Thursday, 26 March 2020

Book review: Poppy, Drusilla Modjeska (1990)

My copy of this fictionalised biography of the author’s mother has a sticker on the back saying “$16.95” stamped with the name of the bookstore (Gleebooks), and a sticker on the front saying “$3.00” that shows it was bought subsequently at a sale, probably at one of the charity book events that are held regularly in Australia’s major cities.

The cover design is of its time (as all book covers are, despite the fact that good books, like this one, are timeless) and is made in pale blue and a dark pink, with black and grey in some parts. The mixture of different fonts is typical of the era, as is the inclusion, in the text, of a number of dreams; such elements serve to form part of the book’s fictional hemisphere.

I almost gave up after reading about two-thirds of it at which point, in terms of the narrative, the fabric of the book started to loosen. I persisted after a delay of a couple of days and was glad to have followed the thread to its end.

This work is also a kind of literary journalism, and the author is included as a protagonist in the narrative (something that must have happened anyway considering her relationship to the main character). But names have been changed, so the author appears as someone named Lalage though she does retain certain characteristics that tie her closely to the figure of the author, being for example an avid reader from childhood. 

‘Poppy’ explicates the author’s life in a good deal of detail, using, among other things, the mother’s diaries and some diaries from a man named Marcus, a Catholic priest Poppy has a relationship with. Not all the diaries are made available to the author as Poppy destroyed some, notably those that deal with the beginnings of her affair with Marcus. 

There are no neat lessons that emerge from the story, although it is notable how the author doesn’t point out explicitly – though she cannot have been unaware that a reader would come to realise this – that it was precisely the same social shifts that prompted Richard, Lalage’s father, to abandon Poppy that allowed Poppy to subsequently make a career in the British probation service. Lalage was born in the 1940s, so times were a-changing, and it was Poppy’s generation – the generation that came of age at the time of WWII – that was exposed to many of the social and political adjustments in the developed world that came to be known as the counter-culture.

Modjeska makes a good point when she uses Poppy to point out that while “family” was important as an idea used in the public sphere to moderate the effect of the changes, when push came to shove her husband was unfaithful and her parents blamed her for the illness that took her into an institution for the mentally ill. So family let Poppy down even while it asked her to maintain itself as an institution, but Poppy would make some of her parents’ ideas her own when it came time to settle her own daughters. The matter of love and marriage returns again and again as something to be dealt with.
You can feel Poppy’s generation welcoming change – change from the 19th century values of their parents – but you can also feel Lalage’s generation having second thoughts despite the drastic alterations that took place to make life easier for women. 

There is so much that is fluid, especially with regard to romance. I found similar misgivings and hesitations expressed in the biopic of Mary Shelley that came out a couple of years ago and which was reviewed on this blog. While changes at the beginning of the 19th century made the community more responsive to the individual’s needs, it disadvantaged women as the security of marriage – necessary, in those days (and, for that matter, still nowadays), to provide a solid foundation for the raising of children – began to disappear as sexual liberation gathered pace. 

Jane Austen explores precisely this theme in ‘Mansfield Park’ (1814) and such ideas are explored in Modjeska’s book, but in the end words – in which she puts so much stock – fail her and only the characters are able to express what she took it upon herself to communicate. There are no easy answers, the glib lines of sung heroines are not up to the job at hand, and the ending seems weak until you get to the final word, at which point the metaphor of the labyrinth looks attractive and the book assumes a shape resembling a noontime soap opera, where close personal relationships are the primary locus of sense-making. The whole story has to be told to understand what feminism has meant to Modjeska’s generation. 

Like Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 memoir ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, ‘Poppy’ attempts to understand the nature of the maternal, and is possibly a better book. While the biological imperative looms large – women desire stable relationships with men due to the need to raise children – both Poppy and Lalage began to contemplate the necessity of a spiritual dimension to life in order to understand their worlds, something that I found revelatory. 

Complexity is what I especially admired in this work; you cannot ignore certain things but they are not stuck in your face like a gun pointed at a hero in an action thriller. You have to do some of the work yourself though, and the story is sometimes hard to follow since people are frequently named without any context so, for example, I never worked out who Jacob was even though his name appears in the text often. This tactic performs a role in maximising the “etrangement” the book uses, the “making strange” – something authors deploy in order to put a new spin on ideas – and you feel at times as though you are hearing things about a family you don’t know well. Which is appropriate because that is precisely what you are reading.

Through the stories of these people – China, the author’s grandmother, Poppy, the author’s mother, and Lalage, the author herself – you learn a good deal about being a woman in the 20th century or, at least, in the period after WWI. The changes that took place in society are given prominence and you feel as though you have come to some sort of accommodation with ideas that changed the world. 

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