Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 11, 2014

The Cupboard Under the Stairs (1962), by George Turner

The Cupboard Under the Stairs

It’s only a few years ago that the literary world was abuzz with the news that both David Lodge and Colm Tóibín were publishing books fictionalising the life of Henry James – in the same year (2005).  Lodge’s went by the name of Author, Author, while Tóibín’s was called The Master. Tóibín’s (which I read and found brilliant) was shortlisted for the Booker; and it won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and a heap of other prizes as well.  David Lodge has written about how he was gutted when he learned about the untimely coincidence, and because I admired Lodge’s skill as a witty satirist in The Campus Trilogy, I’ve always felt a tad guilty about not having read Author, Author.

I wonder if George Turner (1916-1997) gnashed his teeth too when his novel The Cupboard Under the Stairs hit the bookstands in the same year as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.  I think they were both ground-breaking novels in their day: both novels explore how society fears mental illness and institutionalises people who are not ‘normal’.  Both novels redefine what ‘normal’ might be.  But while Turner’s was joint winner of the Miles Franklin Award in 1962 (along with Thea Astley’s The Well-dressed Explorer), it was Kesey’s that went on to be an international best-seller and was made into a film…

In contrast to Kesey’s blunt, direct narrative style, The Cupboard Under the Stairs has elements of modernism.  As you can see from the quotations below, Turner used short, simple sentences, often juxtaposed without any obvious connection so that readers must discern the implied connections for themselves, and there are also unconventional uses of metaphor.   As you’d expect in a novel about mental illness it features psychoanalysis (occasionally straying into a somewhat evangelical tone).  The narrative is discontinuous and there are multiple narrative points of view

The title is an allusion to the fear of the bogyman.  When Maxon the Superintendent at the experimental facility at Kilkalla is interviewed by the journalist Julia Shaw, he confronts the stereotypes head-on.  After baiting her a bit, he asked her what she was expecting of Kilkalla:

‘Well then… A rambling castle of a place, thick blue-stone walls, sunken windows, cold stone staircases, locked doors.’  She faltered.  ‘But some of the old places do look like that from the outside.’

He took up the tale.  ‘Male attendants like wrestlers and nurses with muscles and chopping-block chins. Swiftly silenced screams in distant corridors.’

He felt she was more discomfited than need be, and her laugh was short and social.  ‘Not quite that.  One tries to keep with the times but these old ideas linger, like the bogyman in the cupboard under the stairs.’

Her speech trailed, caught up in processes unspoken.  Maxon studied her abstraction.  Trying to deal intellectually with a thing her emotions reject. (p. 31)

Maxon has intuited correctly.  Julie has an hysterical fear of mental illness, due to a childhood fear of her Aunt Willa.

‘… She was insane, but nobody admits it.  They took her away and she’s dead and I’m glad of it, because she was insane.  Do you think I don’t remember?  Muttering and patting and pinching.  She kissed me and slapped my face and giggled.  She was dirty, she couldn’t control herself, she stank.  And her hands, always over you, grubs. You dare!

She clapped her hands to her head, gasping.

Her mother said, ‘Stop screaming, girl,’ and caught a spear of hatred from her daughter’s eyes.  ‘Your Aunt Willa was unbalanced, but that is for some a part of being alive.’

‘I can’t bear insanity.  It’s a filthy thing – unnatural and degrading and filthy.’ (p.11)

It is Harry White’s misfortune to belong in the same small town of Treelake, and it is to Treelake that he returns when after six years as a voluntary patient at Kalkilla he is ready to take control of his life again.  He was mixed up with two women, neither of them at all nice.  He married Gwen, who took advantage of his illness to rip off his share of the farm, but he was in love with Julia, who slept with him even on the night before she married Leo.  By the time of Harry’s return Leo is long dead, but Harry was always wondered about the paternity of Julia’s precocious daughter Ellen (now aged eleven).  When he mistakes Julia’s mask of courtesy for friendship and asks about the child, she can no longer control her phobia and attacks him savagely with a knife.   She makes extraordinary claims about the threat that Harry poses and accuses him of trying to rape her.  Julia’s characterisation is not a very subtle way for Turner to show that someone who is seriously disturbed is out in the community and holding down a job as a journalist while Harry who only ever suffered from depression brought on by survivor guilt can’t live down the undeserved stigma as a ‘mental patient’.   But hyperbole is also one of the characteristics of modernism, eh?

