr Phil Wilkins, while the other remains mysterious and makes an exit. When Agatha’s stepmother, stepsisters and their governess, Dolores (named thus because her mother died giving birth to her), join her, Dolores is immediately bewitched by Mr Wilkins. Agatha’s father, a parliamentarian, also appears & meets Mr Wilkins.
The family then move to a classic Praed setting – a house at Emu Point (ie Brisbane’s Kangaroo Point; she called Rockhampton ‘Stonehampton’ … you get the drift) – which they had rented out for the summer. I always love Praed’s descriptions of Brisbane, as they show what it was like before it was urbanised. I also used to live at East Brisbane, which is not far from Kangaroo Point, so I know the area well. Sitting on a cane chair on the verandah by moonlight, Agatha describes:
The moon, close on the full, was shining over the river, making a broad, slanting road of milky light. Along the opposite shore, lay strange-shaped blotches of shadow where clumps of bamboos and a few tall gum-trees were eerily reflected so that they looked like monstrous creatures floating on the water. The lights of river-craft and their reflections seemed double red stars dropped into the stream. The humped shapes of cida retusa and lantarna [sic] shrubs which grew in the little paddock between our garden and the river, made me think of heraldic, couchant beasts. In the garden were more ghostly shapes of trees and blossoms – the black pyramids of bunyas: the pale oleanders: the spectral sheaves of white yucca, and a datura, shaking great creamy bells. A wind from the river, drove before it a blend of strong odours, and as the gusts went sweeping through the broad banana-fronds in the plantation, they made strange sibilant noises, tearing the great leaf-banners into tatters.
Except for the wind in the leaves, everything was still. Only, every now and then, a boatman’s call, the long musical “O-O-O-ver” of the ferryman starting to cross the river (31-32).
Kangaroo Point is heavily built up now with apartment blocks, and a patch of park at the point, so to think of it with lush vegetation & terraced gardens (as well as the period before it was shaped by colonists) is remarkable.
Mr Wilkins comes for dinner, invited by Agatha’s father so they can talk business. Dolores continues to be mesmerised by Wilkins, explaining to Agatha that she had seen him in a dream and she was powerless to resist. He is invited to stay overnight, as the ship taking him back to his home is leaving early the next morning.
Dolores is despatched to attend to his room. Agatha is irritated by the sway Wilkins has over Dolores and, in a clear moment of sexual jealousy, drags Dolores from his room. Meanwhile the mysterious other from the hotel, Torvald Helsing, is also invited to stay because he’s heading back on the same boat as Wilkins – it transpires that they inhabit the same island.
As the evening proceeds, Wilkins becomes increasingly drunk and relates the story of a robbery in America. Dolores, executing her prescience (akin to Nancy’s), makes some observations about the robbery which she couldn’t possibly have known. The next day, Dolores and Wilkins announce their engagement, and both men travel back upriver to the island on the Princess Maud, named after Praed’s daughter Maud, who was by the book’s publication 42 years old and in a mental asylum at Canford Cliffs.
When Dolores joins her new husband on Orunga Island, she stops writing to Agatha, despite Agatha sending a number of letters. In two years, Agatha only receives two letters in return, one with a hastily penned footnote expressing a wish that Agatha would visit. At last, Agatha does.
Orguna Island is modeled on Curtis Island, to which Praed was moved soon after her marriage to Campbell Praed. The move, geographically and emotionally, was a shock and the island appears often in Praed’s writing, including her first novel, An Australian Heroine (1880). Campbell was often away on business (including affairs with women), leaving his wife on her own with a small baby, Maud. Rosa was persecuted by mosquitoes and the barren environment must have mirrored her feelings. In Sister Sorrow, Wilkins disappears as Campbell used to, leaving Agatha with Dolores, whom she finds greatly changed – thin, nervous, and mentally unstable. At one point, Agatha snaps, ‘He had no right to marry a delicate, highly-strung woman and bring her to this desolate place. And then to leave her alone as he has done! No wonder she has been driven into a nervous fever’ (253). It’s hard not to read this – for Praed unfailingly drew on either her own or others’ lives – as a complaint about her young self.
At this point in the novel, the pace shifts and becomes much slower, cataloguing Dolores’ poor mental health. The women are trapped, for Dolores doesn’t like riding and Agatha has no horse, until she persuades one of Wilkins’ workers to give her one. Without physical movement she becomes entirely focussed on Dolores’ health and the narrative becomes claustrophobic.
