Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 9, 2023

A Lease of Summer (1990), by Jean Bedford

A Lease of Summer is a novella from my book haul from Bendigo Book Mark and at only 137 pages it’s a perfect contribution to Madame Bibliophile’s A Novella a Day in May.

Jean Bedford’s career includes working as a teacher, journalist, editor, publisher, a lecturer in creative writing, an awards judge, and a literary consultant for the Australian Film Commission. Many of us in Australia know her as co-founder and co-editor, with Linda Funnell, of the Newtown Review of Books. 

As an author, Jean Bedford (b.1946) may be best known for her recent crime fiction, but I know her from her fine novel Sister Kate (1987), recently  re-released through the University of Melbourne’s Untapped program.  (See my review).  But if you keep your eyes peeled in second-hand shops, and maybe in libraries, you may stumble on some of her other published fiction:

  • Country Girl Again (1979, collection of short stories; reprinted with additional stories 1985)
  • Sister Kate (1982) (See my review).
  • Love Child (1986)
  • Colouring In (1986, collection of short stories with Rosemary Creswell)
  • To Make a Killing (1990, an Anna Southwood novel)
  • A Lease of Summer (1990)
  • Worse than Death (1992, with Tom Kelly, an Anna Southwood novel)
  • Signs of Murder (1993, an Anna Southwood novel)
  • If With a Beating Heart (1993)
  • Now You See Me (1997)

A Lease of Summer is set in Papua New Guinea as it transitions from a colony of Australia to independence.  (Yes, that’s correct, Britain shed its colonies in the wake of WW2, but Australia hung onto its colony until 1975. Read more about it here.)  This is the blurb:

In the dying days of the Australian administration of Papua New Guinea, a woman joins her husband in Port Moresby, where the expatriate community still lives high on borrowed time. Helen is curious, well-meaning, eager to know the place and the people, but nothing has prepared her for the maelstrom of race and sex and politics here, nor for its inevitable and potentially tragic consequences.

The expat community is concentrated in the university, where Helen’s husband David is an archaeologist among a miscellany of academics whose work is being hijacked to prepare the locals to take over in the professions.  Helen is shocked to hear Ralph — a racist old fossil from the Maths department — pouring scorn on the readiness of his students, but she later hears more temperately expressed reservations about the literacy standards of the replacement teachers.  There are some very smart, sophisticated locals in this milieu, but these future leaders of the independent state were educated in Australian boarding schools and universities, or elsewhere overseas.  It was common knowledge in the 1970s that as administrators of the colony for well over half a century, Australia had failed to prepare PNG for independence.  (Which was not a reason not to grant it, but a reason to provide sustained support thereafter.)

Helen may be ‘well-meaning’ as the blurb suggests, but she’s a rather shallow young woman, preoccupied by the chaos of her personal life.  (She is not much inconvenienced by her toddler Bea, because there is no shortage of people willing to look after her at any time.) Although she purports to want to learn and understand the people and their culture, she is more interested in gossip and innuendo, and there’s plenty of that to keep everyone busy.

Having met her husband while on the rebound from an affair with a married man, Helen has left her lover Nick behind in Sydney while he sorts out what to do about his wife and children if (as he hopes without any certainty) they move in together when she returns from PNG.  She has two dalliances during her sojourn, but is only shocked by the affairs of others when they involve unsuitable people such as the aforementioned Ralph, or the dangerously conflicted Marcus whose religious training in an Australian seminary has left him with ungovernable rage.

