Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 5, 2019

Water Under the Bridge (1977), by Sumner Locke Elliott

Just over a week ago, Writers NSW and the State Library of NSW hosted another in their Honouring Australian Writers series, with a tribute to the author Sumner Locke Elliott (1917-1991).   Hearing about this event prompted me to retrieve his sixth novel Water Under the Bridge from the TBR where it had languished for far too long, and subsequently listening to the podcast* enhanced my reading of the novelSo I must acknowledge the speakers at the event: Sharon Clarke who wrote a 1996 biography of Sumner Locke Elliott; and the other speakers Kim Knuckey, an actor with a keen interest in Elliott’s plays; the film producer Margaret Fink who produced the film based on Elliott’s Eden’s Lost in 1988; and Walter Mason who did some of the readings.

Sumner Locke Elliott is known to most of us as the winner of the 1963 Miles Franklin Award with his first and very poignant autobiographical novel Careful, He Might Hear You which I read years ago when it was made into a film in 1983.  Much more recently I reviewed Fairyland (1990), which was the last of his novels and an autobiographical novel which reveals a rather grim Sydney in the days before homosexuality was decriminalised.  Apart from Edens Lost (1969) and Water Under the Bridge (1977) which were both set in Australia, all the others were set in the US, where he lived from 1948.  These included: Some Doves and Pythons (1966);  The Man Who Got Away (1972); Going (1975);  Signs of Life (1981); About Tilly Beamis (1985); and Waiting for Childhood (1987).  In 1977 he won the Patrick White Award.

But apart from these novels which were internationally successful (including in translation), Elliott was also a successful playwright and scriptwriter, most notably for Rusty Bugles (1948) which was, according to one of the speakers on the podcast, the first play to feature the Australian vernacular, an homage more commonly applied to Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1955) by Ray Lawlor.  This may well have been because Rusty Bugles was promptly banned because of its bad language, which is apparently quite tame by contemporary standards.  I’ll leave that to others to judge.

What I learned from the podcast, and subsequently by poking around in my Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (1985 edition), was that one way or another, all Elliott’s novels were autobiographical, featuring orphaned boys brought up by lone surrogate mothers.  Elliott’s own mother died young, leaving him to the tender mercies of the aunts who waged a custody battle for him as fictionalised in Careful, He Might Hear You. In Water Under the Bridge, the mother is careless of him, dumping him on a theatrical friend while she goes to nurse the husband by whom she so besotted that she barely notices the child’s existence.  Both of them promptly die of the flu epidemic, leaving him in the dismayed hands of the friend.

The portrayal of Shasta, the ageing chorus-girl, is both brutal and sympathetic.  She gives up her big break on the stage to take care of him all through the bleak years of the depression, but her resentment about this entrapment and the lost opportunities for fame and for love bleed through into hysterical rants which are legendary in the boarding house.  When Neil comes home after the celebrations for the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932, he is warned to be wary:

The front hall light had been left on for him which would mean sixpence would be added to the rent.  The house had a peculiar smell of old carpet, frying and stale beer.  The vestibule was a slight cut above the neighbours’, with threadbare carpeting rather than lino.  There was a lithograph of ‘Hope’ crouched blindfold in despair over the globe of the world, and a framed mirror that had tarnished into golden measles.  On the fumed-oak dropleaf table was a bowl of dusty wax grapes that looked like tumours and a china Tyrolean couple probably won at Luna park years ago.  Mrs Chauncey reluctantly took telephone messages and one or two of these were propped up against the grapes.  One read ‘Neil’.

In the uncertain light he read ‘Cave.  V.B.M.’  Chauncey liked a bit of Latin.  Cave was Latin for Beware.  […] V.B.M. meant Very Bad Mood. Good old Chauncey, what a pal.  Neil unlaced his shoes and took them off and went up the stairs using the extreme side which was less inclined to squeak. (p.57-8.)

Mrs Chauncey’s warning does him no good at all.  Shasta is awake, and she lures him into what starts as a genial conversation that then morphs into a tirade about his selfishness, about how she doesn’t care about anything he does, but she’s sick of being treated like a doormat, and so on.  And on and on.  Shasta has become an awful old harridan, tormenting Neil at every opportunity, and not evoking much of the reader’s sympathy — not until a last opportunity for happiness arises.  Elliott has set his novel in an era of real suffering — the Depression, and then the war, but he gives proper weight to Shasta’s tragedy: the collapse of her long-held hopes and her fear of a lonely old age…

She lay awake and thought about being rescued from the descending spiral of shabby rooming houses, each one worse.  Of the diminishing of old pals, the eventual state home for the aged, recognised the fact that in all her born days of entertaining men in and out of bed, she’d never before had a legitimate proposal of marriage.

Most of all she thought about the horror of ending her life in any kind of hospital or institution.  She could never forget going to visit broken-down old Queenie Dawn in one of those places, the stench of disinfectant, the rows of beds with the old women lying in their own wet or shuffling up and down the ward in their institutional grey cotton bathrobes, the cold disinterested attendants.  And Queenie saying, ‘You’re the only one who’s ever come to see me, Shast.’  Even at that she couldn’t ever go back. (p.285)

But it’s not easy for Neil to escape.  He yearns to be free, and he manages to make a career as an actor despite her scorn, but he feels guilt and responsibility for Shasta and he ends up just as trapped as she is.  This pattern repeats itself in his efforts at romance.  He is bedazzled by the wealthy Carrie Mazzini, for whom he’s just a plaything, and in his search for self he comes to realise eventually that he is beguiled in part by her unavailability.  But he still can’t break away and at a crucial opportunity in his career, she whistles for him once again…

