by Whispering Gums
Having introduced the Sydney-born Melbourne writer, Capel Boake last month, including publishing one of her short stories, we are offering a further selection of her stories this month in order to provide further insight into this busy writer. Boake’s stories are easily accessible in the Trove database making it a challenge to decide which ones to focus on, so I just picked three at random. I don’t know her work well enough to say whether these three are representative of her whole output – she was quite prolific – but either way they offer some useful insights. All appeared in newspapers – in the days when newspapers published short stories – and most were syndicated. This means the versions I’m linking to in this post may not be the original publication, but I decided not to spend time identifying this.
The three stories (linked to their newspaper text) are:
- The brothers * (Canowindra Star and Eugowra News, 9 January 1920): a brother returns from the war, under a cloud, having been accused by his father, before leaving, of stealing money from the family farm business. He hadn’t, but he’s not going to dob in who did.
- The necessary third (The Australasian, 28 August 1926): a wealthy young man meets, on a steamship trip from South Africa to Melbourne, a not so well-heeled young woman and her mother, who is ambitious for a good marriage for her daughter.
- Jenny (Weekly Times, 21 June 1930): a poorer young woman, “a State child”, is helped by a young man to make her career as a world-famous dancer.
A propos syndication, “The brothers”, for example, was first published, according to the subscriber-access AustLit database, in The Australasian in 1919.
These are generally straightforward stories, which is not surprising given they were intended for a broad newspaper-reading audience. They lack the punch of, say, Barbara Baynton’s turn-of-the-century stories, but they make interesting reading nonetheless.
Two of them are romances – or, what the Western Mail reviewer of Painted clay would have called “sex stor[ies] created on conventional lines”. They draw on traditional tropes – the poor young woman with the pushy mother, and the poor young woman who becomes a star through the assistance of a young man who loves her. And yet, these young women are not pawns, and they do exercise some agency. Paula (“The necessary third”) takes things into her own hands to protect her self-respect, while Jenny (“Jenny”) takes action to ensure that she gets what she really wants (even if what she really wants is traditional!)
The stories also provide some insight into the times. Take for example this comment in “Jenny”. It is told through the eyes of the young man, and here he is watching her, now a world-renowned star, dance on her home stage:
Glancing at the absorbed faces around him, their parted lips and shining eyes, he saw she had the same effect on them. Release . . . release . . . their spirits were free for once from the tyranny of the mechanised age that had gripped the world with relentless fingers.
This is not the “bush realism” that characterised much of Australian writing up to the early twentieth century, but a commentary on the modern urban world, which we see in many women writers of this period. Nettie Palmer recognised this urban subject matter of Boake’s, writing that although her novel Painted clay, was “lumpy and uneven”, it gave “good pictures, in the round, of life in shop, office, and city street that had not hitherto found their way into imaginative fiction at all”.
A neglected woman writer
Capel Boake has been identified as one of three neglected women writers of the 1930s by Gavin De Lacy in the La Trobe Journal, the other two being Jean Campbell and ‘Georgia Rivers’ (pseudonym for Marjorie Clark). De Lacy says that while they were all prominent in the Melbourne literary scene in the 1930s, they have been, with the odd exception, overlooked in significant studies of Australian literature. (He’s right. I found little about Boake in my little collection of books.)
For whatever reason, Boake did not write many novels. Painted clay (1917) was highly praised, but only two more novels were published in her lifetime – The Romany mark in 1923 and, 13 years later in 1936, The dark thread. De Lacy quotes a contemporary critic as saying The dark thread had some shortcomings which “constant practice in the novelist’s art might have been expected to overcome.” Another critic of the time, Frank Wilmot (writing as Furnley Maurice), compared it with Dreiser’s An American tragedy, while Nettie Palmer said that it wasn’t “quite a Dreiser, as Furnley suggested … but it’s very respectable.” Perhaps more relevant to us, however, is modern critic Susan Sheridan;s assessment that it
provides a salutary corrective to the bourgeois family sagas of the period.
De Lacy notes that Boake, Campbell and Clarke haven’t been revived as “forgotten authors despite the recent interest in Australian women writers”. Not only are most of their books long out of print, but are “virtually unprocurable in second-hand bookshops”. An option for Text Publishing’s Classics program perhaps. Interestingly, feminist critic Dale Spender is not so enamoured of Capel Boake, suggesting she’s “not so good” as Ethel Turner. Turner, though, is a big benchmark – and Spender does admit that she should not impose her personal views on writers who have not had the benefit of a fair hearing.
Meanwhile, back to De Lacy. He offers various reasons for these writers being neglected. Publishing practices at the time is one, but he also says that the 1930s was a “radical literary and political decade” and these three women’s novels don’t quite fit “the prevailing orthodoxy and literary preoccupations and myths of the ’30s.” Also, he says, the writers who have been remembered were mostly Sydney-oriented and associated with the New South Wales section of the Fellowship of Australia Writers. Kerr, Campbell, and Clark belong to the same period, but they
were Melbourne authors, setting their novels in that city. They were among the earliest prewar Australian writers to fictionalise an urban environment, ignoring the bush as a theme, and preceding most of their better known contemporaries in writing about the city.
Including them in our study of the era would, as he says, deepen our understanding of the history of women writers (and, thence, I’d argue, of Australian literature.)
Gavin De Lacy, ‘Three neglected women writers of the 1930s: Jean Campbell, “Capel Boake”, and “Georgia Rivers”‘, The LaTrobe Journal, No. 83, May 2009.
“Painted clay“, Western Mail, 22 June 1917, p. 38.
Nettie Palmer, “Modern Australian literature, 1900-1923”, in Vivian Smith (ed.), Nettie Palmer, St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1988, p. 299
Susan Sheridan, Along the faultlines, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1995, p. 162 (cited by De Lacy).
Dale Spender, “Introduction”, Writing a new world: Two centuries of Australian women writers, London, Pandora Press, 1988.
* The original image of “The brothers” is so bad that I was unable to fix all the errors in Trove – that happens sometimes in Trove, newsprint not being the best quality medium for preservation.
Whispering Gums, aka Sue T, majored in English Literature, before completing her Graduate Diploma in Librarianship, but she spent the majority of her career as an audio-visual archivist. Taking early retirement, she engaged actively in Wikipedia, writing and editing articles about Australian women writers, before turning to litblogging in 2009. Australian women writers have been her main reading interest since the 1980s.