Debra Adelaide\'s The Women\'s Pages

June 16, 2017 | Autor: Bernadette Brennan | Categoria: Australian Literature
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  The  Women’s  Pages   Debra  Adelaide   Picador     293  pp,  pb  $29.99   9781743535981         Debra  Adelaide’s  The  Women’s  Pages  is  a  gripping  read.  It  is  also  a  sophisticated   meditation  on  the  creative  acts  of  reading  and  writing.    The  novel  developed  out  of  a   short  story,  ‘The  Sleepers  in  that  Quiet  Earth’,  first  published  in  Best  Australian  Essays   2011  and  reprinted  as  the  opening  story  of  Adelaide’s  powerful  collection,  Letter  to   George  Clooney  (2013).  The  characters  and  themes  of  the  short  story  held  Adelaide  in   their  thrall,  insisting  she  revisit  and  develop  them  further.  So  too  the  characters  and   themes  of  Emily  Brontë’s  Wuthering  Heights  (1847),  whose  closing  words  provide  the   story’s  title,  have  imaginatively  enriched  Adelaide’s  reading  and  writing  life  and  infuse   this  novel.     In  The  Women’s  Pages,  Dove,  a  38-­‐year-­‐old  graphic  designer,  who  has  read  and  reread   Wuthering  Heights  since  her  teenager  years,  reads  the  novel  aloud  to  her  dying  mother.   This  act  of  reading  inspires  her  to  write.  She  visualises  her  protagonist,  Ellis,  born   around  1950  and  raised  without  a  mother.  She  knows  not  where  Ellis’s  story  will  take   her,  but  she  is  captive  to  it.  She  takes  on  ‘the  emotional  agony  of  her  characters’:  ‘The   more  she  delved  into  the  lives  of  her  characters  the  more  it  was  about  missing  or  silent   women  and  the  more  it  seemed  it  was  her  job  to  find  them  and  open  their  mouths  and   pull  their  words  out  and  lay  them  across  the  pages.’    Yet  these  characters  have  other   plans;  they  take  on  a  life  of  their  own.       In  the  ‘Editor’s  Preface’  to  the  1850  edition  of  Wuthering  Heights,  Charlotte  Brontë,   writing  as  Currer  Bell,  apologised  for  what  she  saw  as  her  sister’s  indelicacies  and   mistakes,  including  Ellis  Bell’s  creation  of  darkly  powerful  characters  like  Heathcliff,   Earnshaw  and  Catherine:  ‘Having  formed  these  beings,  she  did  not  know  what  she  had   done’.  Adelaide  picks  up  on  this  thread.  As  her  narrative  develops,  Dove’s  characters   exhibit  a  ‘maddening  autonomy’.  At  crucial  moments  not  even  she  can  hear  their   conversations.  Part  of  the  delight  in  reading  this  book  arises  from  the  disjunct  between   Dove’s  intentions  and  her  characters’  agency.       The  Women’s  Pages  develops  through  twin  narratives.  Dove  is  grieving  for  her  lost   mother.  In  2014  she  resigns  her  job  and  retreats  into  the  solitary  world  of  writing.  Ellis   develops  from  a  naïve  sixteen-­‐year-­‐old  in  the  mid  Sixties,  through  decades  of  immense   social  change,  to  become  editor  of  a  popular  magazine,  Women’s  Pages.  Along  the  way   she  sacrifices  marriage,  children  and  relationships  in  order  to  fulfill  her  ambition.   Switching  between  two  narratives  can  be  a  risky  strategy,  but  Adelaide  excels  in  making   both  Dove’s  writing  life  and  Ellis’s  experiences  equally  engaging.  The  double  structure   also  allows  her  to  simultaneously  play  with  narrative  time  –  Dove  and  Ellis  appear  to  be   on  a  collision  path  –  and  to  explore  the  choices  and  compromises  generations  of  women,  

right  back  to  the  nineteenth  century,  have  had  to  make  in  order  to  live  independent,   creative  lives.  Some  of  these  women  achieve  their  professional  ambitions  but  at  an   enormous  personal  cost.  All  of  them  go  ‘through  life  with  the  wind  forever  whistling   through  a  space  in  [their]  chest’.       Adelaide  enjoys  playing  a  self-­‐conscious  literary  game.  Dove’s  copy  of  Wuthering   Heights  is  marked  up  with  her  mother’s  annotations:  ‘A  novel  without  a  reader?...Imptc  of   narrative  perspective.  Self-­‐conscious  literary  artefact…Absent  mother  theme  reinforced’.   Her  characters,  living  in  Sydney’s  Inner  West,  are  named  Ellis,  Edgar  Ernest  Shaw,   Catherine  and  Nell.  Dove’s  name  originates  both  from  the  novel’s  epigraph  taken  from   Brontë  and  a  particular  typeface.  Early  on  she  offers  her  reader  guidance,  but  before   long  she  cedes  authority  to  the  reader  who  is  drawn  into  the  intrigue  of  plot  and  left  to   negotiate  its  complex  twists  and  turns.       Adelaide’s  title  is  also  self-­‐consciously  playful.  As  the  author  of  The  Household  Guide  to   Dying  (2008),  she  enjoys  recreating  in  extraordinary  detail,  the  fashions,  food  and  style   of  Ellis’s  adult  life,  as  they  would  have  been  showcased  in  the  women’s  pages  of  the   Sunday  paper.  Waxed  fruit,  laminex  tables,  even  a  Schlemmertopf  feature.  Such   attention  is  also  another  nod  to  Brontë’s  art.  Ellis’s  Women’s  Pages  updates  to  become   Pages  magazine,  but  Adelaide’s  intellectual  interest  has  always  been  directed  towards   the  lives,  and  the  writing,  of  women.  Her  title  affirms  their  interrelationship.       Earlier  this  year  Adelaide,  as  editor,  introduced  The  Simple  Act  of  Reading  with  an   epigraph  from  Junot  Díaz:  ‘For  it  is  in  the  simple  act  of  reading  where  the  living  and  the   dead,  the  real  and  the  imagined,  meet.’  The  Women’s  Pages  offers  readers  just  such  an   invitation.         Bernadette  Brennan   SMH  and  the  Age  November  16,  2015  

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