Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 8, 2018

Three of a Kind, by Barbara Jefferis #BookReview

Barbara Jefferis (1917-2004) was an Australian author.  She was married to the journalist John Hinde, a fact which is relevant to her profile because he established the $50,000 Barbara Jefferis Award in her memory, with prize criteria that were dear to her heart.  It’s an award that is made to the author of the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society.  Both he and she, I suspect, would have been disappointed by the remarks of this year’s chief judge, Sandra Yates, who was reported in the SMH as saying of the entries that a surprising number featured domestic violence, death or the subjugation of women and that the first three books [she] read from the longlist saw one woman burnt at the stake, one woman pushed off a cliff and the other a victim of domestic violence:

“We were surprised, I have to say, that so many even in the longlist seemed to have such dark, negative portrayals of women in them,” she said. “We [women] don’t need any more books about our capacity to endure, I think we have established that.”

So I am not the only one sick-and-tired of the current crop of misery memoirs and novels featuring women as victims…

Barbara Jefferis wrote radio dramas, serials, docos and prize-winning fiction featuring empowered female central characters, but Three of a Kind is a biography of three women from the same family who broke the mould.   This is the blurb:

This is a biography of three remarkable women from one Australian family, set against the social and economic background of their time. From successive generations, living and working between 1850 and 1920, each was talented, resolute and spirited; each had a career at a time when careers for women were rare.
Susan Brown, born 1819, was a successful actress for sixty-three years; her daughter Harriet Wooldridge acted briefly then bore a large family; her granddaughter Mary Card was a teacher, writer and finally a hugely successful designer of crochet patterns, known world-wide.
Barbara Jefferis, better known for her nine published novels, here brings the lives of these women into close focus, revealing how they have been neglected in recorded histories but showing how their individual lives, when explored are full of interest and implications.

Wikipedia, of course, did not exist when Jefferis wrote this bio… I bet she would have been pleased to see the entry for Mary Card both there and at the ADB Online. I’m not surprised that Harriet Wooldridge doesn’t have a presence as her career was brief, and motherhood, even of a very large brood, doesn’t rate as significant at Wikipedia.  But Susan Brown should be there: she had a remarkable career.  (It’s possible that she is, somewhere, because her stage name was spelt so many different ways, (Watson, Wooldridge, or Watson-Wooldridge or Wooldridge-Watson).  So far I can only find US and UK actors of that name.)

Although there is a great deal about the career of Susan Brown a.k.a. Wooldridge (& its variations), it was the section about Mary Card that I liked best.  Inspired by the example of her mother and grandmother, she wanted to be independent, and she first set up a small private school called the Astolat Ladies College, one of a surprising number in Melbourne after the passing of the 1870 Education Act that made education, secular, compulsory and free.  Jefferis doesn’t use the word ‘snob’, but explains that the explosion of little private schools was due to two things: the lack of preparatory schools for the Public Schools, and the determination of middle-class parents that their children should be educated anywhere but in the State School. Mary Card’s school was very successful but after just a few years she became profoundly deaf and could not continue to teach.  She then tried her hand at writing and her occupation is listed in the 1903 and 1912 electoral rolls as ‘journalist’. But it was another form of writing which made her famous around the world.

I have on my bookshelves my mother’s well-thumbed copy of Weldon’s Encyclopedia of Needlework, (c.1950) from which I learned to knit socks and gloves and fair isle, and then graduated to fancy picture knitting with complex patterns by designers like Jenny Kee. But although I am no slouch with a knitting needle, I never mastered the art of crochet, much less anything from the section on exquisitely delicate Irish lace.  I can’t do it, but my mother could, and I have some gorgeous heirloom pieces that she made: a bedspread, a tablecloth, a bead-edged milk jug cover and a tray-cloth. And now I know (thanks to Barbara Jefferis) that she was not only using Mary Card’s distinctive Australian designs—flowers and birds and gum leaves—but also her invention, a system of following the design from a chart:

‘indeed a boon to the lover of fine crochet who finds the ordinary directions tedious and tiring to follow.  Instead of pages and pages of closely printed instructions, a clear, large-size chart, drawn in square, shows the whole design at a glance…Nothing could be easier to follow.  With the chart spread before you, the work goes steadily forward.  There is no eyestrain; no searching for the place as with ordinary crochet directions.  Should you happen to make a mistake it immediately shows itself.  Large and ambitious designs of intricate beauty can be most successfully carried out.’ (p.169-170)

Mary Card’s business was astonishingly successful. Initially she ran it from her home in Olinda, sending out designs to women who tested the patterns for accuracy, and then submitting them by post to publishers in Australia, the UK and US.  (You can see some of her designs here and her Victorian Centenary design for Home Beautiful here).  Phone calls to publishers were managed with the help of a third party, who would listen to and transcribe what was said for Mary, and then Mary would take over the phone and continue the conversation.

Mary became a phenomenon:

Anyone in Australia or America or England who had a grandmother or a great-grandmother who married between the beginning of the century and the 1920s had a grandmother or great-grandmother who had Mary Card-designed articles of one sort or another in her trousseau.

