Professor Alistair Thomson, National Museum of Australia, 19 June 2008
Prof. ALISTAIR THOMSON: Thanks for the Director’s Fellowship and also thank you for the invitation to speak today and to come up to the National Museum of Australia this week, which has been fantastic. What a lovely place to work. I am very jealous.
I have worked as an oral historian for about 25 years now, starting off with work with war veterans like Fred Farrall. But increasingly in recent years I have been more and more interested in a wider range of life stories, not just oral histories but also letters, diaries, family photographs, autobiographical accounts, memoirs and so on. And also in the different ways in which people use those different types of life stories to articulate their life, and in what they both reveal and conceal about personal experience and the meanings of that experience both at the time of the event and at the time of the telling.
I first began to apply this approach of looking at different types of life stories with a project that the Australian War Memorial funded, which was to look at different types of life stories about the first three days of the Anzac landing: the letters that men wrote; the diaries that they wrote, sometimes under fire sometimes afterwards; oral history interviews that had been recorded; and memoirs that people wrote. I won’t go into the details of that project but I did that work partly because my sense was that military historians were a pretty conservative bunch in terms of how they used their sources. They tended to be rather either uncritical or atheoretical about how they used different types of life stories.
There were two main approaches that military historians had to different types of life story sources. One was that the more contemporary the better and therefore a belief that, if an event was recorded and articulated by someone as soon as possible after the experience it was more likely to be true than if it was told three weeks, three years or 30 years later. So that was one approach. The second approach was a sort of uncritical usage of all different sorts of life stories by throwing them all in together and regarding personal testimony, whether at the time or much later, whether written in a letter, a diary or an interview, as being close to ‘the heart of the experience’, as Patsy Adam-Smith once wrote - if you like, mixing up lots of different life stories. The popular military histories of Australia tend to do that. They tend to use different types of personal accounts and personal testimony uncritically and atheoretically as revealing ‘what really happened’.
What I got out of the project, looking at those different life stories of the Anzac landing, was a range of different ways, a range of different questions to ask of different types of personal sources, personal accounts, to complicate the picture, to complicate our understanding of them, as well as a number of different headings through which to look at them, one of which is life story genre. What is the genre through which someone is articulating their story? Is it a letter, is it a diary, is it a memoir, and what sort of generic opportunities and constraints come with the genre? How do we know how we should write our life in a letter or in a diary? How does that change over time and in different cultural circumstances? What is the difference between the genre of the oral history interview and the written memoir, and so on?
I should probably have added to this, and the more I think about it - particularly in this context because you work with material culture all the time - you could argue that within genre or maybe alongside it there is a another set of questions to be asked about the material culture of different types of life stories. For example, the affordability of letter writing; the time that letters take to go to and fro; or the difference between an audio interview and a video interview in terms of how it might affect how someone tells their story. So genre and material culture each influence how people tell their life stories in different contexts in different types of life stories.
The second framing idea is the idea of autobiographical motivation. We tell our stories with a reason, with a purpose, and that motivation shapes the story that we tell and the stories that we don’t tell as well. So the letter that is written home by a soldier or a migrant to reassure family will say certain things, but it certainly won’t say other things. So autobiographical motivation is very important.
Connected to that but different is the idea of narrative relationship. I would argue that every life story is told in some type of relationship. It is very obvious in an oral history interview when you are talking directly to a person and who you are talking to is affecting what you do and don’t say. It is pretty obvious in letter writing as well that the audience for a letter will affect what you do and don’t write. It is less obvious, but I think it is equally true, of the most private and intimate diaries that almost invariably have either a real or imagined audience in the mind of the diarist as they are writing. And actually a lot of the wartime diaries were written and then sent home as another type of letter, so there is a blurring between the genres. But that sense of a real or imagined audience is another thing that shapes the stories that we do and don’t tell about our lives.
Next is the time of the telling. Sandro Portelli, who is a wonderful Italian oral historian, has this lovely distinction between the time of the telling and the time of the event. He argues that in oral testimony, which is what he is writing about, there is always a complex dynamic, dialectical relationship between the time of the event and the time of the telling. So for me, working with any type of life story, thinking about what is the time of the telling and how is the time of the telling affecting the story is really important. With that Anzac study one of the most striking differences within manuscripts that were called diaries was between the diaries that were written under fire within the first three days and the diaries that were written up a week or so later after the Anzacs had been told that what they had done had been successful. There is a dramatic difference because of that time of the telling between those earlier and just slightly later diaries.
