Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 23, 2022

The Morality of Gentlemen, by Amanda Lohrey

My reading of Amanda Lohrey’s debut novel The Morality of Gentlemen (1984) was prompted by the arrival of another book chez moi: Julieanne Lamond’s Lohrey, published under the prestigious Miegunyah Press imprint from Melbourne University Press, is the first in a series called Contemporary Australian Writers, and is a ‘guide to the world of Amanda Lohrey’s fiction. I was up to page 4 when an intriguing reference to The Morality of Gentlemen sent me to retrieve it from the TBR…

Lohrey’s novel is, as Ian Syson says in the Introduction, a bit of a rarity in contemporary Australian fiction.  It is a working class novel: a political/industrial novel about the lives of a group of workers during a long lockout.  

#StayWithMeHere… this is a most enjoyable novel. There are lots of reasons why it is such a pleasure to read…

The Morality of Gentleman purports in part to be research notes of a lofty academic who is writing a history of the waterfront dispute in Hobart.  His narration is in italics. The rest of the novel consists of fragments: interviews, recollections, fly-on-the-wall observations, transcripts, press articles, letters, (hilarious) letters to the editor and court transcripts.  The narrator is looking for reliable witnesses to make sense of these conflicting accounts, but the novel teaches him a lesson that he ought to have known anyway.  Historical objectivity isn’t possible.

There are witty juxtapositions of the characters’ expectations and behaviour.  Some of them are laugh-out-loud. Here is the unionist Plunkett taken aback by the appearance of the Chief Justice, George Cosgrave:

Plunkett had pictured him as a tall man who would preside poker-faced and with an air of immaculate decorum, his magisterial features an impressive portrait of total, unobtrusive concentration.  Instead he is a man of barely medium height with broad shoulders who moves restlessly on his grand chair and fidgets with a pen on the bench.  From time to time he scratches his nose, managing to look like a banker who has wandered into his scarlet, white and black judicial robes by mistake, presiding with the impatient and patronising air of a man filling in for a friend and anxious to get back to his stocks and bonds. (p.250)

There are perceptive descriptions of the places where the paths of the characters cross, especially interesting when a character is out of his comfort zone. These include the drinking holes of the rival factions; homes both working class and petty-bourgeois; barristers’ chambers; and the court room.  Here we see the narrator on his quest to interview the State President of the union, Eyenon, a tall, thin man with a long scimitar nose. 

I seek him out in the Marquess of Queensberry where he drinks after work.  The Customs House around the corner is a proletarian pub, bare and shabby with green walls and scratched brown chairs. The Marquess has more character: brown furry wallpaper, sporting trophies over the mantel; pictures on the walls of old whaling boats, the local slipways in 1900, the colonial docks with sailing ships; and framed photographs of local sporting heroes, including one of Jaz [Eyenon’s son] in his blue and white football strip [sic*]. Ten minutes after the five o’clock siren the bar is strong with booze and smoke and thronged with wharfies, seamen, bookmakers, politicians and lawyers who are slumming it. (p.92)

*Alas, there are a fair few typos in this edition, and I have a suspicion that this word should be stripe/s. Update, not it’s not a typo.  See Simon’s comment below, I am ignorant about sport.  (But there are typos.)

There are brilliant descriptions of the characters — a large cast of them, yet all seem distinct in the reader’s mind. Here is Jaz (sounding a bit like an author gathering material for a novel, eh?):

Jaz, like any natural commentator, talks to himself, in his head assembling facts, clarifying events, polishing anecdotes, categorising behaviour, constructing a personal galaxy of types—mugs, ratbags, opportunists and a small elite which consists of those men like Travers [ and his father whose integrity, he acknowledges, is beyond question. (p.93.  Travers is Federal President of the union and a Communist Party official.)

Jaz is more interested in union politics than he’ll admit.  He’ll discuss some issues but he won’t allow himself to be provoked into a lecture or a diatribe.  

He won’t take that from his father, let alone from a younger man.  He makes it clear, in routine gestures, that his attention is straying.  He changes the subject, losing himself in rambling speculations as to how he can make a quid on the side to pay off his gambling debts. (p.94)

The most poignant home depicted is Tom Shelly’s after his wife has left him.  She is fed up with him being out on union business till all hours of the night. His bleak address smells of loneliness, while other homes smell of comfort, or pretension.  He is bitterly aware of the contrast when he goes to visit the union’s lawyer…

Tommy sits in the Conlan living room.

‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ she says.

