The Pea-Pickers | Eve Langley #AWW

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My first illness was that one most common to the children of the poor…a bad education and, like the bite of a goanna, it was incurable and ran for years.

Ethel Jane (Eve) Langley was born in Forbes on the 1st September 1904. After her father, Arthur died in 1915, her mother, Myra moved her small family back to Victoria. This is where she grew up herself, although her father had disowned her for marrying Arthur. It seems he never went back on this, and Myra was forced to work menial jobs to make ends meet for the rest of her life.

In 1924, Eve and her sister June (born Lillian May 1905) travelled and worked around the Gippsland countryside as farm labourers and pickers for the next four years. She kept a diary during this whole time of her doings, her thoughts, poems and stories. It was these she used to write her story The Pea-Pickers over a decade later in New Zealand, surrounded by her own two young children, whilst pregnant with her third, and also living in extreme poverty. Langley’s writing is very much lived social realism!

Her children were named Bisi Arilev, Langley Rhaviley and Karl Marx.

Eve moved to New Zealand in 1932. Her mother and June were already living there. She started writing and publishing poems seriously. She also seemed to struggle with difficult, unfulfilling love affairs, eventually falling in love with a much younger man, Hilary Clark. He was an artist and only 22. It would also seem that he was a reluctant beau, only agreeing to marry Eve after the birth of their first child. 

I theorised regarding my brain. It had four points of consciousness….I knew I was a woman, but I thought I should have been a man….It was tragic to be only a comical woman when I longed above all things to be a serious and handsome man….The third point of my consciousness was a desire for freedom, that is, to never work. The fourth desire, amounting to an obsession, to be loved.

In 1938, after the birth of their first child, Bisi, Eve finally married Hilary Clark. In an interview with Joy L. Thwaite (Eve’s biographer The Importance of Being Eve Langley 1987), on the 13 September 1983, Clark said:

Finally Bisi was conceived and I still made it clear that I wasn’t ready for marriage. But about the time that Bisi was due to be born, I’m not the sort of person who can father a bastard, so I succumbed, but I didn’t go and live with her. So, we got married and some time later, I think there was a gap between, I used to visit her. She lived at Birkenhead, [in the slums of Auckland], in a little cottage or back down the back of some old Maori people’s place. Nice old Maori people. But, she was terribly lonely and terribly miserable, I think. As usual, she was always writing. She used to write hours a day and neglect the children for her writing.

In 1940 Eve won the S. H. Prior Memorial Prize awarded by The Bulletin for her manuscript of The Pea-Pickers, along with Kylie Tennant for The Battlers and Malcolm Henry Ellis for his book Lachlan Macquarie. Sadly, the year The Pea-Pickers was published, 1942, was also the year her husband had her committed into a psychiatric hospital in Auckland.

It’s hard to know now, whether her mental health issues warranted being committed or not or whether they arose from confusion around her gender fluidity. It would seem though, that both parents were pretty careless with the children, yet it was Eve who had to pay the higher price.

In 2016 The Neglected Books Page wrote a wonderful review of Thwaite’s biography, which included a concise summary of how she became to be admitted into medical care.

Both Langley and her husband appear to have had extreme paranoid reactions to the possibility of Japanese attack on New Zealand and took their children out on a small sailboat they owned, looking for places they might hide. During one stormy night, Langley spilled boiling water on at least one of the children and all three were taken into custody by a nurse who knew the family. Her husband became concerned about her stability, particularly because he was expected to be called up for service, and he arranged for her to be committed for observation. Langley would spend the next seven years in the hospital.

In 1949, Eve was released from hospital, into the care of her sister. In 1956 she returned to Australia, travelling up and down the east coast, before heading off to Europe in 1959. Upon her return, she lived a reclusive life in a mountain shack between Katoomba and Leura. Her final days were beautifully evoked in The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn (2016), a fellow Blue Mountains resident, who obviously had a soft spot for Eve.

Despite, or perhaps because of her colourful personality, Eve attracted devoted friends over the years. On the Reading Australia website, Ruth Park talks about her time with Eve in New Zealand:

‘I never wanted to talk to or question Eve. To listen was enough. Her ideas were to me, dazzling. She opened doors in my mind in all directions. She would quote from Seneca, Montaigne, Epictetus, the Greek playwrights…. It was she who, in this careless drifting manner, filled my mind with treasure which still delights me. New Zealand, at this time, was a chill conservative country… this may explain my enchantment with this strange free person, Eve Langley. In appearance, she was for those times, a very unusual and unorthodox figure…. Eve was the first woman I ever saw who constantly wore slacks. She had bare, scratched, brown feet and wore thick leather sandals of a Franciscan type made for her by her [future] husband Hilary Clark.’

My own journey with The Pea-Pickers is still a work in progress.

Though Eve’s themes of time, memory, and a strong relationship to the land are evident from page one, it is her highly descriptive style, and incredible ear for dialogue that have struck me page after page.

