Lost – Elizabeth Bay Mansions. Found – the artwork of Gladys Owen

View from Darling Pt across Rushcutters Bay to Elizabeth Bay

View from Darling Point across Rushcutters Bay to the Elizabeth Bay mansions 1879 – source City of Sydney Image Library

Yep! This photo above has caused me a lot of grief. But let me start at the beginning. I am currently researching high society in Sydney during the 1920s. Until recently I thought (naively as it turns out) that I could simply read up about the wealthy and then fashion up a house and lifestyle for my main characters. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? How wrong was I!

This is a black hole in our history. Our novelists were not writing a Sydney Great Gatsby – they were, for the most part, writing about life in the bush. Later, the subject has hardly been touched on, which has impacted on the amount of research I now have to do. I was just realising all this a few weeks back when I decided I might have to look into the history of houses in the area to pinpoint and research the lifestyles and choices of the people (particularly the daughters) that lived in them.

Tantalisingly all these high society people are floating around in Trove in gay abandon. They are having farewell parties (off to the Continent, San Francisco, Hawaii). Hosting charity functions, balls, afternoon tea parties, enjoying the sea breeze at Hotel Cecil, Cronulla and all manner of other social activities. I swear they travelled and partied more than we do but what did they do day after day? How were the hours in their day actually filled when you were wealthy (you weren’t travelling on the Continent) and you didn’t need to work? Enter the picture above.

I chose five houses in the Elizabeth Bay area to research, working mainly on the images. It was late at night, I found this photo and reference to a short history of Ellizabeth Bay Mansions and being tired, I didn’t write the reference down – simply saved the photo. I thought I’d go back the next day and look into the reference. Could I find it the next day? OF COURSE NOT! The photo was there but no reference.

A few days later I visited the Mitchell Library and experienced first hand the very misguided changes that have been made to this historic library. Because of staff cuts, there were only two staff members on to help with people wanting to access the special collections. I was requesting maps of Darlinghurst Road in the 1920s and also looking for those notes on Elizabeth Bay Mansions. With the new changes to the Library I was told to put my requests in at the State only to find that what I wanted was at the Mitchell. I ended up going backwards and forwards between the two libraries four times.

I was very frazzled – almost as much as when I was Waiting for Eleanor Dark. In the confusion I missed requesting a book that I did come upon about Elizabeth Bay mansions. Another trip down to Sydney! But I did find the wonderful woodcuts and etchings of Gladys Owen. I was given an enormous folio tied with a ribbon and I was mesmerised going through images of Spain, Italy and England created between 1919 and 1960. This is what the Mitchell should be for. To look at special collections in the building where these collections are housed. It is with relief I heard that the recent changes and staff cuts are going to be reversed!

Waiting for Eleanor Dark

Slow Dawning by Eleanor DarkI‘ve been doing that for quite a while now for two very different reasons but I had better start at the beginning. I first discovered that I really wanted to read Eleanor Dark‘s first novel way back in the early 1990s. I was researching my third manuscript set between the wars and as the tone of the times (as I like to think of it) is always very important to me I generally try and read at least a few books written during the time that I am researching. By then I had read Prelude to Christopher and thought it marvellous so I was quite interested in reading Eleanor Dark’s very first novel. I can’t recall the exact details but it became obvious that there were limited copies available and I think I had to either try and buy a copy online (which I never attempted) or read the book at the Mitchell Library. Also impossible with a young child and a very unsympathetic husband.

Life moved on. For me there was a divorce and a move up the coast, a World War II novel (Tomaree), a contemporary novel (Crossing Paths: the BookCrossing Novel) and then a manuscript set during World War I (The Grey Silk Purse). As research for that book I thought I would finally attempt to read Slow Dawning and this is when the waiting really began.

In July 2011 whilst researching transport during WWI, I requested Slow Dawning along with another book. I did this online during the week to make sure both books would be available for me after I got off the Newcastle train and arrived at the Mitchell Library in Sydney. On arrival I was told that Eleanor wasn’t there. I said I requested it. The staff nicely informed me there was a delay of about half an hour. She couldn’t be quickly located.

