I spent years wondering what reading nineteenth-century novels was for. Of course this didn’t stop me reading, studying and eventually teaching them. While I loved reading them, I never felt they had much to say about how to go about my day-to-day life. They informed my inner landscape, and gave me a keen sense of the complexity of things. And yet there was precious little overlap with my life in Adelaide in the late twentieth century.
Instead I looked elsewhere for answers. Psychology helped me understand what puzzled me most about other people and myself. Freud and Lacan, in particular, had a lot to say on the most troubling yet gripping aspects of existence. The superego, psychological defences and intrapsychic conflict – terms like these, so clunky on paper, came alive and made sense of the woman I’d become. Although I refer to this kind of psychology much less now, as a young woman it gave me real courage and insight.
I still read nineteenth-century novels. I just didn’t look to them to answer my most pressing questions, which I kept for my therapist. At a certain point my psychological interests took me further afield. I spent a day a week on an Acute Ward, talking to patients who had given up trying to tell their story in any straightforward way. For eighty per cent of the time these people were cogent – puncturing my idea of a loony bin. And yet they were also completely vulnerable. When, in one-to-one conversation, we pushed beyond chit-chat, it became obvious that they had no idea what might happen to them next. In turn they were angry, apathetic, insightful and funny. But, apart from the odd cliffhanger involving social services and ambulances, they couldn’t tell their own story.
Then I had a baby and, two years later, another. The experience of motherhood took me even further from nineteenth-century literature. (And acute wards for that matter.) There were no babies to speak of in realist novels. The heroines were always young and, if a baby was born, he or she was part of the plot, never a rounded character. Besides as a new mother I had no time to lose myself in a book. I read in snatches, furtively. Or so late at night that I fell asleep in my favourite chair, a cold cup of tea by my side.
When my family and I left London, in 2001, it was for quality of life reasons. After nearly twenty years away it just felt right. We sold our upstairs flat in North London and bought a Victorian house in a Melbourne suburb. It was near to the river, a large oval, and the entrance to a motorway that took us to the mountains or the beach. It was a good life. Not an easy life – but then what life with young children is?
After eight years in Melbourne the heat and scale of the city got to us. My husband objected to the long sticky summers, and I didn’t relish them either. Money was tight. School fees were high. Besides I’d already left my networks behind once. And I yearned for a physical freedom, for our growing children, that big cities can’t give.
Two short holidays later, we put an offer in on half of a big Georgian house in Hobart. When the offer was accepted it was a dream come true. The house spoke to my husband and me on a deep level. The imaginative challenge of renovating it, without falling into exorbitant debt, suited us both well. The house, sturdy and gracious and neglected, responded to our attentions and, after a year that I spent wearing dungarees and Dunlop Volleys, it became home.
Just when I thought we had finished renovating, the electrician told us that there were cloth-covered wires in the roof. The whole house, he said, needed rewiring. Then just a few nights later, during a wild storm, we awoke to loud bangs that made the children and me think – my husband was away – that the house was falling down.
The next morning I call our handyman. He laughs. Later that day he takes me up a long ladder on to the roof. Two sandstone chimneys, badly eroded, are held together with rusted braces, like bad dental work. Whole blocks of sandstone are misshapen, crumbling to sand. The gullies on the roof are rotting and pieces of iron are loose.
We reroof. Faced with a scary estimate for new sandstone chimneys, I tell the roofer to dismantle the decaying chimneys which are no longer in use. In the meantime our neighbours, who live in the other half of the house, reinstate their chimneys – and quickly let me know that they are incensed by my decision to take ours down.
Before the scaffolding is off the house I receive my first letter from the City Council. More window-face letters follow. At first I collect them like parking tickets, keeping them in a yellow folder that fattens as the months pass.
As soon as one matter is resolved, a new penalty letter arrives in our letterbox. The fact that our side of the house isn’t Heritage listed seems to make no difference. We live in a Council Heritage Overlay area and, if our house isn’t Heritage listed, the Heritage people at the Council make it clear that it should be. I hit the letters back, out of my court and into theirs, all the while avoiding our neighbours and doing my best to behave maturely.
As if overnight my children become teenagers. My husband, under renewed pressure with work, inconveniently decides to stop smoking. The letters from the Council keep on coming. The kitchen bench, they say, was illegally installed. The wood shed was never approved. An informal car park in our drive lacks a concrete run-off into a Council approved drain. The fence, which we copied from houses along the street, wasn’t agreed. The long sheets of new colourbond roofing are in breach of the short-sheet roofing iron used on Heritage properties, and may have to come off.
Pleasant people from the Council come and go at annoying times of day. We chat, I show them over the house, they take photos, and leave me on the front door step hoping that the matter will soon be resolved. Then the chimney problem goes to Tribunal. The Heritage Officer from the Council puts together a seventeen-page report focusing on the cultural significance of the roofline created by premium heritage housing stock. My lawyer – I now need one – suggests a Planning Consultant to appeal against the Council’s recommendation to reinstate the chimneys. The appeal is made, refused, and the matter goes to the next Council Meeting for a final decision.
