Eve Langley and The Pea Pickers | Helen Vines #AWWbiography

Eve Langley (1904 -1974) is an enigmatic figure in Australian literary history.

One of the (many) reasons why Eve Langley is considered enigmatic is her writing. There was a LOT of it, but was it fiction or was it autobiographical? And how is it possible to tell the difference when the author deliberately leads you astray? This is one of the puzzles that Helen Vines attempts to solve.

Eve Langley and The Pea Pickers was a long term project for Vines that began with a 2008 PhD thesis at the University of Tasmania, called ‘The secret life of us : Eve Langley and her family’. In her Introduction to this book she clearly sets out her aims and goals – something I really appreciate in a biography. Vines let us know from the start which direction she intended to steer the story – to separate the fact from fiction.

Ultimately, though, a biography is a story. It is the story of someone’s life – the life they actually lived and the life they wished they had lived. A biographers job is to gather together the facts and documents and to respectfully bring together the various versions of the subjects life, often providing a sense of cohesion where there was none.

In her Introduction, Vines says,

This book seeks to unravel the myths that have emerged since Eve’s death in 1974 and replace them with a narrative based on historically verifiable source….to rigorously distinguish the fiction from the biography – to focus on what Eve said about herself and her family in her fiction without being distracted by questions of whether or not these representations are true, or by the circumstances in which the fiction was produced….Rigour is needed because, in addition to Eve’s evasiveness about her past in interviews, it emerges that she strategically manipulated the Langley family history, not just in the works of fiction that so many have read as straightforwardly autobiographical but also in the Langley family archives….it appears that Eve’s strange representation of herself and her family in her fiction seems to have less to do with the author’s gender alignment, and more to do with the pervasive secretiveness of the Langley family….The material is riddled with silences and imprisoning secrets.

Vines was determined to complete a chronology pf Eve’s life from contemporary documents. She was respectful of the work created by interviewers of Langley and previous biographers, but cognisant of the flaws and misinterpretations that influenced each one. Their main flaws were to read Langley’s work as pure autobiography and to accept uncritically the assessments made by Eve’s sister, June, her husband, Hilary Clark and other notable figures like Hal Porter.

Porter’s comments about Eve and their visit to Metung, have been regularly quoted and they appear in full in his own autobiography. Vines felt that though his descriptions of Eve were “eloquent and evocative“, they simply added one more “layer of mysticism, that, in part, serves his own agenda as a writer of fiction“.

Langley did not like to edit or go over her work. Once she had typed it up and sent it off to the publisher (Angus & Robertson) she was done with it, happy to leave it to the editors to fix the inconsistencies. She often expressed her impatience at how long it took The Pea Pickers, and later, White Topee to be published, not always appreciating the work her editors, Beatrice Davis and Nan McDonald put into revising and preparing them for the public. Major changes within Angus and Robertson during the 1960’s and 70’s were the main reasons why her other manuscripts were not published. The time, money and energy to cultivate ‘rough’ manuscripts into a niche literary gem simply vanished as the company’s priorities changed. Although, certainly, some of the unpublished works were rougher than others and would have required a LOT of work.

The speed and compulsion under which Eve wrote, and the constant repetition of themes, would suggest that her writing was a cathartic experience first and foremost. Even though she desired publication, she wasn’t prepared to engage in the revision process necessary to make it happen.

Angus & Robertson archived the many letters that were exchanged between Eve, Beatrice and Nan and other A&R staff. Vines set out to read these in chronological order to discover that though odd at times, Langley’s communication with her editors was almost always respectful and professional in tone. The curious thing was to also read June’s letters to Beatrice around the time that Eve was released from the Auckland Mental Hospital. June obviously had her own agenda as well.

The sisters’ relationship was not as a close by this point as it was initially depicted in The Pea Pickers. In fact, one of the saddest moments for me was realising that both sisters were actually living in Katoomba at the end of Eve’s life, but estranged, which is why no-one thought to check on her for so long.

Another little curiosity that Vines cleared up concerned my earlier review of The Pea-Pickers about whether to add a hyphen to the title or not. The original 1942 publication did not have a hyphen, neither did the second edition in 1958. The 1966 reprint had The Pea Pickers on the front cover but used The Pea-Pickers on the title page. Every edition since then has used the hyphenated version. No reason was given why or how this happened. Throughout her book, Vines used the unhyphenated original title whenever she referred to The Pea Pickers. I have too, except for where I refer to the particular edition that I read earlier this year, which did include the hyphen in the title. Now you know!

One of the chapters I found most fascinating was Chapter 4: The Representation of Family in Eve Langley’s Fiction. Here Vines treated Langley’s fiction as a separate entity. She read her works purely as fiction to see what she could learn about Eve’s/Steve’s fictional family. Previous biographers have always merged the two, considering them interchangeable but Vines wanted to gather the ‘facts’ about the fictional family together. She also wanted to show that autobiographical fiction is not an autobiography.

