Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 7, 2020

Je Suis Australienne, Remarkable Women in France, 1880-1945, by Rosemary Lancaster

This was such a lucky find, I am still pinching myself that I came across it at a U3A bookswap just before all U3A classes were shut down.

The table of contents gives a good indication as to why I was so pleased to find it:

  1. Daisy White: An Accomplished Schoolgirl in France, 1887-1889
  2. Trouble in Bohemia: the Belle Epoque Novels of Tasma, 1891 and 1895
  3. Digger Nurses on the Western Front, 1916-1919
  4. Stella Bowen’s ‘education of another sort’: the Paris Years, 1922-1933
  5. ‘All that Glitters’: Illusory Worlds in Christina Stead’s The Beauties and Furies (1936) and House of All Nations (1938)
  6. ‘No Time to Be Frail’: Nancy Wake, Resistance Heroines, 1940-1944

I’ve read The Beauties and Furies (see here) but I’m ‘saving’ the chapter about Christina Stead until I’ve read House of All Nations, which is on the TBR.  And although I don’t have it yet, I’m also leaving the chapter about Stella Bowen till I’ve either tracked down or given up looking for Drawn from Life (which is her memoir of her life in Paris with Ford Madox Ford). Australian author Debbie Robson read it as research for her trilogy and she has written an enticing review of it at Goodreads.  Stella Bowen is known to many Australians as a war artist, and in particular for her painting ‘Bomber Crew’ which was recently featured on a commemorative stamp for Anzac Day so I would like to read her book if I can find a copy of it.  So this review is only about the other four chapters…

Daisy White was an inspired choice to begin the book.  She and her sister Dorothy were parked in a finishing school Paris by her middle-class Australian parents who quickly left them to it.  As Rosemary Lancaster puts it:

Daisy was sixteen and Dorothy fourteen when they left Sydney in 1887.  The diary of what followed, covering the years 1887-89, is an historical jewel and rare document: such is the detail, the gusto, the wit and insight and mind-set of a nineteenth-century Australian schoolgirl abroad.  Full of verve and introspections, of rich perceptions, of adolescent grudges and high hopes, it traces Daisy’s school life as a near-daily unfolding of cultural discovery, tempered by boarding-house ritual and classroom grind.  In the two years of her Parisian stay Daisy changed from being a reluctant schoolgirl into an accomplished woman, fluent in French and, in her opinion, rather wise than when she set sail. (p.2)

There are many interesting aspects to Daisy’s account of her Parisian life.  She wasn’t much interested in the social aspirations that mattered so much to her parents that they were willing to abandon such young girls, but she thrived on experiencing great literature and art.  Despite this, she was peeved that the curriculum at Les Ruches was less engaging than her Australian education where physical geography, physics and chemistry, and nature ‘under all forms’ were, in her opinion, ‘some of the most delightful studies ever to charm a student.  Alas, arithmetic at Les Ruches was described as ‘simply insupportable’, chemistry as ‘a little more bearable’ and physics as ‘simply beastly, drier than bone-dust, and pretty hard to understand.’  From Lancaster’s analysis we can gather that Daisy’s Sydney school was progressive, because she learned sciences as well as the two usual areas of knowledge, which were subjects such as English, literature, composition and grammar, elementary mathematics, history and geography, even elocution and calligraphy; and also the ‘accomplishments’ (music, drawing and modern languages; dancing, needlework, callisthenics, and sometimes more unusual crafts).   She must have had good teachers of French in Australia too, because all the lessons at Les Ruches were in French and yet she achieved excellent results.  Daisy doesn’t hold back in her opinions about the teachers at Les Ruches, but they can’t have been all that bad!

Her school calendar, however, also included chaperoned excursions to cultural activities, including visits to galleries, monuments, theatres, parks, boulevards, shops and gardens.  She went everywhere: the Louvre, Notre-Dame, Sainte-Chapelle, the Panthéon, and Napoleon’s Tomb.  She saw France’s most-loved plays, and this cultural saturation developed an aesthetic sensibility that is remarkable in one so young. It is almost painful to read that we know almost nothing about her return to Australia, except that she died of cardiac failure, aged only thirty two.