The time of the telling is significant in two important ways: One in that the language and meanings that we have available in our culture to help us tell stories to make sense of our experience are culturally and temporally bound. With the example of the Anzacs, three days later they learnt what their story meant, which gave them words and meanings and ways to articulate it. Over time the cultural languages and meanings change as well. That is what [my book] Anzac Memories was about. How did these guys through their lives re-interpret their war experience as new cultural meanings became available?
The second subset of the time of the telling is: How do we change the story of our lives as our own sense of identity, our own subjectivity, changes over time, whether through the process of life review, new attitudes or new ways of understanding our self. So the time of the telling is about changing cultural and psychological ways of making sense of our lives.
The last important factor for reading life stories, which again you will be very aware of, is around archival histories. It is very obvious with migrant letters, for example, because only a tip of the iceberg of all the letters that ever get written survive. Some really important questions to ask when you are using any type of life story sources: Which sources have survived? Whose stories have survived, whose haven’t, and how might we need to bear that in mind when we use this source? Secondly, what are the ways in which the life story source has been changed over time in its archival history from its generation to the fact that it has ended up in a context and place where an historian can use it? The War Memorial is great for that, because you can see the ways in which Bean and others decided which letters, which writings to keep. They would actually cut and paste the bits that they thought were significant and threw the rest out, and then annotated them to give the readers other meanings. So archival history is really important as well.
What I want to do is apply those sorts of ideas to the work that I am working on now, which as Peter said came out of Ten Pound Poms. This was a book Jim Hamerton and I did, which drew upon a lot of autobiographical writing and a lot of oral history interviews about the experience of the so-called ten pound Poms, post-war British migrants to Australia. Out of that project where we collected a lot of accounts, four women who I have got to know very well have either loaned or donated to me all the hundreds of letters that they wrote home from Australia in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, all the family photographs that they took and kept of their experience as migrants, as well as their autobiographical writing from the time - scraps of journals and diaries, inventories of things to take and so on. They also wrote autobiographical accounts for our project in 2000 when I was working in England with returned migrants and Jim was working in Australia with migrants who had stayed in Australia. In England we put out a call through local radio and newspapers for returned migrants to get in touch - more than 500 did, which was about a 25 per cent return rate. Lots got in touch. We then sent them a request to write autobiographically about their experience and about 250 did - anything from a page to several hundred pages about their lives. It is a wonderful resource that fills about 30 boxes in an archive at the University of Sussex.
But these four women, extraordinarily, had letters, family photographs, autobiographical writings and in some cases diaries, and then oral history interviews I have done with them. Because they were migrants they wrote home to tell their families what was going on, and because they wanted to explain about their life in Australia, in particular to their mothers and sisters, they often wrote in extraordinarily intimate detail about everyday life, about housework and child care, about their relationships with their husbands, their children and friends, about work or not work, and about Australia. Although migration is the thread that binds these four women together, the book that we are writing is really just as much about being a woman in post-war Australia in 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s Australia, and about living with and sometimes against the expectations about domestic life and women’s role, and how they managed that and negotiated that role in the context of that time.
These are the four women [shows image]. I thought that I would use one or two examples from each of them to show some of the different ways in which they articulated their experience through those different types of life story sources, not only to highlight the differences between the different sources but also how, in using them together, it helps you to understand how those different approaches to telling the story worked, and then highlights issues for us using them as historians.
I will start with Joan Pickett. [Shows image] This image shows Joan in the middle on the docks at Aden in 1960 on her way to Australia. Joan grew up in a working-class family in Manchester in the suburb of Moston. Dad was a railway driver. She had a stepmother because her mother had died when she was very young but she got on well with her stepmother. And she had a brother called Harry. She is a bright working-class kid but left school like many at 16 - she got further than most. She then got secretarial work through her Dad with the railways and was working as a medical secretary in 1960 when she decided to go to Australia.