Had the fledgling feminist movement come across Turner’s novel in the early 1960s, I suspect that the characterisation of Guinevere a.k.a. Guinea may well have attracted a bit of flak.  Guinea rents the other half of Julia’s house, and has adopted a mannish persona and taken up a career to compensate for her inability to ‘get a man’.  When Harry staggers out onto the lawn bleeding copiously from Julia’s frenzied attack, it is Guinea who rescues him, and although he had planned that his first woman after six year’s abstinence was going to be ‘something really special’, he is able to overlook Guinea’s plainness because he finds himself attracted to her straightforward, comfortable persona.  The next day (I kid you not) he lectures her about losing some weight and making an effort with her clothes.  And yes, she does, in George Turner’s world, she falls in love with him.  (The author redeems himself a little towards the end of the novel in this respect, but in case you ever decide to read this novel, I shall not reveal quite how this is done).

The evangelical tone goes into overdrive with the characterisation of Jimmy, whose stoic championing of Harry leads even to the break-up of his relationship because he won’t  tolerate prejudice against mental illness.  He makes a huge social and financial investment in Harry, which would be questionable in any circumstances with a near-stranger.  But Turner was trying to make the point that a man ought to be able to make a fresh start without having all his attempts sabotaged by ignorance and fear.  Back in the 1960s, that was an idea that had a long way to go before gaining any kind of acceptance.

You can read more about George Turner at Middlemiss.

Author: George Turner
Title: The Cupboard Under the Stairs
Publisher: Cassell, 1962 (First Edition)
Source: Personal Miles Franklin winners collection, purchased via BibliOz.


Out of print, try your library or Brotherhood Books.

Update Feb 2022: This title is now available through the Untapped Australian Literary Heritage Project.  It can be borrowed electronically through libraries and can be purchased in digital form from eBook sellers.  For details visit the Untapped website. 


  1. I read Toibin and Lodge. So long ago now, but I enjoyed them both, though as I recollect preferred Toíbín’s. Interestingly not only were they both about James but they both also took as their starting point, if I remember correctly, James’ failure in the theatre.

    Anyhow, I haven’t read either of these 1962 winners. It’s rather interesting reading books set in our own life-time and yet at a distance that provides for some interesting hindsight. One of the many benefits of growing old, nest-ce pas?!


    • I have been neglecting my project to read all the Miles Franklin winners, so I was pleased to get back on track with such an interesting book. I have The Well-Dressed Explorer waiting, but after that I must source a copy of The Mango Tree from somewhere…


      • It’s hard to keep all these projects up in the air isn’t it? This is a great project, so glad you are still working on it. I’m sorry that I don’t have The mango tree. My collection of Aussie books from that time is not great.


        • I’ve found one! Would you believe a bookseller in East St Kilda has one, I’ve ordered it through AbeBooks – yay!


  2. You’ve found much to write about there Lisa – so many different themes. I love the “Julie has an hysterical fear of mental illness, due to a childhood fear of her Aunt Willa”. Oh dear, what a predicament, the hysterical fear being a symptom of the very thing you have a hysterical fear about. Mental illness is a rich seam for authors to mine. Its effect upon the sufferer and also on those around them, the closed world of the asylum (far fewer of them now thank goodness). Although this book is dated in some ways, many of the themes are still floating around other more modern novels.


    • Yes, in Australia too, though lately there seems to be a fad for memoirs about what mental illness is like. But you know me, I would always much rather read a novel – to me, they are more ‘true’!


  3. […] already posted the Opening Lines of this novel (back in 2009, when this blog was near-new!) and I also reviewed George Turner’s The Cupboard Under the Stairs which was the co-winner of the Miles Franklin in the same year.   But neither prepared me for the […]


  4. […] Thea Astley’s The Well-dressed Explorer which won the Miles Franklin Award in 1962 along with George Turner’s The Cupboard Under the Stairs.   Thea Astley has the distinction not only of being a four-time winner of the Miles Franklin but […]


  5. […] known Sumner Locke Elliot. Turner’s novel was The cupboard under the stairs. Once again Lisa comes to our aid with a review (and she liked this one better!). The Canberra Times wrote an article on 13 July a couple […]


  6. […] George Turner, A waste of shame: best-known for the SF novels he wrote later in his career, but in 1962, he won a Miles Franklin Award with his novel The cupboard under the stairs (reviewed by Lisa) […]


  7. […] Update: I sourced a copy of The Cupboard Under the Stairs, see my review here. […]


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