‘If you’re making one.’ He takes in the room: the green velvet sofa; the rose-patterned silk curtains and the exotic rug by the fireplace; a painting of a naked woman on the wall, in yellow and red and black; red hydrangeas in a silver bowl and books in a glass case.  She’s been listening to a record.  ‘That’s a nice bit of music,’ he says, thinking she must be a bit of a romantic to sit and listen to that all day.  Up in the air; someone to do the housework and the kids looked after.

‘It’s the Fourth Symphony by Brahms.’ She walks towards him, teapot in hand.  ‘I’m afraid I haven’t any milk.’

‘That’s alright.  I’ll have it black.’ Disorganised too. (p.95)

He checks out her legs as well… noting that she’s a bit muscular around the calf.  (We can almost hear the weary sigh of feminists around the nation.)

Sly feminist commentary crops up sporadically in this very male environment.  Who does the unpaid labour in the Revivalist Hall where the ALP holds its annual State Convention?

The hall has been rendered spotless by the old ladies of the city branch who have placed jugs of water on the trestle tables and set flowers in glass vases on the broad plaster ledges under the windows.  The pregnant young politician’s wife sits in a back corner, near the door, knitting baby clothes and talking to the Party’s Assistant Secretary, a young woman of thirty, solidly built into a smart version of a bus conductress’s uniform with an incongruously gay silk scarf at the neck. The delegates file past them in increasing numbers and take up their seats as indicated on the master plan which roughly corresponds to the voting blocs of the three major factions.  (p.119-120)

Overall, the patchwork of fragments forms a coherent whole which shows us—among other things—why a love affair that emerges to form a bridge between the classes, is doomed to fail.  The union is like a family, and like a family, it protects its culture with certainties and prohibitions.

Having set the scene in delicious detail, Lohrey builds the narrative tension with a series of wharfside confrontations between the ‘scab’ who is a test case for refusing to pay union levies, and the unionists, either militant or compliant because it’s necessary to get their ticket.  (Some of the unionists are Communists, earnestly attending meetings to hear works of Red philosophy read to them, see below.) Each time these contests occur, the reader, like the participants, holds her breath in case the encounters erupt out of their carefully managed procedures.  Each time the union leaders coach their men to be non-violent and to follow the strategic timing of events; each time the police turn up to form a protective cordon around the scab, timing his progress towards the picket line with great care so that there is no violence—because Superintendent Whiffen would rather this dispute were dealt with by the courts. And each time the scab is provocative.  He’s a stooge for the politics of the Anti-Communist Party and the Catholic church which would in time morph into the Democratic Labour Party which kept the Australian Labor Party out of office for all of Menzies’ reign and beyond, until 1972.


Many people say that communism fell because of the détente between political leaders, and Gorbachev’s embrace of social democracy.  But #TongueInCheek I think that the impact of Monty Python on popular culture had a lot to do with it.

This excerpt is one of my favourite scenes.  Women readers, prepare to gnash your teeth!

Quinn wheels his bike up the steep hill at the Glebe.  Halfway up he stops and chains the bike to the fence of 91 Paternoster Road, a small weatherboard cottage and the home of Charlie Button.  Button, a gnarled veteran of sixty-two, opens the door and welcomes him with a fatherly grunt.  Tonight is the monthly meeting of the city branch of the Communist Party, at present reading its way through Lenin’s The State and Revolution, having just completed The Short History of the CPSU(B).  Quinn also attends a special weekly reading group which is four chapters into Leontiv’s Political Economy.  Both groups are taken through their paces by Alec Plunkett, a full-time organiser for the Party and Bill McClean, an economics lecturer at the university and Party sympathiser who lectures to the second group on aspects of Capital. State Secretary Frank Jenkins is there and his wife, Dorothy, a sharp-faced kindergarten teacher who laughs a lot and knits incessantly.  Every year she runs for a position on the State Committee and every year she’d defeated by the men.  She quotes the example of Rosa Luxemburg to them but it doesn’t make any difference.  Your turn will come, comrade, says Plunkett, but not yet.  Meanwhile he directs her to reforming the petty-bourgeois elements of the Housewives Association. (p.75)

Typical of Lohrey’s rich prose and attention to detail, there is so much in that paragraph.


In the Introduction Synon interprets the narrator’s difficulties as the product of inevitable class conflict.

This contradiction is brought home in an exchange between the narrator and Leo Eyenon, a militant he is interviewing.