She sent in to our project a two-page written account about going to Australia. [Shows image] This is Joan when I interviewed her in 2000 with photos of her time in Australia. This is the first paragraph of the account that she sent in, and it is also the story that she started to tell in the interview about going to Australia:
It was a cold, dark midwinter evening in Manchester in January 1960 when a workmate and I emerged from the cinema having watched newsreel coverage of Princess Alexandra’s tour of Australia. ‘Should we go to Australia?’ I jokingly asked my friend. ‘All right’, she said in the same jocular manner. And to while away the winter days we sent for all the ten pound Pommy information currently being offered by Australia House. We were swept along by events and, much to everyone’s and our own surprise, sailed through the Suez Canal on the P&O liner Oronsay that same September.
And the autobiographical account carries on in that vein. It’s a breathless account of a young woman’s adventure in exotic lands, a coming of age and exotic, exciting experiences.
Then in the interview when asked ‘how and why did you go to Australia’, she pretty much started with the same story told in that style and in the same terms. It’s the story of a joke that spirals almost out of control into emigration. But in the interview a very different story emerges, and it emerges partly because we started not with migration but her earlier life history, so she had already got used to talking in more depth and detail about her family, her relationships and her life up until the point when she came to Australia. But also because the oral history interview is a dialogue where she is talking to me, I am asking questions and, over time as trust develops in that relationship, people open up and they actually remember more. It jogs memories, it jogs different ways of thinking, and it moves beyond that very carefully narrated written account that tells her story in a very well-framed, well-formed way. That framing of the story breaks down a bit in an interview and we begin to tell more complicated, complex and even contradictory stories about our experience.
That is what happened in the interview with Joan, because in the interview it becomes clear there is a much wider range of reasons, a lot more motivations and complicating factors that shaped her going to Australia. Her Dad had been in the railways, so as a kid she got free rail travel all around Europe and had travelled extensively and had developed an enjoyment of travel. She was working in a hospital where there were lots of Australian doctors who told her how wonderful Australia was and that she should go to Australia. So it was in her mind before she went to the cinema.
Most importantly perhaps, Joan had grown up in a street where she had three aunts and half a dozen cousins living in the same street, and all of these cousins and then her brother had all recently got married. She was 26; she was living at home; she was working as a medical secretary. There was really no way in the late 1950s that she could move out of the family home and develop a different sort of life - and Australia offered another opportunity, which she begins to talk about in the interview.
I will play the tape extract:
JOAN: I don’t know really. I was always curious to see places. And I think - I perhaps thought we were getting in a bit of a rut and as you get older you want to do. And, you know, most of my friends were getting married. Perhaps I felt I had been left behind. I don’t know what it was. But it just seemed to happen, and we just took advantage of it.
ALISTAIR: Do you think that thing about maybe getting in a rut and so on, how important do you think that was for the decision to going?
JOAN: Well, I suppose we mustn’t have been completely happy in a way - perhaps we thought - I was 26. I don’t really know. I never tried to analyse it. It just seemed to happen at the time and I just took advantage of it. But everybody was very, very surprised when I said I was leaving home.
Prof. ALISTAIR THOMSON: So you can see the contrast between the written account and the much more complicated nuanced story that comes out [in the interview]. And these are two accounts told roughly at the same time: the written account was just a few months before the interview. In those two very different circumstances of telling her story she told a very different story. If you just had the written account you would have the story that she wanted to tell and that she did tell, but you would only have part of the story of Joan’s leaving England.
Let me give you a different example from Joan, which isn’t about accounts at the same time, it is about the difference between accounts from 1960 and 2000. Joan started writing a journal when she left on the night train from Manchester Piccadilly. Literally within an hour she started writing a journal. And a bit like the written account that she wrote in 2000, it was a young woman’s coming of age adventure story - it was adopting that sort of generic approach. She wrote it for the next few weeks on the ship, and then it stops mid-sentence in Ceylon, literally mid-sentence outside a temple. And when she sent me this journal extract in 2000, she scribbled on it in longhand, ‘That’s as far as I got. I must have been too excited. There was too much else going on’.
Here is firstly the section from the journal where she describes leaving from Manchester Piccadilly. She had gone on the bus with her parents - they didn’t have a car - from Moston to Manchester Piccadilly. Her brother didn’t come. He was too upset to come along. This is what she wrote in the journal about leaving:
6/9/60 Left Manchester London Road on the midnight 11.35 pm train to St Pancreas after a nightmare last day at home. Was I doing the right thing? Could I turn back even now? By sheer stubbornness and willpower I kept going.
