July, 2011: When Mumma gave me, in 2006, The Importance of Being Eve Langley, by Joy L. Thwaite (1989), I put it on the shelf with no immediate plans to read it. Then, after reading about Isabelle Eberhardt (see below), I found myself thinking about Eve Langley. These two books, or rather, their subjects, are parts of a puzzle, one for which I don't have the box, so I don't know what picture it is that I'm trying to piece together.
I loved The Pea Pickers, Langley's first novel, when I read it ten or fifteen years ago. I thought it was wild and exuberant, o'er-brimming with love, crazy but catching itself just in time. Later, I read Wilde Eve, a selection of her writing edited by Lucy Frost. All those qualities were still apparent, but Langley had a struggle to keep them from drowning in a cess-pit of desperation, sadness, depression, poverty, dysfunction, isolation and loneliness. Her story is incredibly sad. Ruth Park says, "I have thought long and seriously about the following comment: she was the sanest, most stable person I ever knew. She was, I believe, born into the wrong age."
Thwaite's book is a biography, told mainly by Langley's own writing. Langley kept journals, which she revisited a decade or two later and fashioned into novels; all but two were deemed unpublishable by Angus and Robertson (who published this book of Thwaite's), and although Thwaite says that this might have been a misjudgment, I think only a handful of hardcore Langley fans would be able to stomach anything more undisciplined and fanciful than The Pea Pickers. Says the reader's report on Land Of The Long White Cloud: "VERY SAD AND QUITE HOPELESS...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 any duty to anyone." This statement could apply as much to her way of living as writing. Yet someone published, many bought and many read Infinite Jest, a work in equally dire need of editing as Langley's.
Langley was born in 1904, somewhere between Forbes and Molong. In 1928, she and her sister June, or Blue, dressed in men's clothes and rambled around Gippsland, picking peas and doing other seasonal work. Langley was a lover of men, but eschewed marriage. She loved men so much, she wanted to be one: "I knew that I was a woman, but I thought I should have been a man. I knew that I was comical but I thought I was serious and beautiful as well. It was tragic to be only a comical woman when I longed above all things to be a serious and handsome man." [The Pea Pickers] Later in life, she even changed her name by deed-poll to Oscar Wilde. She gave birth to a daughter, fathered by a car salesman from Milan, but the baby died a few weeks after she was born. Living in Auckland, Langley became obsessed with an artist, Hilary Clark, who seems to have had a long-term male lover, Franz. But she forcefully wooed Clark, became pregnant, and they married in 1937, when she was 33 and Clark was about 21. They had three children, in abject poverty and poisonous wedlock. Clark spent a lot of his time in his studio in Auckland, and Langley shut the children up in a shed in the backyard and wrote The Pea Pickers, which was published the same year she was committed to Auckland Mental Hospital.
She was in there for seven years, and when she came out was, according to Molly Kilbride, who worked with her at the Auckland Public Library, "...a sad little woman...She had big, luminous eyes, which wouldn't hold your gaze directly - they were fearful, side-wandering eyes - and a pudding-basin haircut...Her eyes were very troubling. She had a very nervous manner and her eyes flickered up and down." Langley now took a doll to bed with her. She gradually acquired a horde of dolls, and was attached to all her worthless (by anyone else's standards) possessions, including lots of little paper-wrapped packages of feathers, leaves, debris. She went on a disastrous and most peculiar trip to Greece, having had a life-long romance with the ancient civilisation; unsurprisingly, to anyone but Langley, she found it, in the late-60s, nothing like her dreams. She died in 1974 in her little tumbledown hut on Clydebank Avenue, Katoomba, possibly having been beaten up by louts, and was undiscovered for about a month, her face having been "chewed by rats" - this last aspect of her death wouldn't, I feel, have much bothered Langley, a woman who could find the warmth of her own urine comforting: "I had a strange night. I let the fire go out and lay all night long in a fever on a bed soaked with urine and heard myself muttering and laughing before I sank into fevered sleep. But the great great darkness was soothing all night and the urine helped me."
