Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 15, 2021

Wearing Paper Dresses, by Anne Brinsden

Just last week I engaged briefly as a keyboard warrior on the subject of age limits on prizes for debut authors, and tweeted that notable Australian women who started writing late in life included Amy Witting, Olga Masters, Jessica Anderson and Ros Collins (who published her first in her 90s, followed up with her second within a couple of years, and is currently working on her third). Twitter, of course, does not allow for an informed discussion about the factors that held these women back until middle age and later.  Suffice here to say that societal expectations and educational opportunities had a lot to do with it. Plus, that it seems to me that having an open mind and a generous view of the world are useful qualities to employ when tempted to make condescending judgements about the disadvantages that other people confront.

Ok, off my soapbox.

Today I find myself writing a review of a debut novel written by a woman with a career in education and the public service behind her.  I have no idea why this woman’s launch into a literary career was delayed, but I do know this: Anne Brinsden is a writer of rare talent and I wish she had been able to begin her career as an author sooner.

I am not the only one who admires her writing. She won the 2017 Albury Write Around the Murray short story competition with ‘Amber Shadow’, judged and presented by Bruce Pascoe.  ‘Motherless Guns’ was highly commended in the 2018 Williamstown Literary Festival short story competition.  (You can read these short stories at her website, choose Short Stories from the top menu). Her first novel, Wearing Paper Dresses was shortlisted for the 2020 Indie Book Awards for Debut Fiction.  Now that I’ve read it, I know why.

It just so happens that the book is set in the Mallee in Victoria’s northwest, a place of legendary hardship that was the subject of extended discussion over at Bill’s blog, The Australian Legend. This discussion took place BC (Before Covid) and canvassed the idea of a literary trail in the Mallee, handicapped by us not knowing much about books and authors from the area.  Since then I have read Small Town Rising, by Mallee born-and-bred author Bill Green, but Wearing Paper Dresses is not just authored by someone who spent her childhood in the Mallee, and not just set in the Mallee either.  The Mallee is a character in the novel.

…you can talk about the Mallee: a land and a place full of red sand and short stubby trees.  Trees short of leaves and short of shade and overall stunted from the effort of precarious survival.  The Mallee is quiet on the surface of things in its own arid way, and seemingly insipid in its semi-desertness.  With its emaciated trees, its restless shifting sand, its spear grass, its prickles and its prickle bushes.  But it watches.  Waiting for a chance to get rid of you.  Clear off, you lot, it says.  Go back where you came from.  There are too many of you here already.  There is no permanent fresh water in the Mallee.  The Mallee won’t allow it. (p.61)

This personification of the Mallee as a hostile, malevolent being, just waiting for an opportunity to break someone, is like the sabotage of Resistance fighters repelling invaders.  Farmers who first came to the area and tried to clear it for ploughing had no idea what they were up against:

If you think Mallee farmers are stubborn you need to think again.  You need to think about the Mallee. Life in the Mallee is a deceptive, delicate balance and proper husbandry of that balance is necessarily brutal.  These farmers, though, are a hard-wearing lot.  And they need to be, because the Mallee never gives up on sending hot winds and choking dust to blast sheds; salt and drought to ruin crops; blowflies and crows to torment sheep.  Marjorie always knew that.  She knew too about all those Mallee stumps: lurking below the dirt, waiting for their chance.

Mallee stumps can do anything.  They can break a plough or damage a tractor or smash a man.  And the farmers couldn’t get rid of them.  They put up a good fight in the early days, but it wasn’t enough.  The men, camping out there on their hot semi-arid selections with their swags and tents and their bright buoyant optimism, attacked that scrub with axes.  And the scrub laughed while its skinny little trees grabbed those axes and ground down all that dour iron into stubs of their former selves.  So the men tossed aside their dismal axes and took to scorching the scrub with fire.  But that scrub just stared back at their fires and stood and sacrificed its limbs to the flames.  Then it turned its back on all those men and went underground.  To wait them out.  So the men, getting the wrong idea about the insurrectionary tactic, were cheered, made confident by their fires and the downed limbs, and they decided it was time to plough up.

Which was what the Mallee had been waiting for.  That underground Mallee attacked. Because those lurking insurgent Mallee stumps had been setting traps. They broke ploughs, they smashed seeders, they upended carts.  They were ruthless and relentless as they hit out at men and horses alike.  (p.59)

It took the late 19th century invention of the stump-jump plough to solve the problem.  It literally jumps over the stumps hidden underground.  That is because the mallee tree is a dissident.  It does not have a trunk like other trees; and the Mallee root […] is not a root at all.  It is the trunk. 

