review by Julienne van Loon
My reading of Moya Costello’s Harriet Chandler involved more than the usual stopping to contemplate the world beyond the text. This is partly because of the deliberately intertextual nature of Costello’s work: the Harriet Chandler of the title is a minor character in Murray Bail’s well-known Australian novel Holden’s Performance (Bail 1987). Costello writes Harriet’s story both forwards and back from the timeframe that intersects with Bail’s novel.
A long-time fan of Bail’s work, Costello says she admires Holden’s Performance for the way it ‘lovingly critiques the white, Anglo-Australian male’ (Spineless Wonders 2015). Harriet Chandler also makes a project of critiquing Australian masculinity, but Costello’s focus is more frequently and centrally aimed on the other gender: the Anglo-Australian female. And hers, too, is a loving critique.
Costello’s Harriet is the only child born to Joy and Bart, Communist organisers in 1930s Manly. The parents are politically engaged and capable of quirky working-class humour, maintaining an admirable interest in adventure and the cause, despite the blow of their daughter’s diagnosis with polio. Their sudden death in an air accident towards the end of Harriet’s adolescence is surprising to the reader, almost cartoonish, and reminiscent of the sudden death of Holden’s father after an accident on an Adelaide tram.
Harriet makes do. She inherits the family home in Manly, a significant boost to her capacity to make an independent living as a commercial artist. She puts herself through art school at East Sydney Tech, where she meets Amirah Soul, a woman slightly her senior. Amirah is to become a lifelong friend. The conversations between the two women are some of the most whimsical and humorous in the book. Harriet’s first job as a commercial artist is designing posters for Alex, the proprietor of Manly’s Epic Theatre, and it is through this job that she meets and becomes the lover of Holden – he of the performance.
Moya Costello was born in 1952 and began publishing her short experimental works in the early 1980s as part of a group of women writers I associate with the Sydney of that period, many of them linked to the Sydney Women Writers Workshop. I was in my late teens and an undergraduate student in creative writing at the University of Wollongong when I first came across the work of these writers in anthologies like the No Regrets series (Couani et al 1978; Sydney Women Writers Workshop 1981 and 1985), F(r)ictions (Gibbs & Tilson 1982), Second Degree Tampering (Sybylla Feminist Press 1992) and No Substitute (White et al 1990), collections that introduced me to the work of Ania Walwicz, Anna Couani, Joanne Burns, Pam Brown, Barbara Brooks, among others. Writers of my generation and younger owe a debt to these women, not just for the beauty, humour and intelligence of their creative work, but because of their energetic enthusiasm for a kind of writing, and indeed publishing, that privileges collectivism and openly rejects commercialism as a measure of what ought or ought not be published. Certainly their work had a significant influence on my thinking about what Australian women’s writing might be, do, and become. Costello has continued to publish the kind of adventurous, humorous, genre-defying prose I still associate with the work of that period, and she has also made a significant contribution over three decades as an editor of several influential and interesting anthologies (including a special issue of TEXT with Anna Gibbs, Barbara Brooks, and Rosslyn Prosser).
Harriet Chandler formed the central creative component of Costello’s doctoral thesis, conferred at the University of Adelaide in 2004. The pausing to contemplate I referred to earlier was not just to do with the work’s intertextual origins; it was also a result of Costello’s stylistics. Harriet Chandler is the story of one woman’s life, told in chronological order from birth and childhood through to old age, and yet it is certainly not a conventionally continuous narrative. The author digresses. She is, above all, an interventionist.
In reading Harriet Chandler we bump into history: communist Sydney, the eccentrics of old Manly, the old-style school fete, the orange chiffon pie. We stumble into lists: cultural anxieties, for example, that extend outside and beyond the time-frame of Harriet’s fictional life.
One of the true joys of the book is the way it privileges women’s friendship. The portrait of the friendship between Harriet and Amirah is the kind of sustaining long-term friendship that many women enjoy but few narratives represent. Harriet and Amirah talk art and literature. One drinks tea, the other coffee. They refer (probably too often) to Holden. They sit together in a wooden boat in Amirah’s garden while the years fall away:
While it is a text of humour and play, there is sometimes awkwardness to the jokes in Harriet Chandler. Early in the narrative, for example, Costello describes Harriet as, among other things, ‘a minor character in a text’ (32). I found this grating. The reference to Harriet being a character from Bail’s text is made quite clearly on the book’s back-cover blurb. Repeated here, it comes across as the kind of overtly meta-fictional joke that was novel a few decades ago. It falls flat here.
Another problematic aspect to Costello’s narrative style is her heavy reliance on sentence fragments. While the sentence fragment can loosen the formal rhythm of a work, it sometimes comes across as laziness, as if the author could not be bothered to fully develop and integrate her research notes. Lists, too, can be wonderfully effective variations on the standard continuous narrative, but Costello overdoes the use of them.
Conversely, the reproduction of a women’s art journal article that chronicles Harriet’s career as an artist and activist succeeds in providing an alternative perspective on Harriet. Her activism, for example, is made more of by this ‘other’ voice, and her artwork is read in a more overtly political way than has been presented to us in the text’s dominant narrative mode (in which Harriet is generally the implied narrator). Costello’s use of this technique reminds me of the sort of work Siri Hustvedt is doing in her more ambitious The Blazing World (Hustvedt 2014). Both authors draw our attention to the way in which women artists are positioned (and often sidelined) in mainstream culture. The disparaging remark made by Amirah one afternoon when the women have been talking too much about their gardens – ‘“She had her plants” they will say about you’ (113) – is another reminder of the ways in which women’s lives are too often summed up, brushed aside, belittled.
It is often the practice of immersion in art-making or the contemplating of art that brings us closest to Harriet, and to Costello’s best skills as an author:
Costello’s portrait of Harriet Chandler’s life is a full and spirited one. While Bail’s novel is very much about the men, Costello’s work maps the life of an educated, articulate and politically engaged woman artist across the same time setting (the thirties through to the sixties). Where Bail’s main character rambles from Adelaide to Sydney and Canberra and eventually the United States, Costello’s project is to limit Harriet mainly to the house in Kangaroo Street, and to focus on fully colouring and shading that suburban experience such that we too, dwell, for the length of our reading, in Costello’s Manly of the period.
Curiously, the subtitle ‘a novella’ which asks us to read the Harriet Chandler as a contribution to that form doesn’t seem all that relevant to me. At almost two-hundred crowded pages, the book is really beyond the usual upper length of what we might usefully define as the territory of the novella (the generally accepted ballpark is fifteen to fifty-thousand words). It doesn’t particularly subscribe to the common characteristics of the novella either (Harriet is not really the distanced lone subject of novellas like those by Camus or Tolstoy, for example). For my reading, I didn’t need the novella label. Costello’s text is not necessarily fitting anybody else’s generic mold. This is actually its key strength.
Julienne van Loon is the author of the acclaimed novella Harmless, and the novels Beneath the Bloodwood Tree and Road Story. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Best Australian Stories, The Monthly and Griffith Review. In 2014 she was awarded an Asialink residency at Peking University in Beijing.
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Vol 19 No 1 April 2015
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Enza Gandolfo & Linda Weste
Reviews Editor: Ross Watkins