Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 14, 2015

Loving Daughters, by Olga Masters #BookReview

Loving Daughters In prosperous, comfortable, complacent 21st century Australia, it’s somewhat chastening to read this first novel from Olga Masters (1919-1986).   Set in a small farming community south of Sydney after The Great War, it’s a window on a different kind of life, one where there would be no bread on the table if a woman did not bake it every second day or so, and no hot water for tea if she did not light and tend the fire for the stove.  A life where women made all their clothes themselves and the household linen too.  A life so pinched with poverty that the Reverend Colin Edwards struggles to mask his anxiety about the cost of a phone call, and feels wasteful over the cost of a stamp when a letter home to his mother in England is merely one page long.

It’s also a life that is strictly gendered.  If the shortage of men during the war created new opportunities for women, those opportunities had mostly contracted afterwards although Rachel still runs the post office.   For Jack Herbert’s daughters Enid and Una, the future is either marriage and motherhood, or spinsterhood.  (The word ‘spinster’ itself has gone out of contemporary usage!) Jack (see a Sensational Snippet featuring Jack here) feels no compunction in wishing a life of spinsterhood for Enid because she is the better housekeeper and since the death of his wife Nellie, he wants Enid to keep making the pickles and jams and have dinner on the table when he wants it, as if by instinct.  Olga Masters does not shy from suggesting that, ominously, he is also attracted to Enid in other ways.

The arrival of a new, eligible male in Wyndham upsets Jack’s plans and it sets the girls in competition for the possibility of marriage.  The Herberts’ property is bigger than most and they have something of a position in the town, so (apart from the new arrival being tall, handsome and (having avoided war service) still all-in-one-piece), the prospect of being a minister’s wife has appeal.  But the archbishop isn’t keen because Edwards’ contract is for two years on a single man’s stipend.  Already the Reverend feels keenly that his status is compromised by having only a sulky for transport while the Herberts have a car…

It is these sharp observations that make reading Loving Daughters a delight.  Although Masters had won the National Book Award in 1983 for her short story collection The Home Girls in 1982,  Loving Daughters (1984) was her first novel, written more than half a century after the events she describes.  By then women had access to university education, the professions and trades.  They received equal pay, had agency over their own money and were expected to contribute to family finances at least until the arrival of children.  Household drudgery and the restricted lives of women as depicted in Loving Daughters were things of the past yet Masters represents this life with a familiarity that is all the more powerful for never being strident or shrill.

The contest for the affections of Edwards is only the beginning, however.   Three women compete for custody of Small Henry, who is doubly orphaned by the death of his mother and subsequent abandonment  by his father.  His aunts Enid and Una both want to show Edwards how maternal they can be, but their Aunt Violet pre-empts them by taking Small Henry in.  She does this not out of family feeling but rather as a symbol of her heartless competence as a trained nurse.  Not at all interested in nursing her husband Ned who has come back damaged from the war, and childless, she has ambitions to set up her own maternity hospital.  And in another triangle of frustrated lust, Ned’s brother George fancies her.  Though for different reasons, both Violet and George privately wish that Ned would take himself off into the bush and die out there as ancestral Phoebe did in the early days of settlement.

The characterisation is at its most affectionate in the representation of Edwards.  The narration is omniscient third person, so that the reader is privy to all his self-delusions and anxieties.  He vacillates between self-confidence and disillusionment, and his honeymoon predicament is both amusing and poignant.  He is so ignorant about women but his choice means he has to learn fast!

The people were right.  She was a fashion plate but he loved her for it, and it was too early to start worrying where future clothes would come from.  She had made herself enough, he supposed, to last a long time.

She snapped a small purse shut now, one on a long chain he hadn’t seen before and this disturbed him too.  The bag of creamy coloured leather shaped like a large envelope which she carried with her from the house after the wedding sat on the dressing table with some pots and jars.  Goodness, he had thought it would be one bag for one woman.

He had a lot to learn, he could see, and felt terribly inadequate that all he could do in preparation was to brush at his coat with his fingertips and smooth down his hair with his hands.

She went out of the room ahead of him, sauntering down the wide hall filled with the smell of the evening meal cooking, something savoury, Edwards could detect with rising spirits.

Mrs Chance put her head out of one of the doors and with her bold eyes asked if they had spent the time in the bedroom at you-know-what.

No, we didn’t, came Edwards’s bold eyes in reply.

