To pick up a piece of writing by Debra Adelaide is be instantly assured that one is in calm, capable hands. The kind that can smooth down bed sheets, whip up a meringue, tally up a line of numbers without error, guide you steadily through a narrative and deliver you to a satisfying ending (although it might, as in The Household Guide to Dying, make you cry). The narrators in Adelaide’s stories are problem solvers, and in her most recent novel The Women’s Pages, the problem is one of writing itself.
As her mother lies dying, Dove reads her Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and she begins to write a novel. She is compelled into the act of writing by reading this text, which she had picked up when she was young and which ‘was like a malaria of the brain, lying dormant then leaping up at unexpected times to attack with the fever of unresolved narrative’ (7). The same might be said of Dove’s attempts at writing: she is plagued by dreams, her characters intrude into her consciousness, and she is puzzled by how to fit it all together. As she tries to work out what’s happening so, too, does her reader.
The novel which Dove writes is set in the 50s, with all of its thick and casual sexism. When Ellis, her character (named for Ellis Bell, the pseudonym of Emily Bronte), refuses the advances of her friend’s husband, he calls her a ‘tight bitch’ (23). Ellis looks for a job designing typefaces and is cowed by the weight of male disapproval of a woman who should be at home, doing the laundry. Unwanted pregnancies are hidden, their attendant pain smothered beneath the daily rituals of cooking, cleaning and earning an income. Yet even some decades years later, sexism is still rife: while at university, Dove finds her breast groped by a man mid-conversation and is paralysed with indecision about whether to voice the violation, until she ‘thought she might gag with the effort of doing nothing’ (59). The scene reminded me of The First Stone, in which Helen Garner was groped during a massage, but still paid the masseuse afterwards because she was unsure of how to deal with the situation. It still seems there is no language for some acts, although I think this is (thankfully) beginning to shift with social media.
I sometimes found myself confused as to who was speaking throughout the narrative, and it took me a while to work out whose story I was in, Ellis’s or Dove’s. And yet this was apt, for this is what happens to a writer (well, to me at least) when in the thick of writing a novel – it’s hard to shake off your characters, and you carry them around with you. You know they’re not real, but they’re not phantoms either. To Dove, Emily Bronte is so real that she enters her dreams, while Ellis plagues her with questions, pushing through the narrative in search of their answers.
The two stories hinge in the final scene, which I thought was wonderful for its elegance and surprise. My own mother, however, was unimpressed: she’d seen it coming. I didn’t mind; the novel has so many intricacies in it that I know I’ll return to puzzle it out. It has also occurred to me that this might be more of a writer’s novel, rather than a reader’s, as so much of it is about the process of writing.
What I have always loved about Adelaide’s writing is her celebration of domesticity and the feminine, particularly her descriptions of cooking. For example Ellis’s carer, Mrs Wood, ‘taught Ellis how to add a few pinches of curry powder – she favoured Clive of India – to the batter for fried flathead, which took care of the fishy smell in the house’ (108). Much of Mrs Wood’s knowledge has been gleaned ‘from the women’s pages of the Sunday newspapers over the years’ (108).
Ellis, in need of an income, finds work sorting out the recipes for one such magazine, titled the Women’s Pages, although most refer to it as the Pages. This becomes its official title as a way of increasing its appeal for, as Ellis observes, ‘the Pages turned out to be read by a surprising number of men’ (187). It’s a simple reference that underscores the difficulties we’re still having with selling women’s writing and asking people (well, men, mostly) to take it seriously. Siri Hustvedt discusses these issues beautifully in her essay about the reception of Knausgaard’s emotional writing, and his dismissal of women writers as ‘No competition’.
I adored so much about The Women's Pages, including its intertextual references to other quietly domestic novels such as Camille’s Bread, and movies such as Love and Other Catastrophes (one of my favourites). It’s the perfect way to wrap up my reviews for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.
This is my 10th and final review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.