How do you write the story of your own mother’s life with love and compassion, but also honesty, frankness and objectivity? And how do you make it interesting and meaningful to people outside your immediate family?
How do you write about someone who you are so close to; whose very history is so intricately bound to your own?
One of the ways that Grenville has achieved this is by stopping One Life at her own birth. She also declared early on her intentions:
My mother wasn’t the sort of person biographies are usually written about. She wasn’t famous, had no public life beyond one letter published in the Sydney Morning Herald, did nothing that would ever make the history books….
Not many voices like hers are heard. People of her social class…hardly ever left any record of what they felt and thought and did. They often believed their lives weren’t important enough to write down….As a result, our picture of the past is skewed towards the top lot.
I was reminded of Clare Wright’s preface in The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, where she challenged the myth of no women in the goldfields.
Here, Grenville is challenging the history books to find the quieter, family stories within. She explores the domestic dramas of early twentieth century Australia to show us how they still impact on many of us today.
Like Grenville, my grandparents were god-fearing, working class folk. Hardship, doing without and getting on with it were the common lot. Physical love and affection were just two of the things that seemed to be ‘done without’ in many of these families.
Grenville, also firmly places her mother’s experiences within the social context of the time between the wars. The difficulties in getting a higher education if you were a woman and, even harder, getting a job during the Depression. Giving up your career to have children, struggling to resume work with limited child care options and no support at home from your husband. Staying in a loveless marriage for the sake of the kids; knowing there was nowhere else to go anyway.
At one point, Nance discovers the writing of Elizabeth Taylor. She couldn’t put her book down as,
Elizabeth Taylor proved what Nance had always known, that the quiet domestic dramas of women’s lives might be invisible to men, but they mattered just as much.
This book matters too. It’s part of our shared history. These are the families who worked the farms that fed us, ran the pubs and grocery stores and built our roads. And women, like Nance, with all their foibles and complexities and contradictions, are the people who cared for us, gave us our first lessons in life and who fought, one social constraint at a time, to give us the freedoms and equality that we enjoy today.
This review is part of my Australian Women Writers challenge.