So we waited for the train to move off, and the minutes dragged by. Could we still turn back? No, there goes the whistle. The light is green and slowly we pull away, waving furiously out of the window until the platform disappears in puffs of steam and we enter the dark night outside. We’re off.
This is how she describes the same moment in the interview 40 years later [interview audio]:
We sort of got on to this night train. I always remember there were clouds of steam. It was something like Brief Encounter because it was quite late at night, my father standing there with his rain coat and his trilby on, you know. He kissed us and he said, ‘Come back if you can but don’t worry about us. You do what you want to do’. My mother was crying, of course, and we were crying. And the train pulled away and my father sort of disappeared into this cloud of smoke, and I never saw him again.
Prof. ALISTAIR THOMSON: Let me stop talking for a moment. What are your first thoughts about the difference between those two different accounts of that significant moment in her life?
QUESTION: The first one is looking forward with great excitement about what is going to happen, and the other one is reflective of what did actually happen and the events that shaped it.
Prof. ALISTAIR THOMSON: The really important thing I probably in fairness should have told you is that she travels around Australia for eight years working and travelling and having a fantastic time. She probably would have stayed, but her father dies suddenly and she comes back to Manchester because she is concerned about her mother. And then, although she dreams about Australia incessantly over the next few years and is torn about where she wants to be, she never goes back. The death of her father is really significant. It is wonderfully visual, isn’t it? There is that lovely reference to Brief Encounter, that scene in the famous film. That is one of those examples she is drawing upon. It’s a powerful cultural motif in post-war Britain with the steam engine, the train and its departure and all of that.
Clearly the second account is profoundly shaped by the key fact of her father’s death, and what was a scene of leaving becomes a scene of loss. The whole meaning of her emigration and of her leaving Manchester is framed by her father’s death. So the framing of the story, the meanings of the story for Joan, changed significantly from a story that is looking forward - that is recognising doubt and uncertainty but that is also a dramatic story looking forward to opportunity with the green light, the tunnel and ‘the dark night outside, we’re off’. It’s a story of expectation as opposed to a story of loss. There is a dramatic variation between the two that is partly shaped by the genre of the journal writing as opposed to the story telling with the interview, and it is partly shaped by the time of the telling and the changing significance of these stories for Joan. It’s really lovely to have a moment like that where you can compare two very different versions of the same experience.
Let me move on to look at some other examples from the other women and talk a bit about Gwen Good. Gwen Good, with her husband Cliff and three young sons, left London in 1963 and emigrated to Perth. [Shows image] This is a photo of them on the sports deck of the Fairsky, on their way to Australia. They were very close to Gwen’s parents who had lived in London and had recently moved to Leicester. They were hoping to encourage her parents to come out to Australia and so wrote lots. But Gwen in particular decided that she didn’t want her three sons to lose touch with her grandparents and decided they would produce audio letters, which they did for the next three years until the grandparents were persuaded to join them in Perth. The audio letters, which were actually dumped at a Baptist jumble sale some time in the late 1960s, were picked up and taken to the Battye Library in Perth where they now survive. It is a wonderful resource.
They are great for all sorts of reasons not only because of the audio stuff. When they bought their first car they walked out with a microphone and recorded the sound of the engine. And when they heard rain for the first time, they went outside with a microphone to hear the sound of the rain on the tin roof. They are lovely in all sorts of ways.
So they sent these audio letters home but they also sent photos home. That is very common. A lot of migrant correspondence involved not just letters but also slides, photographs, photo albums and so on. This was one of the first seven slides that the Good family sent home in the first audio letter for Christmas 1963, and the letter had a commentary on the slides, which told the parents what they meant and why they were significant. It’s a very interesting and meaningful first set of representations of Australia where they are trying to convey particular meanings and reassurances to the parents back in England.
There are three slides of the voyage out to Australia: [shows image] this one depicted here the family on the sports deck of the Fairsky, [shows image] another one of one of the boys on the deck with a life jacket, [shows image] and then an image of the native traders in Aden, that are both showing the exotic difference of the voyage but also highlighting that for this working-class family they were having this extraordinary and luxurious holiday which they had never had before and that that was good.
