Academic journal article Hecate

The Critical Reception of Bobbin Up

Academic journal article Hecate

The Critical Reception of Bobbin Up

Article excerpt

The Critical Reception of Bobbin Up

Well before the upsurge of feminism Dorothy Hewett homed in on embattled female lives. The book abounds with portraits of working women...These varied existences form the collective hero(ine) of a novel whose social message has lost nothing of its urgency. Unemployment, experienced or dreaded, haunts people's lives now as then. At the end of the twentieth century the appalling working and living conditions of the poor described here in graphic detail still obtain, not only in the Third World but also in the sweatshops and depressed areas of the First.(1)

1999 marks the fortieth anniversary of Bobbin Up,(2) and the time seems apposite for a substantial re-evaluation of its place in Australian literature. Its artistic achievement and its continuing social relevance might be brought into clearer focus by examining how its critical and popular standing has shifted over time.

Hewett's life and literary career have made her a figure of particular critical interest to scholars and critics of different persuasions at different moments, and her writing reflects the different phases of her personal and political life. Famously the winner of a 1945 ABC national poetry prize, the young romantic from rural Western Australia had joined the Communist Party at nineteen and did not leave for good until 1968, some twenty six years later. This long association with the radical left, and what Hewett has described as a `love affair with an idealised working class,'(3) led to personal difficulties and inevitably shaped the critical response to her work during and, in many cases, following this period. On arriving in Sydney with her `boilermaker lover' Les Flood in 1949, she immediately asked the Communist Party District Organiser to place her in `the worst factory in Sydney' in order to demonstrate her commitment to the Party and the proletariat.(4) She worked in the Alexandria Spinning Mills for twelve months and lived in the working class inner-city Sydney suburbs of Woollahra, Redfern, Rosebery and Rockdale in the nine years before writing Bobbin Up (dedicated to `the girls in the Sydney Spinning Mills, particularly Al, the Sydney Realist Writers and Vera Deacon').(5) During that time Hewett was largely unable to write; partly because of work commitments, partly because of a felt responsibility to sustain the working class political movement through direct, rather than mental or creative action.(6) She was encouraged to take up the pen again by Frank Hardy and the Sydney Realist Writers' Group,(7) breaking her `drought' in the eight and a half week effusion of Bobbin Up.(8) The writing of this novel has been described as a moment of personal liberation by Hewett, part of a longer process by which she finally shed the perceived ideological constraints of the Party.

This narrative has been cursorily generalised by a number of critics who have then summarised Bobbin Up as `a moderately successful novel,' a somewhat enigmatic effort by a regrettably idealistic young tyro. This can be described broadly as the liberal humanist response to the novel. Within this category, there are different levels of critical awareness but the central narrative and assumptions reappear. In particular, politics and literature are seen as separate and opposed spheres: the creative act as purely personal and only to be harmed by participation in or identification with groups; all propaganda as bad, since it presupposes common interests and brings into question the self-evident freedom and equality of individuals -- where propaganda appears in literature it is to the detriment of the work and the artist. Hewett's work has been important for feminist critics and those interested in women's and gender issues. Bobbin Up was seen, not least by its Virago publishers, as part of a hidden canon of women's writing. Later structuralist and poststructuralist feminisms have not focused extensively on Bobbin Up, probably because of its foregrounding of materialist and labourist politics, though it has been of especial importance to other female critics for the same reason. …

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