How she liked to bring up these tangential things, liked to tantalise you with some sort of metaphor seemingly unrelated in any way to what was being talked about and then give that quizzical smile, and if you asked what did she mean, would laugh or say contemptuously that if you didn’t get the point she couldn’t explain it to you.  It had never been any use asking Carrie what she meant, or if she meant to mean anything. Like what she meant about not finding people real.  Interesting, because if anything, the reverse was true, she was the unreal one, she was the conundrum.  She was there and she wasn’t, she was alluring and a nuisance, vulnerable and self-contained, and it occurred to him now that in her casualness of give and take, asking for your hand, asking for your heart, she was conscienceless and that this made her unattainable and irresistible.  (p.275)

Water Under the Bridge is a character-driven novel exploring diverse destinies, with Sydney itself as a character.  The depiction of class differences in (so-called) egalitarian Australia is brilliant, ranging from the dingy boarding houses, to the genteel poverty of the Flagg sisters and the casual luxury of the Mazzini family.  The bland mediocrity of the suburbs is contrasted with the soaring arches of the Bridge, captured in the excruciating banality of Nance Coles’ correspondence with her friend Beryl living all the way down the south coast in Wollongong.  

Elliott is master of the droll but devastating turn of phrase, as in describing the awkward relationship between the journalist Maggie McGhee with Don Brandywine:

How about the Tiv some night.  Did she like that vaudeville sort of show?  He crept up on her like a habit.  She had only one brief fling since Neil, with an American lieutenant who had been whisked away to the Philippines.  Perhaps she had grown choosy: she had long forsworn marriage and she had never been attuned to the casual lay, and as the differential that lay between was hard to find, she had become becalmed.  She sought and could not find the long-range affaire of the heart.

So, drifted becalmed into this surrogate relationship with Don, which had then, to her surprise, ripened into this ambiguity.  It was a dead-end from which she could not extricate herself.  It was almost as if he were a parcel delivered to her by mistake. (p.298)

Water Under the Bridge is long out of print and will be hard to track down.  Hopefully, one of our publishers who are rescuing classics from obscurity will soon include this in their catalogue.

PS, thanks to a prompt from Carmel Bird, see comments below: The beautiful jacket illustration is a detail from ‘The Bridge Under Construction’ c.1928-9 by Roland Wakelin, and you can see the whole painting in the NGV Collection online.

*Some of the sound recording is a bit erratic but it’s worth persisting.

Author: Sumner Locke Elliott
Title: Water Under the Bridge
Publisher: Macmillan Australia, 1977, first published by Simon and Schuster, 1977
ISBN: 0 333 23009 4
Source: Personal copy, it’s been on the TBR since 2009

Availability: try your library or the OpShop


  1. So good that the library had this event. How could the novel sit in your unread pile for so long – and with such a magnificent cover? Lovely review!


    • I know, I know, my only excuse is at the moment I have 1156 books on my TBR and the oldest of them have been there since 2008 when I started keeping a record of them…
      You’re right about the cover, I should have mentioned it in the review. I’ll redress that right now, thanks for the prompt:)


  2. I haven’t read Careful, let alone any of the others. But I would point out that On Our Selection was a wildly successful play, decades before Summer of the 17th Doll (1912).


    • Well there you go, the experts don’t always get it right. Come to think of it, didn’t KSP write something in the vernacular … Brumby Innes, in 1927?


  3. Ive read both Careful and Fairyland relatively recently and adored them both. I found a second hand copy of Eden’s Lost online but am yet to read it. I’ve never heard of this one, but it sounds fab. I like how you say he lifts a veil on an egalitarian society; that’s the impression I got from Careful as well.


    • We could do a swap? I don’t want to part with my first edition, especially since it’s scarce as hen’s teeth, but I’m happy to lend it, when you’re ready to read it. Careful is such a heartbreaking book…I must see if I can find a DVD of the film as well.


      • It’s the same old story though… Eden is in my London TBR 😫


  4. I have not read it either but you have made sure I do. I remember when Joshua Logan was in Sydney for the auditioning for the young Summer Locke Elliot in Careful He Might Hear You and thought my wee son would Fit the part. The film came much later and have not seen it or maybe I have forgotten. I have read the film script which was brilliant. Am sure that son still has a copy of it so will check with him as I am in Sydney at present. There is such a wealth of Australian writing that is not given its due but once again you are right at the forefront Lisa.


    • Thanks, Fay:)
      I am so lucky that I have the wherewithal to chase up these old books.


  5. They are so special. I have a few that have come my way when some of my older friends have passed away. Their presence can often lift my mood.


    • LOL The only books I’ve ever inherited belonged to my dear old music teacher. She was a pensioner and she loved animals, so she bought all those sets of books that used to come one each month ‘free’ with a magazine. Wild Animals, Dogs, Cats, you name it there was one about animals she had it…


  6. […] Water Under the Bridge, by Sumner Locke Elliott […]


  7. I’ve just managed to read Eden’s Lost and loved it. I am trying to get hold of Water Under The Bridge but it seems unobtainable at the moment. Any ideas where I might find it Lisa or anyone? I wish Text Classics would publish it! Has anyone found a review of Waiting for Childhood I wonder? I can locate a copy, but not sure I will enjoy it as much as his books set in Australia. Eden’s Lost is delightful, and lovely to read for someone like me, so near to the Blue Mountains!


  8. Well found thank you Lisa! I had searched all of my usual haunts, but I hadn’t tried AbeBooks. I used to find BetterWorld Books superb, but the pandemic halted postage from them until recently. AbeBooks it is then!


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