Everybody my age knows the author Sumner Locke Elliott (1917-1991): he’s the one who wrote the Miles Franklin award-winning Careful, He Might Hear You (1963) which was in 1983 made into a stunning film starring Wendy Hughes, Robyn Nevin and Nicholas Gledhill as PS. The novel is known to be largely autobiographical, so when we think of this author, we don’t see him as an adult, we think of him as the impossibly grave small orphan boy over whom his aunts wage a bitter custody battle.
I suspect, however, that few of us know his other novels. Elliott left Australia for the US as a young man and never came back, but even the novels set in Australia are largely unknown. I have a copy of Water Under the Bridge (1977) but I’d never heard of Eden’s Lost (1969). Dennis Altman, in the introduction to the Text Classics edition of Fairyland says the rest are ‘almost without interest now’ …
Fairyland, however, recently reissued in the Text Classics edition, is well worth reading. It’s Elliott’s ‘coming-out’ novel, published in 1990, and it provides a vivid picture of ‘camp life’ in Sydney in the 1930s and 40s, when homosexuality was illegal and therefore necessarily covert. It is a poignant yet sometimes rather wry story.
The only other ‘coming-out’ novel I’ve read is E.M. Forster’s Maurice. As I wrote in my review on GoodReads:
Published posthumously in 1971, it’s set immediately before the First World War and tells the achingly sad story of a young man’s realisation that he is homosexual.
In the circles that I move in today, homosexuality is no longer an issue, except for the occasional intolerant old fossil. For Maurice, however, the issue is social in the sense that his homosexuality in that time and place imposes an appalling loneliness and despair about never being able to love openly in his own world. But for Clive, Maurice’s lover, religious issues are a torture. He believes that his sexual orientation is a sin and that even thinking about it commits him to the fires of Hell. He searches for support in his Bible and finds none, and he scandalises his family by refusing to take communion in the traditional show of family solidarity at their country seat. This novel conveys very powerfully the way in which religion, British society and tradition conspire to make his impulses seem to him to be filthy and depraved. It’s heart-breaking to become aware that numerous young men must have suffered these torments alone, with no one to support them, and that a terror of being found out haunted them all their lives.
In Fairyland, however, it is not religion that is the villain, it is Sydney itself. It is hard to imagine it now, when Sydney is the proud home of the Mardi Gras Festival, that for Elliott, Sydney was too repressed, too cramped, too unsophisticated to be borne…
Reminiscent of the storyline in Careful, He Might hear You, Part One of Fairyland traces the acute, heart-wrenching loneliness of an orphaned boy. He doesn’t understand it himself till he is older, but Seaton’s mother has styled herself as ‘a little soldier woman‘ worshipping her dead husband because that is how she deals with the hell of grief. When she dies, Seaton is brought up by his cousin Essie who chars in the home of the wealthy Miss Dalgarno. With expectations that don’t fit his social status he is bullied mercilessly at school, and learns also that emotion must be repressed. When Miss D abruptly abandons them, Essie and Seaton have to move to the dubious suburb of Arncliffe where he discovers that under Miss D’s tutelage he has become a snob.
Seaton realises that his sexual orientation is different when he is quite young, but what follows is a succession of unsuccessful relationships, culminating in an ending that (somewhat like Forster’s conclusion) denies him a place. Book-ended by a rather melodramatic martyrdom, but episodic in form within, Fairyland follows Seaton’s inconclusive adventures: with the actor Byron; with the very camp Milton (Milly) Dick; and with Captain Smollett, a stereotypical repressed officer. When Seaton reads the signs wrongly, he is beaten savagely by a homophobic thug in a bar.
His heroic status is underlined by his outraged stance against Skinner, who is bisexual and who casually jettisons first Seaton and then his replacement. From this exchange it seems that Seaton harbours feelings of guilt for which he feels he needs to compensate:
All my life I’ve hung on to one important compensation for what I am. I’ve just loved and not expected love back because I just wanted to love and that saved me and made up for what people call the sin of it. (p. 300)
But even in America, which Seaton had hoped might be more liberal, he is used and ultimately betrayed. In contrast to Seaton’s naïve self-effacement, all the other characters – with the exception of the saintly Essie, the self-sacrificing Patience, and the loyal Rat Ratcliffe who is too old and ugly to love – are treacherous and unreliable. By the time Elliott wrote this novel, things were changing but this novel apparently preserves his memories of life as it was for him in the 1930s and 40s.
There are some droll set pieces, notably the scene at Mascot Airport where he almost misses his plane because he doesn’t have the money to pay for his excess baggage, but the tone is generally melancholy. It is hard to escape the conclusion that happiness was inescapably elusive for homosexuals in that era.
Author: Sumner Locke Elliott
Publisher: Text Classics, Text Publishing Company, 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text
Fishpond: Fairyland (Text Classics)