There were three slides of outdoor scenes in Perth. There was a beautiful image of the Swan River, which displayed the outdoor beauty of Australia. There was a slide of a symphony concert outside the Supreme Court Gardens in Perth, which I think was trying to suggest this was a place where culture did happen and that it wasn’t a backwater. There was a slide of the gardens of the University of Western Australia where Cliff had just got a job as a carpenter and which confirmed they were going to be all right economically.
Lastly there was a slide that was sent by special request from Gwen’s parents. Gwen had mentioned in a handwritten letter that they had a lemon tree in their back garden, and Gwen’s parents were so excited by this they wanted to see the lemon tree. So there was a slide of the lemon tree.
Those initial photographs and the commentary that went with them were depicting their life in particular ways. It was highlighting: ‘It was going to be okay. We’re doing well.’ This was a wonderful place with bounteous outdoor opportunities, and so on. A fruitful life was to be led’ - which they were doing not only for reassurance but also to encourage the parents to come out and join them because Gwen knew that, if her parents didn’t come out and join them, they would probably have to go back.
So the slides, the photos and the letters are revealing about how they wanted to represent their lives both to themselves and to the family back at home. When I asked Gwen in an interview in 2000 - I wasn’t thinking about the slides at the time I asked her – ‘What did you not write home or talk about in your letters?’ there were two things that instinctively came to mind and that she said straight out. The first one was when she said, ‘I couldn’t tell my parents how sick I was on the whole of the voyage out. No sense in this’. [Shows image] This image of the family on the sports deck is probably the only time that Gwen got up on the deck. She was appallingly ill on the voyage on the way out and she didn’t want her parents to know that.
She also said, ‘I couldn’t tell my parents that we had a corrugated iron roof on the house in Perth’. Gwen had grown up in the east end of London in pretty poor conditions. Dad had done quite well and, when she was a child, they had moved to the new north-western suburbs of outer London where they had a semi-detached house with a tiled roof. To the east-London sensibility that they had grown up with the tin roof was a sign of a slum. So had she either written about or talked about the roof that they had and described a typical Australian house as having a tin roof, it would have spelt out to the parents that things weren’t going well – that they had gone back to the slums, if you like. So there was nothing in the letters about that.
But also in the photographs, I don’t think I am pushing it too far, but this [shows image] is one of the first photos they sent of their first home in Victoria Park in the inner suburbs of Perth. This is the iconic photo of Cliff with the first new car standing outside the house, but the roof-line of the house is carefully camouflaged. On this photograph, which was also sent home, there is nothing to suggest there is a tin roof. It is not until three years later when they build their own first home just around the corner, [shows image] which is in this next photo with a new car that the roof tiles are resplendently revealed in the photograph. It is a nice example of the ways in which people could and couldn’t represent their life through photographs and through letters, and how people can remember those silences as well as the presences in the narratives that they created at the time.
I want to give you two probably more troubling and also more complex stories. The first relates to Dorothy Wright, [shows image] who is pictured in this wonderful photo. Mike had bought a really fancy German camera duty free on the ship on the way out to Australia, and this is one of the first photographs he had taken of Dorothy arriving in Sydney Harbour in 1959.
Dorothy and Mike left from rural Surrey where he had a job as an engineer in 1959. She had a young son and she discovered she was pregnant after they decided to come to Australia, but they decided to carry on. I can’t resist talking a bit about the photo albums in this context. Dorothy was a great letter writer. She sent weekly letters, particularly to her mother but knew they would be passed around the wider family. But Dorothy and Mike also sent, every six months, a photo album that they made. Mike was really skilful with his hands and he handcrafted these albums. Dorothy was very artistic and creative and she made the covers. The covers usually had different types of iconic Australian imagery such as the yellow robin or Aboriginal motifs like this one [shows image], which was done with what Dorothy describes as a Swiss stitch. The photo albums are beautiful objects, and the covers represent aspects of their life in Australia, particularly Australian wildlife, iconic imagery. There is one that has a photograph of small children, which is one of the other main themes of the albums. She is probably going to donate the albums to an archive, but they would make a wonderful museum exhibit about how these albums, which were not just about the photographs inside but the very covers, visually represented an aspect of their life in Australia. I will come back and talk about some of the photos that were in the albums that were sent.