In other words, everything in the Mallee had to modify in order to survive.  Mallee farmers have to be tough.

And people who survived knew austerity and frugality were paramount in the Mallee […] you needed to conserve.  Mallee people were frugal with water.  But Mallee people were also frugal with behaviour.  They were thrifty with their speech and prudent with their dress and parsimonious with their movements. (p.36)

But Elise, a girl from the city couldn’t adapt.  She loved opera and art and making beautiful dresses.  She baked French macaroons instead of hearty British scones.  She was profligate.  She was lavish. 

Great-great-great grandfather of The Offspring, James Dunstan Green (1870-1949), on his Mallee block c 1942

When Elise meets Bill, working in a Melbourne factory to help save the farm, she has no idea what she is in for when after a few years of marriage and the birth of two little girls, they have to go back to the Mallee to help Pa.  Pa is a wonderful invention… my family album includes photos from the Mallee branch of The Offspring’s family before his grandmother escaped to the city, and Pa is just how I imagine James Dunstan Green: gruff, plain spoken, tough as old boots.  Pa has no idea how to deal with his daughter-in-law, and no idea just how fragile is her mental health.

Written from the point-of-view of Marjorie, her most wilful daughter, the novel shows the sad disintegration of Elise, and the tragic impact this has on her children.  There is a love story in this book, but it is not so-called rural romance, and there is not a shred of sentimentality in it.

Oh, and the paper dresses?  Well, what else would you use for costumes if you had no money for material?

Author: Anne Brinsden
Title: Wearing Paper Dresses
Publisher: Pan Macmillan 2019
ISBN: 9781760784850, pbk., 378 pages
Source: Kingston Library

You can find out more about Anne Brinsden at her website.

Available from Fishpond: Wearing Paper Dresses


Responses

  1. Lisa, I’ve never heard of the idea of age limits on awards for debut writers. It’s probably as well I haven’t! I can’t imagine a good argument in favour of it. It would knock out a lot of women, especially — including me. I always wanted to write, and I regret not getting to it more seriously early in life. A couple of years ago, cross with myself, I was lamenting all this to a good and wise friend, who replied, ‘The important thing is that you’re doing it now’. Whatever our reasons for delaying, older writers are ‘doing it now’. That matters!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the Vogel has an age limit? Though it’s not debut, just unpublished ms. And the SMH has a Best Young Australian Novelists award, though again it’s not for debut. I don’t feel hugely strongly about this as long as there are awards for everyone – we have age-limited awards, gender limited awards, location limited awards (eg just Queensland writers), content-limited awards, awards for Indigenous writers, and so on. However, I appreciate the “debut” is already a limitation, and I certainly take Robyn’s point, however. (I have written a post on Late Bloomers.)

      As for this book, I’m interested in books bout the Mallee, and have read a few so would be interested in this one too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I remember your post about late bloomers, I probably could have added to my list if I’d searched for it… one of your most popular posts, I bet!
        If I can winkle out exactly where this author was born and bred in the Mallee, you can add her birthplace to Bill’s literary trail. AC, (after Covid), that is…

        Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Robyn, I can’t remember the name of it, but it was a new award, and not worth a great deal of money ($2000 if I remember correctly), limited to debuts under 35. I think (don’t quote me!) it was via some magazine I’ve never heard of. I’ve searched for it on Twitter, but although I can find my reply, I can’t find the original tweet with the name of the award. Maybe somebody reading this will know.
      Anyway, I agree with Sue, if we have plenty of awards, limitations are ok within reason, but the problem is that there has been big shift in support for writers in the last few years and awards as an income supplement are going to matter more than ever. We know that for structural reasons older women generally have lower incomes than men and inadequate super, so I don’t like to see them excluded on the basis of age.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Australia is a country with a history of discrimination so why would women who take up writing at an older age be treated any differently?

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    • Sadly, I think you have a point, Fay…

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  3. good on you some times these prizes restrictions are hard sometimes even the cost of the prize is a lot with supplying review copies and other things

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    • Yes, that’s true, we had a real problem here with our major prize because only the big conglomerates could afford to enter it. There’s been some reform since then, but it’s still hard for small publishers.

      Liked by 1 person

      • yes and when they enter and don’t get to the longlist year after year it is disheartening as for a couple publishers i know here for me there books are always first rate

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        • It’s a good thing they’ve got you to promote their books otherwise we would never know about them!

