Helen Elliott

Grandmothers edited by Helen Elliott & A Lasting Conversation: Stories on ageing edited by Dr Susan Ogle and Melanie Joosten

by
June–July 2020, no. 422

Grandmothers are not what they used to be, as Elizabeth Jolley once said of custard tarts. It’s a point made by several contributors to Helen Elliott’s lively and thoughtfully curated collection of essays on the subject, Grandmothers, and it partly explains why these two books are not as similar as you might expect.

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Penny Russell could not have chanced upon a better phrase than Jane Austen’s ‘It was rather a wish of distinction … It was the desire of appearing superior to other people’ when she was seeking a title for this book. The colonial gentility of Melbourne, or ‘Society’ if you want to use their understanding of who they were, could only define themselves in terms of who they were not – or who they would never wish to be.

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I came to Suzanne Chick’s book full of prejudice and cynicism. Certainly Chick was the illegitimate daughter Charmian Clift had when she was nineteen, but Chick was relinquished at two weeks to her adoptive family and Clift took her own life before Chick began to make enquiries about her natural mother. What could Chick have to say about Clift that those who knew her couldn’t? Wouldn’t this just be crass cashing-in on a famous and alluring name? A ‘Mommie Dearest’ genre from a different angle?

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Brian McFarlane’s small book on Martin Boyd’s Langton novels is a particularly measured and useful study. He makes no grand claims for Boyd but sees and appreciates him for the writer that he is when he is at his best, and the Langton novels – The Cardboard Crown, A Difficult Young Man, Outbreak of Love, and When Blackbirds Sing – certainly see Boyd at his best.

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