The next chapter, about Jessie Couvrier a.k.a. ‘Tasma’ is more literary, and there’s not so much about her life.  I haven’t read any of Tasma’s Parisian novels, and don’t intend to, despite Lancaster’s suggestion that they are of academic interest.  I might one day read Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill (1889), (which gets a mention in Jean-François Vernay’s A Brief Take on the Australian Novel and his The Great Australian Novel, a Panorama. See also Bill’s review at The Australian Legend). But the Parisian romances, The Penance of Portia James and Not Counting the Cost, just don’t appeal, even if they are unique social and literary documents. Nonetheless, it is interesting to read about Tasma’s time in the Bohemian ambience of the Latin Quarter and how she used the city’s legendary reputation as a site of freedom and decadence in her novels.

Tasma constructs an anti-Antipodean world, about as remote from Australia as one could have imagined in her time — awesome, unsettling for her ingenuous heroines, but also lively, morally unfettered and open to lifestyles women of their colonial kind were unlikely to have led. Leading her heroines through pockets of Parisian exotica, she penetrates the city’s social and physical heart.  But for Portia, in Portia James, Paris proves to be a terra incognita, and for Eila of Not Counting the Cost, a deceptive myth.  (p.34)

At the same time, by referencing her characters’ attachment to and memories of the land of their birth, Tasma was able to create an exotic atmosphere for her European readers, and by writing in the fringe genre of romance, she was also able to offer women protagonists and depict the problems they faced in a patriarchal society.  Like Catherine Helen Spence in Mr Hogarth’s Will (see my review), Tasma is not much enamoured of marriage:

Marriage, is it is at present understood, is the most foolish and suicidal step a woman can take.  Why should we bind ourselves to belie for the remainder of our natural lives our real natures, our real selves, as expressed in the new instincts, prompting, or desires we may feel? Why, in short, should the union of a man and a woman, which is meaningless and worth nothing without mutual inclination, be made the occasion of vows and oaths, and so-called binding ceremonies, which are not binding at all when the inclination is gone? (p.39)

Tasma had good reason to feel this way because her marriage to a drunken gambler ended in divorce in 1883, and in colonial society, she would have had to bear the stigma and blame for it.

Chapter 3 is based on letters and diaries of women who nursed on the Western Front, in a dangerous blighted environment far from the delights of Paris.  Back in 2013, I reviewed a wonderful book called Kitty’s War by Janet Butler, and it was a revelation to discover just how much danger these nurses were in, and yet how little recognition they have had. This chapter which runs to 32 pages, is a comprehensive account of the long hours and the appalling conditions, with quotations that leave no doubt as to the courage of those who quietly attended to the behind-the-scenes havoc of the theatres of war. 

Today I had to assist at ten (10) amputations one after another.  It is frightfully nerve racking work.  I seem to hear that wretched saw at work whenever I try to sleep.  We see the most ghastly wounds and are all day long inhaling the odour of gas gangrene.  How these boys suffer! This war is absolute hell.  We see and hear all day and every day the results of its frightfulness.  We can hear the guns quite plainly here. (Staff Nurse Elsie Tranter, aged 29, at Wimereux on the Picardy coastline, p. 60)

General hospitals were vulnerable to air raids as the war went on, but the most perilous work was in the casualty clearing stations at the edge of the battlefields, where, as the front moved back and forth, the CCS were subjected to bombardment and constantly having to evacuate at short notice.  The danger was so great that nurses were not supposed to work in them, ‘until events left no alternative.’  Things were even more difficult for nurses assigned to French hospitals in the French sector.  As well as the language barrier, there were cultural issues and significant differences in nursing standards compared to British nursing which had developed under Florence Nightingale.  What is really astonishing is how many of these nurses stayed after the jubilation of armistice, to nurse the victims of the Spanish Flu which claimed over 50 million lives.  One can’t help but feel intensely proud of these women.

