ASAL Mini Conference 2/3 Feb 2007
The Beginning of Everything and the End of Everything Else: Writing a Feminist Novel in 1974.
NB Slides are missing…
Literary theorists argue that the feminist novel centres on the concerns of, and the bonds between, women. The category “feminist novel” takes into account the plurality of womanhood, including differences of class, race, ethnicity, geography, sexuality, age and able-bodiedness (Felski, Fraser & Nicholson, Kaplan, Robbins). Challenging literary and social conventions with humour and irony, Christine She Townend’s first novel and appropriately The Beginning of Everything and the End of Everything Else can be read as a feminist novel as it recounts the tale of a naïve young woman’s passage through marriage, childbirth, homemaking and leave-taking.
The protagonist Persia marries to escape a dominating mother. Settling into comfortable middle-class suburbia, Persia gives birth to a son, but realises that her life is still controlled by others. In a search for self-discovery she leaves home and goes to live in a different socio-economic situation in Redfern. The novel represents an example of the feminist protagonist who moves “outward into the public realm of social engagement and activity…” (Felski). With its novella-like form, its unusual language, its defiant plot and its parodying of social situations, the narrative fearlessly debunks literary and cultural conservatism. New writing like Townend’s opened a space for feminist fiction published in the later 1970s and 1980s.
The Beginning of Everything and the End of Everything Else: Writing a Feminist Novel in 1974.
This paper argues that Christine Townend’s 1974 novel The Beginning of Everything and the End of Everything Else can be read as contemporary feminist novel. Literary theorists suggest that the category “feminist novel”, which centres on the concerns of, and the bonds between women, has over the last thirty years grown from an exclusionary white middle-class definition to one that takes into account the plurality of womanhood.
In 1989 Rita Felski defined the contemporary narrative of female self-discovery as one in which access to self-knowledge is seen to require an explicit refusal of the heterosexual romance plot. Influenced by the Second Wave women’s movement, Felski cited early novels fitting into this genre as, among others, Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (1977), Fay Weldon’s Praxis (1978) and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1983). (Beyond Feminist Aesthetics 133).
Pre-empting these overseas novels, Australian author Christine Townend’s two novels were published in 1974 and 1976.
They address questions relating to gender, sexuality, race, class and religion in the context of satirical treatments of marriage, motherhood, the search for self and spiritual fulfillment. The novels provide windows into New Writing of the 1970s, while at the same time retaining contemporary currency.
In order to re-invigorate writing that has been under-read since it was published, this paper discusses some aspects of the first novel, humorously titled The Beginning of Everything and the End of Everything Else. Its end-cover reads:
Her name is Persia: a girl of the 1970s, cherishing a nature sure in its curiosity and uncluttered values. His name is Adrian Parker-Bourne: a man magnificent in his firm grasp on life and his belief in modern affluence. The beginning is their meeting, and that is also the end, for Persia’s life becomes singed by the relationship then bleached to suburban conformity.
It is the “suburban conformity” and conventional relationships of the early 1970s that Townend interrogates. When twenty-year old Persia meets
Adrian, she knows “quite completely that it [is] the beginning of everything and the end of everything else, like renovated houses with closed walls” (The Beginning 5). Perceiving oppression by both her domineering mother and her sexist boyfriend/husband, Persia struggles to articulate her own needs in her quest for self-hood. In a way that speaks to Jessica Benjamin’s argument ten years later that “individuality is properly, ideally, a balance of separateness and connectedness, of the capacities for agency and relatedness” (“A Desire of One’s Own” 82), Persia sets out to seek some kind of internal truth.
At the same time as the novel challenges conservative attitudes, in the beginning it draws a textual picture of an emotionally paralysed, “faded out” (The Beginning 3) young woman whose life is in a state of flux. In not having Persia speak up for herself, Townend, according to reviewer Sue Higgins in her 1975 review, “Breaking the Rules”, creates “a vivid impression of the negativity at the heart of the feminine personality” (418). I would agree that while observing her world with adroit detail, at first Persia is unable to put into action her quest for “agency and relatedness”. When Persia’s boyfriend Adrian tells her that he loves her, “[s]he had no word or any thought” (35). They eat a meal in silence, wash up, break a plate, sweep it up and she leaves, “because it was the only way to break the silence”, pre-empting Terry Threadgold’s 1997 description of “the voices that keep running in your head when you are brought up in a patriarchal society – and that you cannot answer, that you have no words to answer” ( Feminist Poetics 132).