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  4. Thanks for the mentions. No she doesn’t say where she’s from, just ‘northern Victoria’, though she taught for a while in Mildura. Her first name’s actually Winifred which strikes me as a good Mallee name (My Auntie Win wrote Where the Mallee Roots Burn). I love the Mallee and I could be picky (from Underbool out to the SA border there is permanent fresh water not far underground). But I’d better read it for myself – or buy it for my Mallee-born and raised mother’s 89th birthday in 5 weeks.

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    • I had an aunt (of sorts) called Winifred too. I never met her, but my mother referred to her as Auntie Winnie. She was engaged three times during the war, apparently!

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      • PS There’s a map of the Mallee here which probably means more to you than to me: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mallee_(Victoria)#/media/File:Outline_map_of_the_Mallee_and_Sunraysia_regions.png
        (Though we have some feeble #discouraged plans to go to the Mildura Writers Festival this year so I may possibly get to visit the town for the first time.)

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        • Thanks. You’ve got me started on Small Town Rising at last. I’m being picky of course as I go though. I’ll try not to be in my eventual review. I’ve been through all the towns on the Victorian side of the Murray recently, most of them this year. There aren’t that many bridges so it would be easy if — Lake were based on just one town. I might go for Tooleybuc. Though there isn’t anywhere on the NSW side ‘hundreds of miles’ from the nearest NSW police station

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          • Well, as I recall it he took liberties with his portrayal of how the law works as so many journalists do. I don’t quibble with the way it was applied in a discriminatory way, but with the way the processes were described.

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  5. This sounds interesting and it’s available at our local library so I’ll give it a try – have been solidly into non-fiction only lately.. Sorry you’re back in lock down again Lisa!

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    • Thanks, Sue, we have ‘pivoted’ quickly back to Latin by correspondence and French by Zoom. The only thing I’m a bit disappointed about is that our first wine club dinner in a year had to be cancelled, but #depending it will take place at some other time, I hope!

      Like

  6. I have an eCopy …. ;-)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for introducing me to Ros Collins, Lisa. I went to all your linked pages to read about her… and of course, what caught my attention is your mentioning that she publishes in her 90’s. This is simply amazing. :)

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    • She’s an amazing woman. Her husband was the award-winning Alan Collins and he was ‘the writer’ in the family. It was only after I met her when she was in her 80s, publicising his books as his literary executor, that she decided that she had her own story to tell.
      She is now also one of my dearest friends and has been so good to me in the years since my mother died…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wonderful personal story you have here, Lisa. You’re so fortunate to have found a friend who not only shares your literary interests but caring for you personally in a meaningful way. Just wonderful. :)

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  8. I appreciate Lisa’s generous comments as I do her friendship and
    encouragement.

    It just so happens that I’m re-reading Philip Roth’s ‘Exit Ghost’ in which a famous ageing writer wrestles with the loss of power. Physically, mentally, sexually, and socially he is completely out of kilter with his world. Although fiction, the book is heavily autobiographical, and loss and decay are running themes. It is interesting to compare this character with newly
    minted unknown authors who turn to writing for the first time in old age.

    Any ‘older’ writer knows there is a limited career path; time will not permit. Awards, fame and fortune are highly unlikely. Even book sales are dubious unless our ‘oldie’ is published by a large company that can support a strong marketing department and has a quirky interest in the author.

    I believe in luck, the randomness of things, chance, coincidence. Take something like the memoirs on which the hugely successful ‘Call the Midwife’ television series are based. Jennifer Worth wrote in response to an article … in the Royal College of Midwives Journal … which argued that midwives had been under-represented in literature and called on ‘a midwife somewhere
    to do for midwifery what James Herriot did for vets’. She was 67 and before she wrote her first book of stories, her interest was in music.

    Professionally, I worked as a librarian. I like telling stories. It seemed natural to write them down. Alan, my husband, would say, ‘Write what you know about’. I know about being an Anglo-Australian-Jewish ‘ten-pound Pom’. Like midwives, we are under-represented in literature. Narrative non-fiction is my genre. My work lends itself to audio and visual presentation – maybe one day there will be a script.

    ‘Rosa’ is about me. My new book is set in the 1800s with characters based on Alan’s real ancestors, a convict, some free settlers, a reprobate father. I hope I get to finish it.

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  9. […] a bit light on. Two courtesy of Lisa/ANZLL are Bill Green’s Small Town Rising (1981) and Wearing Paper Dresses (2019) by Anne Brinsden. I gather Sophie Laguna’s The Choke is set on the river but further […]

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  10. […] Live and let fry. Lisa recently posted a review of a new Mallee-set book, Anne Brinsden’s Wearing paper dresses, and last year, another, Bill Green’s Small town […]

    Like


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