On a Monday evening at 5pm, on a brisk winter’s evening, I attend the meeting at The Town Hall. Fluorescent lights in low-hanging brass fittings give a bluish white tinge to the long Council Chamber. Maroon and gold swirly carpet is on the floor. A narrow hand-painted frieze circles the walls, sandwiched between two varnished wooden rails. The barrel roof is decked out with a pastel blue, pink and gold heritage design.
I take a chair in the front row and wait for the meeting to begin. It is twenty-seven degrees inside, ten degrees outside. A female acquaintance who is running for Council this year takes the seat next to me. I murmur why I’m there and she wishes me luck. By the time my chimneys come on to the agenda I’m in a sweat. A Greens Councillor outlines my case in terms I don’t recognise. The Councillor who, a week before, I made a personal appeal to, excuses himself from the Chamber.
The moment he leaves I sense I am on my own. No one in the room is on my side, or even cares about the whole story. The owner of my house is talked about as if he is a man. A man who, openly flouting Council regulations, has had the temerity to spoil the skyline of Hobart’s premier heritage housing stock by wantonly tearing down the chimneys of his house. I shoot up my hand. The Mayor looks away. There are a few short snatches of exchange between Councillors – one of whom talks of growing up in the house next door – the matter is put to a vote, and a decision is made near-unanimously to reinstate the two chimneys. Without never once asking how much two sandstone chimneys might cost the owner to reinstate them.
Tears shoot out of my eyes. The woman on my right says something soothing which I can’t take in. On leaving the Council Chamber I pass one of the Councillors, and mention that I am the chimney man. Even though he looks at me kindly, seeing my tears, I know that he has just voted against my appeal.
I sit on the top step of the Town Hall stairs, carpeted in more swirly carpet, collecting my thoughts. But my thoughts won’t collect. They zap about like horse flies. I look scornfully and then mournfully at the décor that my Council rates help to pay for. I hate the Councillors, every one of them. I feel about seventeen years old. Don’t they read The Guardian Weekly? Haven’t they grasped global warming? How would they know what constitutes the cultural significance of anything, sitting in low-slung maroon velvet fire-side chairs, deliberating on my chimneys, one of which is only visible from Google Earth? And yet I know my reaction is futile. I know I have lost. All my breast beating and boring my friends and family stupid has come to nothing. Do Not Pass Go. Go Straight to Plague Island.
And then it happens. I suddenly know why I read all those nineteenth-century novels. I read all of them in preparation for the moment, this moment, when I become a character in my own nineteenth-century novel. I have the house. I have the family. I have the conflict with my husband. I have the angry neigbours. I have deaths in my family. I’m quite a bit older than most nineteenth-century heroines. But just as at every moment of narrative climax, there is no one who can help.
All I have is a choice. Either I can crumple right there on that swirly-carpeted stair. Or I can end the chapter, snap the book shut and move on. I can rant and rave, singe bitterness into my soul, risk legal fees and appeal against the Council’s ruling. Or I can swallow my pride, gather my savings, give thanks for my good life and beautiful house – and hope that Hobart property values keep steady.
With that I get up on to my feet, blow my nose, and ask the sleepy caretaker to let me out of the building. Bracing myself against the cold I head home where my family – who think I’ve been at a book launch – are hungry for supper.
When I was twenty, or very nearly, Diana married Prince Charles. Her cheeks, I remember, reflected the puffed fullness of the arms of her silk dress. As Princess Diana grew older – she turned thirty the year I turned thirty – her cheeks lost their soft blush. Her clothes and her figure slimmed down and her wardrobe mushroomed as she tried to concentrate on what she felt mattered most.
Thousands of books and newspaper columns have been written about Princess Diana. And yet, for me, the most telling fact surfaced in a diary written by a Housekeeper at Highgrove, Prince Charles’ country estate. Princess Diana, the Housekeeper wrote, had a thing about her underwear. Every time her underwear came back from the laundry, her maid was under strict instruction to throw out any piece that showed a hint of greying, and to immediately replace it with new underwear.
I envy this kind of ruthlessness – even if the environmentalist in me winces at the waste. Princess Di didn’t always know what she wanted, however she had clear views about what she didn’t want. Like the girl in ‘The Princess and the Pea’, Princess Di was sensitive to the tiny compromises that daily tug at us, and that quietly and imperceptibly threaten our self esteem. She wouldn’t put up with it. Off with its head!
I joke. And yet this story gets at something that touches us all, the dilemma we all feel at having to look after ourselves. We want order and beauty in our lives. We want a reasonable degree of comfort. However precious few of us has a maid whose job it is to keep an eye on the brightness of our underwear.
No matter how concerted we are, how proud we manage to be, how organised we are, few of us feel up to the sheer management that a well-run life assumes. When we read the glossies, or the Royal Housekeeper’s diary, it’s not to oggle at Royalty, but surreptitiously to track our own self-esteem amidst the circus that is our own life. And all the while we daydream about having a patch of uninterrupted time in which to go through our drawers and, with Princess-like disdain, to bin any stretchy greying underwear.