Writing about the feminist possibilities of a reinvented language with feminine rather than masculine underpinnings, Nicole Brossard argues:
The reinvented language would be a language in which there is a space for the existence of the woman subject and her desire, space for anxiety attacks as for ecstasy, space for her singularity as for her plurality, space in which to trace the main lines of her identity and her relationships, space, finally, to change the connections, whether they be of love, syntax, or grammar. (“Writing as a Trajectory” 184)
It is my contention that the strategies, tropes and ontologies Townend employs and interrogates carve such a space as Brossard advocates. For example, the strategy of adopting a detached third person narrator’s voice enhances Persia’s early sense of alienation. Her first sexual encounter is written in a curiously removed voice to create a sense of things being not-quite-real:
And it was the same, except in a different place, and the passion went deeper, and shot off and would not be controlled and went through the whole of space in its own trail of jet and smoke.
They did not say anything because of the urgency. Adrian put himself against Persia, and they had themselves in each other and inter-changed and were swapped. And it was nothing to do with loving; just that the love happened to be there too. And because it was there, it entered and was sealed off, and remained. (38)
The use of the words “interchanged and were swapped” about the most intimate of physical acts captures feelings of vulnerability about Persia’s world and her place in it, an ontology that Townend explores in both novels. The detached voice, coupled with the use of unusual metaphors, relays a sense of Brossard’s feminine spaces, as can be seen in this passage about the birth of Persia’s first child: “the child had appeared with blood and wet juice in a white sterile room quite by chance from her own interior folds, already full and perfect in painted detail like microscopes on old masters with no flaw” (108). Employing this naïve voice the narrator evokes at the same time a sense of displacement as well as wonder.
Townend inserts evocative plurals or singular metaphoric comparisons, often using the trope of animals, usually helpless ones, to illuminate an affect. One such example is the narrator’s description of Persia’s friend Smithey, who possesses “soft bulbous eyes like rabbits emerging from greenery” (42). Early in Persia’s relationship with Adrian, who appears as “high king with crown, and pomp, and red carpets, and pageant of trumpets and pages marching before” (19), it becomes evident that he has a way of making Persia feel “like a stupid puppy which had run onto a road without looking, and almost been hit, and yowled, and floundered and flopped with its tail between its legs, and tripped over in the gutter” (19-20). This sense of hopelessness in the face of male domination serves to remind us of conventional romantic novels.
However, the satirical representation of the status quo is a strategy used to critique social convention.
In a scene detailing how women are required to dress and do their hair, the narrator, with a good dose of humour, parodies the physical appearance of young women from their conservative social scene. Smithey, Persia’s tennis-mad friend, throws an engagement party for them. When they arrive:
… Smithey opened the door to them. She was dressed in a stiff check which bound and sashed her, so that her movement, which was her most special grace, was suppressed, and her shoulders and neck were more than ever bulging from the confines of the embroidered collar.
Her hair had been set in stiff pillars through which insects could have made procession, and was not fluid, and was as fixed as her muscles. Thus starched and strapped, she gave a contained gesture reminiscent of back-hand returns, and Persia and Adrian were admitted. (51)
In the ensuing scene Townend satirises the upper-class convention of a formal engagement as she and Adrian assume the centre of attention at the party. “Adrian was dark and grand and straight, and his eyes were rich with pride for his capture, who hung, soft and fragile, radiant with her own particular triumph” (51). However, even as Persia, the “captured” woman, smugly shows off her engagement ring and understands “the power of being young and handsome and holding a secret list of years like wallets stuffed with paper money that brought porters in foyers to obedience” (52), a sense of her unease pervades the text at this point.
In her 1975 review “Breaking the Rules” critic Sue Higgins (now Sheridan) suggests that Persia relies on the men in the story for her presence. While she argues that Persia’s pathos “threatens to outweigh the reader’s sense of complicity in her exploits” (418), I would argue that her very pathos and naivety are tools for communicating the affects of alienation and emotional paralysis. It is true that Persia seems to be dependent on men for her identity. For example, Persia feels she should love her husband “because he can control and channel how I should best be” (The Beginning 103). But in the recounting of Persia’s first sexual encounter and her disappointment at their lack of communication (“they did not say anything”) it is the ironic sub-text, as we shall see, that alerts the reader to the protagonist’s realisation that depending on a man for her happiness may not work.
