Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 9, 2021

Where the Queens all Strayed, by Barbara Hanrahan

I owe a debt of gratitude to Brenton who, in a comment from 2005, recommended the novels of Barbara Hanrahan (1939-1991) to me.  Where the Queens all Strayed (1978) was her fourth novel and for me, after A Chelsea Girl (1987) it’s the second one that I’ve read.   I keep looking out for her books (when we’re not in Lockdown, that is, and I can haunt the OpShops) and so far have amassed The Albatross Muff (1977); The Peach Groves (1980); and The Frangipani Gardens (1988).  I have yet to find the one that Brenton recommended, which was her first novel, The Scent of Eucalyptus (1973) but no doubt there is a copy out there somewhere with my name on it!

Anyway, Hanrahan was just the author that I wanted to read after the emotionally draining experience of reading The Woman in Valencia (La femme de Valence), by Annie Perreault, translated by Ann Marie Boulanger.  I wanted to read a novel featuring assertive women who took control of their lives, and Where the Queens all Strayed seemed like a title with promise.  I wasn’t disappointed.

Where the Queens all Strayed is a coming-of-age novel set at the turn of the 19th century.  Thea Hodge, aged twelve, is the narrator and though she doesn’t always understand what’s going on, she is a keen observer of her family and the people of her small community in the Adelaide Hills.  She has an older sister Meg who is the victim of her mother’s fantasy about snaring the local posh boy, Teddy Teakle.  Thea has doubts about this, because her father is from a dubious Adelaide suburb and she suspects that the Teakles, made rich by their jam factory, are unlikely to be conned into ‘marrying down’ even by Mother’s best efforts at dressing Meg in finery.  (Teddy is entranced enough, however, to cause Meg the kind of trouble that girls got into before birth control, but not entranced enough to marry her.)

But that’s not the only straying that Meg does…

The story is peopled by a collection of diverse characters, exposing the cruel and discriminatory way that people who were ‘different’ were treated in the Edwardian era.  Anyone nostalgic for ‘the good old days’ will flinch at the treatment of ‘Baby’ Pettigrew, a grown boy kept down in the Infants because he couldn’t learn, and who was beaten regularly by their creepy teacher.  Thea notices what others take for granted, such as the hunchback John Cuff having to rely on the charity of an eccentric heiress for a job and a home.  She sees that her mother has become a reluctant breadwinner because her father who ‘used to be George’  never recovers from a workplace injury and has no solace but the bottle. She’s too young to understand that Love and Mercy ‘service’ the respectable men of the town, and she’s too naïve to recognise the attraction between Meg and the sensuous but amoral Rani who plots and schemes to worm her way into one legacy or another.

What Thea’s not too young to decide is that awful as school is, she wants to follow in the footsteps of the class swot Hilda Nutter and go to secondary school, because the world of womanhood as she has seen it has made her want a different future, ‘safe’ at home where the world couldn’t get her.

‘Don’t be silly,’ [Mother] said.  ‘Life’s not like that.  You can’t stay a child forever.  And Pup and I aren’t made of money.  No, indeed, my girl.  Birdies have to leave their nests.  It’s either wedding-bells or a job.’

If I was sensible and cared about my appearance, of course they’d indulge me with extras.  There was always spon [sic] for necklets and face cream; for classes in repoussé or a stint at something commercial.  Nothing serious, mind.  A blue-stocking scared them off. (p.146)

Old Bob Cuff is a great storyteller, philosophical about his situation.  He tells Thea about being eight years old and setting sail with Mama and Papa and Governor Hindmarsh in the Buffalo. Wikipedia tells me that this voyage was in 1836, making Old Cuff a human link back to the first days of the South Australian colony.  He remembers the blacks setting fire to the hills  and how they were given a white blanket on the Queen’s birthday.  He graduated from farming the family cows to driving a coach…

He was courteous to all, exceedingly attentive to lady passengers and children, a true expert with the ribbons.  But that didn’t help him when the dog ran out at the cutting: the horses swerved, Bob came unseated, and was crushed between cliff and coach.  And turned into Old Cuff.

Who sat beside me now, and smiled.  Tragedy wasn’t so bad; you had to put up with something. It could have been worse. (p.109)

It could have been worse, he says, and recounts a grim repertoire of injury, disability and death, considering his lucky escape much better than any of those things that might have happened.

The most dismal fate, surely, was to end up nothing at all; determinedly neither one thing or another; any evidence of the peculiar cold-shouldered. (p. 110)

Hanrahan, it seems, was determined to avoid being ‘nothing at all’.  She was 23 when she moved to London in 1963, abandoning the security of a teaching job in Adelaide because, she said, “I wanted to try my life at something bigger. I wanted to get away from safety and walking with little steps.” (Wikipedia, viewed 8/9/21).  She became a highly successful painter and printmaker and she published 16 books before her death at the age of only 52.

Her legacy lives on in the Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship established in 1994 by her partner, Jo Steele.

Author: Barbara Hanrahan
Title: Where the Queens all Strayed
Cover design by Jan Bryant using the screenprint ‘Autumn’ by Barbara Hanrahan
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press, 1988, first published 1978
ISBN: 9780702213052
Source: Personal library, purchased from Bookwood Melbourne via Abe books

 


Responses

  1. I have a strong recollection of The Scent of Eucalyptus and must read it again. What a talent and so short her life.

    Like

    • Yes, part of that wonderful blossoming of women’s writing in that era, I do wish I’d found her back then, but I’m enjoying reading her now too.
      I would like to see the current crop of historical fiction writers read this to see how Hanrahan uses the genre to point out not only the inequities of the Edwardian/post Federation age, but of her own time too. Instead of churning out endless versions of a romanticised French Resistance template, they could be writing in a much more powerful way, as, for example, Anita Heiss did in her WW2 historical fiction novel Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms.
      I’m looking forward to tracking down some of Hanrahan’s art when Lockdown ends. It would be nice to have a retrospective, in her home town of Adelaide, with a side trip to the wineries of the Clare Valley and the Adelaide Hills!

      Like

  2. Such a pleasure to see Barbara’s books being recognised. You simply must get a copy of The Scent of Eucalyptus. It’s available on bookdepository…

    Like

    • Thanks, Carmel, I’ve had a look around and it’s still in print at UQP so I’ll add it to my next order from Readings or Benn’s Books. (Doing what I can to keep my local booksellers in business means I’m restricting my buying to them for the time being.)
      PS I was delighted to see the HNSA longlist, for which you are a judge. I have come to the conclusion that the choice of judge matters more than I used to think, and seeing your name there gives me greater confidence about books and authors that I don’t know.

      Like

      • The judging was, as you can imagine, fascinating. I might have a spare copy of Eucalyptus to send you. I will check and let you know. Books not very well organised here…

        Like

        • Oh no, Carmel, that’s a very generous offer, but I couldn’t. If it were out of print, I wouldn’t hesitate, but it’s not, and I’m on a mission to keep my favourite bookshops in business!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Ok. You are very good and noble.

            Like

  3. I loved Hanrahan’s Scent of eucalyptus and have wanted to read more of her ever since. The way she captured the place and and the times has stuck with me.

    Like

    • It’s a strange thing, because she’s set her story back in time, but from this book I have a strong sense of her own dawning of awareness in the 60s and becoming a feminist, not needing to have her ‘consciousness raised’ but seeing it for herself as she entered adolescence.

      Liked by 1 person


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