I want to talk about Dorothy’s pregnancy, about the birth of Bridget and about how she felt in that first year. Dorothy’s reassuring letters to her mother at the time in almost the whole of this first year convey the impression that she is busy but coping with being a mother in Australia having a toddler and a new baby. Just occasionally there is a glimpse of exhaustion and even misery that sneaks through within the letters. I will go through some of these glimpses. Most of the letters are very positive about house buying, discovering new places and so on. The worst that she can write about her pregnancy is that she is uncomfortable and impatient. This is the worst of it really. Two days before the birth she writes:
Mike is beginning to feel the strain [so Mike not Dorothy] and says to me every morning rather pathetically ‘Have a baby today Dossy’ [Dossy was the family nickname for her].
A couple of months later when Bridget is about two months old and Mike has just returned from a week working away up country, Dorothy admits to her mother in a letter:
I am glad he’s home. It gets a bit boring on my own.
Then she says that she feels fine but gets tired at the end of the day ‘which isn’t to be wondered at when I start at 6 am and finish at 10.45 pm. However it won’t last forever’.
Two weeks later ‘writing on a miserable, dull, windy and cold day’ - this is Sydney – ‘to the tune of Bridget exercising her lungs and Nicholas in his play pen beating hell out of one of my baking tins’, she confides to her mother:
I always think that you will understand with two babies life is hectic and somewhat tiring.
In August she writes of another English mother with two small children:
That she is indeed feeling very lonely and I can sympathise. We’re only just coming out of the state ourselves.
The careful language and the third person pronoun softened the impact of an admission which can only really be shared now once the worst is almost over.
Then in November Dorothy notes in passing in a letter to her mother that she had been nearing ‘screaming point’ and she and Mike agreed to use their nine pound quarterly child allowance to pay for both children to stay with a child minder so that they could have their first weekend away together since arrival in Australia 11 months before. They go to a Peter Sellers movie. They have a picnic drive in the Blue Mountains. They have dinner with friends from Mike’s work and look at the stars. ‘And’, she writes, ‘I had my first bathe in the Australian surf - most exhilarating and exciting’.
A fortnight later in a letter to her sister Barbara, who often received letters that were more frank about domestic life than those to mother but who had heard nothing about any of her sister’s difficulties to this point, Dorothy now explained:
I feel as if I have just emerged from a rather bad dream. I look back over the last seven months and feel with relief and some pride well alone I done it!!, but not alone, Mike has been wonderful.
I am suggesting there are glimpses within the letters of what a difficult time Dorothy had in this first year. But it is really only afterwards - and then only a little bit - that she can write in any depth at all about how difficult it had been, ‘about screaming point’.
The photographs that she sent home also didn’t say a lot about the difficulties of that first year. There were lots of baby photos, toddler photos and outdoor photos and so on. [Shows image] There is this photo taken when Bridget was 13 weeks old. I guess she took the photographs of the baby to send home to show, as you do, the new baby to grandmother. But if you look at Dorothy’s posture and the look on her face, you can see that there is another story beneath the surface. But there is nothing - certainly not in the caption - really to tell you about what was going on.
Forty years later when she wrote the autobiographical account for our project, Dorothy was much more straightforward about what was going on:
Things were not right for me. I was still so lonely especially as winter and short daylight hours drew on. I was homesick. I was overtired. Nights were disturbed by the children. Bridget cried a lot in the first six months, and I always went. Mike never heard. Did I suffer from culture shock? Always I had a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. I cried often, sometimes when I was on my own with the children, and I remember Nicholas at two years old trying so hard to comfort me. Perhaps all these things contributed, but it was not until years later when Bridget was expecting her first baby and had all the latest books about pregnancy etc that I suspected the real cause - postnatal depression. I read to Mike the symptoms from her book and said, ‘Does that remind you of anyone?’ Yes, he immediately knew that had been my problem when such conditions were not spoken of, at least to me, but I battled on.
