Finding Maud


Two years ago, I received a grant from Arts Queensland which gave me time to revisit my research on Rosa Praed and her deaf daughter Maud. I read the Murray-Prior papers in the National Library of Australia and combed Patricia Clarke’s biography, Rosa! Rosa! for references to Maud, who had been deaf since she was small. At age 28, Maud became destabilised by the fracturing of her family had a breakdown. She was admitted to Holloway Sanatorium in Surrey, and later transferred to St Ann’s at Canford Cliffs, near Poole. Clarke had written to the Sanatorium to ask for Maud’s medical records, but was informed that these were destroyed after 20 years. However, when I checked the National Archives database in the UK (which hadn’t yet been created when Clarke was writing her book), I found that they were still extant. I realised needed to go to England to find them.

When doing archival research from the other side of the world, you can pay a whack of money and get the archive’s employees to find documents for you, or you can pay even more money and get on a plane. It’s usually cheaper to get someone to make the copies, but then you risk not finding what you want. Control freaks with an eye for detail (and who liked collecting stamps when young) such as yours truly also prefer to do the work themselves. There is also serendipity in archival research: when you’re tootling among old papers, there’s more of a chance of making connections with pieces of information that you find on your way, and these connections throw up new ideas.

It was five and a half years since I had left England and returned to Australia after finishing my PhD. Until a few years before, I’d had nightmares about having to return to finish my thesis, and would wake with that familiar, sickening feeling of leaving my family behind yet again. So I was somewhat apprehensive about returning, but that feeling began to dissipate when I was met by my good friend C, who lived in Kent, and as I met up with other old friends in London. It was autumn, almost ten years to the day (20th September 2014) that I had boarded a plane to England for the first time to start my PhD, and the weather is rarely cruel in an English autumn.

We visited Knole, the book which inspired Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando. I’d always wanted to go there with C while I was there, as she lived not far away, but we never got around to it. It was a grand but hollow building, and I wondered how they had ever kept warm.

A day later, I began my research at University College London’s Ear Institute and Action on Hearing Loss Library, located at the Royal National Ear Nose and Throat Hospital, which I’d often visited for checkups when I lived in London. I also knew the head librarian from having worked at UCL library, and that was nice too. I was specifically looking at the reports of Society for Training Teachers of the Deaf and for the Diffusion of the German System. They didn’t yield much that was interesting, although the librarian gave me a fascinating account of Benjamin St Ackers’ daughter, who had been taught to speak though she had been deaf since birth, and ended up very isolated and alone.

From London I caught a train to Leamington Spa, where some more old friends lived. One of these had been in our (predominantly Australian) bookclub, the Book Rangers. She now had two sprogs: a lively little boy who liked investigating things, and a newborn girl. The next day I caught a train to Birmingham, where the archives for the Society for Training Teachers for the Deaf (which was an amalgamation of the all teacher training colleges) were held at the Cadbury Research Library. Sadly, there was nothing in this lot, aside from some minor references to Benjamin St John Ackers.

I returned to London, and from there I went on to Woking.

‘You’re going to Woking!?’ a friend had exclaimed when I told him of my research plans over coffee at the Brisbane Writers Festival.

‘Yeah. What’s wrong with Woking?’

‘Woking’s awesome! It’s has a racing car track at a museum. Actually, it’s a Weybridge, but that’s not far away.’

‘Maybe I’ll just send you a postcard from Woking.’

He clocked the look on my face. ‘Yeah, do that. If cars aren’t your thing.’

Woking seemed a nice place, although overrun with chain stores, as are all the small towns in England, something that never failed to make me sad. I grabbed a coffee and some lunch from Pret, then caught a cab to the Surrey History Centre, which was housed in a municipal building. It was a plain, almost sterile building, at odds with the leather bound case notes which were handed to me.

I set up my camera and latptop, pulled on a pair of white cotton gloves to protect the case notes from the sweat on my skin, and opened the case notes. There was Maud, staring back at me, as well as a letter she had written to her doctor. The case notes, although not detailed, described her deterioration over about a decade.

I was beside myself, and this article I wrote for Meanjin describes why. I wandered back to the pub at which I was staying via a path beside a canal, dazed and triumphant.

