I can’t let the death last week of Australian writer Jessica Anderson go unremarked. Why? Because although she twice won the Miles Franklin Award (1978 and 1980) and her novel Tirra Lirra by the River has been on high school reading lists, Anderson was for most of her long life marginalised, a misfit, a sensitive and creative woman in 20th century Australia. And she writes about similarly marginalised people. She said: ‘I was very much, and always have been, preoccupied with people who are strangers in their society.’
I agree with Clive James when he says that ‘Culture builds itself like a coral reef and like a reef it entails much sacrifice’ – and I think we have writers like Jessica Anderson to thank for whatever Australian literary culture we can claim today. They are the bedrock of our literature and they paid the price – poverty, alcoholism, disappointment, frustration, madness – of creativity in an overwhelmingly philistine nation.
In 1978 Anderson won the Miles Franklin award for Tirra Lirra by the River, a novel which speaks poignantly of the pain of those who are cut off from the world around them by their difference. At the time Anderson was little known and her award-winning, bestselling success (Tirra Lirra sold over 100,000 copies) appeared to have come overnight. But like all real achievement, her Miles Franklin win was preceded by years of hard work: Tirra Lirra was Anderson’s fourth published novel. But it was only her first to be published in Australia. As was typical for Australian writing of the time, Anderson’s earlier novels had all been published in England. She said she couldn’t imagine finding a publisher in 1960s Australia who would like her first novel An Ordinary Lunacy (1963), which was about ‘how a utilitarian society treats those with unserviceable gifts.’
The title Tirra Lirra by the River comes from one of Tennyson’s most popular and tragic poems, ‘The Lady of Shalott’. It is about a woman, the Lady of Shalott, who is confined in a tower on an island in a river that flows to Camelot. She is cursed to sit alone and to see the bustling world of Camelot below only through its reflection in her mirror. And so she spends her time sitting by her window, watching the reflected world in her mirror, recording it with her needle and thread in tapestry.
One day the Lady of Shalott sees in her mirror a dark-haired man riding by. It is Sir Lancelot: ‘“Tirra lirra,” by the river / Sang Sir Lancelot.’ She rushes to her window and looks straight at the world below, the unreflected world, as she is forbidden to do. The curse is triggered, her life must end. The Lady of Shalott goes down to the river where she finds a boat. After writing ‘The Lady of Shalott’ on its prow she lies down and, singing, floats toward Camelot. And she dies with the unfinished song on her lips.
This sorrowful tale reverberates through Tirra Lirra by the River. Like the Lady of Shalott, the narrator Nora Porteous has spent much of her life waiting, confined to houses or places that restrict her, places she feels she does not belong to, including her family home, Brisbane, her husband’s house, Australia itself. Her life has been a series of confinements and breakings away.
And like the Lady of Shalott, Nora has long ago buried her sexual desire. And like her she uses an acceptably modest, female creative form – embroidery, like the Lady of Shalott’s tapestry – to release in small gestures her thwarted creative gifts. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Nora’s life is that she is an artist born into a place – a conservative, conformist family in pre-World War II Brisbane – with no idea that artists, those exotic foreign creatures, could exist in its midst. And so Nora cannot recognise herself for what she is. She feels instead only her acute difference.
In subtropical Brisbane, to escape sweaty tennis games and groping boys, the young Nora retreats to her room. She sits by her window and gazes through its ‘cheap thick glass’ – and through its distortions she sees ‘my first intimations of a country as beautiful as those in my childhood books.’ And then she drifts further away, into an inner dream world: ‘And later, when I was mad about poetry, and I read The Idylls of the King and The Lady of Shalott, and so on and so forth, I already had my Camelot. I no longer looked through the glass. I no longer needed to. In fact, to do so would have broken rather than sustained the spell, because that landscape had become a region of my mind, where an infinite expansion was possible …’
In her study of Jessica Anderson Elaine Barry says of Tirra Lirra by the River: ‘It is a classic of its genre, making one think of Jean Rhys or Tillie Olsen, other clear-eye recorders of emotional waste and modest affirmations.’
Farewell Jessica Anderson – and thanks.