Trouble in Lotus Land, Essays 1964-1967 (a book with the name of a plant in the title) is the last of the books I chose to complete the What’s In A Name? challenge, and overall, I’m quite pleased I did. Charmian Clift (1923-1969) has a special place in Australian letters and it’s always interesting to read her work. She was not a poet, but she was our Sylvia Plath, remembered now as much for her tragic suicide as for her writing. She was also our Ingrid Bergman, who scandalised her conservative times by having an affair with a married man. Bergman was forced out of Hollywood and back to Europe; Clift and George Johnson were sacked by the newspaper they worked for, and after their marriage they fled for London, then the Greek Islands, where they lived for ten years.
Like Darcy Niland and Ruth Park, they were determined to ‘live by the pen’. Unlike Niland and Park, they were not disciplined about it. In Greece, far from where work was and where they were reliant on agents and a dubious postal service, they were not strategically placed to take whatever work came along. They partied too much, and they drank too much. They wrote, separately and collaboratively, but their income was spasmodic and not enough.
But by the time Australian readers were perusing Clift’s newspaper columns now collected in Trouble in Lotus Land, all was forgiven. Johnson and Clift were Sydney’s foremost literary couple. In 1964 Johnson had won the first of his two Miles Franklin Awards for My Brother Jack and Clift’s books about her exotic sojourn in Greece – Mermaid Singing (1954) and Peel Me a Lotus (1959) – had become popular early examples of the ‘living-in-a-romantic place’ genre, much-loved by Australians who had little hope of travel themselves because it was so expensive in those days before economy airlines.
As Nadia Wheatley says in the introduction to this collection, the Johnson’s finances were perilous on their return to Australia in 1964. George Johnson had terminal TB, they had three children, they both had a drinking problem and they had a shaky marriage. At a time when it was still uncommon for women to have paid employment outside the home, Clift had needed to support the family. She had begun writing a column in the ‘women’s pages’ of the Sydney Morning Herald and within a short time had become immensely popular.
So is there any value still to reading these brief essays, beyond a nostalgia factor for women of a my mother’s generation and enjoyment of her chatty style?’ Well yes, up to a point….
Yes, because apart from the almost uncanny way that some of the columns are as relevant today as they were in the pre-swinging 60s, some of them are a window on that moment in time when Australia shifted from its Menzian complacency to a period of discontent. Clift expressed the discontent which presaged feminism, the Vietnam moratoriums, abortion and divorce law reform and a number of other issues which grew from grass-roots activism in the 1970s. She had her finger on the nation’s pulse, though her editors may not have known it.
But I have to confess that I became a bit tired of these ‘essays’ after a while. They’re not really essays, they are 1000 word columns, and their brevity prevents anything like the well-developed arguments as in, for example, Quarterly Essay or The Monthly. And, like the columns I mostly can’t be bothered reading in today’s newspapers, many of Clift’s are lightweight. A school reunion, the national anthem, the lack of an Australian national costume – I might be interested in desultory chat about these things with my friends, but I really don’t care about the opinion of a newspaper columnist about stuff like this. Not at all.
And some of Clift’s ideas are downright odd. In Goodbye Mr Chips she reveals that she left school at fourteen, not because she had to, but because at fourteen, she knew ‘basically, deeply and certainly that nothing [she] was being forced to learn was, or would be, of the slightest use to me’. Now I can understand a fourteen-year-old having that type of ignorant arrogance; I find it astonishing that an adult in her forties would defend it. With her own child about to start high school, Clift still believed that since at fourteen she could already read and write, that’s all she needed. No need to learn history, science, music or art appreciation; no possibility that studying the great works of English literature with other students might have enriched her understanding of them. She dismisses education as a meaningless pursuit of a piece of paper to satisfy The System.
Here’s what she thought about education for girls, and the kind of jobs they might aspire to:
It sometimes seems mad to me that there are girls of eighteen and nineteen still in school pinnies and clumper shoes, singing hey-nonny-nonny and rushing about with hockey sticks, who could, at the same age, be already trained and self-supporting dressmakers or hairdressers or milliners or secretaries or salesgirls, or go-go girls if it comes to that. Unless a girl is going on to university, and many of them go on to university only because they don’t know what else to do, or because their parents think it is proper to their station, she will shed her formal education with her tunic and hockey stick and within a week of leaving school will probably retain nothing except the piece of paper that is her passport into the territory of the commercial world… (p299)
This is a remarkably ignorant and patronising attitude, by any measure. I think the only way to rationalise it is to assume that someone being paid to have opinions might sometimes go out of her way to be provocative in the way that contemporary columnists write utter rubbish in order to generate controversy and publicity.
Still, what strikes me over and over again is how generally optimistic these essays are, even when she is writing about something she disapproves of or wants to change. It is hard to recognise the seemingly successful and confident woman who wrote those columns as the one who committed suicide such a short time later.
Here she is on the topic of urban density:
Views and private domestic havens apart, there is an inevitability about the great towers creeping down through the pleasant groves and avenues and crescents taking over. What else – when one thinks of it – could possibly have happened? If our urban population doesn’t go up it will have to go out. (The Creeping Towers, p38)
On apathy about the Vietnam War:
We see such photographs in our newspapers any day of the week now. Babies not only abandoned but burned with napalm, fleeing women bloodied and torn, screaming faces, young boys bound under viciously kicking boots or smashing rifle butts: the horror is blunted by such constant repetition: we turn to the sport or the gossip concerning television celebrities or the social pages. And read the stars. (On a Lowering Sky in the East, p112)
In hindsight, perhaps there were hints of the anguished regrets she felt in private?
I often think that middle-aged people have two lives, the one they’ve lived, and a parallel life, as it were, that walks around with them like a cast shadow and lies down with them when they go to sleep, and this is the life they might have lived if they had made different choices in that time when time was so abundant and the choices were so many. And sometimes it still seems possible to live this other life: all that is necessary is to shift to the parallel tracks; perhaps in some queer way, one has been living it all along. (On Being Middle Aged, p120)
Trouble in Lotus Land is out-of-print now, so if you see a copy in the Op Shop, don’t leave it there. However, I’d advise dipping into this book rather than reading it all in one go. A surfeit of short pieces tends to blur after a while…
Author: Charmian Clift
Title: Trouble in Lotus Land, Essays 1964-1967.
Publisher: Imprint (Angus and Robertson) 1990
Source: Personal library, second-hand, $10.00.
PS In August last year, it was discovered that Charmian Clift was first published when she was eight years old, with a poem in the local newspaper. The Kiama Local History Society reported on this find with a carefully researched blog post with photos of her (probable) childhood home. There’s also an informative blog post about Nadia Wheatley’s biography of Clift at Australian Literature Diary.