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Rosalie Ham

Australian author ROSALIE HAM is following up on her bestselling debut The Dressmaker this month with The Dressmaker’s Secret. Tilly Dunnage is back, as is the small-town gossip, buried secrets and intoxicating Australian Gothic. MAX LEWIS finds out what has drawn Rosalie back to her classic tale of 20 years ago.

Rosalie Ham, author of the bestselling 2000 novel The Dressmaker, which in turn spawned a movie starting Kate Winslet, believes herself to be an ‘accidental novelist’. How does one simply stumble into such resounding success on their first attempt?

The Dressmaker's Secret by Rosalie Ham

‘I went to enrol in a writing course and found the subjects I wanted were full,’ Rosalie tells me. ‘As I was leaving, a teacher stopped me and said, “A lot of people applied for this course, and you got in, so you might as well do something.”’

Rosalie settled for a class titled Novel and Short Story. Within three weeks she felt she’d found her home and thought she could even try writing a book of her own.

‘I might write an awful novel, but I thought I could give it a red-hot go. So, I wrote The Dressmaker.’ Upon the book’s publication, readers quickly fell in love with the eccentricities of Dungatar, a small Victorian town, and the dressmaker herself, Tilly Dunnage. Rosalie later built upon her talents for sardonic Australian Gothic with Summer at Mount Hope, There Should be More Dancing and The Year of the Farmer, but found that between the continued success of The Dressmaker and its subsequent film adaptation, her thoughts were continually occupied by Tilly and the people of Dungatar.

‘Even without the curious school students, the piercing reflections of the audiences at library talks and the exposure from the film, Tilly stayed with me. In returning to Dungatar and Milly, she had created another past to flee. She needed to grow and triumph on her own terms and consolidate her right to a good and free life. I needed to write that.’

The Dressmaker’s Secret is Tilly’s next chapter. In 1953, she’s living in Melbourne having made a fiery exit from her hometown of Dungatar. Hoping for a new start and some anonymity, she earns her meagre keep in a Collins Street salon – but soon her natural talents get the better of her, and she begins to make a name for herself. Meanwhile, residents from Dungatar are still reeling from the damage Tilly left in her wake.

For Rosalie, the change of scenery from the dusty isolation of Dungatar to the hustle and bustle of ’50s Melbourne was important not just aesthetically but thematically.

‘For the inhabitants of Dungatar, the isolation was enemy to their worldliness and ability to change and grow. In more cosmopolitan Melbourne, Tilly’s self-imposed isolation was her friend. She could slink about in plain sight, melt into the crowd unlike in Dungatar, where all eyes were on her. The people of Melbourne are a little more sophisticated, whereas the people of Dungatar only think they are. That’s part of the irony of Tilly’s life.’

The Dressmaker’s Secret takes place against the backdrop of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, and an explosion of women’s fashion, which gave Rosalie a fascinating slice of history to submerge Tilly in, and countless parallels to draw between then and now.

‘In the 1950s, there was a general sense of pride in the way women presented. In some socio-economic communities, it was imperative to dress for a trip to the corner shop. There were more occasions, generally, so the fashion and couture industry lived up to these occasions. People were dressed up a lot more, and thus acted accordingly more often.’

But what of the peculiar denizens of Dungatar? Just as a new home offered new experiences for Tilly, the dramatic departure of Tilly offered the people of Dungatar the opportunity to grow.

The Dressmaker's Secret by Rosalie Ham‘What remained in Dungatar were lies, vanity, and a group of people in a razed landscape, bereft of everything – similar to the state they had subjected Molly and Tilly to for so long. There was a good chance the people of Dungatar failed at introspection or reflection, and therein lay a good tale.’

When The Dressmaker was published 20 years ago, readers loved its earnest portrayal of humans: the things we do that are normal to us but untenable to someone else; the ways circumstance, perspective in privilege alter the way we see the world. Revisiting Dungatar in a world more accepting of diversity proved a wonderful creative gift to Rosalie as a writer.

‘I think those themes of acceptance, tolerance and lies - today it’s called fake news - are enduring and universal, and you can’t fail but to strike a few chords if you address them. I have to say, returning to Dungatar with those issues was a joyous story to write, and I am resigned to the fact that I might have to talk for another 20 years about Tilly and Sergeant Farrat and how fashion is employed. I look forward to it.’ 

The Dressmaker’s Secret by Rosalie Ham is published by Picador