While doing my research on Maud, I lost all sympathy for Praed because she abandoned her child in an asylum, even as I understood that she was abiding by the conventions of the time. However when I read the descriptions of Agatha caring for Dolores, I realised that Rosa was describing the same techniques she must have used to bring Maud back from her place of wildness – giving her needlework to do, and reminding her of the past before she became unwell. When I read, ‘If you have ever had the feeling I had then, of literally clutching back a soul which was slipping over into the Abyss, you will understand what I mean’ (272) I nearly cried.
Eventually Agatha manages to establish contact with Helsing, conveniently located at the other end of the island. Cast as the ‘St George of Australia’ (Praed longed for the historical weight of a white cultural lineage, never recognising the much longer cultural lineage of Aboriginal Australia), he helps rescue Dolores who is now near death. However there is one final stoush when Wilkins, who has been revealed to be a shady character as well as the robber in America, and who has perpetrated much else besides in Australia, comes back to claim his wife. It transpires he claimed her in the first instance to stop her seeing, with her clairvoyant qualities, more of his unsavoury side than he wanted, and that he was slowly poisoning her (and that he was a bigamist with another wife whom he had also transfixed). Dolores nearly drowns, but is saved by Helsing, who drags her unconscious onto the shore, then collapses. Agatha, who loves him as well as Dolores, leaves the latter without checking that she’s alive, and kisses Hesling, whereupon he comes back to life. Later, she is ashamed that she left Dolores unconscious on the shore, and it occurred to me that perhaps this was an expression of shame that Rosa had chosen Nancy over her daughter, which surely she must have felt. Or perhaps I’m reading too much into it (‘Sometimes,’ b/f says, ‘a train going into a tunnel is just a train going into a tunnel’. Clearly he knows nothing of literary criticism).
Agatha describes her ‘romantic devotion’ (37) for Dolores as ..
strangely and inextricably bound up with those closer ties of flesh and spirit. Indeed, sometimes it has later seemed to me that my feeling for Dolores in later phases had spiritual potencies which no other love has equaled. As time and conditions developed the bond, bringing into it some of the higher elements, and as my own mind grew more receptive of world-old truths, I was brought to the belief that there could be no such recent starting-point for an association like ours. It seemed far more reasonable to conclude that it had existed in past lives and that our attraction towards each other in this one, was the result of subconscious recognition (37).
This is a pretty standard description of Praed’s belief in the union of souls across time. Towards the end of the novel, however, when Dolores recovers, Agatha is ‘overswept by a wave of emotion that … made me put my arms round her and kiss her with my whole heart in the kiss’ (354). The two women then declare they love each other ‘like sisters’. A pash between women is unusual in Praed parlance, particularly when it isn’t motivated by some sort of spiritual possession. Perhaps, after nearly twenty years with Nancy, Rosa was starting to accept her sexuality.
One aspect of the novel which was new and interesting to me was a mention of the White Australia Policy. In conversation with Helsing, Agatha’s father says ‘And then the Chinese— and all this talk about White Australia; and the blacks going wrong with opium’ (64). One of my students is writing a biography of artist Fiona Foley, a large component of whose work (including the installations in the State Library of Queensland) explores the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 and 1901. It was ostensibly to protect Aboriginal people by banning opium, as Aboriginal workers were paid in opium so that they were compliant, but it became the first piece of legislation enacted to control Aboriginal people’s lives. It was also used to outlaw sexual contact between Aboriginal and Asian people.
Interestingly, Helsing employs Malay and Chinese labour in his extensive garden on Orunga Island, of which Agatha’s uncle disapproves, ‘he being one of the most fiery advocates of a “white Australia”’ (135). Moreover, one of the gardeners has an Aboriginal wife, who tends to Dolores with sophisticated medical expertise, and Helsing is very interested in Aboriginal knowledge and customs. The descriptions of Helsing’s extensive garden were also fascinating, but I have gone on far too long with this review, and if I begin a botanical digression now it will never end.
Sister Sorrow: a story of Australian life
Jessica White is a writer and academic whose short stories, essays and poems have appeared widely in Australian and international literary journals.She is the author of A Curious Intimacy, Entitlement, and Hearing Maud. Together with author Dr Amanda Niehaus, she is co-editor of Science Write Now, an online journal dedicated to creative writing inspired by science.
This essay was originally posted on JessicaWhite.com (here) on 19 Jan., 2019