Nathan Hollier on the Critical Reception of Bobbin Up

Dorothy Hewett’s life and literary career have made her a figure of particular critical interest to scholars and critics of different persuasions at different moments. It is not a criticism of her writing to say that it reflects the different phases of her personal and political life. Famously the winner of a 1945 ABC national poetry prize, the young romantic from rural Western Australia had joined the CPA at nineteen and did not leave for good until 1968, some twenty-six years later. This long association with the radical left and Hewett’s self-professed “love affair with an idealized working class” led to personal difficulties and inevitably shaped the critical response to her work during, and in some cases following, this period. For a period of eight years Hewett was largely unable to write, partly because of work commitments and partly because of a felt responsibility to help the working-class political movement through direct, rather than mental or creative action. Hewett broke her silence in the eight-and-a-half-week effusion of Bobbin Up. This has been described as a moment of personal liberation by Hewett, part of a longer process by which she finally shed the ideological constraints imposed by the CP. In a personal sense this may well be true but the narrative has been lazily generalized by a number of critics, who have then summarized Bobbin Up as “a moderately successful novel”, a somewhat enigmatic effort by a regrettably idealistic young tyro. This may be described broadly as the liberal humanist response to the novel. Within this category, there are different levels of critical awareness but the central narrative and assumptions reappear. Hewett’s work has been important for feminist critics and those interested in women’s and gender issues. Bobbin Up was seen, not least by its Virago publishers, as part of a hidden canon of women’s writing. Later structuralist and poststructuralist feminisms have not focused extensively on Bobbin Up, probably because of its foregrounding of labourist politics, though it has been of especial importance to other female critics for the same reason.

Hewett’s long artistic silence may also be seen as part of an important process of personal introspection. To Jim Davidson’s suggestion that joining the CP was her “equivalent of entering the monastery?” she replied “Yes. I could never bring it together with the sort of rom-antic concepts of literature I had” (Sideways from the Page: The Meanjin Interviews, Sydney 1983). She offers a similar account in an interview with Michael Denholm (in Carole Ferrier, ed. Hecate’s Daughters. Brisbane: Hecate, 1979): “I think I really felt that… I wanted to sort myself out and I obviously never had, either politically or emotionally”. Bobbin Up may, on this reading be seen as a creative and intelligent attempt to combine the political imperatives of the organized labour movement with the formal requirements of the novel, an attempt which in its ‘amateurishness’, revealed important traces of Hewett’s politicized working life. As the judges of the 1958 Mary Gilmore Competition intone, Bobbin Up is “a novel of the militant labor movement, and by far the most successful in this genre that we have read”. Stephen Knight and other critics have sought to analyze Bobbin Up as a novel of the working class or organized left, making up a third body of criticism.

Within the ‘liberal humanist’ category, Susan Lever’s ‘Seeking Woman: Dorothy Hewett’s Shifting Genres’, gives the most extensive treatment and also represents a critical highpoint. At the other, or romantic end of the scale, are two introductions to Hewett’s poetry (Edna Longley, ‘Foreword’, Selected Poems, Fremantle 1990; Kirsten Holt Petersen, ‘Introduction’, A Tremendous World in Her Head: Selected Poems, Sydney 1989), both of which repeat the lazy assumption that “Hewett’s anarchistic talent was largely silenced by her deference to Marxist orthodoxy” (Longley). Petersen absurdly equates the “sour position” of those who have criticized technical blemishes with the criticisms of Bobbin Up that Hewett recalls being put by uneducated CP functionaries, going on to conflate communism with “any movements or isms, including feminism”. Lever asks to what extent Hewett’s continuing disruption of literary conventions and genres can be recuperated as a feminist project. The question is posed in the terms of two feminist eras: the project to provide alternative ‘images of women’ and a later poststructuralist interest in the capacity of an ecriture feminine to disrupt the phallogocentric nature of language. She seems skeptical of the poststructuralist project and even more so of the proposition that Hewett’s writings may be usefully evaluated in this intellectual context, though she does see in Hewett’s “constant return to the early experiences of her life”, evidence of “the intractable problems of representing female experience within literary genres which conventionally mask the woman”. Lever is similarly underwhelmed by Hewett’s attempt, in Bobbin Up, to present a life from a female perspective (admitting to finding the novel “not very good”). Hewett’s female mill workers are rejected as models of female liberation for two reasons. Firstly, Lever contends that these characters’ “refusal of the ladylike limitations accepted even by [Kylie] Tennant and [Ruth] Park”, their ‘bad’ language and overt sexuality, nevertheless perpetuates “stereotypical male views of women”. Secondly, though related to the previous criticism, Lever believes Hewett’s “literary lens” to be “incorrigibly romantic, and accepting of the female submission to romance”. “We may agree with Joy Hooton”, writes Lever, “that the final effect is not so much feminism as a recalcitrant female individualism”.

