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Penelope Hanley

A bohemian young Irishwoman, Deirdre O’Mara, arrives in The Rocks in 1920 and shakes up Sydney’s conservative society with her daring art.

Decades later, Deidre’s rebellious granddaughter is writing a thesis about her estranged and mysterious grandmother, and her family are disproving of the project. What secrets stay hidden? Penelope Hanley’s After She Left is set against the art scene of Sydney and spans three generations, exploring the woman’s liberation movement and changing politics. Here the author tells us about walking around Sydney to find remnants of the past, what she learned when delving into the personal papers of Australia’s great creators, and why she loves ‘ekphrasis’.

After She Left begins as young Irishwoman Deirdre O’Mara sails into Sydney Harbour in 1927. What interested you about the setting of Sydney in the 1920s?

In a word: modernism. It was a new way of thinking, not just about art but about the whole of life. It was a shift in perception that permeated all walks of life during roughly the first three decades of the 20th century. Of course it took a long time to be accepted in Australia but the work of those few modernists in painting, printmaking, sculpture, architecture, interior design and other spheres, was an exciting revolution, and many of them were women.

The between-the-wars period featured Jean Bellette, Lina Bryans, Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor, Grace Cossington Smith, Margo Lewers, who were agents of artistic change.

What were the best sources of research you used when imagining Sydney during this time? Are there many remnants of 1920 Sydney still around today that you can visit?

I researched books but walking around Sydney itself was inspiring. With so much of historical Sydney torn down, you’d imagine it would be slim pickings. But my stepdaughter was renting a flat in Clovelly and I stayed there while she was away and fell in love with Clovelly Bay, which they used to call Poverty Bay.

I walked around, absorbing the atmosphere. I pondered the names, many of them Irish, in Waverley Cemetery, the cemetery with the best view in the world, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

In the 1970s my boyfriend’s elderly aunt remembered Nosy Bob the hangman’s house on Ben Buckler Point, Bondi. I lived nearby and it stuck in my mind. It was a small step when writing this book to connect that house to the Razor Gang.

Can you describe the kind of art that Deirdre creates? 

The strange, rugged beauty of Australia’s natural world affects Deirdre enormously. She views it with wonder and does meticulous realism first, later incorporating the plants, and animals, the sea and the light, into an unorthodox dreamy surrealist vision to express deeper passions.

After a big loss she pours her feelings into her work. I had much fun imagining her paintings and describing them, which was along the lines of ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture’! Writing about paintings – imagined or real – is called ekphrasis, a word I love.

Deirdre was single-minded about her art. That can be very hard to live with, as we see!

In the 1972 thread of the story, Keira, Deirdre’s granddaughter, is writing a thesis about Deirdre, who has become estranged from the family. What motivates Keira to seek out information about her grandmother with such determination (especially as her parents as so disproving of the idea)?

Keira is rebellious and quite immature in many ways. Like me, she was raised as a strict Catholic. She rejects those values and thinks her parents are old-fashioned. The photographic essay she dreams up for her art school studies seems to hit a nerve, with both parents being against her digging up the past. This opposition only serves to strengthen her determination to do it.

Even though there are hardly any photographs for her proposed photographic essay she stubbornly goes ahead, driven by curiosity and then ends up getting much more than she bargained for, which affects all three generations of her family. 

In 2009 you put together Creative Lives: Personal papers of Australian writers and artists. What were some of the greatest revelations you made when going through these archives at the National Library of Australia?

Writing Creative Lives was an adventure. Letters and diaries connect us with the past in a visceral way, bringing it back to life. Discovering that Eleanor Dark routinely climbed in the Blue Mountains in bare feet – there’s even a photo of it taken by her husband – was amazing. And the lively, witty correspondence between her and Karl Shapiro, a handsome young American soldier stationed in Australia for part of the Second World War, was a delight. There’s a danger in delving through manuscripts – you can fall in love with men who are dead!

I read how Judy Cassab outwitted the Nazis by forging signatures for Jewish passports – it involved a hard-boiled egg! Of course the literary gossip is riveting but a couple of deeper themes they revealed was the changes wrought by technological improvements from the 19th century to the 21st; and it reinforced my conviction that we can all lead creative lives, if we express our authentic selves and do whatever we do with awareness and panache.

After She Left is set in the 1920s, the 1950s and 1970s. Did you set out, in part, to chart the changing ideas about women’s rights, marriage and pregnancy in this book?

I wanted to explore the impact of those changes on ordinary women’s lives. I drew a time chart of political events and read some relevant history but it was the newspapers and magazines that really helped.

I loved sitting in the National Library leafing through issues of The Home in the 1930s, The Women’s Weekly all through and Cleo for the 1970s. An advertisement might say more about society’s changing attitudes than a serious article, plus the ads told me what ordinary things cost at a particular time – alcohol, a pair of tights, chocolate – you know, the necessities of life!

What drew you to include the Whitlam election campaign in your novel?

It was a startling possibility of change in Australian society, coming after an interminably long period of conservative rule. The timing chimed in with social changes wrought by the Pill and technology, and many were questioning the values they’d been brought up with. Change was in the air and when Labor won, it divided families, especially about the conscription issue.

My older brother was the right age to be called up for Vietnam and it is his opinions, combined with those of Michael Matteson, a famous Sydney draft resister who was a friend of mine later, that I was thinking of when I wrote Rowan’s opinions on conscription.

After She Left by Penelope Hanley is published by Ventura Press.