Likewise, there’s a sense of pride about the exploits of the decorated Resistance heroine Nancy Wake.  Her story is well known and I’ve read her autobiography The White Mouse (1985) but still, it was interesting to be reminded of the humour and matter-of-factness with which she faced the trials of war. 

As the Liberator bomber circled over the dropping zone in France I could see lights flashing and huge bonfires burning.  I hoped the field was manned by the Resistance and not by German ambushers.  Huddled in the belly of the bomber, airsick and vomiting, I was hardly Hollywood’s idea of a glamorous spy.  I probably looked grotesque.

Over civilian clothes, silk-stockinged and high-heeled, I wore overalls, carried revolvers in the pockets, and topped the lot with a bulky camel-haired coat, webbing harness, parachute and tin hat.  Even more incongruous was the matronly hand-bag, full of cash and secret instructions for D-day.  My ankles were bandaged for support when I hit the ground.

But I’d spent years in France working as an escape courier.  I’d walked out across the Pyrenees and joined the Special Operations Executive in England, and I was desperate to return to France and continue working against Hitler.  Neither airsickness nor looking like a clumsily wrapped parcel was going to deter me.  (p.151-2)

Lancaster also includes details about Wake’s pre-war discovery of Paris and how she adored living and working there as a freelance reporter.  She married during the Phony War, and had a wonderful time, indulging in an extravagant lifestyle which she had never experienced before.  In the early years of her war, Wake used this as a cover:

...posing as the real rich wife of a well-known businessman and a fancy-free lady, both ostensibly given to travel and holidays, while, in fact, she was working extensively along the coast clandestinely shuttling fugitives and information from place to place. Her femininity she exploited, knowing — as did other resisters — that attractive young women were less likely to be suspected of covert acts. She capitalised, too, on the public freedom women had: shops, streets and train stations were places they had always frequented: carrying out errands was one of their accepted domestic tasks.  (p. 159)

Still, we all know the terrible fate that lay in store if she was captured.  Torture, and then execution.  Her story is breath-taking…

This book is a treasure!

From the UWAP website:

Rosemary Lancaster is the author of numerous articles on French literature, culture and pedagogy.
A former senior lecturer and convener of French studies at the University of Western Australia, in 2005 Lancaster was awarded the title of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Palmes académiques by the French government for services to French culture abroad.

Author: Rosemary Lancaster
Title: Je Suis Australienne, Remarkable Women in France, 1880-1945
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press), 2008
ISBN: 9781921401138, pbk., 187 pages not including the extensive notes, index and bibliography
Source: U3A bookswap

For availability contact UWAP 

 


Responses

  1. This does sound fabulous!

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  2. What a wonderful find!

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    • Someone at that U3A is a Francophile. I also found some books in French, too hard for me at the moment, but one day….

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  3. This book is packed with goodies. Abe books has the book you mention looking for but a bit pricey as copies seem to be in USA. I did not look through the whole list though. You might find a British copy as the postage js much less from UK than US. Have fun with it.

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    • Yes, AbeBooks can be very pricey if you have to add it international postage.
      But Grants Secondhand Bookshop is just around the corner from me and I will go looking there once things are back to normal, and also I check Brotherhood Books from time to time, as well as the Op Shops on my circuit. It will turn up one day, I hope!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a find Lisa and to be reminded of those brave women taking on tasks that are unimaginably horrible. Those bonds they made are rare in life and even with the restrictions of their gender they had amazing lives and they should be honoured. ‘House of All Nations’ will not disappoint. Can Christina ever!

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    • You are right, Fay, and I am feeling mildly guilty that I am reading Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light instead of House of All Nations because I’ve had that on the TBR a lot longer.
      But I have to say, I am just loving the Mantel. The difference between the way she writes, and most of what I’ve most recently read, is like the difference between cognac and truffles and a spag bol! It is just sheer genius.