By the time the book turned up I was deep in my other research and only gave the novel a cursory glance. I was still at this stage thinking I could read it in several sittings or just glance through it and dismiss it (particularly after what Eleanor Dark’s biographer had written about the book). I did neither. I decided I really wanted to read it but wasn’t sure how I could achieve this as I knew by 2011 that the book couldn’t be bought online. Surprisingly no second hand book shop on the net had it available for sale (and still doesn’t). I reluctantly returned the book and thought I would have a look at it again next time I was at the Mitchell and hopefully not as busy.

On Saturday, 26 January this year I arrived off the train, keen to have another look at Slow Dawning. It was my main focus this time. I went to the desk to pick the book up and they told me it wasn’t there and would take  a while for them to find it. I said this had happened last time and why couldn’t it be ready when I put a special request in for it? They didn’t know. I was frustrated and beginning to wonder why this book AND ONLY THIS BOOK kept me waiting. It arrived and I began to read Slow Dawning. Because of the delay in arriving I didn’t have much time with the book and was now more determined than ever to read it.

I took it to the front counter and asked if I could photocopy the book. They said yes and calculated the cost – approximately $30. Being a starving artist I didn’t have the money to spare that weekend but promised myself I would be back in a few months to finally read Eleanor Dark’s first novel. What a mission!

On Saturday 1st June I had an awful trip down on the train, missed my connection and had a wait at Gordon station. By the time I arrived at the Mitchell I was already very frazzled and precious time had again gotten away from me. I went to the front counter to pick up the book (as before ordered online for a quick pickup) and was told AGAIN the book wasn’t there! They couldn’t locate it. WELL… you can imagine what sort of mood I was in! I made a fuss (as much of a fuss as anyone can make in the hallowed rooms of the Mitchell Library). I was asked if I wanted to make a complaint. I said yes I did, mainly, I explained because obviously there was something wrong with the cataloguing of this particular book. I filled out the form (still haven’t heard anything back) and waited.

Finally after about thirty five minutes of twiddling my thumbs the book was in my hands and I went into the photocopying room to carefully copy each page. I began by putting twenty dollars on my card to do the photocopying with and the machine just ate my money. By this time I was practically in tears! The Library staff must have thought I was mad but eventually the money was allocated to my card and I spent over half an hour photocopying each page. Finally I was able to read Eleanor Dark’s first novel. Here is my review:

Slow Dawning by Eleanor Dark

I have the book but I’m still not happy! I recently downloaded for free Betty Wayside by Louis Stone. This novel is from 1915 and is quite dated now but anyone can read it. The same should apply to Slow Dawning. In my opinion it has been forgotten because both the author and her biographer dismissed it as a potboiler. I argue that it is much more that that. I believe Eleanor Dark had serious intentions for this book but with the long delay in publication and the fact that sales were disappointing, she dismissed it as a potboiler to cover her disappointment. What serious novelist with literary aspirations sets out to write her first novel purely for money, particularly a book with a prophetic paragraph such as this:

“It was in this way that she had seen her fellow-women. They would climb at last, she dreamed, to a height where they would perform not only the artistic or intellectual work to which their natures inclined, but the normal functions of wifehood and motherhood as well – carrying a double burden as only they were privileged to carry it. A terrible fight, and a slow one, but epic in its magnificence. Generations it would take, and thousands of women would be the most bitter enemies of their own sex.”

No, I really think Dark had fairly high hopes for this first of her babies, especially when you consider her next novel Prelude to Christopher. You DO NOT as a writer, I believe, intend to write a potboiler as your first published work and then write something of such high standing as Prelude to Christopher as your second.

But the waiting for Eleanor is not over. This book should be made available for the general public to read. It is the first book, a very enjoyable novel, of one of Australia’s major writers. It should be accessible to all and the cataloguing problem needs to be fixed. Hopefully, something will be done about this sad state of affairs and Slow Dawning will eventually be available for everyone to read.