This is a book for the fans. It is disorderly and repetitive, but contains a lot of good material, and is certainly more accessible than Langley's unpublished manuscripts that lie in the Mitchell Library - when Langley's typewriter ribbon ran out, she simply kept typing, and the poor Angus and Robertson readers were forced to try to decipher the faint impression of the inkless keys. This in itself encapsulates the weakness of Langley's writing: she considered her genius and vision enough, and no subsequent effort on her part was necessary to make her writing palatable - not even a fresh typewriter ribbon. She is partly right: her vivid observations, and her mode of putting them into words, is enough. It's enough to make her notable and intriguing, and a really Australian writer - Australian in her wonderful descriptions of landscape, her love of the country, and also her isolated, individualistic, eccentric (as in, away from the centre) way of thinking. But it's not enough to make her a great novelist.
There are thousands of passages worth reading. Here are a few:
I went down the steps past the irises and daisies, very white and determined in the strong morning breeze, and picked up the bumble bee...in a moist hand. He was quite dead. His tongue hung far out of his mouth, brown, thin like the hairs on a tree fern, and his arms were about his face...just as if he had been crying. [Demeter of Dublin Street]
Autumn began to come brownly along the paddocks and the river that we loved. All the way down the valley, the road swung in white dust, and the dusty trees leant over it and the yellow sallows in the swamp all the way to Myrtleford darkened their roots in stagnant water and penny royal smelt purpling and green in the dry places. Now slow along the valley we loved, autumn was coming, all golden and the huge tall poplars began to glitter and fly with the golden flags and bitter odours of winter. [The Victorians]
She is a woman after my own heart:
[There was] only one perfect place on this earth and that was the bark hut...with little in it, the less the better; the only luxuries a good suit of mens [sic] clothes, two volumes of Horace, one volume of Greek plays and six or seven good rifles...[The Pea Pickers]
...I considered these clubs [literary clubs], for which I had a profound distaste, wasters of good energy and mental reservoirs...I'd feel like a caged animal in those talky drawing rooms. I'd sooner run shouting through the Kickareeki ranges with a deer's tail about my thighs...But I dislike any sort of literary gathering, you know, and prefer to work in the lonely silence of the unknown winter...[from Demeter Of Dublin Street]
Her single-minded pursuit of Clark is a salutary lesson in not chasing someone who doesn't chase you back - although she seemingly achieves her end by marrying him, the marriage is a nightmare, and destroys her.
"You courted me. You threw yourself into my arms, I had to hold you up against that; I told you" he turned his hard white face toward me, "that I would rather take the sluts off the street, than you...pity I didn't too."
"But Hilary," I cried, "I love you." We lost women are all the same; we think the repetition of our old charmed words will awaken the dead.
...Hilary knotted himself up into a branch of hate, the blossom of which was his mouth. His face was distorted with hatred, his mouth was white with it, and his face so twisted that his small moustache was nearly under his ear.
Even in describing this scene, her sense of humour gets a look in; at least, I find the description of his face wicked and funny.
But, oh, the anguish of that which I have to call 'pain', and which I do not believe to be pain, or grief or sorrow. I think it is an ecstasy so cramped in a little human soul that its struggle is called 'Grief'. [Last, Loveliest, Loneliest]
The deserted-house feeling came over me; the sense of being locked up, if anyone spoke, of having a loose blind sagging somewhere in my face, and of everyone looking close into me, as into an empty window, and seeing nothing because of the darkness of the rooms. [Last, Loveliest, Loneliest]
Thwaite's apt conclusion is that Langley "achieved the disillusion without the maturity." I think she suffered from having memories that didn't fade the way they are meant to (let us be grateful for fading memories!). And undoubtedly, as Ruth Park says, she suffered from being unable to be anything but herself in a repressive society. The fact that Langley was stoned by boys for wearing trousers (as she walked to the doctor in Auckland to get her anal fissure attended to) is sufficient proof that what was right and natural to her, was roundly seen as wrong and punishable. This is a terrible dilemma - do what is right, and suffer isolation and persecution; or warp and degrade yourself for the sake of being in step with those around you? In some ways, I see people like Langley and Eberhardt, and also D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, as being martyrs for the sexual equality and sexual freedom that we enjoy today.
I asked my father if he had ever met Eve Langley. He said he had only a vague memory of meeting or seeing a dumpy woman at some literary occasion, but he also said that she had once sent him a letter to say how much she liked his poem about the possum that died in the roof of his childhood home. That was always a favourite poem of mine, too! Langley died a month or two before I was born. I wish I could have met her. Soon I'll do a pilgrimage up to Clydebank Avenue, Katoomba.