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  5. I have a particular interest in WW1 nurses and actually collect French postcards which depict nurses caring for soldiers and were very popular at the time. I only purchase postcards which are written on & have been posted, and it’s fascinating to translate the French and read what the nurses were saying and to whom they were writing. Mostly they are reticent about how bad things really were where they were working. When I think these are over 100 years old and still in wonderful condition, I truly value them.

    Many Australian nurses came home on ships where they nursed wounded soldiers for no pay, and lived in dire poverty afterwards. I have read Kitty’s War and Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth of course is wonderful. Sounds like an interesting book thanks Lisa.

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    • Those postcards sound wonderful. How do you store them so that you can see both sides?
      One thing I took from Kitty’s War was how, because she was writing home to people who were worrying about her, she said very little about the danger they were in, and also how (like the nurses quoted in this book) she always referred to the soldiers as ‘boys’ — though of course they were not, they were very often virile young men! Butler says this was partly not to make her mother anxious, but also because nurses were very conscious of the bad reputation they had had prior to Nightingale, and how they all understood the importance of maintaining the hard-earned respectability they had achieved.
      In my younger days during the Vietnam War, I worked on the switchboard of the Alfred Hospital Nurses Home, and we would get phone calls from American ships in port, inviting the nurses to come and “have a good time”. The matrons in charge made sure I understood why I was not allowed to pass on these invitations!

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      • I was originally a nurse Lisa, hence the interest… the postcards always arrive very carefully packaged as the only people buying them are collectors like me – I keep them in envelopes inside plastic sleeves & cardboard for protection. Part of the fun is the joy of the hunt – finding one that is a stand out in terms of the photograph and/or letter on them, plus superb condition.

        Yes the nurses’ uniforms were very important as armies were of course followed by prostitutes & it was important for the nurses to differentiate themselves from that occupation. The veil was important (harked back to nuns’ habits) and the cape was particularly necessary as wearing a cape was a sign of respectability for a woman. We still wore both these things when I nursed.

        One of my friends still delights in making her husband squirm by complaining to people the trouble he caused her, as she was found climbing into the nurses’ home through a window after hours after meeting up with him. The Home Sister promptly moved her into the bedroom next to her office, and shone a flashlight on her each evening to ensure she was safely in bed! She’s been married to him for over forty years now!

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        • Our matrons were very protective of their nurses. I was trained to say, in my most authoritative voice ‘I’m sorry, some of our nurses are very young and we cannot pass on invitations such as this.’ What the caller didn’t know was that I was younger than even the PTS nurses, and I had a good giggle when an American sailor turned up in person at reception and promptly asked me out instead!

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  6. This sounds like a wonderful book to be treasured!!

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    • It’s great, Marg, and when you think that these women took off across the world without really having any idea what they were in for, their stories are even more amazing.

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  7. Fascinating. My first experience of nurses of WWI was Vera Brittain, and more recently Helen Zenna Smith’s Not So Quiet…

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    • Ah yes, I remember reading your review. It’s surprising really that (apart from Brittain) it’s taken so long for these stories to be told.

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  8. Lisa, I have a copy of Drawn from Life and I’d be happy to loan it to you.

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  9. I’m taking you slightly off topic here Lisa but one book which is interesting should your local library have it is Liz Byrski’s “In love and war – nursing heroes” about a facial plastic surgery unit in East Grinstead in WW2 (famous for the guinea pig club). Published by Fremantle Press. It’s hampered by her lack of people to interview, but it’s a great discussion raiser about how the surgeon only recruited the most beautiful nurses to raise the men’s spirits & what was expected of them. Bound to raise feminist hackles but worth a look.