A few days later, C very generously drove me to Canford Cliffs, where Maud's sanatorium was located. The building had been restored and it was beautiful, set among green lawns that slide down to the sea, but I wondered how it would have been in Maud's time. Gulls cried overhead. Maud wouldn't have been able to hear them, but she would have felt the sea breezes on her face.

I caught the train back to London and stayed with some good friends who live near Kensington Gardens, and who were also not far from one of the apartments Rosa Praed had lived in. I took myself for a walk through Holland Park to find it, stopping to marvel at the peacocks.

Then, after a gloriously sunny day in Bath with C, where we bought some dark blue suede boots from Duo Boots, it was time to leave. The Queensland election started while I was stepping onto the plane. When I flew into Brisbane, I wasn’t able to get my phone to work, so once I reached Customs I bailed up the first officer I could find.

‘Who won the election?’ I asked him.

‘They’re still counting, but it looks like it might be Labor.’

‘That’s brilliant!’ I exclaimed. Campbell Newman, an arrogant and selfish politician who, in his first act of parliament, had binned the Premier’s Literary Awards, had also squandered his majority by treating Queenslanders like trash.

He turned over my card and read my occupation. ‘So, you’re a writer. That’d be right.’

I laughed, loudly. It was good to be home.




To Florence and Prato

It’s a measure of how busy and tired I’ve been this past year that I’m only just now writing up the trips that I took last year, to Prato, England and Rome. Fortunately, Christmas has given me a breathing space and I’m catching up on my belated posts.

Last year, after doing more research on Rosa and Maud Praed, I realised I needed to go back to England to look for Maud’s medical records. The European Association for the Study of Australia was holding a conference in Prato, Italy, in September. I had wanted to go to the association’s conference in France two years before but I was too broke. This time I had a bit of cash in reserve and decided to stop off on the way to England.

I caught a straightforward flight to Rome and checked into a hotel. When I woke the next morning I walked down to the Colosseum and attendant ruins. If someone had told me I’d be there again two months later, I would have laughed.

In the afternoon I wandered into Termini to catch a train to Florence. As I stood watching people using the ticket machines, trying to work out what to do, I was approached by a neatly-dressed, slightly cross-eyed young woman with blonde hair, who asked if I wanted help. ‘I need to go to Florence,’ I told her. She took me to a ticket machine and showed me how to use it. I wasn’t quite sure that what she was doing was orthodox, but she turned away when I slid my card in and put in the pin. When the machine spat out the tickets and she showed me the platform number on the screen, she said, ‘Ten euros, please.’ I felt like an idiot, I later emailed my boyfriend, who reassured me that it was par for the course to be fleeced at least once when travelling.

The last time I was at Florence train station was in 1999, when I was backpacking with friends around Europe. We’d just missed the train to Pizzo in Calabria, and it was too late to find a hotel, so we spent the night on the station’s cold floor. When we finally boarded our train the next morning, we went south through a gorgeous Tuscan sunrise of pink, layered with mist and shot through with gold. I tried to keep my eyes open to watch it, but I’d only had a few hours sleep. This time I was alert, and the view was of gorgeous, green rolling hills. I was ecstatic to be overseas again and realised how much I’d missed travelling.

In Florence, the station was crowded. I’d forgotten how many people there were in Europe. I queued in the taxi rank, and a middle-aged, balding man before asked me, ‘You are a local?’

‘No,’ I replied. ‘I’m from Australia.’

When the cab pulled up, he gestured for me to get in, and I shook my head and made for the cab coming after me. What was it with these arrogant, European men, I thought crossly, did they try it on with anyone?

My irritation subsided when I reached Ape Rosa, an 18th century villa that was located away from the centre. It was absolutely gorgeous, with high-ceilinged, airy rooms, ornate furniture and a lovely green garden.

As I signed in and was given my key, one of the owners dropped by.

‘I’m from Australia,’ I introduced myself.

‘You are the famous person?’

‘Noooo! I’m not famous. No.’

‘You have the website?’

‘Yes, I’m a writer, but I'm not famous!’

Still, she made me feel like a star. Later, she told me that Napoleon’s brother had stayed at villa, and what with the excellent coffee that was served with breakfast, I was pretty much in heaven.