It seems at first as if amongst this sophisticated elite, no one is much troubled by casual sex and extra-marital affairs, and trouble only arises when the colour of a baby-on-the-way is an issue.  Regardless of race, there is an expectation that a baby will be the same colour as the couple who are married to each other, and it’s not just because of racism or the missionary legacy of religious disapproval  When Helen talks with Selie about wanting to understand why an aggrieved husband might well kill both his wife and his lover, Selie explains the gulf between understanding and reality:

…’It’s not about understanding. […] We’re talking reality here.  The reality of village women who know their power lies in the children and the blood.  Even if it keeps them captive, in your terms.  Give them a power, a real power, to replace that and perhaps they’ll listen to family planning.  But they know there isn’t one.  One day perhaps they’ll understand otherwise.  But the knowledge doesn’t go away.’ (p.63)

In other words, the values of the expat community and the educated elite can’t necessarily be transplanted into traditional culture.

But Bedford also shows the human cost of infidelity.  Helen’s curiosity not only makes her a naïve dupe in a resistance movement, but it also makes her a confidante.  Her character bears witness to distress, jealousy, despair and painful, poignant hurt.  These characters move on, as they must, but they harbour a sense of injustice and regret.

Highly recommended, if you can get your hands on a copy.

Update: by coincidence, I’ve just listened to Kate Legge talking about her personal experience of her husband’s infidelity and how at first she was oblivious to it, but was then ‘colonised’ by it, in her new book Infidelity and Other Affairs at the Adelaide Writers Festival which has kindly made podcasts of its sessions available online. 

Author: Jean Bedford
Title: A Lease of Summer
Cover design: not credited
Publisher: McPhee Gribble (Penguin Australia) 1990
ISBN:9780869140949, pbk., 137 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Bendigo Book Mark $6.50.


  1. Don’t think I’ve ever read a novel set in PNG. And pardon my ignorance, but I’ve not heard of Jean Bedford either. I’ll keep an eye out for her work… there’s a massive second hand book warehouse on my street (all of two minutes’ walk away) so I’ll add her to my list of authors to look for in the stacks!


  2. I knew I knew the name Jean Bedford – Sister Kate. I probably still have a copy somewhere. When I reviewed Modjeska’s The Mountain last year, it was the only novel I had come across set in PNG in that period. Glad to know there’s another. Though I’d still like read one written by a Papuan.


    • The Mountain was a very good novel, I thought.
      And yes, I’d like to see something written by a local too. There’s not much about PNG writing at Wikipedia.


  3. This sounds such a great read Lisa and thanks so much for joining me in novella reading this month! I’ve looked in the library catalogue for Jean Bedford but sadly nothing – I will keep an eye out for her though, I think I’d really enjoy her writing.


    • I’m scouring the second-hand bookshops here too. From her website, I found that some of hers are available at Amazon if you can bear reading on a kindle, but she also writes crime so you need to check the book description if you try that.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You are right, Lisa, that there are few novels which are set in Papua New Guinea, or its earlier version or versions. You may not have come across these:
    Trevor Shearston: “Something in the Blood” (1979), loosely linked short stories set in PNG;
    — “Sticks That Kill” (1984), about (as I recall) first contact of White men and Papuans.
    T.A.G. Hungerford “The Ridge and the River” (1952): a story about an Australian Commando patrol on a Papuan island, in the last days of World War II


    • My goodness, I’ve got Sticks That Kill on the TBR, but I bought it because it was by Shearston, not knowing where it was set. What a treasure!
      And I already have The Ridge and the River on my wishlist, I can’t remember why now. (Mind you, I’m not so keen on war stories, not unless they’re about something else as well.)


      • Hungerford’s “The Ridge and the River” is a war story, one of the best. But it is also about Australians, and Australia, and the Papuan natives.


  5. Also, Michael Challinger’s two PNG books: “Shawline”, a comedy set in Port Moresby and other places in PNG, involving expatriates and PNG nationals;
    — “Port Moresby Mixed Doubles”: short stories set in Port Moresby and PNG, again, focusing on expats and nationals.


    • Well, John, you are certainly adding to my shopping list!
      PS I’ve just done some searching at AbeBooks, and they have the Challinger but only in the US, it’s not cheap. I’ll keep looking for an Australian bookseller.


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