Alternative Eves

By McLeod, Aorewa | Hecate, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Alternative Eves


McLeod, Aorewa, Hecate


Alternative Eves

Eve Langley is known in histories of Australian literature as the author of two novels: The Pea-Pickers (1942) and White Topee (1954). The Pea-Pickers' first person account of two cross-dressing sisters, Steve and Blue, working as itinerant impecunious farm labourers in Gippsland in the 1920s is funny, wryly ironic and, at times, romantically rhapsodic. Langley's multiple voices have been described as postmodern -- if prematurely so(1) -- and readers who are fascinated by her unique style and vision have been intrigued and frustrated by the knowledge that in the Mitchell Library in Sydney, in the Angus and Robertson collection, there are typescripts of ten unpublished novels. Seven of these are set in New Zealand where Langley lived from 1932, five in Auckland where she lived from 1936 and where she wrote The Pea-Pickers in 1940. These four-hundred page novels seem to be based on journals she kept at the time, often even including the dates when episodes were written. The last novel, dated 1941, is left unfinished after one hundred pages. The typescripts were written after Langley's eight years in Auckland's psychiatric hospital and were sent to Angus and Robertson through the fifties and sixties.

Like those few others who have read those pages typed on pink paper I could see that here was superb writing, unpublishable in the fifties and sixties because of its extraordinary explicitness. Mary Fallon's character Toto in her marvellous 1989 postmodern novel, Working Hot, has been to the Mitchell Library and read these novels:

a huge grey box was wheeled out of stack

for a minute Toto thought she was in a morgue

`the body of woman the exhumed unhallowed

neglected body of woman's knowledge'

`the lot' said the Archivist

attached to each was a reader's report and right on the

top was a little yellow memo --

`the author wrote one successful novel then went

bananas and wrote this lot'

(signature illegible) the reports read --

`the author has an increasing tendency to turn in on

her own mind and sensations with corresponding loss

of vividness in outer incidents and other characters'

`this babbling reveals a pathetic breakdown more fit for

the psychiatrist's couch than a publisher's office'

`it is purely personal'

`there is a most insensitive lack of reticence in her most

private affairs it is the sort of stuff most people keep to

themselves between the four walls of the bedroom it is

all very sad and quite hopeless'

`most of the material is of too personal a nature

to interest the general reader who as a rule wants a

definite theme rather than the stream of impressions and

looks to the author to sort the intake of observations

and emotional responses into some kind of pattern

which makes it reasonably cohesive and therefore

memorable'

`she seems to have no shame about walking in

unexpectedly on her relatives or travelling on a packing

case in the back of a truck or leaving when there is too

much housework to be done it is the aimless chronicle

of an irresponsible person who follows her own moods

till they run her into misery but never considers she

has a duty to anyone.'

(all signatures illegible)(2)

These accurate transcriptions of the readers reports show clearly what publishers wanted in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as why what they rejected could be what the postmodern reader of the 1990s might relish, and certainly what the postmodern novelist Mary Fallon did relish. However, even if now we'd disagree with the unknown Angus and Robertson readers, the novels as they exist still seem unpublishable; they are rambling and repetitive, they apparently overlap overtly with the genre of the private journal.

Nan McDonald, an editor at Angus and Robertson who was sympathetic to Langley and supported her, wrote in 1962 of the New Zealand novels that Langley had been sending them:

A thought occurred to me -- it would be an outrageous one in relation to most writers of Eve Langley's quality, but in her case I think it is excusable -- that a good novel might be made by picking the best pieces out of several of these and running them together. …

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