There was a bus that I caught into town, which was very straightforward. My friend from England had intended to join me, but she was unwell and had to cancel. It was easy to get around the city, although in my jetlag I’d booked the wrong time slot to the Academia, where Michaelangelo’sDavid was housed. They let me in anyway, and as I stood in the queue, I watched a couple of Asian girls giggling at a nearby stall over the aprons and boxer shorts that featured David’s manhood. It was hard not to smile. I also chatted to some ladies waiting ahead of me, who were speech therapists from America.

David was quite good, but art doesn’t do a whole lot for me, despite growing up with an artist for a father. The next day I visited the Uffizi, which was also good, although these days, looking at Boticelli’s Venus doesn’t seem to be much different to looking at it on the internet. I was more impressed with frescoes stretching across the high ceilings. After that I took myself off along the river to the gardens surrounding Piazzale Michaelangelo, which had exceptional views of the city.

No overseas trip is complete without a spot of shopping if one has an addiction to frocks and the like, and the next day I caught a bus through the green hills to The Mall, a shopping outlet of designer labels which Mum had read about in the travel section of the Sydney Morning Herald. I was a bit disappointed – it was a sanitised, soulless and boxy place, but that didn’t stop me from buying some cashmere from Prada. When in Italy, after all, one must do as the Italians do.

In between my peregrinations in and around Florence, I sat before the window of my room at Ape Rosa, finishing an essay on Rosa Praed that I wasn’t able to get done before I left. I didn’t mind too much; there are worse places in which to write. That essay was published a few months ago in the Journal for the Association of Australian Studies. I also sat in the lovely, tousled gardens and read Annabel Smith’s new book, The Ark.

Then it was time for the conference, which was organised by Monash University, as it has a centre in Prato. I caught a train to the town, which was only half an hour away and checked into a hotel beside the river, just outside the city walls. The theme of the conference was ‘Encountering Australia: Transcultural Conversations’ and I spoke about the interactions between Georgiana Molloy and Noongars in south west Western Australia, as Molloy went about collecting plants. My paper has just been published in the Australasian Journal of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology (you may have to create a login to read it).

The conference dinner was at the Conservatorio San Niccolò Private Catholic School, which used to be an orphanage. I sat next to a lovely Australian woman who was doing her postdoc at Cambridge on Judith Wright and a few other poets. The next evening we did a spot of shopping and drank cocktails in the piazza, which was bliss! I think this photo sums up pretty well what I thought of Florence and Prato:

Review of The Night Guest


I hadn’t intended to review The Night Guest. While I enjoyed reading it, I didn’t like the ending and the book left me with a clammy feeling that I didn’t want to revisit. However, as I’ve been musing about animals and carers for my book When the World Shivered, I thought might be worth thinking about further, as The Night Guest features both.

This is the story of Ruth, an elderly widow who lives on an isolated stretch of coast, and believes herself to be visited by a tiger. After its first foray into the house, in which she hears the noises it makes, ‘loud and wet, with a low, guttural breathing hum punctuated by little cautionary yelps’ (2), she is reminded ‘of something vital – not of youth, exactly, but of the urgency of youth’ (6). Her childhood was spent on Fiji, where her parents were missionaries, and where she fashioned an unrequited romance for a doctor.

Shortly after the tiger’s first manifestation, a woman named Frida arrives to take care of Ruth. Rather than being preyed up on by the tiger, Ruth is gradually, subtly, threatened by this carer, a muscular woman who is also from Fiji. She tends to Ruth so efficiently that Ruth cannot see how she would survive without her, and at the same time she infiltrates Ruth's few relationships and persuades her to sell her car.

McFarlane’s hand is surest when she bleeds reality and fiction into one another through Ruth’s wavering point of view. The reader is uncertain as to whether Frida is friend or foe, or whether Ruth is losing her mind and cannot read the situation clearly. The ending provides answers, but until this point, the reader is held in suspense.

Herein lies the horror of the story. Ruth is physically, intellectually and emotionally isolated, and vulnerable to the depredations of others. A woman who is mean to care for her becomes a predator, like the tiger. And yet the bond between them is close, as it would be when people’s daily rhythms are knotted together. An acquaintance, Ellen, muses ‘She remembered the way Ruth and Frida had run together like lovers, and how embarrassed she’d been by that intimacy, and, later, how unsettled’ (273). The tiger also has multivalent meanings, being at times threatening, and at other times a delight. At the end of the novel, Ruth ‘leaned her head into his soft chest, where his great heart ticked’ (268).