Trousseaux were real trousseaux then—a dozen of everything in winter and summer weight, enough household and table-linen to last until the golden wedding anniversary.  Cheap machine-made lace to decorate underwear made from rather sleazy material called milanese was becoming popular at the end of the period, but not for a bride’s trousseau.  Every stitch that went into it had to be hand-made, and unless she happened to be an unfortunate with ten thumbs, a good deal of the stitchery had to be her own. (p.144)

Jefferis being the champion feminist that she was includes a analysis of needlecraft as the antithesis of what centuries of men saw as a harmless way of stopping Satan finding occupation for idle hands.  Needlework was wholly a female preserve, and the one field in which women were taught by women.  Jefferis isn’t entirely convinced that what could be a subversive occupation meant that the designs, the stitches and the pictorial patterns used were often feminist political statements.  She acknowledges that

…western European women [used] universally-recognised peace symbols in their work in the midst of patriotic wars, wives of Confederate generals [worked] Federal patterns into their quilts while their husbands were out storming around the country raising troops for the American Civil War. These are nice examples even if they don’t quite convince us that every woman who used needle and thread was making some statement about the subjection of women and her own political views.  But it does have to be remembered that every choice says something about the chooser, and that the woman who chooses a Joan of Arc rather than a Virgin Mary design for her needle-point screen tells us something about her temperament and her mood at the time she was choosing. (p.146)

True.  One of my mother’s crochet cloths features the names of her daughters and their year of birth, and the exhortation to Be good sweet maids and let who can be clever. An interesting choice, just that one line from Kingsley’s A Farewell.  We all ignored it and went to university anyway…

Whereas I got a bit tired of Susan Brown Wooldridge’s catalogue of stage performances, and (as Mary Card apparently did) I found it a bit difficult to be inspired by Harriet Wooldridge’s brief acting career, I could have read an entire book about Mary Card.  I liked her eccentricities, her ambition, her aesthetics and the way she transcended her disability to triumph in business and achieve the independence she craved.

For thirty years she was indisputably the crochet queen of England, America and Australia, and anyone who crochets today is, whether they know it or not, doing things the way Mary Card said they should be done. (p.148)

That’s an enduring legacy, eh?

Author: Barbara Jefferis
Title: Three of a Kind
Publisher: Sisters Publishing, 1982, 189 pages (Read my tribute to this amazing feminist publishing house here)
ISBN: 0908207565 (9780908207565)

Source: Personal copy, purchased from AbeBooks


Responses

  1. […] discovery of Barbara Jefferis’s biographical Three of a Kind (1982), which I reviewed here, led to another discovery, which deserves its own […]

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  2. Reblogged this on LIVING THE DREAM.

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  3. Fascinating Lisa, I particularly enjoyed the discussion of needlework and crochet because like you I have wonderful heirloom pieces, but mostly from my great aunt. I now have some from my aunt’s house but I don’t recollect either she or her mum, my gran, being great needlewomen so I’m not sure of their provenance.

    I love that point about choices saying something about the chooser. BTW I know that quote as “Be good sweet maid, and let who WILL be clever” which is rather worse because it suggests that even if you CAN, you have a choice about whether you WILL. Horrible quote, whichever way you think about it.

    I have been mulling over doing a Monday Musings on Sandra Yates statement about this year’s Barbara Jefferis award, but it needs a bit of time to write decently.

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    • Ah, now I (we) always interpreted it as ‘leave to others i.e. men, to be clever’. But however it’s interpreted, I see it as symbolic of many of those homemaker mothers who did interesting things during the war, got sent back to the kitchen afterwards, and (whether they hid it well or badly) always resented their daughters going off and doing the things they wanted to do.

      … Any idea which three books Yates was talking about?

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      • Yes, I’ve interpreted it as letting men be clever but not overlaid with the war time story. It was written in the 19th century by Charles Kingsley and had a nobler meaning:

        Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever;
        Do noble things, not dream them, all day long:
        And so make life, death, and that vast forever
        One grand, sweet song.

        Though I would argue that you may need to be clever to do noble things!!

        And no, I’ve been trying to think what books they might be since I saw your first mention – but I also thought that if you don’t know, I can’t imagine that I would! I really would like to write about it but will see how I go. I have a busy few days and am away from Tuesday to Thursday so have some things to get organised because of that absence.

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        • Gosh, Sue, your energy levels put me to shame!

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          • Haha, Lisa – that’s what my Mum says. I do tend to take on too much and then wear myself out. One day I might learn my lesson. I would like to find more time to read.

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            • Well, do it while you can *if* you are enjoying it, that’s what I say:)

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              • It’s always a balance isn’t it – mostly I start because I want to but one thing leads to another and it’s those other things that can cause the trouble and can be hard to extricate oneself from.

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                • Yes, and when you’ve always been a busy person, volunteering for this and that, it’s hard to pull on the reins.

                  Liked by 1 person

  4. […] Reporting this, Lisa commented “So I am not the only one sick-and-tired of the current crop of misery memoirs and novels featuring women as victims…” […]

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