Lever seems to move towards an argument that in Bobbin Up, Hewett’s invidualism and her romanticization of working-class life, as a fetishized Other, express more general conceptual problems. Though she lived in these areas and worked in a place just like the Jumbuck Mill, there is a sense, as Hewett recalled, that the author’s real purpose in writing the novel was to reassert her artistic credentials in personalized romantic terms. While this is an insightful reading, Lever’s own cultural and political proclivities perhaps make her unsympathetic towards Hewett’s effort to bring together organized left-wing politics (the novel’s structure) and positive images of a liberated female sexuality (its content). Whatever role this novel played in Hewett’s subsequent artistic development, its eschewal of a single heroine figure and its realistic depiction of the self-doubts of the central Communist character, Nell, undermine the easy identification of Hewett the romantic artist, with her work. Lever does attempt to do this (159), though Hewett warns against this practice in an Age article by Candida Baker (‘Hewett Work Comes Into its Own’, 27 July 1990) and in her Meanjin interview. Lever’s assertion that the working-class novel tradition was “dying” by 1959, seems connected to her assessment that the unique political and aesthetic dimensions of Bobbin Up are comparatively insignificant.

Further liberal-humanist reviews contrast Hewett’s authentic depiction of working-class culture, including her ear for speech, with the annoying intrusion of an overt political position (‘Industrial Novel’, The Bulletin 80: 4151 [1959]; Sidney J. Baker, ‘Our Asphalt Jungle’, Sydney Morning Herald 5 September 1959; J.E.S. ‘Another Social Novel’, Biblionews 12:11 [1959]; Ray Matthew, ‘Sincere Dishonesty’, The Observer 3 Oct. 1959; Kate Cruise O’Brien, ‘Houses in Between’, The Listener 16 May 1985). Laurie Clancy observes however that the novel ends “not on a note of unalloyed optimism but of much more ambiguous hopefulness” (‘An Antipodean Realistic Alice in Wonderland’, The Age 8 February 1986). Clancy provides an interesting rejoinder to Lever’s claim that Bobbin Up is not a successful feminist novel. Despite Hewett’s obvious sympathy with the women, “masculine values prevail”, as one would expect, writes Clancy perspicaciously, in a novel that neither idealizes nor condescends to the working class. Other critics complain about the failure of the novel’s structure to allow for extensive character development (Baker, ‘Labour and Pains’, Times Literary Supplement 27 November 1959; John Barnes, Meanjin 19 [1960]). Joyce Shewcroft (Southerly 21:3, 1961) questions whether the conditions described by Hewett still exist and objects to the special (left-wing) intention given to the word ‘workers’. Valid criticisms taken alone, these are undermined by Shewcroft’s ignorance of the generic conventions of the working-class novel. Baker identifies this tradition and suggests that “Hewett’s greatest contribution to our writing is her discovery that Zola, Dos Passos and Thomas can be applied so well to some aspects of the Australian city scene” (‘Our Asphalt Jungle’). Shewcroft’s elitism emerges in her distaste for “a certain non-objective writing – a level-ling down” that involves the inclusion of several “untouchables” from her “caste system of words”. Barnes similarly finds it “extraordinary” that “Miss Hewett can so interest the reader in the lives of these uninteresting people”. Despite Baker’s estimation that Bobbin Up “is… perhaps the rawest, bluntest and most moving close-up of the Australian city jungle that has yet been published”, Clem Semmler believed the ABS version of the novel unfairly dealt with by reviewers in general and finds “in the crude, illiterate language of the women and men in the book… a strange kind of poetry that has no artifice” (‘Graphic Look at Working-Class Life’, Courier Mail 6 July 1985). The Bulletin reviewer points out the intellectual flaws in Hewett’s Zdhanovist attempt to depict ‘typical’ characters in class terms, while Matthew’s observation that the text seems intended for a CP audience over and above a working-class one is also salutary. Nicholas Jose finds the passion of this “socialist fairytale” gives it great historical value (“may it never go out of print again”), “allowing us to conceive what it might have been like to believe in it”, but like Lever does not see the continuing relevance of this type of novel or the social issues it raises (The Age Monthly Review, March 1986).