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    • OT is fine, it’s the way conversation works, eh?
      I’ve heard something about this before, but not from Liz Byrski. Ages ago I read an old British hardback about the Guinea Pig Club, and, written by one of the survivors of an horrific air crash, it said the same thing about the attractive nurses and the effect it had on morale. I can’t find it at the moment because the house is at sixes and sevens while we have some new shelving and cabinets installed in our family room. You won’t be surprised to learn that the books in that room had outgrown their shelves so those books are currently all over the house in boxes until (hopefully) the new shelves are installed next week.

      I’d like to think that even the most ardent feminists would have a little compassion for badly injured men whose spirits were buoyed by flirting a little with a pretty girl…

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  10. Yes having nursed people who had had radical neck dissections in the 1970s – so that they looked almost sub-human, it was terrible surgery and most of them either never went outdoors again or committed suicide afterwards – I also had a lot of sympathy with the bond the nurses must have formed with these poor young men.

    I have run out of bookshelves and have several piles of books on the floor, so I understand your situation completely! I have the Hilary Mantel ready to read, I am so glad to hear you are enjoying it. Did you watch the series with Mark Rylance I thought it was brilliant.

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    • Yes, sometimes it seems that the cure is worse than the complaint…

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  11. Oh and how interesting that you worked at The Alfred – I have a book somewhere which is interviews with nurses who trained there about the time I was training – I got into an email conversation somehow with the author about twenty years ago when I worked at Concord Repatriation General Hospital and she sent me the book. It sounded about as strict and formal as my training hospital! Did you enjoy it there?

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    • Well, I was only doing after hours reception in the nurses’ home. I had put a deposit on a wedding dress and then realised that I didn’t actually earn enough to pay the layby in time, so I worked there part time to get the money.
      But it was good fun. I enjoyed the company of lively young women, and I admired the matrons in charge… they seemed very formidable, but when one of the PTS girls experienced a first death on the ward, they were brilliant. No matter what time it was, or whether it was their time off or not, they were there to comfort when it was needed.

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  12. Good to hear that Lisa, and hope you managed to pay for the wedding dress in time! I’m hunting for an out of print book by Kylie Tennant, The Man on the Headland – if anyone has an old copy… I’m checking Fishpond constantly in hope…

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    • Have you tried eBay? or the Facebook marketplace? I don’t use them myself except to give things away (and my husband is the one who actually advertises them) but you never know…
      Grants Bookshop near me might have one, I don’t think they are trading, but I haven’t been out of the house to know one way or the other.

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  13. Thanks Lisa none on eBay, I can see Fishpond has had some previously but not currently. I’ll keep searching, one may surface eventually! This is where an inter-library loan would be useful but the libraries are still shut. The library staff were telling me over the phone how much they miss the human contact of people coming in and out of the library and chatting to them.

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    • Oh yes. And apparently some councils have laid them off for the duration and they are on Jobkeeper. That just shouldn’t be…

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  14. This book is a great find, Lisa! (especially for a fellow Francophile). Daisy White is my great-grandfather’s aunt (Henry Charles White was his father) – you’ve just reminded me to revisit that journal.

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    • Really?! What a wonderful connection… writing obviously runs in the family. Would you like me to send you the book after I’ve read the chapters about Christina Stead and Stella Bowen?

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      • Oh yes please! I was just looking up copies online, & I have that cover image of the woman on the wall of my office :) I’ll email you my address – thank you!

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        • You’re welcome:) It will be a pleasure to give back to someone who’s given me hours of reading pleasure!

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  15. It sounds absolutely fascinating. Thanks!

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  16. […] to me, Drawn from Life, by Stella Bowen (1893–1947), a book that I discovered when I was reading Je Suis Parisienne, Remarkable Women in France 1880-1945 by Rosemary Lancaster.  I am liking this amusing, self-deprecating autobiography so much that I do […]

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  17. […] Stella Bowen’s Drawn from Life, lent to me by WA author Amanda Curtin after I mentioned it in my review of Rosemary Lancaster’s Je Suis Australienne Remarkable Women in France, 1880-1945. […]

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