Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 20, 2019

Other People’s Houses (2019), by Hilary McPhee

Hilary McPhee AO is an important part of Australia’s publishing history.  Together with the late Di Gribble (1942-2011), in 1975 she founded McPhee Gribble Publishing (1975-1989) which became Australia’s route to discovering the most interesting new writers, some of whom you can find on this blog: Tim Winton, Helen Garner, Rod Jones, and Murray Bail amongst others.  I heard about her memoir Other People’s Houses when McPhee was featured on the ABC Radio National Conversations program, (listen here) and even though I never got round to reading her previous memoir Other People’s Words, the story of an accidental publisher (which has been sitting on the TBR *blush* since 2008!) Other People’s Houses sounded so intriguing that I jettisoned my reservations about memoirs and reserved a copy at the library.

The Conversations program is headlined as ‘The Writer and the Prince’, because Other People’s Houses is the story of how McPhee was hired to help a Jordanian prince to write a book, an event which coincided with an abrupt change in her personal life.  It’s about a book project that doesn’t see the light of day, and at the same time, about a life journey about starting again in your sixties.  It’s a cautionary tale, offering a frank insight about how even an enviably smart, savvy woman can delude herself into believing that what you want, is how things are, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.   McPhee is upfront about not seeing the warning signs that all would not be well with the book, because she so badly needed the professional affirmation that the project could bring when the rest of her life was falling apart.

Other People’s Houses is also a salutary tale for women of a certain age, because an abrupt change in our personal lives is what eventually happens to most of us.  It is very common for women to become unpartnered late in life, and after a lifetime of being part of a couple, to have to learn to live alone.  It happened to both my mothers-in-law, who thrived, and my mother, who to her own surprise did not. It has happened to a number of my friends. In Hilary McPhee’s case, this unmooring coincided with a frightening crisis in her health. Friends, family, children and neighbours carry her through, reminding me of Charlotte Wood’s celebration of female friendships in The Weekend. 

For me, the story of the book that never was, was the most interesting part of this memoir.  There are insights into life in the Middle East and its fraught history and politics, and she lifts the curtain on life in a royal household too even though there are always constraints on what she sees and where she goes and on her relationship with the prince.  I was fascinated to see how this icon of Australian feminism so readily submitted to covering up in some circumstances, presenting it as being responsive and respectful of the culture in which she found herself.  It just goes to show that hard-and-fast certainties don’t always work in real life.

Hilary McPhee blogs intermittently at her website.

Author: Hilary McPhee
Title: Other People’s Houses
Publisher: MUP (Melbourne University Press), 2019, 226 pages
Cover image My first Phone number and what Freud really said
Cover design: Duncan Blachford
ISBN: 9780522875645
Source: Bayside Library Service

Available from Fishpond: Other People’s Houses




  1. I loved Other people’s words – it’s a must read. I’d love to read it again.

    I bought this one for Mum to give to my brother’s partner, but I was interested in reading it myself.

    As for covering up, I think that it’s disrespectful to not follow the traditions of a place you are in. I don’t really see that as denying your feminist principles. However, if some local women weren’t covering then I wouldn’t!


    • Ah, we disagree again…
      I don’t respect cultures which treat women as second class citizens, and that’s why I don’t spend my tourist dollars in those countries.


      • Well, we agree there – I don’t go to those countries either, but probably for more reasons than the way they treat women.

        I think that if we started to seriously apply our moral standards to our tourist dollar, there’s almost no country we would go to, including our own!


        • I would like us to apply ethical considerations (of which the treatment of women is only one) our trading arrangements… pigs might fly!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I would like the party presently in control to show even a little evidence that they knew what ethics were.

    Easy to say that I would cover up, I’m a guy, but then I would still draw the line somewhere – somewhere short of a burka!

    One of the things I haven’t spoken about much is dating as a 60 year old which I did after my last marriage broke up. It’s full of perils. For both parties.


    • What I find most repellent about the present lot is their hypocritical Christianity…
      I don’t mind hijabs, they’re no different to the head scarves of the Mediterranean migrants here in the 1950s, but the *imposition* of garb that restricts movement, and line of vision and the expression of individuality, and the capacity to smile at others and make friends, well, that’s different. I am currently also reading ‘Our Women on the Ground: Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World’ and when you realise that this ridiculous garb actually makes it harder to run away from gunfire, it seems even more outrageous than it is here, where at least the women choosing to wear it aren’t likely to get killed because of it.
      As to dating, well, can we look forward to revelations on your blog?


      • I still lunch occasionally with the last gf, from a few years ago, and she complains that she is the only person in my life who hasn’t made it onto my blog. So maybe, one day.


      • Totally agree – see, Lisa, we can agree! – re hypocritical Christianity. It’s repellent. I have friends who are practising Christians and their values are no different to mine when it comes to attitudes regarding asylum seekers (regardless of how they came), indigenous people, people of different sexual persuasions, and so on. They get upset when I become negative about Christianity because – and I understand this and I’m guess you do it – it’s not Christianity but some practitioners of it.


        • We have friends who are Christians and they are beautiful people who do their best to live by what I recognise as Christian values. But I have no time for so-called Christians who demonise people of other faith, insult people of diverse sexuality and who are cruel to refugees.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yes, when I said I would follow traditions of the place, my assumption was not that that would be the burka. If the burka really were the only way to go I can’t imagine I’d be visiting that place.

      Re dating, like Lisa would love some stories – but, meanwhile, stories from my thirty-somethings suggest that it’s not just full of perils for sixty somethings!

      Liked by 1 person

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