Lever provided a useful distinction between two forms of feminist literary politics. The earlier one is present to some extent in Barbara Garlick’s ‘Beyond Social Realism: The Woman’s Voice’ (Social Alternatives 7:1, 1988). Garlick notes the central place of women in the realist genre and finds the concerns of the novel equally valid at the time of writing. The moments of “gritty realism” however, are also seen to act as metaphors for the author’s “greater scheme”. There is the influence of modern theory in Garlick’s argument that the women of the novel reinscribe the popular cultural objects of a patriarchal world with their own meaning. All are man-made “yet all are endowed with significance through their place in a female world”. Like Garlick, Veronica Brady’s review article (‘Rites of Passage’, Australian Society 5:2, 1986) considers contemporaneously republished novels of Criena Rohan and uses theory, literary history and gender politics in a productive way: “The source of [Bobbin Up‘s] defiance is not mere romanticism but thought, the passionate thought about the world which comes from honest experience of its painfulness and injustice”. Dorothy Jones (‘Olivia and Chloe: Fictions of Female Friendship’, Australian Literary Studies 14:1, 1989) uses a number of Australian novels by women to critically analyze the masculinist culture of mateship. Bobbin Up captures “the pain and exhilaration of that moment when the women realize their commitment to each other must transcend their individual responsibilities”.

In addition to the published comments of the Mary Gilmore Award judges, Bobbin Up was reviewed by CP members Ralph de Boissiere and Paul Mortier in what were the chief literary journals of the Australian left (‘Factory Novel’, Overland 16, 1959 and Realist Writer 1:2 1960). Ironically, some of the mainstream criticisms of the novel are repeated here, though for different reasons. For de Boissiere, the characters are not fully developed because “the main contradiction – that between the girls and the mill-owners – is not allowed to develop. We are given a lot of minor conflicts that belong to the past rather than the present”. In contrast to those who found the ending overly idealistic, de Boissiere thought it should have rendered more power and control to the struggling workers. Nevertheless, “while the book is not an entirely successful piece of socialist realism it turns a light on the essential truth – that working people can and will remake life”. Mortier’s triumphalist review found Nell to be “the first woman revolutionary hero I know in Australian literature” and Bobbin Up a continuation of the fecund Australian realist tradition. It lacks “discipline” however (states Mortier in a review that mis-spells Hewett’s name throughout), and fails further to develop its narrative or the characters. As “the book tends to give a sensual [feminine?] rather than a fully conscious picture of reality”, sexual imagery is not kept in its rightful place, “a defect which could, unfortunately, shock some into a blindness to the book’s very worthy merits”. Jean Devanny is one such CP writer whose initial enthusiasm for the book waned with her growing opinion that its “crude sexiness” was not justified by the effort to attract readers, that “typical” working men and women would be turned off by this immorality and that supporters of capitalism would be heartened by the book’s “negative” depiction of working-class people. Devanny’s opinions are recorded in a new text by Carole Ferrier (Jean Devanny and the Romance of the Revolution, to be published by MUP; Ferrier also discusses this conflict in the 1999 Oxford Literary History of Australia). Ferrier’s study includes correspondence from Devanny, Hewett, Judah Waten and ABS publishers Les Greenfield and Jack Beasley, revealing the sexual conservatism that greeted the book within the CP.

Extensive analyses of Bobbin Up in its left-wing, realist and working-class context have been given by Stephen Knight, whose essay is republished in this edition, by David Carter in the 1988 Penguin New Literary History of Australia and by Ian Syson (‘Towards a Poetics of Working Class Writing’, Southern Review 26:1, 1993). Carter discusses Australian realist and socialist realist fiction from the early 1930s until the late 1950s. Interestingly, he sees Hewett’s text as returning to the less structured style of realism that was predominant until the late 1940s (and of which Devanny’s Sugar Heaven is a prime example), when Zhdanovist socialist realism became the only acceptable option for radical artists. Syson discusses several women writers and their novels in an attempt to delineate a poetics of working-class writing. He argues that the unique conditions in which working-class literature is produced leave their trace on the texts. In stressing this relationship between text and context Syson makes clear that working-class writing cannot be reduced to that body of works written by or about the working classes, since classes are dynamic objects. A more useful definition is “those texts self-consciously produced with the intention of assisting the political interests of the working class”. There is a need then, for literature to be analyzed historically, in class terms. This will involve understanding the active participation of the working-class author in social spheres outside of those in which literature is generally produced and evaluated. A writer’s immersion in working culture or participation in political agitation will often result in the trace of this involvement being left on his or her writing. Hence Hilary Richmond, in a short story called ‘My Realist Writing’, apologizes for the ‘roughness’ of her work, anticipating criticisms brought to bear on Bobbin Up. As Syson demonstrates, writers like Richmond, Betty Collins, Devanny and, here, Hewett, rejected Virginia Woolf’s bourgeois imperative of finding “a room of one’s own”. Rather, each wanted to gain the experience necessary to give their writing a tangible political impact, to write in the interests of working people. It seems fair to say that Hewett could write Bobbin Up because of her political commitment and consequent experience in the horrendous mills of Sydney. In this sense Bobbin Up represents an important example of the working-class novel genre, an effective aesthetic representation of this period of Hewett’s life.

Nathan Hollier
Footscray, 1999.

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