And reports from Bairnsdale, in the Gippsland district, indicate that Mr Nils Desperandum, of Sarsfield, will have the largest crop of apples, this year, for miles around. – INTERSTATE WEEKLY.
On a hot Australian morning I read the above advertisement out to June as we sat in the low-roofed kitchen of our old home in Dandenong.
One of the advantages of taking a long time to write up a review for a book that has had a huge impact on you, is that it gives you time to mull things over.
It’s well over a month since I finished The Pea-Pickers, a book that took me about three months to read. It’s not an easy read and to do it justice, it does need time and thought. But it was worth it. In the end.
As time has gone by, I have come to truly appreciate what Langley achieved with this autobiographical fiction about her time as an itinerant worker, dressed as a man, in rural Victoria in the 1920’s. Some of the flaws that bugged me during the reading process, now seem less of a problem with distance.
Curiously the pros and cons were often commingled, or two sides of the same coin. From Langley’s exuberant descriptions of place to her home-spun poetry. From her vulnerable philosophising to her intellectual search for meaning and independence. All could be annoying, or endearing, depending on my mood and levels of tiredness.
I thought of nothing save love and beauty and sorrow.
The Pea-Pickers was a book to savour and deliberate over, a little bit at a time. It is not a book to binge read or rush through. It wasn’t always easy to live with Steve/Eve; she was best in small doses. Think of one of those over-the-top, high spirited, super-sensitive people in your life, that you enjoying catching up with for brief amounts of time. Their charismatic energy is stimulating but exhausting. That’s Steve.
I often wished that I had an annotated version, as Langley referred to many poets, writers and philosophers that I barely knew. She also used a number of unfamiliar words like etymon, autochthonousness, and replevined to name a few, as well as many French and Latin quotes. I spent a lot of time at the beginning researching the various references, but my enthusiasm waned a little by the end.
A detailed map would have been handy too.
Steve and Blue travelled up and down the east coast of NSW and Victoria searching for work. Through places like Rutherglen, Albury, Junee and Gundagai. Up into the mountains around Wangaratta, Ovens, Happy Valley, Myrtleford and the Alpine Rail Trail. Down into the Gippsland area including Bairnsdale, Lakes Entrance, Tambo River and Metung, where most of the story takes place.
The Oxford Literary Guide to Australia (Pierce; 1987) includes several references to Eve Langley and The Pea-Pickers, including Bairnsdale, Tambo Valley and Lakes Entrance. The main reference, though, is reserved for the beautiful coastal town of Metung. Steve and June approached Metung, for the first time, by boat.
Drawing near the foreshore of the town, we saw a little grey shed lying among the dark bush, with nets spread out before it. Then we rounded the point, drew to the jetty and the boat crashed softly against the piles. And…it was not the fairy town that we had seen from afar. Yet that vision had been true. Within itself, Metung was more glorious through the lives of the people, and they were indeed kings….
Here was Metung. A jetty, a weatherboard hotel and a post-office, with houses scattered around…all splendid with the lives of those who were to join mine for some years to come.
When we visited Metung in March, we approached by road.
We had beer and dinner in the old hotel as we watched a wild and woolly storm blow in. We stayed in one of the nearby cottages, secure and warm from the storm, where I read my next instalment of The Pea-Pickers.
Unforgettable first morning in Metung! Alas, our youth…where is it? O dawn, that came red from the burning furnace of time. I feel that I shall go mad if I cannot recapture it; and I never shall.
Yet the earth that morning was filled with an indifference that was comforting. The dawn spread wide and red; the seagulls flew quietly through the skies. Down to the water’s edge we ran with Jim, to where a tall crane stood meekly thinking over his diet or worms.…
What a wonderful place that foreshore was in the morning of early spring! The very rubbish littering the coloured pebbles on which the waters fell was romantic. Clouds flew lightly and airily above us, bush birds sang out broken phrases, and the blue lake chanted in its blue and white depths. I felt that there was something about the place that would hold me forever…that no other place in the world would possess me as would the foreshore of Metung.
You get the idea. Eve Langley and her protagonist/alter ego, Steve, were enamoured by Metung.
Langley returned to the area in the 1950’s with her friend and writer, Hal Porter, to revisit old haunts from her novels. He wrote in his third autobiography, The Extra (1975) that Metung was a ‘lakeside village of great charm. Out of season, it’s a fishing, boat-building, yachting Sleepy Hollow, with a number of closed up cottages.‘
Certainly, one of the pleasures in reading The Pea-Pickers was seeing so many Australian towns and villages (that I know with varying levels of intimacy) as they were in the 1920’s. As a country girl at heart, seeing the bush through the eyes of someone who clearly loved it and the way of life it offered, was a real treat. Even the less than positive aspects of country life, are described in an affectionate manner.
