JUNE 20 2019
One of things I always tell writing students I learnt from Frank Moorhouse. Frank used to say to Always go to the party. As in: literally accept the invitation. Because something might happen at the party. It might not. But it might. Whereas if you don’t go to the party, nothing will definitely happen.
Nothing could demonstrate this more serendipitously than when years ago, Sue Ingleton, the legendary actress and comedian, was playing the role of sports editor in the tv drama series Mercury, set in the offices of a broadsheet newspaper. Broadsheet newspapers were laughably these actual 3D versions of a news website, made out of trees, typeset by humans and thrown onto your front lawn by a kid on a bike. So basically, if there is anyone here under 45 she was in a kind of local period drama.
As she tells it:
I gazed up at my fake Sports Editor Reference Library on the shelf above my fake desk. The Australian Biography of Sport called out to me. I took it down, a heavy tome which immediately fell open at a page drawing my gaze to the name: Harriet Elphinstone Dick – a champion swimmer who emigrated from England in 1875 with her friend, Alice C. Moon. Perhaps I smelt the ocean, but I swear I heard a seagull’s cry as a familiar ritual shudder went through my bones alerting me to the fact that these two women were calling to me from that place beyond the grave.
Why is it that a casual glance, a fleeting thought, an chance encounter at a party can sometimes, change our lives? It may happen rarely but from that seemingly random fraction of a second, marriages are made, children are born, people die in road rage incidents and works of art are ignited. Sometimes our brains, our eyes, our thoughts move on to the next momentary fragment of a momentary fragment of time without a pause, but once in a while we smell the ocean in that moment and everything changes.
I suspect it is a simultaneous blink of history and mood and taste and timing that allows us to stop and travel further into that tiny engagement. And how lucky for us that Sue looked up at that Biography of Sport prop on that set and flicked open the page to Harriet Elphinstone Dick, the champion swimmer who became, effectively, a fascinating if hitherto unknown Australian when she came to her in 1875 with another young woman, Alice Moon from England.
Sue’s immersion in story-telling from every perspective, as actor, director, writer has transformed an historical footnote into a wonderfully vivid book: Making Trouble: tongued with Fire – an imagined history of the two women. Drawing on fact and years of research, as well as her very pronounced and sometimes pretty whacky instinct, Sue has been able to transform the findings of her obsessive sleuthing: official records, newspaper clippings, odd photographs and so on, into a narrative filled with great dialogue and vibrant scenes that one can picture effortlessly through her vivacious command of language and very skilled understanding of how to hold an audience – or reader – captive.
With her customary wit, a beguilingly fluent historical literary style, a great command of description and an ability to free fact into fully winged fancy, I think Sue has probably come closer to the truth of these women than she could ever prove. By incorporating the sensibilities of the time they lived, with their imagined individual yearnings, triumphs, flaws, indiscretions and powerful convictions, they become three dimensional protagonists who carry the past to us. And it helps that Sue –unlike many male historians – is unafraid to draw down on her own her own experience and sensibility, and her femininity, to make them live. If it weren’t for this unconventional freedom, Harriet and Alice would remain footnotes. Sometimes it takes an imagination to free history and invigorate it for the present. But such a tactic is courageous. Luckily, Sue is brave in everything she tackles.
Sue writes: “I’ve had to qualify this work as An Imagined History, for there are very few proofs; no letters, no direct descendants both women being childless, no personal communications, only some newspaper stories, advertisements and sections of a thesis written in 1985 as source material – but I do have a direct line to spirit and they do talk to me and guide me. “
However one might describe it – and I interpret spirit as a human, humane and adventurous will to believe – the spirit of Harriet – a young prize winning swimmer in Brighton England (when girls were, obviously, rarely prize-winning in anything particularly physical pursuits) runs through this story. Alongside her is Alice – an aspiring scientist equally forward-thinking about women’s right to aspire and become something – and both women are persuasively evoked in Making Trouble.
Arriving in Melbourne in 1875, they became well known advocates and teachers for gymnastics and swimming for women and girls, teaching at the still famous girls’ school Ruyton. Harriet’s 1902 obituary referred to her a “a strong advocate of woman’s advancement” and observed:
In partnership with the late Miss A.C. Moon, she devoted her life to the systematic physical culture of girls, first in the teaching of swimming and then by course of general physical training on the Swedish principle. She will be remembered gratefully by the several hundred of Victorian women, who benefitted from her training and sympathetic kindness.
But these two remarkable young women also became entrepreneurs – not only in sport and health but in farming, journalism and hospitality with Alice’s establishment of The Central Luncheon and Tearooms in Lonsdale Street.
Alice also encouraged Harriet to make a quieter life in the country, where they cleared a tract of land in Beaconsfield, a bucolic magnet for artists, and build a cottage where they could live with a kind of freedom impossible in the old country, riding bikes and donning trouser suits. Sue notes that in Beaconsfield, Harriet and Alice and their female friends were called ‘the amazons’ by the locals.
When Alice subsequently told Harriet she wanted to leave her, Harriet’s heart was broken. Alive moved to Sydney and fraternised with the female protagonists of the forward-thinking feminist minded beau-monde, joining women’s organisations such as the Womanhood Suffrage League and the Women’s Literary Society, fighting for women’s rights. After working as a journalist, and writing published short stories, Alice returned to her first love: science. But about this, I won’t say too much as this relates to the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mystery component of the book.
Through Sue’s skilful pen and her great big open heart, she vivaciously confirms what my father always told me. That every life, every single life, is interesting when told in detail. In Making Trouble, we not only have a picture of early feminism and feminists, channelled through Sue’s eternally switched-on interest in women’s empowerment, but a very moving story of two women in search of meaning – a search involving multiple endeavours – but most fulsomely found in their love for one another.
Within its pages is also a compelling crime component related to Alice’s death. I don’t want to give it away, but it begins when Sue and her teenage daughter, Roxi, go searching for Alice’s grave at Old South Head cemetery.
“Thrilled, I ran uphill to where Roxi was literally dancing on a grave. And there it was. Number 120. There was the name. Such a shock to see Alice Moon’s name printed large and clear beneath a plain white cement cross surmounted on three tiers, a bit like a wedding cake. The cross was actually severed at its base and below the cross piece and was just balancing there. Suddenly Alice existed. Suddenly she was there. “
ALICE C. MOON DIED 21ST OF APRIL 1894 AGED 37 YEARS
When Roxi finds the grave in that hallelujah moment, they discover the names of several women, their birth and death dates, inscribed on the sides of the gravestone and an odd biblical inscription: “When He giveth quietness, who then can make trouble.”
What would lead anyone to choose this of all biblical quotes for a deathstone? And why the names of the other women? It read like a clue, or a puzzle, some tale of hidden truths, of a death inspired by the need to protect secrets literally to the grave.
Sue’s wonderful work in deciphering the story behind the quote and the names, using her powerful instincts to make sense of snatches of evidence, is one of the most fabulous strands of this compelling narrative.
I congratulate Sue – perhaps the definition of multi-talented -- on a true labour of love: a project driven by love and about it but invigorated by a fascinating prism into our past. It has been beautifully edited and is a very handsome publication by Spinifex Press, who I also congratulate for their faith and taste in a work of literary faction that helps us understand our own history in such an original and entertaining way. Please go and buy it.