Monday, August 15, 2016

Women of the Bush: Equanimity under Threat -- Barrie Smillie on the short stories of Julia Osborne

Australian writer Julia Osborne spent many years in outback parts of rural Australia. These three stories, "Maitland's Cow", "Hard Grain" and "Always, Never" have cried out to me to be analyzed side by side, because they have something in common: a female central character facing and overcoming challenges to her equanimity. To the remoteness and the harshness of the setting are added problems of human relationships—with a brother and a friend (in the case of "Hard Grain") and with an unsympathetic male partner (in "Maitland's Cow" and "Always, Never").

Like Henry Lawson's "The Drover's Wife", these stories by Julia Osborne concern outback women coping with the threat to their equanimity, but her narrative is more drame intérieur than a mere linear sequencing of events. There is a strong feminist message. Julia Osborne, once an artist in pen and water colour, reveals in these stories her discerning eye and with great economy she carries forward each story to a fine dramatic climax.

In all three cases, too, dramatic irony arises from discrepancies between what the reader sees and how the central character sees the world—for at least some of the time. The woman with the baby is unaware that she has set her loving man at arm's length, the farmer girl unwittingly invests her female visitor with the evil garb of a spider, and in "Always, Never" the woman lives in the nostalgia of their romantic past, while her partner abuses her psychologically and physically before she finally succeeds in escaping this torment.

André Gide's work is redolent with the aveuglement of such self-deceiving personalities—Alyssa and Jérôme in "La Porte étroite", and the pastor in the well-known "Symphonie Pastorale" being just two of them. The depictions by Osborne, while perhaps exhibiting less permanent afflictions, are arguably keeping with that great Gidean tradition.

In "Maitland's Cow", a sex-starved partner finds solace in drink. The mother's first loyalty is to her baby. Unaware of terrible events, she is pleased to be freed from her man’s importuning behavior. The visual, auditory and tactile images are rich. A cold morning in the country: "mist and the bark of a fox as the stars vanish. The early sun touches dew on the grass [....] a horse snorts, blowing misty clouds." The man's feet feel cold on the veranda while inside "a dark, warm cave" mother and baby are snug, the mother not unsympathetic to her man's needs: "he has already gone. Peace [...] He needs me too much." Maitland, her man, reflects, "Why is she like this? It isn't me. It's her. Selfish bitch."

In "Hard Grain" Jenny narrates. She and her brother form a superb work team. Girlfriend Noma from the city stays with them, annoying Jenny by flouting certain canons of rural life. Jenny is also suspicious of Noma's flirting. "Did she slide closer beside him as they drove squishing across the field? [....] I wonder if he reached to hold her as she folded her pale arms around his neck, waiting for his kiss.” To Jenny, Noma takes on spider-like attributes: with "a domed look" she likes to walk in the garden at night. Her dress "hangs from such thin straps" and in the rain, Noma "steps onto the lawn, points one foot in front, her arms over her head.” More luscious word pictures abound: a "vast field, shimmering in summer haze." Moths "sketch their erratic geometry around each globe." As a storm develops, "indigo clouds are piling, lit within by sporadic stabs of lightning." Dinner is a veritable feast of visual, auditory and olfactory images: "the room smells comfortingly of roast meat and the wine glimmers in our glasses, casting circles of colour on the tablecloth." In the water tanks, "frogs boom.” Unaware of her effect on Jenny's equanimity, Noma heads home. The sibling relationship is intact. Sound rural practice prevails. But spider-like Noma makes our flesh creep.

The narrator of "Always, Never" flings at us her anger and desperation: "If I don't get out of this house I think I'll smash something." Her wretchedness results from physical isolation and a male partner's mental and physical violence against her. The opening paragraphs amply demonstrate Julia Osborne's expository skill. In a series of time slides, she devotes three paragraphs to the present moment, then three paragraphs that recall Matt's story, their early relationship and her girlfriends' adulation for this man. Back in present time, Matt embraces her. Significantly, her fellow prisoner drags its chain outside. Alone all day, she is "spinning time into unnatural skeins” and reflects, "Did I imagine once I'd be a teacher?" She is now "Matt's extension, stunned by circumstances into a sort of accepting limbo [...] The women covertly watch my silhouette for signs of pregnancy, [...] try to be friendly [...] but we are flying on different thermals. I am higher, higher, unreachable. They wave their fingers at me, their recipes, their childcare books."

Loneliness places her very persona under threat. Her partner ridicules her reading. She'd happily help in the yard but he won't have that. Marriage has taken her to a magical place. The rising sun fills her with girlish wonder: "the giant fiery sphere like I'd never seen before. Never awake so early. Never lived out so far. It carried with it all power and poetry, fixing my feet to the boards. "Look at the sun!" I called. Matt's view is prosaic: "he came, hauling on trousers. "It's going to be bloody hot!" he said, dismissing it."

Her life with Matt has failed. She still loves him. He has been everything to her—childhood sweetheart, lover, tutor on bush lore, but is often away. Agonizingly, she exclaims, "Matt, oh Matt, where is the man who showed me the colours of new crops, the emu's egg, the fires of sandalwood in a room lit with candles?” We sense heat, dryness, remoteness. "Mid-morning sun is already sucking up moisture [...] eyes glitter beneath wide brimmed hats; [...] women will stand in darkened rooms cracking ice in their mouths.” Our woman says to herself, "You don't have to put up with this shit, kid!" Her initial bid to escape provides the pretext to try again. The conclusion carries the explosive drama of a Hedda Gabler final curtain.

These stories are engrossing reading and are highly recommended. Julia Osborne's women of the bush are resilient, they are tough—like Henry Lawson's drover's wife. And in subtlety and the emotional strength of their loyalties, these three leave their male counterparts behind.

These stories can all be read on Julia Osborne's website http://juliamaryosborne.com

Maitland's Cow - Regime Magazine, Vol 1/01, 2012
Hard Grain - Meanjin 1/1992; Families: Modern Australian Short Stories, Five Mile Press, 2008 - broadcast by ABC RN 2005, 2006, 2009
Always, Never - Antipodes 17 (USA) 1991; Panurge (UK) 1992- broadcast by ABC RN 2006, 2007