Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 8, 2022

Bad Art Mother, by Edwina Preston

Ten years ago I read Edwina Preston’s debut novel The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer and enjoyed it as a lively mystery with a social heart.  Preston, however, is a multi-talented writer and musician with many irons in the fire so it’s been a while between novels, but Bad Art Mother was worth the wait.  I loved this book.

The characters are loosely based on well-known Melbourne identities from the mid C20th century Heidi Circle. This milieu included the art dealer and restaurateur Georges Mora and his artist wife Mirka; the artist Joy Hester; and the art patrons John and Sunday Reed.  Owen’, the ‘bad mother’s’ son in the novel, is based on Sweeney Reed, who was the child of Joy Hester and the artist Albert Tucker but he was adopted by the childless John and Sunday Reed.  Readers do not need to know the emotional and sexual entanglements of this Bohemian milieu to enjoy the novel, though it is nice to know the art of Mirka Mora so that you can imagine the mural that makes an appearance on the walls of a restaurant. (See here for the one she did for Melbourne’s iconic Flinders St Station.)

This is the blurb:

Good mothers are expected to be selfless. Artists are seen as selfish. So what does this mean for a mother with artistic ambitions?

Enter: frustrated poet Veda Gray, who is offered a Faustian bargain when a wealthy childless couple, the Parishes, invite her to exchange her young son Owen for time to write.

Veda’s story unfolds as an adult Owen reflects on his boyhood in the Melbourne suburbs, and in the vibrant bohemian inner-city art world where his restaurateur father was a king. Meanwhile, the talented women in his orbit – Veda; Mrs Parish, wife of an influential poet; muralist and restaurant worker Rosa – push against gender expectations to be recognised as legitimate artists, by their intimates and the wider world. And almost-aunt Ornella, who declares herself without an artistic bone in her body, is perhaps the closest thing Owen has to a traditional mother. As Owen is encouraged to ‘be a man’, he loses something of himself, too.

Blending wit and pathos, love and fury, ambition and loss, this is an extraordinary novel of love and art, set in the Melbourne milieu of Georges and Mirka Mora, Joy Hester, and John and Sunday Reed.

Owen narrates most of the story, acknowledging right at the start that his memory may not be reliable.  He claims to remember his birth, and addressing ‘almost-aunt’ Ornella, he admits that she doesn’t think it’s possible to recall things from such an early age. (My earliest memory is from between 14 and 18 months old. This is apparently early: research shows that the average for recall of memories start at about two and a half.)

But Owen remembers that he became his mother Veda’s enemy when he was mobile enough to rip pages out of books left on a couch or stored on the bottom shelf of a bookcase.  And we see from the other narrative strand — Veda’s letters to her sister Tilda — that needing to be alert to Owen’s whereabouts limits her to writing only a word or two and it hampers her reading.

The ‘wild’ of Park Orchards is beneficial for Owen, who totters in from the outdoors, tumbleweeded and sunburnt, to eat large portions of bread, dripping, apples from their own trees &c.  And that is before lunch! I am not quite so blasé, however, as to forget ponds, dams, disused mineshafts… In fact, I cannot even read contentedly, for I must look up and spot Owen continually, and then put things down (pages flutter, place is lost) to run over and check he is indeed behind that tree and hasn’t crossed some boundary line, past which reside snakes, bunyips, men with shotguns… (p. 36)

Yes, she exaggerates, but all parents know how small children sap concentration even on mundane tasks.  How much more exasperating it is for anything requiring thought and imagination.  Veda, no longer needed at her husband Jo’s restaurant now that it’s a going concern, misses the company of a working life… and when the childless Parishes offer to have Owen, she accepts not only because she’s trapped into it by Mr Parish’s offer to be principal investor in Jo’s new art gallery next to his restaurant, but also because the deal gives her time to work on her poetry.

Veda confesses this only to her sister in her letters, but these letters are now in the public domain since they were published posthumously by Owen’s girlfriend.

You are right when you say that mothers get too caught up in their children.  You are probably right too when you say that, when I have more children, I will be less anxious.  But I am not sure I will have more children.  And Owen is so small.  And what sort of a mother gives her child away to another woman?  I feel sure that, were I to confide in anyone other than you — if I were to tell any woman of this arrangement — I would become a very suspect creature indeed.

And yet, there is another part of me that feels guiltily, horribly relieved. Because for two days I will be spared the grizzling, the whingeing, the feeding, the playing, the interruptions, the soiled clothes and the soiled floor and the soiled table, the crying — the endless endless crying — when I just want to slam the door on the room but must sit and rock and pat and soothe and meanwhile the clock ticking ticking ticking… (pp.49-50)

Owen does have two parents, but Papa is a workaholic who is never home because he’s busy with his restaurant.  Gender expectations of that era mean that it’s his wife who’s supposed to manage the home and look after any children.  And any career aspirations she might have are always going to be subordinate to the needs of the family.