Dipping into my new/old copy of Australian Literature (Miller & McCarthy; 1956) The Pea-Pickers was described as a narrative,
told in the first person. Its vivid sketches of the people and circumstances are written in an energetic style expressive of an imagination so intense as to be sometimes almost oracular….That sybilline quality mixes with matter-of-fact details and a drollery lightening the account of the discomforts the two girls endure for the sake of the experience they seek in earning a living….generally the ideas of life expressed are intuitive, without any philosophic hesitations, and the whole sweeps along, carrying powerfully and buoyantly its flamboyance and even flourishes of farcical comedy.
I think Frederick McCarthy may have had a touch of the flamboyant himself! Although it is very hard not to emulate Langley’s exuberance when talking about her writing. After almost 400 pages of over-the-top, dramatic statements and descriptions, one feels the need to at least keep up!
When you read Bill’s post @The Australian Legend about this book (see links below) you will see that his focus centres around the idea of the Independent Woman.
Eve Langley and her alter ego Steve, clearly and often, declared their desire for freedom and independence. But I also think it was more than just a woman wanting to wear men’s clothing for reasons of practicality, ease and comfort. Eve/Steve’s concerns were larger than autonomy of movement, freedom to work and liberty from domestic work and having babies, she also seemed to be engaging with the broader issue of gender roles and identity.
I found many comments within The Pea-Pickers that explored what it means to be feminine or masculine. Virginity and purity were big concerns for Langley too. Her thoughts about sex and passion were complicated and contradictory at times. The relationship between Steve and the Black Serpent, later in the novel, described a growing sensual connection between the two women. It would seem that Langley/Steve’s desire for freedom was also a desire to be free to love anyone, regardless of gender. Yet, love proved to be an elusive and complicated thing for Eve throughout her life.
- ‘I laid myself aside until those who would come, in the future, should understand and love me….At the moment, however, I was only a woman in man’s clothes asking for work on an orchard.’
- ‘We are not young women. We are life, sorrow, loneliness, searching…God knows what for.’
- ‘we want to live like bushman and pea-pickers, in old huts. Freedom…freedom.’
- ‘My love for you is pure. I do not need to touch you. I am with you; that is enough. From other women coarse satisfaction may be obtained.’
- ‘Every day, I long more feverishly to be a man. Why? Because then I shouldn’t desire man. I should have woman to work my will on.’
- ‘All my life I shall be a virgin. All my days in the flesh shall be pure. I do not desire any other state, and shall go henceforth as I came, unsoiled.’
- ‘What meaning smiles she gave me when we met! Plump-armed, she stood of the board veranda that winced under the heat of the sun, her rich red lips twisted over her stained teeth with love and delicious enjoyment at my coming. Negligently, she leant out and caught me up against her heavy warm breasts and let me rest my head there, while her fingers, roughly, intimately and demandingly, caressed my hands….She smiled, catching her lower lip in her teeth, and kissed my hand.’
- ‘If I had been a man I should have married just such a woman and toiled for her thankfully.’
- ‘Hello Stessa! she called to me, and kissed me with frank lips on the mouth….I knew that the Black Serpent loved me, almost with a man’s love.’
- ‘She kissed me calmly and walked to the gate with me, her round arms hanging over my shoulders, her fingers holding on to mine, twitching and turning them over, caressingly, with an unbearable feeling of love.
Langley’s vulnerability around the whole love thing was heart-breaking at times.
She was so desperate to be loved for herself and to feel a grand passion, yet she kept falling for the charms of any Tom, Dick or Harry who happened across her path. Men who were never going to satisfy her needs or understand her emotional life. I’m really hoping that Helen Vines new biography Eve Langley and The Pea Pickers (2021) will reveal more about of Langley’s complex inner life; she was a fascinating person, tormented by strong feelings and thoughts.
I suspect there will be a Part Three to my Eve Langley Pea-Pickers’ posts.
There are still so many more elements within this story to explore.
- The latent, casual racism,
- the cruel jokes,
- the stealing,
- the brushes with police and bosses,
- the nature of working class life in the country,
- rural education,
- colonialism and the dispossession of First Nation peoples, just to name a few.
- And without, I’d love to know more about Langley’s influences,
- what she read,
- who inspired her,
- how did other writers, and her family, experience her before and after her time in the psychiatric hospital,
- which feminist writers and thinkers had she read by the time she sat down to write this book in 1940,
- how and why did Oscar Wilde come to figure so strongly in her life?
- And why was this book included in their top ten list of Australian Classics (Gleeson-White; 2007) by so many contemporary Australian writers?
However, at some point, you just have to be done with a post. And this is it!
- The Pea-Pickers | Eve Langley Part 1
- The Last Days of Ava Langdon | Mark O’Flynn
- Eve Langley wrote two novels from Bill @ The Australian Legend
- Wilde Eve by Lucy Frost from Bill @ The Australian Legend
- Eve Langley’s The Pea-Pickers from Sue @ Whispering Gums
- Join winner of the 1941 S. H. Prior Memorial Prize for an unpublished novel.
- I have included a hyphen in the title throughout my posts as my book clearly has a hyphen, although I can see that earlier editions do not use a hyphen. Who knows why?
Book: The Pea-Pickers Author: Eve Langley ISBN: 9780732296940 Publisher: A&R Classics Date: 2013 (originally published 1942) Format: paperback