By Helen Lowe
My June selection is eclectic as always, this time including a play authored by a poet, an Australian novel based on a real life, essays on words and poetry and humane writings about animal psychology.
Streets of Dust (pub. 1993: $15, HB) is an Australian novel based on the life of Caroline Chisholm. The author, Lola Irish, with the assistance of the Literature Board of the Australia Council, spent years in research and travelled widely investigating Chisolm’s sometimes controversial life. Her philanthropic endeavours started with the founding of the Female School of Industry for the Daughters of European Soldiers in Madras in 1832, after she recognised that the wives and daughters of British soldiers posted there were living in poverty. She migrated to Australia in 1838 and established employment agencies in rural centres, and in 1842 was able to close the Female Immigrants Home because of her success in finding work for unemployed immigrants. She later extended her work to include families as well as single women, and between 1841 and 1844 assisted 14,000 people to settle in NSW. She later proposed the construction of shelters for people travelling to the goldfields, receiving some support from the government, and she campaigned for land to be made available so that migrant families could establish small farms—a move Chisholm saw as providing greater stability in the colonies. Charles Dickens lent support to her cause and purportedly based his character from Bleak House Mrs. Jellyby on her.
Hugh McCrae (1876–1958) was an Australian poet and considered one of the finest artists in words, with the most perfect ear for verbal music and the most fertile in beautiful images. He wrote a musical fantasy The Ship of Heaven (pub. 1951: $30, HB—1st ed.) in 1933 and the play was produced by Doris Fitton for the Independent Theatre in that year. Alfred Hill composed and conducted the music. It is a play in three acts about an enchanted world of angels, devils and witches oddly mixed with transmuted commonplaces such as telephones and milk cans and even an aeroplane. In this edition the author has interspersed his own whimsical illustrations. His poetry was joyful, sensuous, full of colour and delightful verbal arabesques, and for Judith Wright, McCrae’s ‘real importance lies in those early years of the century, when he broke through the self-congratulatory parochialism of Australian literary life … The fact that he was a singer, not a thinker, freed the notion of poetry from the portentousness of the Nationalist and radical schools’. McCrae was the son of author George Gordon McCrae and friend and contemporary of, amongst others, Norman Lindsay and Kenneth Slessor.
Marcel Proust: A Selection of His Miscellaneous Writings chosen & translated by Gerard Manley Hopkins (pub.1953 by Allan Wingate: $30, HB—1st ed.) owes its unity to a common theme that literature is made with words and the role of words in thought, feeling and imagery. It asks the question … what are the limits of communication in poetry, description and argument? Hopkins was enticed into collecting these writings after reading Proust’s essay Days of Reading (included here), while we also encounter Ruskin, Valery, Sartre, Paulhan, Ponge and Parain in its pages. Hopkins collected these essays hoping to renew interest in Proust’s often overlooked romantic attachment to words and imagery. This is a real exercise for the reader and writer.
Konrad Z. Lorenz writes in King Solomon’s Ring: New Light on Animal Ways (pub.1965: $18, HB) of animals in a way which would make anyone of an impressionable age decide to be a naturalist and nothing else. He writes with vivid precision, with practical good sense and humour and with profound knowledge. This book is delightful and informative to the ordinary reader, but its real message is to the philosopher. There is a mine of information here for the study of that inexplicable organism, the mind. Konrad, an Austrian scientist, based this 1949 book largely on his study of the menagerie of animals he brought into his home in order to study animal psychology and attempt to understand the communication possibilities between them and humans. A few of his findings have found their way into common knowledge such as the phenomenon of ‘imprinting’ and his claims regarding the beneficial aspects of pet ownership and been widely accepted. The first English translation appeared in 1952 and this edition, originally published in 1964, has a delightful cover photo of the author swimming with his beloved geese, and his illustrations appear throughout. It includes an introduction by W. H. Thorpe, reader in Animal Behaviour, Cambridge University, 1961. A real delight.