The narrator often uses humour, irony and according to Sue Higgins, a seemingly innocent, “naïve and amoral” (418) voice. This voice challenges established mores and elucidates affect from a character who seems, on the surface, to float like a leaf on life’s tides. The following post-prandial passage evidences Persia’s reluctant compliance with Adrian’s wishes:
‘You had better get dressed’ he said.
So Persia was made to feel ashamed, and pulled all her clothes all about her, and combed her hair in the bathroom mirror with Adrian’s comb, and tried to pretend it had not happened which was what he wanted her to pretend. (39)
Another crack in her certainty appears when Adrian says Smithey won’t miss Persia because Smithey will be “too busy with her tennis balls”. The narrator relates how “Persia then by those words was even more invaded” (40). While they get dressed Adrian says, “I would like you to marry me,” and begins making plans for them both, without asking for her opinion on the matter. To her infinite disappointment, he refuses to kiss her or even speak to her about their lovemaking. In a brilliant example of dialogue at cross-purposes, instead, we read:
‘I’ll clear out one end of the wardrobe,’ Adrian said.
‘I like to touch your face,’ Persia said.
‘As regards your mother, I’ll invite her round to explain.’
‘This is the first time I have been so close to your face.’
‘I suppose I should buy another set of crockery.’
‘Before I did not know what it would be like to be so close.’
‘I saw a special in David Jones on Friday.’ (40)
Once more Persia acquiesces, but soon her relationship with Adrian becomes a disappointment because she feels that “his whole life was lived in other places with other people” (65). It becomes clear that the conventional move into marriage and a heterosexual relationship is not what this novel is about.
The second section of the novel, a novella in itself, explores sexuality and sexual difference when Persia leaves Adrian and goes off on a holiday with her gay friend Paint in an effort to further what Felski later calls a feminist protagonist’s “dialogue with the social environment”. This process, Felski argues, often emphasises “internal growth and self understanding” because “only by moving out into the world can the protagonist [of a feminist novel] become critically aware of the limitations of her previously excluded existence and her unquestioning acceptance of the circumscribed nature of women’s roles”(Beyond Feminist Aesthetics 135). When Persia realises her love is unrequited and that her relationship with Paint fails to answer her questions about life, she returns to Adrian and marries him.
However, Persia does not indulge in an “unquestioning acceptance” of her role. Marriage and motherhood are represented in passages that convey a stultifying kind of numbness:
After they had been married the way it was correct to be married, with a white dress and white tablecloths and white napkins and speeches, Persia tried for happiness with a house among gardens, in a row of gardens, where there was rich green culture, and pruning, and caterpillar spray. (107)
The gardens with their “rich green culture” evoke scenes of middle-class propriety and wealth, but the words “tried for happiness” convey Persia’s discontent with suburban perfection. As reviewer Michael Wilding affirms, Persia is “in conflict with the demands of middle-class conformity and the bonds of family and marriage” (“The Romance of the Fork-Lift Truck” 255).
The experience of childbirth, although “heavy with ritual agony” is countered by the arrival of the baby “with no flaw”; the child is accepted as a “surprising gift” and taken home from the hospital to be surrounded by a “rich donation of playthings”. Up to this point Persia is written, Higgins maintains, as “a kind of absent presence in relation to oppressively positive male egos in a situation rich in satirical possibilities” (“Breaking the Rules” 418).
She lives with her husband in the safe middle class house in a rich suburb with prospects of sending her son to a private school where “he should never question his own direction, and that he should pass through all the same established rules as his parents had done, because if his parents had done them, then they must have been right” (109). However, it soon becomes clear that Persia will not rely on marriage and motherhood for her happiness. In the very next paragraph following the birth of the child, Persia, makes another statement of independence. She challenges her accepted role in the affluent and stable marriage by leaving Adrian, taking her young child and moving into a share-house in Redfern.