It’s a good example of where a language, a term and a way of naming and articulating her experience and her depression becomes available so that she can tell that story. Partly it’s the passage of time, partly she is not trying to reassure family back in England, and partly she has new ways of articulating the story. Reading the letters of the time, both within the letters and between the lines, you get a sense that there are a whole range of factors that are impacting on Dorothy’s depression. Almost certainly some form of postnatal depression, physiological and hormonal, was there, and it made sense for Dorothy 40 years on to explain it in those terms.
But there were a whole range of other factors. She was separated from extended family support networks. They moved to the north-western suburbs of Sydney where she had no friends for the first three or four months and almost no support networks at all. She had a difficult toddler and a young baby - that was really tough. Mike was away in the city working long hours and often interstate on engineering work. She had almost nothing of her own life. She had had a very active volunteer and paid working life in England. Nothing of that to make positive sense [of her life]. And at the time she internalised her depression as her own inadequacy. There is a very powerful, chilling letter that she writes in March 1961 to her mother talking about her toddler son Nick:
I find him very difficult to entertain, especially in the mornings when I am busy and I am sure he is bored. So I thought school would be the answer. I’m not a good mother. Not what Dr Spock calls a slow mother who leaves her chores to make sure junior gets the right treatment. In fact, I love my two children. I just loathe the continual hampered feeling. I am afraid I am apt to scream at him to get out and let me get on, which as Mike points out does neither of us any good. How does Barb [that is her sister] manage? I have a feeling she has a lot more patience than I.
I guess another factor was she had a really strong sense of what both a good mother and a good housewife should be in terms of housework. The tensions between different aspects of the expectation for a woman in 1960s Australia were very acute and were internalised by Dorothy as being not a good mother. In this writing and then in the interview we have been able to tease out this much more complicated, nuanced, complex story and explanation of her experience as a young migrant mother in Australia.
I want to show you another photo which is taken in 1961. [Shows image] There are two photos that appear twice in the photo albums that she sent home. I don’t know if she forgot that she had already sent it, and this was one of those photos. It was very significant. Dorothy had grown up in wartime England when all the public swimming pools were closed. She had never learnt to swim. They started going to the beaches in Sydney. She was worried about the kids getting into trouble so she took swimming lessons. She learnt to swim. She discovered that she loved swimming. She loved the sea. She was exhilarated by the surf and by the beach. And she argued that one of the things that brought her out of her depression was the physicality of the surf and the sea and swimming. There were other factors: she began to make friends; she developed networks of support; the kids were older; she got Nick into a nursery; and so on. But the swimming was very important. The sea was very prevalent in the letters and in photographs. This was about a real significant change in her life.
The other point I want to make is that it’s a story that was significant at the time but it is also a story that became more significant over time. She loves swimming. Eventually Dorothy developed a career as a swimming instructor both in Australia and then back in England. In 2000 she wrote this lovely passage about learning to swim, the exhilaration of the surf and she writes, ‘In the warmth I blossomed’. It is partly a blossoming, a coming out of depression, but it is also a blossoming of Dorothy herself and the development of independence with a new career and new opportunities.
The photograph that was important, sent in 1961 and sent twice, achieves and assumes even greater significance later in life when the learning to swim becomes part of a bigger story of achievement and independence, of developing a sense of herself as being more than a good mother but many other things besides.
I am going to stop there. I do have a fourth example from Phyllis Cave but I would rather stop and talk to you and get questions and discussion.
The point I have tried to make is that with these four women I am very lucky to be able to look at different ways and different genres within which they have articulated their experience - letters, journals, photographs, written autobiographical accounts and the interviews. It has given me an opportunity to compare the different ways in which they articulate their experience in those different types of life stories; the sorts of forces and factors that encourage them to tell some stories and not others at different times in different genre for different reasons and so on.
As an oral historian it has made me more humble about my interviews because the letters have all sorts of details that get lost to memory. But conversely it has highlighted the fact that we can’t simply say, ‘The closer the source is to the moment, the more likely it is to be accurate and truthful’, because we make new and sometimes better sense of our lives over time. So it has highlighted both the value of life story sources and the fact we do need to read them with a really careful, thoughtful alertness to the factors that shape the story that is told, and that it also conceals as much as it reveals. I will stop there. I will be really interested to hear what you make of these examples and the thoughts that they evoke for you.
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007–21. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 01 January 2018