Last week I finally got to see Bruce Beresford’s new movie, Ladies in Black, based on the novel by Madeleine St John. Two hailstorms and a cyclone had previously stopped me, and I was beginning to think I wasn’t meant to go. But the skies cleared, I went, and I absolutely loved it – especially the idea that ‘there’s nothing so wonderful as a clever girl,’ which is said by one of the characters in the movie, and is a theme which is developed and celebrated.
It also made me sad. Angourie Rice, who plays one of the clever girls in the movie – Lisa – with such subtlety and charm, looks uncannily like my mother in many of the scenes, and her character’s journey – of finishing the school leaving certificate and needing to find out if she has done well enough to win a scholarship to go to university, where she wants to become a poet, or even, maybe a novelist, is so like my mother’s also.
Like Lisa, my mother would have anxiously been waiting for her result to appear in the Sydney Morning Herald. She came from an even more modest background than Lisa’s, and she, too, wanted to go to university and become a writer. If she hadn’t got a good result and qualified for a scholarship there was no way she could have ever gone. And … she came top in the state. The results are up on the boards of honour, at Sydney Girls High School outside the Main Hall. First in Ancient History, and Ancient Greek and Latin and English and History and Science and Maths. (They take up practically a whole board.) She went on to win the Sydney University Medal for English and gain a full scholarship to Oxford, which for complicated reasons she didn’t take. She had all kinds of adventures afterwards, including travelling the world and marrying my father, and raising three children. But … what became of her writing?
Last year, at an advanced age (I think she’d kill me if I said exactly what) she published her first book, of history. It was launched at the State Library by Marie Bashir, one of mum’s old school mates, and a former Governor of NSW, who said Mum had one of the most brilliant and intelligent minds she’d ever encountered; and it went on be shortlisted for the NSW Premiers Awards and the Prime Minister’s Awards. “The result is a work which could be a template for the telling of Australian history,” the judges said.
So what happened in the meantime, for all those years she was writing? So many challenges and obstacles faced her, inside and out, to do with her background and class and most of all, gender. And not just of being a woman now, but of coming from a long line of talented and ambitious and thwarted and under appreciated women, with all the stored up baggage and messaging and complication that entails. Naturally, as her daughter, and also a writer, I have enquired deeply into all this, and in so many ways, many of them very uncomfortable, I relate.
I know it’s not an uncommon story, and I know it’s still going on. As I sat there, tearing up in the cinema, I was also thinking about Julia Gillard and Julie Bishop, two wonderfully clever girls who to our tragic cost are being wasted. Not entirely, of course – it’s never a simple story of yes or no, good or bad – but somewhat, certainly, and definitely compared to the men who have usurped these women’s rightful places in our public life.
So I felt sad watching this beautiful film because how wonderful is it really, to be a clever girl? Doesn’t Australia much prefer girls who want to be models and singers, or at least women who don’t mind too much if they’re thrust aside and thwarted, or ignored? Well, I mind. And not just on behalf of these particular women and girls. It’s our collective loss, not to have more of a contribution from these people to our public life, and as a community we can’t afford it. Not then and not now.
Here is the link to my mother’s book, A Passion For Exploring,and also the wonderful blog post of Kate Rice – another clever girl, and mate from my youth, who has also become a wonderful writer, and writes here about the experience of Madeleine St John, and who is Angourie Rice’s mother.
More about my mother’s book, from the judges of the NSW Premiers Awards: “The result is a work which could be a template for the telling of Australian history. Bastian’s understated tone allows the era and its characters to infuse the story-telling; her focus on relationships, both intimate and political, places historical figures in a human context, and her dispassionate approach archives not just the achievements but the many failures of their voyages.”