There were a lot of discrepancies between books and within books. For Vines though, the one significant fact that shone through this reading process was the secrets. The family depicted in Langley’s fiction had a lot of secrets. Secrets they kept from the world and secrets they kept from each other. But unlike the real life family, Vines found that through her fiction,

Eve was determined to write this family out of the code of secrecy that characterised the Langley family.

It was not an easy process for Langley though. She went around in circles, contradicted herself many times and lacked a cohesive narrative, but there was one secret she could never quite bring herself to write about. Vines followed the trail of clues and came to the conclusion that the unspoken, unresolved secret concerned “the body and sex“.

Vines has much more to say about this in the final chapter, called The Invisible Cloak of Childhood, which I will leave you to read for yourself. She does not solve all the mysteries or unearth definitive secrets, but the accumulated evidence does seem to point in a certain direction that would make sense of Eve’s life.

Vines’ biography of Eve Langley is utterly absorbing for anyone who feels curious about or has an interest in her life and work. Some sections read rather like a PhD thesis, but in the end I came to appreciate this clear, precise way of presenting all the information. Given how many sources she had at her disposal, Vines needed a methodical system of collating and presenting the relevant bits.

Eve’s personality was larger than life.

Her passion and creativity and genius leaps of the pages of her fiction, but so does her vulnerability and confusion. Vines captures all of this and more within the pages of this biography. A biography I did not want to end.

Related Posts:

Title: Eve Langley and The Pea Pickers
Author; Helen Vines
Imprint: Monash University Publishing
Published:  May 2021
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 369
  • This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin.

17 thoughts on “Eve Langley and The Pea Pickers | Helen Vines #AWWbiography

  1. I have spent a long time thinking about Eve Langley, since she was a central part of my dissertation, not least about the nine novels by one of our finest writers, discarded as ‘unreadable’. When she heard about the Prior Prize she re-wrote her earliest journal as fiction, as The Pea Pickers, submitted it and was a joint winner. Although it was clearly “autofiction” I can’t see why anyone would regard it as autobiography.
    That’s sad, that June was in the Blue Mountains when Eve died. You go up there, is there any memorial to her?
    In both Miles Franklin’s and Eve Langley’s works the heroines seem both fascinated by and repelled by sex. I will be interested to see what Vines says.

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    1. Sadly there is no memorial for Eve in Katoomba but there was a group (pre-Covid) that was trying to rectify that situation. I haven’t seen anything in the local community paper in recent times though.

      I wrote this assuming quite a bit of prior knowledge about Eve’s life and meant to add in my related post links from the earlier review for anyone wanting to go back to find out the basic biographical details….and forgot! Your comment has reminded me.

      Vines dispelled the myth that the unpublished manuscripts were unreadable, except perhaps in the physical sense as Eve resisted all suggestions about how to present her work to make it easier for an editor to work with. And they were certainly unpolished and rambling in nature, most of them being the one and only draft she wrote.

      I think my next task will be to hunt down second hand copies of White Topee and Lucy Frost’s Wilde Eve. She has got under my skin.

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      1. Thanks for the links. Unfortunately, what I have two copies of is The Pea Pickers (My local indie had a first edition hardback with dustjacket that I could not resist). But I’m happy to lend you the other two if you don’t locate them (after xmas when the mail settles down!)

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  2. I am not familiar with the author, but got quite mesmerised by your post. What an interesting person. And don’t we all love a secret and mystery.

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    1. I’m in the middle of a fabulous run of biographies about Australian women writers – this is definitely the best one so far (although I’m halfway through the new one about Gillian Mears which is heading towards the top of the list too!)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post Brona … Langley got under my skin too when I read The pea pickers in 2009, having grown up with Mum’s early edition copy on the shelves and always wanting to read it.

    I greatly expanded her article in Wikipedia, and created the Wikipedia article on the novel, but it has been expanded since so you can’t (easily) tell what I did and what others did. However, I did call it “The Pea-Pickers” because I had the 1958 second edition, which as you say, had no hyphen on the cover but a hyphen on the title page. Librarians always use the title page as authority. On my blog I have the hyphen in my post title, but not in my Index! I have always been uncertain. But, the first edition title page should be the go – though, I wonder what Eve herself put.

    Thanks for the link of course.

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      1. You have the same ed I have then – do you have the dust jacket. I think it’s the same as the first ed. which is probably why you thought you had that one.

        I have always been disconcerted by that hyphen, but now Brona (Vines) has explained, I hope I’ll remember to not use the hyphen in future.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. From what I can see, all the original paperwork (publishing agreement and letter exchanges at the time) referred to the Pea Pickers with no hyphen (or capital T).

      One day I will ask you more about editing wikipedia pages, what it involves etc.

      Liked by 1 person

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