At the door, he stops.  ‘What did you say this was for?’
‘I’m writing a history.’
‘Whose version, yours or ours?’
‘A combination of both,’ I say ingenuously. ‘I’m here to be objective.’
He laughs,.  “It’s not possible,’ he says.  ‘Pick a side and stick to it.'( Introduction, p.8)

The narrator dismisses this response as crude, scornfully thinking that it shows the limits of self-education. Synon quotes this exchange between the intellectual left and the working class as a clash of deep significance that illustrates conflicting notions of history, manners, morality, education and intelligence.  

*chuckle* Now that I’ve read the Introduction to Lohrey, I suspect that Lohrey was also mocking her own experience as an academic transitioning from a childhood on Hobart’s working-class waterfront during the turbulent industrial/political 1950s.

The Morality of Gentlemen was one of a number of working class novels that Synon explored in his PhD: Dorothy Hewitt’s Bobbin Up (1959); Mena Calthorpe’s The Dye House (1961); Betty Collins’ The Copper Crucible (1966); and The Delinquents (1962) and Down by the Dockside (1963) by Criena Rohan.  Syson is not the only academic to take an interest in the ‘proletarian’ novel… see my review of The Dye House for the thoughts of Jean-François Vernay in The Great Australian Novel—a Panorama (2010).

Some of these books (as you can see from those links) are available as Text Classics but others are hard to find.  Trust me, a hunt for The Morality of Gentlemen is worth the effort, but as of today I could only find one copy from an American bookseller via Abebooks.  However, I am hopeful that Lohrey’s profile as a winner of the Miles Franklin with The Labyrinth will encourage the reissue of The Morality of Gentlemen.

Author: Amanda Lohrey
Title: The Morality of Gentlemen
Introduction by Ian Syson
Cover design by Lynda Warner
Publisher: Montpelier Press in association with The Vulgar Press, 2002, first published 1984
ISBN: 9781876597078, pbk., 301 pages
Source: personal library


Responses

  1. Interesting. Btw, ‘football strip’ is the term for the team’s outfit.

    Like

    • Oh is it? Well, that proves I haven’t been lying about not knowing anything about sport. Thank you Simon:) I shall remove my unfair remark immediately. (Though there are typos. )

      Like

  2. I immediately thought of The dye house, but I see you have mentioned it too. I can think of many Australian labour-based historical novels but not many written at the time the story is set.

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    • LOL I thinking of tagging my books ‘proletarian novels’ so that I can track ’em down when I want to.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. And I immediately thought of Bobbin Up so pleased you mentioned it. This book does sound intriguing … pity it’s no longer in print.

    Like

    • Ah well, credit where it’s due, it’s Syson who lists it in the Intro, though I have read it and still have it on the shelves.
      It is a pity, I am lucky to have had a copy…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. In the anti-war movement I was on the edge of Communist and Union circles. The older men quite often reminded me of my reading – of intelligent, working class men in earlier years attending self-education classes in Marxist theory. Another great tradition disappeared into the past – maybe because tertiary education is now more accessible to ‘all’; maybe because Marxism went out of fashion (it’ll be back!).

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    • Yes, that kind of self-education—whatever the topic—that is undertaken among friends is a beautiful thing. (My neighbour does this in a Bible group, and she loves it.)
      But I suppose it’s possible (I’m just speculating) that self-education’s decline among working class men might also be because of improved literacy in the next generation. Some time during the middle of my career there was angst about literacy rates among migrants, but when they did the research they found that actually the highest rates of illiteracy were among that older generation of working class people. In the novel, these people are read to, they’re not reading themselves.
      I think what made the difference might have been when completing secondary education became the norm. A lot of illiterate kids would have left school when the leaving age was 15 and gone to jobs where reading didn’t matter. But if the system demands that everyone gets Year 12, and employers insist on having employees who can read, then illiterate kids have to be given support to get there.

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  5. Hi Lisa,
    Loved your review on Morality of Gentlemen. Any idea where I could buy a copy?
    I recently shared The Labyrinth with our book group. Amazing the depths that Amanda Lohrey gets to in this novel.
    I also enjoyed Monty Python clips. I don’t enjoy many comedians at all now.

    Like

    • Hello Patricia, nice to hear from you.
      Alas, I took a quick look around on the day I published this, and I couldn’t find a copy anywhere. I think the best bet would be Untapped: The Australian Literary Heritage Project at
      https://untapped.org.au/collection/. It’s not available there at the moment, (nothing of hers is, not The Reading Group either) but perhaps if they got a whole lot of separate requests from your reading group, they might be able to reissue it.

      Like


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