And if you ask me, said his back passing through the front door and crossing the verandah to meet the sparkling sea, it’s a quite a way off yet.  (p. 213)

Minor characters are cleverly drawn too.  This Mrs Chance who runs the honeymoon guest house takes pride in her efforts and is not best pleased when they are ignored:

Mrs Chance waited in vain for compliments on the room, for she had brought in a small table and covered it with a white cloth for them to have breakfast in private if they wanted it and she had two bowls of flowers on the mantelpiece, although heaven knows they were hard enough to come by in the January heat.  She went off in a huff resolved not to put herself out further.   (p. 210)

If only Olga Masters had written more!  I have read both her novels now, Loving Daughters (1984), and Amy’s Children (1987), see my review hereA Long Time Dying (1985) is a series of connected short stories, and I have her 1982 collection titled The Home Girls (see a Sensational Snippet here) so I shall have to be content with that…

Author: Olga Masters
Title: Loving Daughters
Publisher: University of Queensland Press, 1984 First Edition
ISBN: 0702217581
Source: gift of Sue from Whispering Gums, thank you, Sue!

Availability:

Fishpond Loving Daughters (UQP Modern Classics)
Or  direct from UQP.


Responses

  1. This sounds wonderful. It sounds like it would be a good companion read to The Harp in the South trilogy that I am currently reading.

    • Yes, I think it would be a great companion read to that, and I would put Amy’s Children in the same category. What I find amazing about these novels is that even though they are a world away in time and place, both Park and Masters convey insights that are still resonant today. I think it’s because their characterisations are so brilliant, they are both great observers of the interior lives of both men and women.

  2. A pleasure Lisa … so glad you like it as much as I did. I was very sad when she died. Like Austen, she died too early in her fiction career. I haven’t yet read A long time dying, though it’s on the TBR. One day.

    • I think I owe my discovery of Olga Masters to you so I’m not just grateful for the book:)

  3. I look forward to reading Loving Daughters, Lisa, thanks for this review! Having just finished Pat Barker’s novel Toby’s Room, some of the themes seem similar – both period pieces, and although Barker doesn’t shy from revealing her central characters’ (a sibling pair)’ affection’, I felt these themes could have been explored more fully. The excerpt you’ve chosen here is gorgeous!

    • Hello Juliet, what a lovely name you have:)
      You have reminded me that I have Toby’s Room on my TBR, and I really should read it soon because I love Pat Barker’s novels, and I know I would enjoy it. It is one of the great strengths of older writers that they have lived through the period that they write about, and IMO it gives their work an authenticity that only the most gifted of younger writers can achieve, no matter how good their research is.
      I hope you do enjoy Loving Daughters as much as I did:)

      • Hi Lisa… I agree about the older writers, so true. I’m keen to read more of Pat Barker’s work. I just found this delightful bit of info on Wiki, including a fantastic quote from Angela Carter: “(Pat Barker’s) first published novel was Union Street, which consisted of seven interlinked stories about English working class women whose lives are circumscribed by poverty and violence. For ten years, the manuscript was rejected by publishers as too “bleak and depressing.” Barker then met novelist Angela Carter at a writers’ workshop. Carter liked the book, telling Barker “if they can’t sympathise with the women you’re creating, then sod their fucking luck,” and suggested she send the manuscript to feminist publisher Virago, who accepted it.” Go Carter! Love her nerve! Perhaps it takes fame to have such assurance? Apparently, Union Street became one of Virago’s best sellers.
        Meanwhile, Loving Daughters awaits :)

        • Virago published some fabulous stuff, are they still going or have they been taken over by some big conglomerate?

  4. Well I checked, and it seems they’re still going, though the last entry on their website is 2013, with the publication of an anthology celebrating their 40th year. According to Wiki, at different times they have been owned or part-owned by Random House and Hachette Livre. Certainly an interesting history!

    • That’s interesting. Perhaps RH is still keeping their imprint alive.

  5. Thanks. I will see if i can find this book. Sounds good.

  6. […] six so far, noticeably all by female authors – Gillian Mears, Olga Masters (see my review of Loving Daughters), Elizabeth Jolley, Kate Grenville, Thea Astley (see my review of A Descant for Gossips) and now […]

  7. […] (see my review) is a wonderful book.  Sue from Whispering Gums found Loving Daughters  (Update: see my review) for me in an Op Shop, and I found The Home Girls at Brotherhood Books (Update: see a […]


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