Her story is one to savour. I think I would become overwhelmed if I tried to read too much of it in one sitting. It is rich, dramatic and exuberant. It is also incredibly sad at times. She breaks my heart on every other page. She is so vulnerable, but doesn’t seem to know it yet.

I laid myself aside until those who would come, in the future, should understand and love me.

In an interview in 1964, Langley described her writing process as an “embroidery of literature“, while Kate Makowiecka calls it “one long tumultuous inky shout” in her Reconsidering Eve Langley article in Antipodes, 1 December 2002, pp. 181–182.

Joy L. Thwaite, who wrote Eve’s entry on the Australian Dictionary of Biography, claims that “the sheer lyric detail and impassioned textural density of Langley’s prose is rare in Australian fiction.” Certainly, the only other Australian writer I can think of who has come close to moving me with words by creating such a rich, imaginary world out of their own reality, is Gerald Murnane.

I have high hope for the rest of my journey with Eve, or Steve, as she calls herself in her diaries and in The Pea-Pickers. I wish there were an annotated edition though, as she regularly refers to other poets and writers and often uses Latin and French phrases, all of which have me scrambling around with google to fill in my gaps.

Paul Verlaine and Keats have both been mentioned a number of times already and I suspect, if I was as familiar with their work (as Eve obviously was) I would see that she is tipping her hat to them in homage. Or not. I hate not knowing though!

Eve Langley 1957 with White Topee 1957

Image source

There has always been in me a strong light which is only liberated when I am about to make a fool of myself.

Silvery-grey houses, all deserted, were huddled in the timber that was still baked-looking from recent fires. The blackened trees stood in red, blue and golden ashes, and their young green leaves, hopeful and tender, swayed under their dead foliage. And all about was the silence of the Gippsland bush, the triumphant silence, the hypnosis eucalyptean, giving me indolence and dreams and sorrow for I knew not what.

Written for Bill @The Australian Legends Gen III Part II Reading Week 17th – 23rd January 2021.

#AustralianWomenWriters

15 thoughts on “The Pea-Pickers | Eve Langley #AWW

  1. If you enjoy The Pea Pickers, I recommend The Last Days of Ava Langdon, by Mark O’Flynn, which is an imaginative reconstruction of Langley’s last years and an affection homage to her and her eccentricity. I liked it because while it didn’t shy away from the difficulties she had, it showed her as a lively and spirited woman rather than as a melancholy victim.

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  2. Thankyou for this account of Eve’s life. She wrote herself up in 11 novels, only two of which were published. The second is White Topee, set in Gippsland again but ‘Steve’ has proper employment. She uses it to investigate further her wish to be a Lawson-esque bushman. The last 5 novels which are set in NZ and cover her unfortunate marriage have been abridged (quite well) by Lucy Frost as Wilde Eve. That is a really, really sad book, finishing with her husband spending her prize money on a stupid boat, abandoning her and having her committed and her brain fried with shock treatment.
    One point of yours I’d like to take issue with – Steve and June wore trousers as a political and practical statement that they could just as well as men live and work in the bush. She is often claimed as trans or bi but her writing makes clear she was firmly hetero and was simply torn between marriage and independence. She is my ideal Independent Woman.

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    1. I had no real thoughts about gender, one way or another, when I started this book. I had read Ava Langdon a few years back which focused on the end of days & her changing her name by deed poll to Oscar Wilde.
      But when I read early in The PP this – “I knew I was a woman, but I thought I should have been a man….It was tragic to be only a comical woman when I longed above all things to be a serious and handsome man…” I just assumed transgender, as the trans people I know have said similar things. Happy to stand corrected though.
      Either way, her husband sounds like a real piece of work!!
      I’m very keen to get a hold of the bio coming out in May.

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    1. I haven’t checked out any other reviews yet (except for Bill & Sue). I’m not very familiar with VW (only 2 books under my belt so far) but I can see how there could be a comparison to her earlier work, The Voyage Out, in particular (since that is one that I have read), before she went full-on stream of consciousness (i.e. this is NOT like To The Lighthouse, which I found impenetrable when I tried it in my early twenties).

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  3. I enjoy the simplicity of the language in the quotations you’ve included. I can see how such clear statements would emphasize rather than minimize the emotional weight of reading these sentences, how you feel you need to ration the reading. It reminds me of novels like Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, which are also written so directly, so cleanly…no risk of being called sentimental, with all the power of plain speech.

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    1. I suspect Eve/Steve was far too practical to write flowery, romantic language. Realism was the name of the game, and given the poverty her family lived in, you could also say, it was Social Realism.
      But it’s never that simple. Her love of the bush and the stories of the past told by her mother, that idealised an earlier, simpler time, also suggests a nod to the Bush Pioneer mode of writing.

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  4. Sorry, I missed this Brona – it flashed up on my screen and then disappeared – I think the day before Bill’s week started, and I intended to come back later, but haven’t until now. I love this book, and I think the word “exuberant” is perfect for it. I think my review was a little qualified in places, but it’s a book that has stuck with me, and grown on me as time has gone on, which says something about its power.

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