Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Country and City in the Short Stories of Margaret Fane and Hilary Lofting

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Country and City in the Short Stories of Margaret Fane and Hilary Lofting

Article excerpt


At an October 2011 ASAL conference on writers and the Blue Mountains, I presented a paper on regional references in the writing of Margaret Fane (Beatrice Osborn) and Hilary Lofting. Like that paper, this essay explores how these formerly well-known but now largely forgotten writers of popular short stories separately and collaboratively drew on extensive experience of residence in Sydney's inner suburbs and remoter Blue Mountains settlements to create two distinctive literary sites that imaged their sense of an Australian imaginary. This essay is correspondingly biographical and illustrative, though it can be said at the outset that the couple's fiction, in particular, reveals tensions between the stultifying and the attractive elements of urban (and suburban life), and at times between the ostensible advantages and crushing disadvantages of rural life. In stories set in Sydney slums, fashionable city addresses and leafy suburbs, or in closer rural communities or remote bush farms, the writers foregrounded their characters' attempts to embody individualism, aesthetic appreciation and creative effort in the face of equalising societal pressure.

The authors did not resolve the social issues they portrayed. They wrote in the contemporary romance, crime and mystery genres of popular fiction. Their stories often involved people attempting exploits or quests and overcoming obstacles to effect a conclusion in which emotional justice served. If some of their stories bear more than a whiffof presumption that domestic topics entailed relegation of women's and men's roles to conventional expectations, they could, on occasion, create mould-breaking characters.

The writing represents something of a literary equivalent to the discoveries of the Australian filmmakers of the 1920s and 30s and of artists like Thea Proctor, Gladys Owen, Ethel Spowers, Grace Cossington Smith, and Margaret Preston. In the world of the Fane and Lofting stories, landscape and even cityscapes are far from bleak; a natural setting takes on something of the appeal that it had for Adrian Feint, the Dee Why painters, and poets who saw it not as drab and soulless but as intricate, alluring and, in the words of Fane and Lofting in their story 'The Sentimental Thief', 'wonderful' and even 'gorgeous' (54). Interestingly, the writers found working class districts like Woolloomooloo and Darlinghurst, and fashionable inner city apartment dwellings equally engaging: the backstreets and close-packed houses' inhabitants made up a cast of near-Dickensian characters enacting domestic moral dramas where redemptive acts of courage or, on occasion, passional crimes might occur. The scenes of such adventures and melodramas recall the urban settings familiar to audiences of Longford's The Sentimental Bloke (filmed by Raymond Longford in Woolloomooloo), and society dramas like the McDonagh sisters' (Isobel, Paulette and Phyllis) society dramas such as The Far Paradise (1928, filmed in both urban and rural settings) and The Cheaters (1930).

In some respects, the lives and aspirations of Osborn and Lofting parallel those of many of their romantic creations. In what follows, I first sketch Osborn's life up to and including her attachment to Lofting and the locations that formed the settings of their earliest joint fictions. Because their stories have lacked consideration for some three-quarters of a century (in part because of the status of popular short fiction, the romance tendency of their work and perhaps more obviously, the work remains uncollected), I have found it helpful to outline some salient aspects of their writing before resuming the biographical narrative to indicate Lofting's European and other experience and the extent of his infatuation with Australia in his independently written stories as well as those written in conjunction with Osborn.

The couple's frequent moves around Sydney are reflected in stories that reflect their chameleon-like immersion in a range of urban and rural milieux and their easy familiarity with aspects of high and middlebrow culture. …

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