A few weeks ago I bought an autographed 1960 paperback edition of Myra Morris’ The Wind on the Water, which was originally published in 1937. When I unwrapped the parcel a small cream Christmas card fell out. I immediately noticed this handwritten inscription on the back:
I’ve had this for a couple of weeks to send you. You’ve been so kind and so sweet and the rotten luck is that you discover me at a time when everything is glum and screwy. However—’tout passé’.
Have a lovely Christmas all of you.
Reading this card gave me a feeling of intimate connection with the author, who was evidently in a difficult phase of her life when she wrote it. I couldn’t help wondering what was causing her to feel ‘glum and screwy’. I did some research and discovered that Myra had experienced a nervous breakdown in the 1940s and also suffered from Paget’s disease which became more severe as she got older. Although the card is undated, it must have been written sometime between the 1960 reprint by Griffin Press and her death in 1966. Was she feeling incapacitated by her condition? Did she fear that her writing was falling into obscurity?
Born in Boort, on the edge of the Mallee, Myra Morris was educated at the Rochester Brigidine Convent where she was encouraged by her English teacher and published verse in the Bulletin. Without further formal training Myra embarked on a career as a freelance writer, publishing her first selection of poetry, England, and other Verses, in 1918. In 1922 Us Five, a children’s novel, was published after being serialised, and Myra moved to Melbourne with her youngest sister. In 1927, with her parents and elder sister, she moved to Frankston, where she lived for the remainder of her life. Morris was a friend of Katharine Susannah Prichard, who once visited her in Frankston while she was staying with her sister Beatrice Bridge. In a tribute written before Myras’ death, when she was quite disabled and walking with a cane, Katharine remembered her as she first encountered her ‘a fascinating girl with dark hair tossed about her head and wide blue-grey eyes. So vivacious and witty, she was, gaily describing her experiences and the writing she was doing.’1
The Wind on The Water is undoubtedly her best novel, possibly due to her familiarity with its Mallee setting. When Fran—a widow and mother of a four-year-old Mary—marries a publican after the Second World War and moves to Brown’s Town she feels an immediate sense of connection with the place.
Country-born, she felt that she had at last come home. She was on the fringe of the Mallee here (surely that was enough country for any one!) and in a little while even the memory of those drab, shut-away years in her aunt’s East Melbourne boarding house would be less than a dream.
The Swan, perhaps based on The Railway Hotel in Boort, is an ‘old, disorderly shambling place.’ Beyond it is a small farm and a lake. Most likely inspired by Lake Boort, the lake ‘lay out in a long ellipse of pewter-coloured water.’ To Fran it is ‘strange and secret’, especially the way it is constantly changing. ‘The grey water moved—it was stirred into a myriad of small, pearly points, ruffled into a dancing pattern that changed the very texture of the surface.’ The loveliness of the lake is set against the unfolding reality of crop failure, dust storms and grinding poverty in Brown’s Town.
With her passion for beauty, Fran is desperate to improve the rundown hotel but she is increasingly demoralised by the attitudes of her spider-like mother-in-law and her ‘coarse fibred’ husband. Writing about the novel in the 1947, Colin Roderick observes that: ‘the heroine fights a helpless, losing but stubborn battle against ugliness and ineptitude… The tragedy of her bowed resignation to the irony of life and the bitterness of defeat is no less touching because it is quiet.’2
The scene in which Fran is taken to the saleyards, while heavily pregnant, typifies the thoughtlessness of her husband. The air is filled with ‘the muffled bellowings of cows that were driven into the ring to stand a moment with rolling, terrified eyes, their hoofs kicking up the yellow straw.’ Fran identifies with the pain of a timid heifer with a horn broken-off and an eye filming with blood. She feels like a trapped animal herself, and refuses to stay at the maternity hospital where she can hear ‘the dolorous lowing of penned cattle’ nearby.
Instead she returns to The Swan to give birth. Her husband continues to drink and carouse in the bar. ‘Lying with gritted teeth… Fran heard the sounds of revelry drifting across the bar-parlour. They were breaking glasses in there, but what did it matter when they were breaking her body out here?’ A later scene in which Fran becomes caught in a rabbit trap near the lake reinforces the reader’s sense of her predicament.
Living at The Swan, which she sees as ‘anybody’s place’ rather than a home of her own, she learns ‘not to say too much, and not to expect too much.’ She comes to the realisation that she ‘had always wanted more out of things than she could reasonably have.’ The novel charts the decline of Fran’s own aspirations, despite a brief romance with a neighbour, and the transferral of hard-won knowledge to her daughter in the hope that she can escape a similar fate.
In 1948, The Wind on the Water was the first book chosen for the ‘women’s serial’ in a revamped ABC radio format targeted at female audiences. The ABC Weekly gave it a splash of publicity with photographs of the author and a full-page promotion. Given the radical sentiments embedded in the novel, I wonder what listeners made of it? Considering the time it was written, The Wind on the Water is radical in its depiction of the domestic slavery of women. It reminds me of Jean Devanny’s The Butcher Shop (1926) which was banned in New Zealand and Australia for its unsparing representation of the brutality of farm life. The Wind on the Water is quietly political, with ongoing resonances today, particularly its implicit critique of our mistreatment of animals. Long out of print and virtually impossible to find second-hand, The Wind on the Water is a forgotten classic that deserves to be reprinted and introduced to a contemporary readership.
Brigid Magner is a Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies and founding member of the non/fictionLab at RMIT University. She is currently undertaking a project called Reading/Writing the Mallee (with Emily Potter).