Frida is yoked with the tiger through this thematic similarity and their simultaneous appearance, and through a scene towards the end in which Frida fights the animal. ‘There had been no beginning to Frida and the tiger, and now there would be no end,’ McFarlane writes. ‘They both snarled and bared their teeth, Frida called out the strange syllables of a warlike alphabet’ (224). These similarities can be read as a metaphor for colonialism, for the imposition of power upon vulnerable subjects, and how they fight back. The tiger invokes Ruth’s childhood and her missionary parents, who colonised Fijians through Christianity, and at the same time it reminds us that we are really not so different from animals: we are both prey and predator as we try to survive.

The vivid evocation of Ruth’s childhood also suggests the circularity of our lives – when we are old, we become like children. Our minds, sometimes sharp and sometimes wandering, can be just as fantastical as theirs, but while this is tolerated in young people, it isn’t so much in the elderly.

There is much to plumb in this novel, which won the NSW Premier’s award and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin. I heard McFarlane speak at the Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference last year (ASAL always have at least one session to showcase Australian writers, which I think is great) and thought her intellectually astute. She has a book of short stories coming out soon, The High Places, which will be published by Penguin and, based on this book, well worth a read.


This is my 8th review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.



On Gratefulness


October is far and above my favourite month. The jacarandas are ablaze, lining the streets and cliffs in purple fires. The star jasmine is flowering too, staining the evening air as I walk to my boyfriend’s after French classes. There’s the joy of pulling on a summer frock and feeling it ripple against my bare calves, and of wrapping myself in a cashmere cardigan on still-chilly mornings.

And now there’s one more reason: after five years of unremitting hard work, of research in Australia and overseas, of writing and publishing, travelling to and presenting at conferences, and making applications (9 of them to 7 institutions in that time), I finally won a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award, one of 200 offered to scholars across Australia who have finished their PhD within the last five years. I’ll be based at the University of Queensland and I’ll be writing an ecobiography on 19th century botanist Georgiana Molloy. A biography is a work about a person, but an ecobiography is about a person and their environment – you can’t narrate the life of one without considering the other.

The relief that comes from the promise of financial stability is unparalleled. For five years I’ve survived on a part-time wage, supplemented with Australia Council grants and assistance from my parents. I’ve written one book and the drafts for two more (and a third will be done by Xmas), and I’ve worked so hard that I’ve relapsed repeatedly and tediously into illness.

‘Listen to your body,’ the psychologist said to me two years ago when I dipped down into depression. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t always heeded her advice, but I am at least aware of driving myself to exhaustion. The problem is that there's too much to write and too little time. The problem is also deafness – the concentration fatigue that comes from everyday interactions.

My deafness was responsible for pushing me into writing and research – it was a job that didn’t require too much listening, but which satisfied me immensely. I tried to be a fiction writer when I returned to Australia, but I missed the stimulation and the crisp exchange of ideas that comes with academia, and knew I had to find a way back into it. However, deafness and the strain of listening left me too depleted after teaching to be able to write, and so I resolved to find a postdoc. It’s been an arduous process, but the set backs that come with being a writer prepared me for that. A knock down is irrelevant - you just keep on going. I’m hoping that now, with a new role, I’ll have a better work-life balance.

I’ve just finished importing all of the blog posts I’ve ever written into my new(ish) website. I started them in 2006, when blogging was taking off in the UK. I was appalled, as I tidied them up, at how negative I was in London; so ground down by homesickness & the lack of light that I couldn’t appreciate what was before me.

The process of making oneself happy is one of deduction, and I know now that I can never be away from Australia for long, but it also takes resolve. A friend of mine, whom I took from her calm demeanour to be a naturally buoyant person, once corrected me, ‘No, I make a conscious effort every day to be positive.’ I wish I had known that while I was overseas, but perhaps we never understand how unhappy we are until we have climbed out of it.

There is so much to be grateful for: the scholars at the university who helped me pull my application into shape; Queensland’s abundant, glorious sunshine; my family, who have supported and protected me but still allowed me forge my stubborn, difficult way ahead; my smart and funny boyfriend, with whom I am never bored; and the smell of jasmine that wends through the window on these still, spring nights.