The Redfern section of the novel negotiates the life of inner city communities, exposing the narrator’s voice as one of middle-class, white privilege, while interrogating issues of race, class and sexuality. Persia shares a house with people living in poverty, including ex-criminals, sex-workers, pensioners, an old Greek woman and a group of Aboriginal people. The narrator describes an old Irishman “with a terrible hangover”, a “fat Indian with popping eyes … already drunk”, a “surly mother …with a naked baby [and] a puddle of urine on the cracked laminex floor under the baby” (The Beginning 112-114). Persia does eventually return to the phlegmatic Adrian, but as in other feminist novels there is no sense of a happy ending; only of futility and hopelessness as Persia goes “… from the poor streets and the packed living and the packed lives” and realises that it is “not her privilege to ever be able to do anything about it” (The Beginning 131).
Contemporary critic Ruth Robbins maintains that middleclass, white women’s writing excludes issues relevant to Black, lesbian, queer, ethnically different writers, and voices from working class groups. I would contend that Townend’s writing does attempt to negotiate some of these issues, giving it contemporary relevance. Robbins argues that “[w]hat feminisms have to negotiate is the relationship between structures of systematic oppressions and individualised, localised experiences of them” (Literary Feminisms 196). In its insistence on exposing power relations through the character of Persia, The Beginning aligns itself with the contemporary feminist novel.
Critics Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson also argue for a notion of identity and feminist writing “attending to class, race, ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation” (“Social Criticism Without Philosophy” 270), while Cora Kaplan agrees that the inclusion of marginalised voices and the consideration of the meanings of race, class and sexuality are paramount in a definition of the feminist novel (“Pandora’s Box” 974). It is my contention that Townend’s novels opened a space for thinking about some of these issues such as these contemporary theorists advocate, including class, sexuality and the construction of Aboriginality in “white” writing, thus rendering her writing still relevant today. Because The Beginning examines the coming into selfhood of a conservative young woman as she questions all her values and strives to empower herself, I would also argue that it aligns with Lyn Pearce’s contemporary notion that the telling of stories “has long been recognized as one of the principal ways in which the oppressed begin to empower themselves” (The Rhetorics of Feminism 172).
While at first it appears to copy masculine stories wherein, according to Felski “women [are turned] into trophies, freezing them into a state of passivity, waiting to be saved by a man” (Literature After Feminism 96), in reality it subverts these stories with Persia’s continuous realisations that nothing is fixed; her observations about the continuity of beginnings and endings marks continual promise and change, aligning with the contemporary women’s feminist fiction project with its “striving to fashion new stories of action and freedom” (Felski 2003 98), and empowering the protagonist as it does so. My current project, arising from researching writers of the 1970s is a novel, Loaded Hearts, in which the protagonist also strives for empowerment through action. A chapter from my novel is included in Confessions and Memoirs, for sale at the Gleebooks stand.
Brossard, Nicole. “Writing as a Trajectory of Desire and Consciousness.” Feminist Critical Negotiations. Ed. A. A. Parker and E. A. Meese. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1992. 179-85.
Felski, Rita. Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1989.
—. Literature After Feminism. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2003.
Fraser, Nancy and Linda Nicholson. “Social Criticism Without Philosophy: An Encounter Between Feminism and Postmodernism”. Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader. Ed. Mary Eagleton. 2nd Ed. Oxford, Blackwell: 1996. 268-270.
French, Marilyn. The Women’s Room. London: Sphere Books, 1978.
Higgins, Sue. “Breaking the Rules: New Fiction by Australian Women.” Meanjin Quarterly 34. 4 (1975): 415-20.
Kaplan, Cora. “Pandora’s Box: Subjectivity, Class, and Sexuality in Socialist Feminist Criticism” 1985. Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Rev. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1997. 956-975.
Pearce, Lynne. The Rhetorics of Feminism: Readings in Contemporary Cultural Theory and the Popular Press. Transformations. Ed. Maureen McNeil. London: Routledge, 2004.
Robbins, Ruth. Literary Feminisms. London: Macmillan, 2000.
Threadgold, Terry. Feminist Poetics: Poiesis, Performance, Histories. London: Routledge, 1997.
Townend, Christine. The Beginning of Everything and the End of Everything Else. South Melbourne: Macmillan, 1974.
Walker, Alice. The Color Purple: A Novel. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
Weldon, Fay. Praxis. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1978.
Wilding, Michael. “The Romance of the Fork-Lift Truck.” Newswrite Feb 155 (2006): 3-8.
[Townend later became an animal liberationist. Her subsequent books were non-fiction, championing the rights of chickens, pigs, sheep, cattle, and later from her Indian base at Jaipur, the living conditions of street dogs, donkeys, camels and elephants.]