Mena Calthorpe’s debut novel The Dyehouse (1961) has a special place in Australian publishing history: it’s the 100th reissued title in the Text Classics collection, which is in itself a remarkable success story. It seems like only yesterday that I was reading Geordie Williamson’s The Burning Library – a plea for the rescue of Australia’s forgotten literary achievement, a book which I feared would have very little impact despite his eloquence. I am delighted to have been wrong about this: the Text Classics series has done more than reissue some long-forgotten titles, it has introduced new generations to some of Australia’s finest authors, and even resurrected the long dormant writing career of Elizabeth Harrower.
IMO The Dyehouse is the perfect novel for the Text Classics centenary. It’s a shining example of a book ‘we’ve never heard of’ that is very good reading indeed.
(I can assert that it’s a book we’ve never heard of with some authority: it’s not listed in The Burning Library, nor is it in Jane Gleeson-White’s Australian Classics. It doesn’t get a mention in Jay Vernay’s A Brief Take on the Australian Novel or his The Great Australian Novel, a Panorama. Michael Orthorfer doesn’t include it in The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction, (though to be fair, Australia only gets 10 pages in that, and we have to share them with New Zealand and the Pacific). And although The Dyehouse was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, you won’t find it listed on Wikipedia because the records aren’t comprehensive for that era and so the shortlists are only included after 1980. I think there’s probably a very interesting story in how this particular book was (a) rediscovered and (b) chosen for the honour of being the 100th title…)
According to the Text Classics website: Mena Calthorpe (1905–1996)
was born in Goulburn, New South Wales, in 1905, and grew up there. After marrying, Calthorpe moved to Sydney and lived for most of her life in the Sutherland Shire. Working in office jobs and writing in her spare time, she was active in literary groups and in the Labor Party—for some years she was a member of the Communist Party, and she opposed B. A. Santamaria’s attempts to stop communism in trade unions.
The Dyehouse (1961) was followed by The Defectors (1969), which dramatised unions’ internal power struggles. Mena Calthorpe’s third and final novel was The Plain of Ala, an Irish migrant story, which was published in 1989.
The Dyehouse is a vivid picture of postwar Australia. Today this era is often portrayed as a kind of Golden Age, when there was peace, prosperity and full employment and everyone bought their own home (complete with new Holden) in the emerging suburbs of the big cities. But as Calthorpe shows, there was in 1956 also real poverty for the working poor, and security of employment was a myth. For women workers, sexual harassment could have tragic consequences, and benefits such as sick leave that we take for granted today were only grudgingly approved. But while the novel has a social conscience, the story comes alive through lively characterisation and an absorbing plot.
It begins with the arrival of Miss Merton:
Miss Merton came to the Dyehouse one windy afternoon when smoke from the railway yards drifted darkly over Macdonaldtown. More smoke rose from chimney-stacks and mingled in the surging air, against which all doors had been tightly shut. To Miss Merton, walking slowly, Macdonaldtown seemed deserted.
She was a precise maiden lady, well into middle age. The skirt that swirled around her legs was neat and unpretentious. Her hair was smoothed, parted in the centre, and she wore a bun – not the kind of thing that one could call a chignon, but a plain, neat bun, firmly pinned at the nape of her neck. On the back of her head was fastened a small, sensible hat of fine black straw. (p6)
Miss Merton is another victim of war and the Great Depression, because the love of her life was a man damaged by it. She works in the office, as an intermediary between the workers on the factory floor and their predatory boss Renshaw. She is also a compassionate observer of Renshaw’s seduction of naïve young Patty Nicholls who believes his line about marriage, only to see herself replaced by the next pretty young thing. Modern feminists will be pleased to see how this issue is treated.
Renshaw himself is subject to the chain of middle management in the form of Larcombe and Cuthbert and at the top there is the Chairman of Directors, a man called Harvison whose sole goal in life is to make money, avoiding any costs that he can.
Sick pay was always a contentious matter. There were fixed rules.
- Employees must report sick within twenty-four hours.
- Employee must fill in and sign statutory declaration, duly witnessed by a JP.
- Employee must state reason for absence from employment.
- Employee must ask that this absence might not jeopardise his continuity of service (i.e. that he should not be penalised by losing proportion of his holiday pay, or lose long-service privileges).
- He must claim payment for the day. (p.62)
Miss Merton in the office makes it part of her job to remind workers to do this onerous paperwork, and to help recent migrants deal with its incomprehensible language. This kindness to the workers on the factory floor ultimately makes her job vulnerable because an efficiency drive identifies that this is ‘unnecessary’ work.
In the tough world of The Dyehouse, the rules are that the statement of claim is paid only for the worker’s own personal illness. Barney Monahan is docked two hours pay for visiting his wife when she has a baby late in life. This couple and the perilous state of their finances are a poignant portrayal of the working poor:
The house was remote from the Dyehouse. Barney had bought the land – rough, isolated and scrubby, on the edge of a sweeping reserve near where the train came round the loop from Sutherland. It was cheap, but it took every penny of his carefully hoarded money to pay for it. There was nothing left over for luxuries, and he and Esther had started in a tent bought second-hand in Oxford Street.
That was a long time ago.
Tenaciously, after his day’s work at the Dyehouse, he had worked on the block with Esther, clearing the rough undergrowth but keeping the trees. Then the slow job of pegging out, digging, splitting stone for the foundation in order to save money; the period of scraping, economising, going without. And gradually the small timber-framed cottage was raised. Into six squares they had fitted two bedrooms, a bathroom, a laundry, a kitchen-cum-living room. And there was his shed made from odds and ends of material and plain junk. It housed the tools, the tent carefully packed and tied to the ceiling, and the stretchers.
This was his home, the best he could afford, and he had struggled hard to get it. (p.41)
As an aside, Calthorpe lets the reader know that their adult daughter in Perth can’t possibly afford to make the expensive trip across the country to be with her mother at this difficult time.
The most tragic figure is Hughie Marshall, a man who takes genuine pleasure in his job, mixing the dyes to create new colours and experimenting with techniques to manage the new synthetics. But Hughie is in Renshaw’s sights and Renshaw undermines him at every opportunity. His plans to move Hughie out of the work that he loves so that he can promote his young protégé are hampered by Hughie’s many years of loyal service and the strength of his reputation with senior management. Cuthbert is briefly uneasy about rubber-stamping events:
But he didn’t settle down as he should have done. He had known Hughie for over twenty years himself. Not intimately; but then, how few men he knew intimately.
He was a quite little man, this Hughie, puddling about with dyes and bottles, working contentedly for thirty-odd years in the damp laboratory. He remembered a winter’s day when he had gone unexpectedly to Macdonaldtown. He had been appalled at the wet, cold atmosphere in which Hughie Worked. He had thought, fleetingly, that something could be done to improve it. He would have something done. But the time passed and nothing came of it. (p.111)
Hughie’s eventual fate comes as a shock, which will leave few readers unmoved.
I started reading The Dyehouse last night when I went to bed at 10 o’clock. I became so absorbed in it, that I didn’t turn the light out till four o’clock in the morning. That speaks for itself, I think!
Author: Mena Calthorpe
Title: The Dyehouse
Publisher: Text Classics, 2016
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing