Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 13, 2022

The Visit, by Amy Witting

According to Wikipedia , the writing career of Amy Witting, A.M. (1918-2001) always had to be subordinate to earning her living as a teacher of English and French.  So although Thea Astley’s encouragement led to publication of a short story in The New Yorker in 1965, and Witting had poetry published in Quadrant, her first novel, The Visit, wasn’t published until 1977 when she had retired, and was almost sixty.

The novel was published (with a dreadfully dreary cover) by the inimitable Beatrice Davis, by then at Thomas Nelson rather than at Angus & Robertson where she had made her name.  (Davis went on to reject I for Isobel (see my review) and so did McPhee Gribble, which just goes to show that even the best of editors can get it wrong. Because I for Isobel went on to be a bestseller when it was finally published by Penguin in 1990.  It won the Fellowship of Australian Writers (FAW) Barbara Ramsden Award; and it was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin.  More recognition came in 1993 when Witting won the Patrick White Award, and she went on to publish A Change in the Lighting (1994); Maria’s War (1998), and Isobel on her way to the Corner Shop’ (2000).  (This sequel to I for Isobel was short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award 2000, and won The Age Book of the Year Award in the same year.)  After Cynthia was published posthumously in 2001.  Any Witting is one of a small stable of wonderful Australian women writers whose literary fiction was not just a critical success but also much loved by her readership.

Set in the fictional town of Bangoree, (which may have been a disguised version of the NSW town of Kemspey*), The Visit introduces two character types who emerge in Witting’s other novels: Barbara is the introverted, insecure character who is the victim, and her mother-in-law Belle Dutton is the brutal bullying mother figure.  Old Mrs Dutton thinks she has just come for a visit, but in fact her other daughter-in-law Ivy has absconded after years of enduring her.  She’s refusing to come home to her husband Lionel if Mrs Dutton is there, so now it’s the hapless Barbara’s turn.  The cast of characters also includes Barbara’s friend Naomi, the town librarian and a single mother; Cathy, a young teacher yearning for but not ready for a long-term relationship; Peter, an adolescent boy wondering if a relationship with his long-absent father would help him in his search for identity; Phil Truebody whose career as a doctor has been sabotaged by his embarrassingly alcoholic wife; and Brian, a teacher who fancies himself as a great actor, but isn’t. 

The Visit is a work of theatre-fiction.  These characters enliven the cultural life of the town with play readings, but when Beckett’s Endgame is chosen, they decide (with some heavy-handed insistence from Brian) to stage the play because it’s on the sixth-form reading list.  The summary at Wikipedia explains the significance of this play to the novel’s plot:

Briefly, it is about a blind, paralysed man and his servant who await an unspecified “end” which seems to be the end of their relationship, death, and the end of the actual play itself.

Barbara, the town beauty who knows how useless beauty is, is paralysed into indecision and victimhood by the mother-in-law from hell.  Mrs Dutton knows exactly what buttons to push.  Barbara’s solace is Naomi, single mother to Peter, with issues of her own.  This excerpt is a splendid example of Witting’s subtle mastery of multiple meanings:

When [Lionel] asked Robert to take her, what could we say? They’ve had her ever since we were married, eight years.  It’s our turn.’ She winced with reluctant pity for the old woman.  ‘She keeps telling me what a wonderful housekeeper Ivy is, what a marvellous cook.  Et cetera. Everything shines in Ivy’s house, floors, windows, silver….’

‘Ivy uses Wondo, the friend of every housewife.’ Naomi’s voice was sprightly with resentment.

‘That’s right.’ Barbara drooped in comic dismay.  ‘Oh, Lord!’ She has this sweet little laugh, and she looks around her and says, ‘Oh, my poor house.’

Looking round at Naomi’s big, unclassified room: sink, stove, refrigerator, dining-table and chairs, books, posters, calico curtains dyed patchy russet, she reproduced the expression of gentle despair, the little laugh like a shattered sigh, with such accuracy that Naomi was forced to laugh briefly.

‘That’s all very well.  Laughing gets us nowhere.  Have you told her it isn’t her house?’

‘Oh, yes.  Pulled myself together, drew myself up, and told her it was in my name as well as Robert’s and I’d gone back to work to pay off the bank loan.’

‘What did she say to that?’

Barbara reproduced a tranquil and reserved expression which indicated that the wearer would not stoop to such nonsense.  Its tranquillity was suddenly distorted by misery.

‘I didn’t mind that.  I don’t mind that nothing suits her and she’s always picking about my housekeeping.  But this morning she said — she paused to get control of her working mouth — she said, “When I was your age, I had two children.” ‘ Tears rolled down Barbara’s face again as she cried, ‘Why can’t I have children? Why can’t I? It’s so unfair.  It’s so bloody unfair.’ (p.7)

Reading this I was reminded of a brief time in a past life when I was subjected to the same kind of brutally perceptive bullying.  It’s not nice to speak ill of the dead, but the perpetrator is long gone and so are those who would know who I am talking about.  I had no Naomi to vent to… it was months before I wept in the kitchen of a kindly relative who told me it was jealousy.  But it didn’t feel like jealousy.  It felt like cold, malevolent hatred that had correctly identified all my manifold insecurities for harvest into a daily dose of silkily unobtrusive spite.  It was long, long ago and I’d forgotten how awful it was until I read Barbara’s torment at the hands of this nasty old woman.