Mr Parish is a poet, and is influential in the Bohemian arts world, including publishing.  Veda is so underconfident about the merit of her poetry that she hesitates even to mention it.  He is an intimidating man.  Owen describes Mrs Parish as a browbeaten housewife who eventually finds her niche in Japanese flower-arranging, and he is delighted when she goes to Japan to learn to be a master.  Besides Ornella, who despite her gruff personality, provides routine, clean clothes, proper meals and bedtime stories, the other important person in Owen’s life is Rosa, who paints the mural in Papa’s restaurant in St Kilda so that it becomes famous.  This was in the sixties, when these ideas were new, and a mural on a wall could attract customers.  But the sixties were not then a good time for women.  Veda fights a long and draining battle to have her poetry published.  While Papa encourages her by supporting her financially, he doesn’t understand her work or take any interest in it.

The publishing world isn’t interested in women’s poetry either.

The poems seem to be about things poetry shouldn’t bother with.  Small things, domestic things.  (p.56)

Veda’s frustration erupts in a transgressive poem that expresses her disdain for publishers: it’s an allusion to an acrostic sonnet by Gwen Harwood and it causes a massive scandal, the financial collapse of the bookshop that published her book, and the tragedy that haunts Owen’s life.  But Veda’s struggle for time to write and for recognition for her work didn’t make me think of Gwen Harwood, mentioned only in a note at the end of the book, it made me think of Anne Elder whose poetry I discovered in her posthumous collection The Bright and the Cold, and whose bio, The Heart’s Ground I reviewed here.

Bad Art Mother is excellent reading, witty and clever and wise.  Highly recommended.


The Heide Museum of Modern Art features most of the artists of the period, and occasionally, for some exhibitions it opens the private rooms  where the Reeds lived. The modernist building — designed as a gallery to be lived in — was designed by David McGlashan in 1963 to replace the original weatherboard farmhouse which they had renovated in French provincial style.  The gardens are open all year round.

Author: Edwina Preston
Title: Bad Art Mother
Cover design by Duncan Blachford
Cover art: Die Hämische (The Malicious) by Egon Schiele, Wien Museum
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781743059012, pbk., 317 pages, also available as an eBook.
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press


Responses

  1. This sounds fascinating Lisa – I’d not heard of the circle it’s based on, but I so empathise with that need to be away from small children and do *anything* that’s adult…

    Like

    • I found myself wondering how many Australians would recognise that circle either. I came to the conclusion it doesn’t matter at all, because it’s not a slavish correspondence between real people and characters, it’s more the idea of a milieu itself.
      I bet there are a lot of people who’ve had to work from home during the pandemic who can relate!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This does sound like a really good, involving read. Never heard of any of those people, but as you say maybe that doesn’t matter.

    Like

    • I suppose most places have an artists’ colony somewhere!

      Like

  3. This sounds good, and one I’ll seek out (if only because Heide is relatively close to me and I walk around there often).

    I remember things from when I was around 18months as well – not much but very specific memories that aren’t supported by photos. My mum can remember sitting in her high chair being fed cubes of butter dipped in sugar by her older sister!

    Like

    • My theory is that it has to do with trauma. Not mine, but my mother’s. This early memory is from when my older sister, then about four, was lost from sight when she had disappeared into a field of grain. My mother was holding me in her arms in the summerhouse, screaming hysterically because she thought my sister was lost.
      I know that it’s my memory and not ‘planted there’ by photos or other people’s recollections, because when I first mentioned it decades later both she and my father were astonished, more so when I was able to describe the house in the background behind the field. We have no photos of this house or the summerhouse, and (since my sister had obviously turned up again) the incident was long forgotten.

      Like

      • That’s interesting re trauma. There’s a bit of research to show that trauma memories are recorded differently to other memories, particularly as senses are usually heightened so it becomes a complex sensory response memory.
        My early memories are not at all traumatic – mostly me waiting at the indie for my dad to come home from work and I recall being unsteady in my feet! I told my mum I could remember the layout of the house – she didn’t believe me until I sketched a plan. Funnily, I didn’t know where the laundry was, which she said wasn’t surprising because I wasn’t allowed in there and the door was always kept shut!

        Like

        • Yes, it’s funny how often those memories aren’t believed. I had the same experience when describing the layout of other houses that we lived in.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I have this too, but It will be a while till I get to it, I fear. I’ve just read your first para and see that you liked it. Great!

    Like

    • If you haven’t already, you must visit Heide before you read it:)

      Like

      • Oh yes I have, Lisa, back around 2010, and nearly went again last month but weather iffy on our free days. Great place. I’ve also recently read the memoir Shy love smiles … which mentions Sunday Reed and Sweeney in particular, as well as some of the artists.

        Like

        • Such a fascinating group of people….

          Like

          • They sure are. I think you read The strays too?

            Like

            • Yes, I did. I thought of it as I was reading this, because it explores the same parental dilemma.

              Like

  5. I have a dear friend who I MUST tell about this book. She reads everything Heide.

    Like

  6. I had not heard of this in any kind of depth but looks fascinating. My earliest memory was being in a small plane above the skies of my home town. My father was a pilot. No idea how old but quite small. The descriptions of the child being young brought back memories of my teen years raising my infant brother as my mother was unwell. Once married I swore never again. So we travelled a lot instead of becoming parents which suited us both but not a few of the relatives. The mural at Federation Square is stunning. So much work. I’m always fascinated by detailed murals.

    Like

    • Thanks for sharing this Pam… it’s made me realise, there’s a story to be told about the Ornellas of this world, those who take on the upbringing of a child not their own because there’s a need. It’s heroic in its own way.

      Like


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: