Lilian’s Story by Kate Grenville

Kate Grenville

Kate Grenville

Notes of H3A
English Reading Group Meeting
Wednesday 6 February 2013
Lilian’s Story

by Kate Grenville

There once was an Ugly Duckling…1a character of generous size, heart and significance2

Lilian’s Story is a first, not only for Kate Grenville (it was her first novel) but also for the English Reading Group. It is the first time we have read more than one book by the same author3.

Like the first book we read, Lilian’s Story met with mixed reactions from the group and prompted a lively, wide-ranging discussion.

About the Book

As Kate Grenville states on her official website4:

Lilian’s Story tells the story of a woman born at the turn of the twentieth century who begins her life in a respectable middle-class family, and ends it as a famous eccentric on the streets of Sydney.

The main character, Lilian Una Singer, is loosely based on a real-life eccentric Bea Miles who roamed the streets of Sydney in the 1950s and 60s, regularly hijacking taxis and quoting Shakespeare for money. As Kate Grenville writes:

She was an old woman when I was a university student and from the safe distance of a bus I often saw her sprawled massively on the church steps at Railway Square in army greatcoat, tennis visor, and split sandshoes.

Like everyone else who grew up in Sydney at that time, I know a few things about her: that she was from a respectable middle-class family and had gone to one of Sydney’s top schools; that she had briefly gone to university and dropped out under mysterious circumstances; that she had been institutionalised as insane; and that on her release from the asylum had made money by offering recitations from Shakespeare (sixpence for a sonnet, a shilling for a scene from a play).

However, Lilian’s Story is not intended to be a biography of Bea Miles. Rather it is the author’s fictional account of how a woman might go from privileged bright young thing to batty bag lady, or as Kate Grenville puts it rather more eloquently:

(How) a nicely-brought-up university student with a love of Shakespeare had somehow turned into a huge, loud, uninhibited eccentric bag-lady, with no fear of what people thought, and no sense of what she “should” be. What story could make sense of that shift?

The result is a gritty, sometimes discomforting and often very funny work that sent the group down several interesting paths of enquiry, including:

  • Childhood the greasy pole, fitting in, or not
  • Role of teachers in facilitating an understanding of difference
  • Normality – what is it
  • Women and education
  • Violence against women
  • Attitudes of mental illness
  • Australian/colonial culture

Childhood – the greasy pole

One of the early subjects explored was what one member called “the greasy pole of childhood”. Lil’s climb up that pole began on a wild night in the year of federation (1901)5. Her first mistake was to be born a girl, as her Father wanted a boy: her being a girl was

a contingency her Father was not prepared for.

If her arrival didn’t spark joy in the heart of her Father, she fared little better with her Mother:

The baby slipped further down off the breast but the Mother lay smiling and staring at the ceiling, listening to the bird, until the baby fell to the floor

Mother hadn’t consciously rejected her, we assume, but the experience might have warned Lil that she was going to be the one that didn’t quite fit in, the one people pitied at best and, at worst, ignored.

Her Parents

Lil, as narrator of this tale, introduces her parents at the start of the book. It’s telling that for Lil, her Mother is almost a non-person; we only find out her name (Norah) by accident when her husband rebukes her at the dinner table. Norah’s ineffectual character is irritatingly well drawn, a pale, neurotic, characterless woman, suffering sex and motherhood, feigning headaches to avoid anything she finds disagreeable, hidebound by the conventions that define her class – a lady’s gloves are always buttoned before she leaves the house – worn down by the cruelty of her unloving husband.

Lil’s Father, on the other hand, makes his mark on the reader from the start. Albion comes across as a socially insecure pseudo-intellectual, amassing facts for a book that will never appear –our meals were bushels of facts. He is sexually sadistic, devoid of any compassion, self-absorbed, incapable of love, a bully, and above all, a man capable of systematic abuse of his daughter with perverted beatings and later on her rape. We are made aware of this latter aspect of his character almost from the start, for example by the reference to a newspaper clipping Lil discovers about someone who abuses his nephew. Even Lil’s fellow students pick up there is something smutty about her Father:

Rick: My Father says what’s yer Father write? Dirty books I bet.

After the birth of her brother, John, her isolation within the family is even greater. As they grow up, her brother doesn’t know whether to be proud of his sister or ashamed of her. His reaction to the awfulness of life at home is to withdraw by denying his senses and pretending to be deaf. As one member pointed out, this is a logical reaction in the circumstances.

Lil and her Family

As a young child, Lil tried very hard to win the approval of her Father, by hanging upside down in trees for example, but without success. She tried impressing her Mother’s friends by displaying her new-found vocabulary – crenulations, peripatetic – gleaned during secret visits to her Father’s study; but they too were unmoved. When she responds too eagerly to a request that she recite verse, she is rebuked by her Mother.

Lilian, when they ask you should refuse once or twice. It’s called modesty.

But Lil loved to watch them watching – the beginning, perhaps, of the road which would take her to the recitations on the streets of Sydney?

Given food by the maid Alma, seemingly in lieu of parental love, by the time she started school, Lil was already the overweight child, the outsider with the big feet. As her fatness increases so she learns to live with it, even enjoy it.

Now I am fat, I am a fat girl, I whispered in bed, and did not mind being left behind in the playground when everyone ran to get the good place under the biggest tree, or to escape from Rick, who had threatened to kiss the first girl he caught and had to kiss me….

She derives a kind of power from her size:

I had grown big and could knock people down if I took a run at them, and block doorways, and there was too much flesh now for Father.

She even seems to learn to live with her Father’s abuse: It’s only skin, she tells herself.

She is becoming a tomboy, and those around her never let her forget it. What a ragamuffin says Aunt Kitty. For one of the group, Lil was reminiscent of tomboy Scout in To Kill a Mocking Bird, but her treatment by her family could not have been more pronouncedly dıfferent. Atticus defended his tomboy daughter, and her brother was equally good to her, whereas for Lil’s family she is a source of embarrassment.

Superficially, Lil seems resigned to being the outsider, deep down she is still desperate to fit in with the group but to no avail. She was fat, she was unappealing, she was too independent and, possibly worst of all, as a girl she was too bright.

Lil sought validation of her worth by trying to do things the other kids might admire. She stole tiles from the garden of her eccentric neighbour, Miss Gash, but this didn’t work either. She used her physical bulk to get her way; she became a surrogate male, a tomboy, a mate.

Ursula, who would much later become Lil’s saviour, sums it up:

You’re too rough, and you think you are someone special and you are not.

But then she grudgingly admits there is more to Lil than roughness and pretensions:

They say you are a loony, some of them. . . but I always tell them you are simply a genius, that you’ll go a long way.

The Role of Teachers

Members of the group who have been teachers commented on the challenges of childhood isolation and not fitting in.

One pointed out for example that Lil’s teacher was hopeless at recognising the problems of isolation being suffered by this bright student. She ignores Lil’s intelligent questioning; she may be insecure herself feeling threatened by this intelligent child; perhaps she doesn’t want to be seen backing the marginalised child, for fear of being marginalised herself.  Unfortunately this is not uncommon, even today. Some teachers still are re not able to cope with difference and cannot facilitate other students’ understanding and acceptance of difference. Other teachers however have simple techniques for helping children discover the value of variety and individuality in humankind. Youngsters can work in groups or pairs, with teachers putting children together who would not normally gravitate towards each other. The teacher in the novel seems incapable of facilitating such learning.

Another member talked about the time she spent teaching. Statistically she probably had taught children who had been abused at home but she had not been trained to recognise the signs.

Someone pointed out that, of course, at the beginning of the 20th century, the knowledge of such conditions as autism, hyperactivity, and Asperger’s syndrome was not available at the time in which the novel is set. Nor was knowledge of healthy eating shared by parents and teachers. Today trained teachers should be able to spot the early signs of such conditions, but at that time children would be labelled as “not normal” and seen as a problem.

Not Fitting in

One person pointed out that society is full of people who do not fit in. Although they enrich our lives, society seldom appreciates this. She recalled one called Joseph on the streets of London in the 1980s who apparently rather enjoyed living rough.

Some members talked of their own experiences of not fitting in. One recalled how she felt unable to fit it with London suburban life with its Conservative Party dances on Saturdays, and church on Sunday. She found her escape when she began working in central London.

Another group member will soon attend a 50th year high school anniversary. He is particularly interested in catching up with classmates he had not known well includıng some who had been very different from other students. He agreed to report back to the group!

Another member, from New Zealand, drew attention to the feelings of insecurity about fitting in felt by some people living in former colonies. In the early days of settlement, life was tough; it was a fight for survival. As time passed it became more and more important be accepted by others in society, to fit in, to be normal.

She noted too the national insecurity felt in her native New Zealand at the prospect of independence from Britain and particularly regarding the difficulties of fitting in to the emerging new scene. The solution for many was to cross whole oceans in order to reinvent themselves and develop their talents in 1960s Britain. Barry Humphries and Clive James – two middle class young men who, to judge by their biographies, clearly had problems fitting in – were two examples who came to her mind. Others recalled the arrival and subsequent transformation of these and other expatriate Australians in London.

She felt that although progress has been made, in Australia there are still are deep splits in society over for example aborigine and non-aborigine background in Australia. Many are not aware for example that there is something like 360 distinct ethnic groupings of indigenous Australians and the variety of living conditions and life style is very wide. These are, she felt, still quite a distance to travel before Australia reaches a real sense of inclusivity.

A Sign of the times?

One of our members noted that the book is set just over a hundred years ago, a world very different from our own. However, although it might have been tempting to explain some of the issues raised by the book as being products of less enlightened times, group members cited several contemporary examples of the same issues.

One member drew attention to the Magdalene Laundries scandal that was dominating the news at the time of the meeting.

Magdalene asylums were institutions from the 18th to the late-20th centuries ostensibly to house “fallen women“, a term used to imply female sexual promiscuity. Asylums for such girls and women and others believed to be of poor moral character, such as prostitutes, operated throughout Europe and North America for much of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. London’s Magdalene Asylum was active from 1758 to 1966. The first such asylum in Ireland opened on Leeson Street in Dublin in 17656.  As the phenomenon (Magdalene Laundries) became more widespread, it extended beyond prostitution to unmarried Mothers, mentally retarded women and abused girls. Even young girls who were considered too promiscuous and flirtatious, or too beautiful, were sent to an asylum by their families.

Two weeks after our dıscussion, on 19 February 2013, the Taoiseach (the Irish Prime Minister) issued a full state apology to the women who had suffered at the Magdalene laundries.

Another drew attention to the Home Children7,

a common term used to refer to the child migration scheme …. under which more than 100,000 children were sent to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa from the United Kingdom

According to the British House of Commons Child Migrant’s Trust Report, “it is estimated that some 150,000 children were dispatched over a period of 350 years—the earliest recorded child migrants left Britain for the Virginia Colony in 1618, and the process did not finally end until the late 1960s.” It was widely believed by contemporaries that all of these children were orphans, but it is now known that most had living parents some of whom had no idea of the fate of their children after they were left in care homes, and some led to believe that their children had been adopted somewhere in Britain.8

One member had met one of these Home Children on a residential course she attended. He had run away from a Barnardo’s children’s home, was barely literate and had spent a time living on Bondi beach as an alcoholic.

Education of Women

Another issue that still resonates today is the education of women. One of the things that made Lil stand out was that she was bright and yearned for education, at a time when education – and particularly higher education – for women was not deemed to be important.

Women do not need education, Father pronounced regularly over the leg of lamb. Women’s aptitudes lie in other directions.

We were reminded of the struggles to provide education for girls in many parts of the world. Regardless of the controversies surrounding the author, Greg Mortenson’s book Three Cups of Tea gave us valuable insights into these problems in Afghanistan. We also remember the young Pakistani girl Malala Yousufzai who was attacked by the Taliban for campaigning for education for girls.

Violence against Women

One of the most shocking moments in the book comes when Lil is raped by her Father. Even though we have been given clues to the Father’s perverted nature through the regular beatings he inflicts on Lil and later the prurient remarks he regularly makes, the actual rape still came as a shock to many of us.

This element of the book led us on to discussing violence against women, another issue that is very relevant today. One member had learnt recently that in just one war in Africa alone, over half a million women were raped. Another member cited the young woman who was gang-raped in India; tragically this victim died, but it was a powerful contemporary example that raised the question of whether anyone could survive such horrors without permanent psychological scars. In the story, Lil survives but the price she pays is very high indeed.

The mental and physical abuse within Lil’s family made us recall the violence against women in Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, which we read some time ago. This is turn lead to a discussion about domestic violence and women in abusive relationships. One member said she had heard of a victim of domestic violence in a Middle Eastern country who had made the mistake of confiding in friends of her husband, thus prompting further violence. After she escaped, she started posting accounts of her experiences on Facebook, emboldening other women to create a supportive forum on line.

Attitudes to Mental Health

One of the themes of the novel is how children and society as a whole cope with the issue of mental illness. Initially we see how children react to someone who is merely different. As a result of the trauma of being raped by her Father, Lil’s “difference” becomes more pronounced and her behaviour more unacceptable, to the point where her Father is able to have her committed to an institution for the mentally ill.

This led the group into a discussion of about mental illness, raising such questions as what is normal and how far does one have to deviate from “normal” before one is described as mentally ill.

One member noted that in today’s society, in which it is said 1 in 6 people suffer mental illness sufficient to disrupt their daily lives, one of our major fears is of becoming mentally ill or being labelled as suffering mental illness.

In the story, from an early age, Lil is deemed to be “loony” – by Rick, whom Lil desperately wants to impress, by her friends, by other children and, under duress from Rick, even by her own brother:

Rick says you are loony, says I got a loony sister and she makes stuff up. They all laugh at you, Lil, for being loony. And it’s not my fault you are my sister.

The really poignancy comes at the end of this exchange:

Lil, he whined suddenly, what’s loony exactly?

This is the tragedy. He and most likely the other youngsters don’t actually understand what they are saying. Lil is deemed loony for no other reason than that she is different. “Normal is sane, different is loony” is the rule of the playground. It is interesting to contemplate to what degree we modify this attitude to mental health as we grow up.

We became aware of the risks of applying the conventions and standards of our own time to previous periods in history. Assessing Lil’s childhood behaviour through the prism of 21st century knowledge of mental health, it is extremely unlikely Lil would be considered ill. She may be diagnosed with any one of a number of today’s “syndromes” or “isms”, she may have special teaching needs to maximise her talents, but certainly she would not be considered mentally ill.

One member questioned the derogatory language used by Kate Grenville – “loony”, “loony bin” for example – language which would not be acceptable today but another member said it probably reflected the language of the school playground at the time, adding that it certainly was at the time he was a child.

The Ugly Duckling?

One member said that Lilian’s Story reminded him of the famous Hans Christian Anderson tale of the Ugly Duckling. The “duckling” is ostracised for not fitting in as duckling, for being different, but when she finds her natural setting she realises her full potential as a swan. Similarly, Lil is regarded by the others as odd, she doesn’t fit in, but in fact she is merely different and would fit in well elsewhere in another setting.

However, noted another member, the difference in the case of Lil was that, after the horror of the rape, there was little chance that she was going to fulfil her potential either emotionally or academically – unlike the more fortunate Ugly Duckling.

Elaborating on the similarities with the Ugly Duckling, we were told of a boy, known to two of the group, who was failing badly with fitting in at school. One of these two members was responsible for suggesting – contrary to the boy’s parents’ fervent desire for him to stay at the school – that perhaps the answer was for the boy to go to another school. When their paths crossed a couple of years later, the boy was deeply grateful because the move had had the desired effect, he knew he needed to change schools and the outcome was that he was very successful.

Could it have been different for Lil?

We noted that there were moments in the book when Lil could have been rescued from her fate. One such moment was when she finally met the eccentric neighbour Miss Gash, from whom Lil was stealing bits of tile to impress her friends and gain acceptance. As a fellow outsider Miss Gash seemed to understand and empathise with Lil but, in a misguided attempt to fit in with her friends, Lil extravagantly rejects the older woman’s friendship.

One member reminded us of how there were similar opportunities in The Secret River for the protagonist to establish a more productive relationship with the aborigines he met on his arrival in Australia but he, too, chose the more negative route which leads ultimately to tragedy.

Another member pointed out that if the author had allowed Lil to be “rescued” by Miss Gash it would have defeated the stated objective of the book which was to show how a character like Bea Miles might have ended up on the streets of Sydney as a famous eccentric.

Today Lil might have been saved by the system but as it was in Lil’s time – mocked by her peers at school for being different, ostracised and called a loony for being too bright, her plight ignored by her teachers and especially by her Mother – there was something ominously inevitable about the direction in Lil’s life was travelling.

University – the last hope?

University, with its opportunities for intellectual challenges and new friendships, might have changed the direction of her life but in the end it did not.

When she was a child, Lil had set her sights high:

I’ll be an aviator, or invent something important, or win the Victoria Cross… it can’t be that hard to be great…

On the eve of university she was still optimistic:

 I’ll be a doctor, a philosopher, perhaps some kind of scientist

When she got to university she realised what she wanted was wisdom:

I looked forward to reading all the wisdom ever written and to thinking deeply about important things. I had planned serene hours with fearless minds that would help me resolve problems of good and evil and what everything might mean.

She quickly realised it was not to be found at college through the men in tweeds, nor through the earnest boys she meets. In answer to her brother’s enquiry about what university is like: It’s not wisdom, she said, more like school.

Initially she is awed by her surrounding but quickly learns that she is going to struggle to fit in here too.

 I am too large and loud for those studious young men with a row of fountain pens in the pockets of their jackets and heads full of facts.

University brought Lil friendships too, even love of a sort, but this, too, was not to last.

It is interesting – possibly predictable – that the only people with whom she feels any affinity are also people who did not fit the standard mould at university.

Her first love, Duncan, doesn’t fit in. According to the urbane young men, secure in their well-fitting blazers, he is a feeble kind of lad. He and Lil are brought together by their hatred of the lawns and lemonade and the fact they were both failing to meet standards.

At an engagement party of her schoolgirl hero Rick and her friend Ursula, Duncan tells Lil that she is “a mate” and further that she “could be a bloke”. At twenty years old, Lil still seems remarkably naïve. Duncan teaches her swear words by spelling them out on her hand. Her response is to quote Shakespeare. Their relationship seems to grow and they even get round to kissing and she encourages him to go further but he backs off telling her she is “a good mate” and saying he can’t take advantage of her.

F J Stroud, her other love, believes he is officially a genius. He is extremely earnest and lives a fantasy life in which he has a millionaire Father who is in diamonds and an absentee Mother. He is also awkward socially and jealous of Duncan but genuinely in love with Lil.

Lil is also befriended by Joan, a character who at that time might have been called “bohemian;” she is a rebel and she and Lil are well matched as outsiders. They grow very close, possibly a closer relationship than Lil has ever known in her life.

Together with her school friends Ursula and Rick, these three might have helped Lil reach her full potential – indeed in some ways it is F J and Ursula who rescue Lil later in life – but it could be said that Lil’s fate is sealed when she is raped by her odious Father.

Lil and her Father

One critic writes of Lil’s Father:

Albion is a petty tyrant who obsessively compiles facts for a book that will never materialise. Their relationship is perhaps the central one in the book and even when he is not physically present, his shadow is cast over all the other male characters. He is a chilling literary creation9

Lil tried hard as a child to win the attention and admiration of her Father. What she gets from him is altogether more sinister. As one member pointed out, as readers we are given multiple hints about the horror awaiting Lil. There are the warped beatings to which she is subjected as a child, the stream of seedy, lascivious remarks she endures, and the creepy physical contacts she suffers as a teenager: it is clear that something awful is going to happen.

Lil’s relationships with Duncan and F.J. and even with Joan are pretty innocent; the same cannot be said about her Father’s prurient interest in his daughter.

Too much gadding. Who knows what you are getting up to with those lads of yours?

One can almost hear the obscene slavering. After her Mother is despatched on a cruise for her health her Father’s attentions become ever more intense. Lil marks her 21st birthday in 1922, the year of the eclipse, and her Mother’s letter of advice to her is unintentionally ironic:

(Do not) let anyone take advantage of you.

You are a woman now, Father said, like a threat.

Soon afterwards, when Lil is in the house alone, her Father returns unexpectedly and brutally rapes her.

The Turning Point

If there is a point in the novel where Lil’s fate is sealed, the rape by her Father is it. Thereafter, any meaningful relationship with anyone seems doomed.

Duncan broaches the subject of marriage but, possibly to her relief, he is talking about marriage to Joan, not Lil. Later when F.J. announces woodenly, Lil, I find I am in love with you and proposes marriage, her response is predictable:

Don’t, I said, wanting no hand to touch mine, no one to be as close as he was to me.

At one poignant moment Lil tries desperately to tell her Mother about the rape, but with her customary ineptitude her Mother makes a fatally timed joke and the moment is gone.

In desperation Lil goes for what can possibly be described as a non-aboriginal version of “walkabout”, alarmingly naked at some points. On her return, after dropping out of university, her drift into eccentricity becomes more pronounced.

Sometimes she finds escape and freedom in the fantasyland of cinema where:

In the darkness . . ..I could forget that I was Lil who had lost the knack of living, but. . . before the lights went down I remained Lil and was beginning to love defiance and being the centre of almost any kind of attention.  …  I was huge, colossal, magnificent, when all the heads had turned, everyone was staring….. I belonged to myself then, and I loved the glare of public life.

Unwittingly her behaviour is playing into the hands of her Father who is gathering evidence of what he calls her unruly nature, her “running wild”. Her nightly excursions into the local bush around the neighbourhood and increasingly attention-seeking anti-social behaviour furnished sufficient grounds for her Father to persuade the authorities to lock Lil away in a mental health institution. There she suffered even more psychological damage for almost ten years.

During her incarceration, her Mother dies. Finally Lil is rescued by her mildly drunken Aunt Kitty. Having learnt about the rape, Kitty blackmails her despised brother, Albion, into paying Lil an allowance. Kitty sets her up in a room in the seedy part of town. Ironically, Aunt Kitty achieves her goal by playing on her brother’s own deep-felt need to fit in with his community: she threatening to reveal details about Albion’s mad wife and daughter.

Life on the Streets

It is from here that Lil’s life on the streets begins. It took her a summer and a winter before she could start to venture out into the surrounding district. At first tentatively and later boldly she started making small voyages of exploration:

I followed the tall dark men who walked slowly along these shabby streets, although they were looking for love in another form that that of a fat woman in a black coat. Are you looking for love? I asked them sometimes, and on this street, where love was the currency, the question did not surprise them. Not thanks, not tonight, they said

Lil doesn’t find love but she does find Frank, an alcoholic taxi driver. It is a moment of pure serendipity because Frank, as we later learn, is F.J. who had “found himself in love” with Lil all those years before. With him she enjoys brief happiness, living on the streets, reciting Shakespeare to anyone who would pay her. Over time Lil became famous as the Sydney eccentric, known to the authorities and the public alike. Her notoriety gets her imprisoned for a while and this only increases her desire for attention. When she is released and re-joins Frank on the streets, she asks him:

Oh Frank, tell me who I am.

Why Lil, you are Lil Singer, of course, larger than life, and the person who matters to us all.

After prison she tells us:

My life resumed, but on a more public level now, and always on the move. Mobility is the key, I told people in confidence as I stepped into their taxis.

One taxi she hijacks has been hired by a woman in lilac shantung.

I had seen this woman before, her shantung was familiar.

The woman is Ursula, her friend from school. It is Ursula who rescues Lil in her old age, after Frank dies, and arranges for her to spend her final years in a home run by nuns. Lil seems to fit in well and has a sardonic attitude to her situation.

Does Lil find Wisdom?

In view of everything she had been through in her life, some of us wondered whether Lil had redeemed anything of her life by the end; whether, for example she had found wisdom at last.

There is probably no simple answer to this, but the final pages of the novel give us some hints:

Children pay “duty” visits to the inmates of the home and Lil teases one of them:

Do not worry about getting old gracefully, girlie, be foolish. Dignity and respect are humbug, remember that, girlie.

Lil, do not bully the poor child with your wisdom, said Sister Iola.

On the taxi ride arranged to get Lil out of the way whilst a holy woman, one who washed lepers in Calcutta10, made a visit to the home, Lil suddenly asks the driver:

George, am I famous?

By George, I’ll say you are, Lil, if that is the kind of fame you are after.

Any kind will do, George, is her reply.

One member of the group suggested that if we want to know how Lil sees things at this stage of her life we should look to the last three paragraphs of the novel:

The story of all our lives is the story forward to death, although each of us might hope to be the exception. I have lived, and have seen more dawns than most people, and more different expressions on the faces of ordinary men and women in the street. I have seen much, but would not claim to have seen everything. I would not mind another century or two, to see some more. Perhaps in my second century I could choose to be lovely slim, delectable as a peach, the jewel of some man’s heart.

My life now is in its time of long shadows over the grass, the sad look of faraway hills slipping into dimness, a blue so melting as to be one with the sky. I fill myself now, and look with pity on those hollow men in their suits, those hollow women in their classic navy and white. They have not made themselves up from their presents and their pasts, but have let others do it for them – while I, large and plain, frightening to them and sometimes to myself, have taken the past and present into myself. My flesh will become still one day soon, cold within a few hours, disgusting in a week, clean white bones eventually, or a handful of ash. But my name will live, in the different kinds of smiles on the faces of people remembering me, and that is enough immortality for me.

Death will come to us all, might come as we wash our hands before dinner, or walk fast to catch a bus to take us somewhere there was no need to go. There have been as many deaths in the world as there have been lives, and although on the slippery seat of the taxi I might shed some tears for Frank and Duncan and Ursula, and their private deaths, and for my own, fast approaching, in the eyes of history all that is invisible. Drive on, I told George, and he heard the tears in my voice and turned to stare, but I was impatient with the curiosity of the living now, and waves my hands at him until he looked away. Drive on, George, I cried at him, I am ready for whatever comes next.

What did we think of the book?

Like The Secret River, this novel divided opinion in the group. Some found it a moving, enervating read. Some said they wouldn’t have chosen to read the book, but read it anyway. Another member thought that Kate Grenville was a writer who was fascinated by grotesque worlds. In judging his own reaction to the characters in Lilian’s Story, he recalled one of James Fennimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses according to Mark Twain11 – in short he disliked the people in the book intensely and didn’t want to know any more about them. He made an exception for Lil for having such ghastly parents.  On Kate Grenville as a writer he felt she was brilliant with super command of similes and memorable phrases: she should be writing poetry.

Some members seemed less sure on this point but Kate Grenville fans could probably point to favourite examples of her poetic prose. One that sticks in the mind is when Frank and Lil are musing on death whilst settling down to sleep in a storm drain:

We are gunna die, Lil, Frank told me one dank night when the tankers mooed to each other like full udders in the fog.

Another commented on the structure of the novel; she could not recall reading any other novel with 142 chapters and, for a book of which she was not overly fond, this gave her something to ponder.

Another member, seeking to explain the structure, wondered if part of the explanation for this structure lies in the way Kate Grenville wrote the novel. According to her:

I didn’t start at the beginning. Each day I’d write another “fragment” based on whatever trigger I had found that day – a photo of Sydney at her time, my personal memories of the places she’d frequented, stories people told me about her. I also found I could use some details from my own life and give them to her – for example her schoolyard has a lot in common with the playground of my own primary school.

Taking a real person and the events of her life as a starting-point proved to be a tremendously energising way to work. It freed me from the question “What happened?” and let me explore the more interesting one of “Why did it happen?”12

This possibly explained the huge number of chapters and even some of the more or less meaningful chapter headings.

Perhaps the last word on the book can come from the author herself:

Lilian’s Story was an intensely enjoyable book to write. Although Lilian is bent by what is done to her, she is never broken. She re-creates herself, not in the image her culture expects of women, but in the image she chooses for herself. She seizes with both hands every joy and adventure offered to her and in the end she, not her Father, is the powerful one. At the end of her life, after experiencing love as well as hate, delight as well as despair, she can say “I am ready for whatever comes next.”

Bea Miles’s Story – as told by Wikipedia13 and Bea herself

Beatrice (Bea) Miles (17 September 1902 – 3 December 1973) was an eccentric Sydneysider who regularly hijacked taxis and quoted Shakespeare for money.

Born in Ashfield, she grew up in St Ives. Her Father was a wealthy and hot-headed businessman who had a tempestuous relationship with his daughter. In 1923, he had her committed to a hospital for the insane, where she stayed for two years. After that she lived on the street and was known for her outrageous behavior. She was arrested many times and claimed to have been ‘falsely convicted 195 times, fairly 100 times’.

Her most notorious escapades involved taxi drivers. She regularly refused to pay fares. Some drivers refused to pick her up and she would sometimes damage the cab in retaliation, including reputedly ripping a door off its hinges once. In 1955, she took a taxi to Perth, Western Australia and back. This time she did pay the fare, ₤600. It is also said she would sit in a Sydney bank smoking cigarettes under a sign reading “Gentlemen will refrain from smoking“.

She was well-educated and spent a lot of time in the State Library of New South Wales reading books, until finally being banned in the late 1950s. She was also regularly seen standing on street corners with a sign offering to quote verses from Shakespeare for between sixpence and three shillings. Bea’s writings are in the state library, some in her own handwriting. They are: Dictionary by a Bitch, I Go on a Wild Goose Chase, I Leave in a Hurry, For We Are Young and Free, Notes on Sydney Monument and Advance Australia Fair. Fiercely patriotic, at twelve years old she wore a ‘No Conscription’ badge to school during the referendum in World War I. In another incident Bea was disgusted when she was severely marked down for an essay about Gallipoli, which she described as a ‘strategical blunder’, rather than ‘a wonderful war effort’.

As she was a well-known figure in Sydney society, in 1961 a portrait of her was entered in the Archibald Prize, while in 1983 a musical based on her life, Better known as Bee was first performed in 1984. The novel Lilian’s Story by Kate Grenville was loosely based on her life. It was turned into a movie in 1995 starring Toni Collette and Ruth Cracknell in the title role.

When ill health started to catch up with her, she finally stopped living on the streets, spending the last nine years of her life in the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged in Randwick. She supposedly told the sisters, she had ‘no allergies that I know of, one complex, no delusions, two inhibitions, no neuroses, three phobias, no superstitions and no frustrations’.

In 1969 ABC Radio presenter Tara McCarthy interviewed Bea Miles. Have a look at the link below14 for a delightful interview.

[1] composed by Frank Loesser and sung by Danny Kaye

[2] On Lil: http://writeronwriter.wordpress.com/2009/10/26/lilians-story-kate-grenville/

[3] We discussed The Secret River, also by Kate Grenville, in January 2012

[4] http://kategrenville.com/Lilians_Story_Readers_Notes

[5] The Federation of Australia was the process by which the six separate British self-governing colonies of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia formed one nation. When the Constitution of Australia came into force, on 1 January 1901, the colonies collectively became states of the Commonwealth of Australia

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magdalene_asylum

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Home_Children

[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Home_Children

[9] http://writeronwriter.wordpress.com/2009/10/26/lilians-story-kate-grenville/>

[10] Mother Teresa visited Australia 10 times apparently. See http://www.cam.org.au/News-and-Events/News-and-Events/Melbourne-News/Article/8826/missionaries-of-charity-a-year-to-celebrate#.UTCeNVeN2RN

[11] “They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the “Deerslayer” tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together” from Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses by Mark Twain http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/hns/indians/offense.html

[12] http://kategrenville.com/Lilians_Story_Readers_Notes>

[13] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bea_Miles

[14] http://pool.abc.net.au/media/bea-miles-voice-behind-pictures

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