But the nasty old woman is not quite who she seems. Naomi is the town’s librarian, and architect of a mystery that runs parallel with the difficulties of the play and the personalities of the performers.  There is a poet of some note who made a visit to Bangoree many years ago and immortalised its river in his verse.  A would-be biographer who liaises with Naomi wants to visit the town to winkle out the identity of a mystery woman, and it turns out that Fitzallen the poet had actually stayed in the house where Barbara lives.  Which was once Belle Dutton’s house, but she denies ever having met him.

The multiple visits of this novel all have more significance than expected.  Peter wants to visit his estranged father; the biographer wants to visit the formative experiences of his subject. A visit to the police cells turns out to be a catalyst for change; Brian’s visit to Bonnie turns out to liberate Cathy from a fantasy of love and marriage.

One visit ends up in sex based on pity, reminding me that Endgame is in part a play about pity:

HAMM: [..] Infinite emptiness will be all around you, all the resurrected dead of all the ages wouldn’t fill it, and there you’ll be like a little bit of grit in the middle of the steppe. (Pause). Yes, one day, you’ll know what it is, you’ll be like me, except that you won’t have anyone with you, because you won’t have had pity on anyone and because there won’t be anyone left to have pity on. (Endgame, by Samuel Beckett, Faber & Faber, 1964 p.28)

(Yes, that is my dog-eared copy of Endgame, purchased, I see, for $2.00 from the MUP Bookroom for my English major.  And no, I could not resist re-reading it, cover to cover, enjoying resonances in the novel especially in the way that Witting’s characters are cast into their roles in the play.)

One of my favourite lines in the novel is when Peter has an epiphany, one that only a teacher of adolescent boys might have discerned:

It was at that moment that the phrase ‘friends and fellow humans’ came alive for him, warmed him and involved him.  He didn’t know why, but he knew he could never look at girls again as mysterious and beautiful animals to be captured. (p.166)

Amy Witting, date unknown

(Again according to Wikipedia), Witting’s real name was Joan Austral Levick but she always wrote under a pseudonym.  She chose the name, Amy Witting, because of a promise she made to herself to ‘never give up on consciousness’, not be unwitting, but to always remain ‘witting’.

Most of the photos that we see of Amy Witting show her late in life, so I was delighted to find this photo on an Italian website*.  Since my view of her as an author had been shaped by my reading of I for Isobel and the experiences that created it, I like to think of her enjoying the moment!

Image credit:

*The only reference to Kempsey as an inspiration for Bangoree, that I found was at a bookseller’s site.  Has anybody written a bio of Amy Witting?

Author: Amy Witting 1918-2001
Title: The Visit
Publisher: Mandarin Australia, a division of the Octopus Publishing Group*, 1991, first published by Thomas Nelson, 1977
Cover design and illustration: Jarrett Skinner
ISBN: 1863300708 / 9781863399704
Source: Personal library, OpShopFind

 


Responses

  1. Witting fan here. I have this one yet to look forward too.

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    • Ooh, *chuckle* I wonder if a fella would read it differently to me? I wait for your review!!

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  2. Another Witting fan, but no, I haven’t read a bio. Maybe Brennan could get onto her now. I’d love to read it!

    (Now will this comment post)

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    • The Hazel Rowley shortlist came out today but alas, nobody is writing about Witting…

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  3. I loved this book too but my copy had that dreary cover. What a glamorous photo of the author, terrific find.

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    • Yes, isn’t it gorgeous?!
      re the cover: I get the feeling that they weren’t going to bother much with a debut author, so a picture of a river would do.

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  4. Well, that was a comprehensive, well thought out and heartfelt review! Amy Witting is a writer whose name I have heard (recently) in passing but not one I have ever read – I do have “Marriages” on a top shelf but, you know, short stories. Bullying mothers in law feature so often in fiction but all mine were lovely (Yes, my mum as m-i-l was/is sometimes a bit hard to get on with, but I would say that, wouldn’t I).

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    • My MILs were nice. I still wear a gold pendant with my initial L, that my first MIL gave me years ago at a time of great trial in her life. It’s an inspiration not to let disasters overwhelm me.
      I liked my second MIL too. It was awful to see her decline with Azheimer’s.
      But I imagine that a hostile MIL must be very difficult indeed…

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      • I had a wonderful MIL too, and I know my husband and my brother’s partner both loved my mum. It shouldn’t be hard to be a good IL (M or F), it seems to me because it’s fundamentally like being a decent person to anyone you meet and know, but …

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        • Still, there wouldn’t be all those jokes if there weren’t some grain of truth to it.

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  5. I really liked I for Isobel and loved Beckett’s play when I saw it.

    This one sounds great too.

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    • It’s an unforgettable play, I agree.
      Has your daughter settled in to her new school?

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      • Thanks for asking. Yes, she has mostly. We’re still dealing with administrative stuff but otherwise it’s all good.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. […] is first off the block for AWW Gen 4 Week with a review of Amy Witting’s, The Visit (here) and Sue/Whispering Gums has promised to be on topic in tomorrow’s Monday […]

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  7. In defence of Beatrice Davis, after reading the bio about Eve Langley, who Davis ‘discovered’, she was often heavily constrained by the big bosses of the publishing houses she worked for about what they were happy to publish or not. She really wanted to publish more of Langley’s books, for instance, but A&R was not prepared to put the time and money into doing so.

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    • Well, then as now, these decisions are as much about marketability as they are about the quality of the work. Gerald Murnane, a contender for the Nobel, had nothing published for 15 years until Ivor Indyk at Giramondo took him up.

      Liked by 1 person


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