Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 17, 2019

The Aunt’s House (2019), by Elizabeth Stead

Elizabeth Stead (b. 1932) is the author of six novels: The Fishcastle (Penguin, 2000); The Different World of Fin Starling (Penguin, 2003); The Book of Tides (2005)The Gospel of Gods and Crocodiles (UQP, 2007) The Sparrows of Edward Street (UQP, 2011) – and her latest novel The Aunt’s House (2019).  This is the blurb:

Recently orphaned, Angel Martin moves into a boarding house populated by an assortment of eccentric and colourful characters. She’s befriended by the gregarious Winifred Varnham – a vision in exotic fabrics – and the numerically gifted Barnaby Grange. But not everyone is kind and her scrimping landlady, Missus Potts, is only the beginning of Angel’s troubles. Angel refuses to accept her fate. She is determined to forge a sense of belonging despite rejection from her two maiden aunts, Clara and Elsa, who blame Angel’s mother for their brother’s death. Her Sunday visits to the aunts house by the Bay expand her world in ways she couldn’t have imagined.

Elizabeth Stead brings her classic subversive wit and personal insight to this nostalgic portrait of wartime Sydney. In Angel Martin, she has created a singular and irrepressible character. A true original.

Set in 1942, the novel begins with eleven-year-old Angel adjusting to a new life as an unwanted addition to a boarding house run by the parsimonious Missus Potts.  Her mother has just died, and her paternal aunts don’t want her because they believe her mother was responsible for their brother’s death in a car accident.  Although Stead’s book is fiction, the poignant plight of this unwanted child reminded me of Alva’s Boy, an Unsentimental Memoir by Alan Collins’.  This memoir, recalling Collins’ wretched childhood in Sydney in about the same era, is the remarkable personal story on which his novels were based. (See my review.)  Knowing that during these years there were indeed unwanted, unloved and horribly neglected children who were so ill-fed and ill-clothed, made The Aunt’s House seem even more vivid…

Like Alan Collins, Elizabeth Stead uses humour to lighten the mood, and both books feature childhood escapades as well.  But the quirky narration of The Aunt’s House is entirely different: written in third person but from Angel’s perspective, it shows us a scatty child who thinks, speaks and acts in strange ways.  People say that she is not quite right in the head, and the proximity of the Sanatorium where her mother died means that people often talk about madness, as they did in those days when mental illness was less well understood.  The other characters in the boarding house are also eccentric, and Angel is befriended both by the savant Barnaby Grange who sees the world in numbers, and by the flamboyant Winifred Varnham who dresses in exotic robes and wears a chopstick in her hair.  Part of the value of The Aunt’s House is that like the famous One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nestit encourages readers to think about the folly of labelling people and to consider instead the fluctuating borders between eccentricity and mental illness.

And in Stead’s story, Angel’s odd behaviour is protective, to some extent.  She is able to earn a little money when she’s finished her onerous chores, and she uses it to travel Sydney’s trams and to visit her aunts even though she is not made welcome.  She doesn’t take no for an answer, because despite the overt hostility of these aunts, (one more so than the other) Angel remains optimistic. She doesn’t know what it’s like to have a family but she believes fervently that she can create one.   And because she hasn’t learned the aloof behaviour that’s common on public transport, she chatters away and makes friends with the amused conductors and other people that she comes across.

Her interior life is enriched by the music she hears in her head all the time, and by art.  A visit to the art gallery is stymied when she is told that she can’t enter barefoot, but Angel uses her initiative to persuade one of her mother’s neighbours to help her out with some second-hand sandals.  She is enchanted by the colours:

O! the colours! O, the richness of it all!  Everything was so overwhelmingly beautiful it made Angel cry and the crying disturbed her because she never cried.  Angel crept from painting to painting close to the floor and in such a way she hoped she might make herself invisible or possibly part of the display.

There was one painting in the main gallery that was big, bigger than all the walls in the boarding house stuck together, and there was a seat to sit on to watch it.  Angel just sat there with tears running, like the creek in the gully, down her face with the joy of it all…O, the colours!  And the music inside her turning somersaults was loud enough for the whole place to be deafened by it and its colours poured all over the place…. O, the colours, the colours.  (p.64)

(What would this painting be, I wonder?)

A regular truant from school, Angel has educated herself with books, music and art, and her environmental awareness stretches to renaming the ocean as the nation of Mariana, after the Mariana Trench.  I found myself thinking about how best a school would teach an erratic, untamed but highly intelligent child like Angel and came back to the motto I had on my professional LisaHillSchoolStuff blog: ‘If students can’t learn the way we teach, we must teach the way they learn’. Of course, nobody today teaches the way they did in 1942, but a child like Angel would still be a challenge in a regular classroom. So if I were still running professional development workshops, I’d be providing excerpts about Angel’s thinking and behaviour, for teachers to discuss strategies for providing a child like her with an education that would be enjoyable and meet her needs…

However… There are three separate instances of sexual abuse in this novel.  They are very lightly sketched, and the tone of Angel’s response suggests that although these experiences have taught her to be wary, her hard-won resilience is a coping strategy.  But I do wonder, what message is conveyed when three of five males in the story are abusers?  Does this not run the risk of normalising this kind of aberrant behaviour, if it’s portrayed as something that any man will do, given a vulnerable child and opportunity?

Click this link to hear Elizabeth Stead on Radio National’s Conversations program back in 2007.

Author: Elizabeth Stead
Title: The Aunt’s House
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2019, 280 pages
ISBN: 9780702260353
Review copy courtesy of UQP



  1. For a long time I didn’t know there was abuse. Now I do, and it seems to be everywhere. My present opinion is that men of the 1940s had in general an attitude towards women and more particularly towards girls that verged on ownership. That girls could be ‘felt up’ at will. This of course often led on to rape but also to many women regarding it as a ‘fact of life’. It sounds like Stead’s book reflects this. I’ll read it and let you know if our opinions diverge.


    • Oh no, Bill, I think you might be maligning an entire generation of men. That kind of behaviour is aberrant behaviour. Surely, just because we hear about it so often these days doesn’t mean that it was prevalent amongst men generally.


  2. This sounds like something I would really like.


  3. Really interesting question in your last para. I’m not sure that presenting certain behaviours can be said to normalise them, even if the fact that characters/omniscient author don’t question them makes them seem normal. I think the point is what the reader comes away with, what questions the author makes the reader ask and consider?


    • Indeed. We are asked, I think, to consider the protection of vulnerable children, not exactly a new proposition in Australian fiction, and not one that lacks public awareness, not any more. And since the situation is specific to that place and time i.e. an orphaned child in a boarding house, which would not happen today, do readers need to be confronted by the implication that 60% of men are opportunistic abusers?
      However, I would not want my objection to this, to override my perception of the book overall. The author shows us a strong and resilient child dealing effectively with being unwanted and not ‘fitting in.’ That is the strength of the book.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] einen Moment bei China: Auf Anz LitLovers Litblog geht es um Bright Swallow von Vivian Bi und um The Aunt’s House von Elizabeth […]


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