It’s a mystery

After posting my last blog a mystery has developed. On Saturday 13th July I spent the day at the Mitchell, after first viewing the World Press photos and the SMH Photos1440 http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/events/exhibitions/2010/photos_1440/items/image05.html I went carefully through A History of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals by Eva Shaw McLaren looking for a reference to the tragedy at the Ostrovo Unit. Nothing. Just a mention of the unit being moved. Now I know from our excellent historian Susanna De Vries’s book Heroic Australian Women in War, in a chapter on Agnes Bennett and Lilian Cooper, that the skeleton staff of the unit were massacred by the Bulgarians and our very own Miles Franklin was referenced. I am waiting for my local library to get a copy of De Vries book that features Miles Franklin – The Complete Book of Great Australian Women for more details.

In the meantime I decided to go back again yesterday to the Mitchell and had a very interesting day. I went through two old directories (1914 and 1919) of the Newcastle, Cessnock, Maitland districts and also leafed through Flora Sandes’s two autobiographies. Sandes was the first woman to be commissioned as an officer in the Serbian Army. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flora_Sandes I also went through Stebbing’s At the Serbian Front in Macedonia – again no details of the massacre of the unit. The mystery deepens.

Lastly I went through the 1917 diary of Miles Franklin which proved to be fascinating – particularly descriptions of the camp. Matron was a terror evidently and the work in the kitchen exhausting. Unfortunately I ran out of time to read the 1918 diaries but am  looking forward to reading the chapter on MF in De Vries’s book and delving deeper into what happened to the unit.

Adventures with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Are writers paranoid? Well, it turns out I am. Six weeks ago I spent the day researching at the Mitchell Library. Most of my time was spent reading the diary of James Ray Lewis who was on board the the transport ship Euripides departing Sydney 31st October, 1917 but I also requested A History of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals by Eva Shaw McLaren. I was told very nicely by the staff of the Mitchell that the book was off site and wouldn’t be available for a few days. As I had caught the train down from Newcastle, I explained that I wouldn’t be back for some time to view the book again. The library staff told me to simply request the book online a few days before I needed it. No worries.

Last week with my writing going well, I realised I needed to do more research into the Serbian Front during WWI. It was time to request the McLaren book again. I logged on to the State Library and much to my surprise found this 1919 book was IN USE. Weird but that’s okay, it was a Saturday. Unbelievably someone was reading it. Tried on Monday. Again IN USE. The next day my imagination was turning feral. Who else was researching the Scottish Women’s Hospitals? Someone was planning a major novel with their heroine involved in the war in Serbia! OH MY GOD!

Rang the Mitchell today and was told, yes, it was still in use. Of course the penny dropped and I asked, “Did that someone happen to be me, Debbie Robson?” and they said yes. I explained I did request it some time ago etc etc. Very obligingly the staff have now organised the book for me for Saturday along with Eleanor Dark’s first novel Slow Dawning. Looking forward to reading up about the Ostrovo hospital unit but nervous too. The unit was very close to the action and I believe many of the staff were killed. Very daunting! Not sure if I’m up to the challenge (never mind the fact that the real women were) but I’ll find out soon.

Trouble with Shipping (and I don’t mean postage)

This is my first blog at wordpress and I’m planning to make regular posts on writing and networking. For previous posts you can catch me on goodreads.

For a month now I’ve been having trouble with my research for my novel The Grey Silk Purse. I need a ship to get my heroine Miss Summerville from Sydney to England departing October 1917. I’ve been through Trove to no avail. I can easily find details of say the RMSS Britannia departing Sydney, 14th December, 1887 with Mr P.S. Tomlin in command and Mr Peter Leverage officiating as purser on the voyage. Easy peasy! But for the year I want – not much else except the troopships and they are listed on the excellent Australian War Memorial webpage.

The penny didn’t drop until I spoke to Francis from the Vaughan Evans Museum at Darling Harbour. She informed me that shipping departures and arrivals were not advertised in the papers during wartime. Obvious now of course but gosh I wish I’d worked that out a few weeks ago, lol. She advised me to try the State Records Office and ancestry.com but it’s still going to be tricky. Hoping to come up with something in the next 36 hours as I’m heading to the Mitchell Library on Monday. Stay tuned.