Reviewed: Fiona Kelly McGregor, Iris, Picador
Who was Iris Webber? For Fiona Kelly McGregor, the search began at an exhibition where Webber’s gaol mugshot first caught McGregor’s eye. In her 2017 creative writing exegesis,1 McGregor writes about becoming ‘vexed’ by ‘static, tabloid’ portraits of Webber—gun-slinging, sly-grogging, lesbian gangster of the author’s hometown—who earned the epithet ‘the most violent woman in Sydney’. The academic work examines the many biases that accompany representations of Webber, wrestling the historically contentious figure from the clichéd narratives and hackneyed tropes of contemporary reportage that have been repeated through the years. It throws open a window into McGregor’s motivations and ambitions for her novel Iris to ‘be read as both myth and document’.
Stories of queer and marginalised lives are often buried in institutional archives and libraries, obfuscated by biased media reporting and shaped by the prejudices of their day. Or they are simply absent from the public record altogether unless someone makes a bid to excavate them, piecing together patchwork information, reading between the officially documented lines. In Iris, McGregor takes exactly that meticulous, creative leap of faith to render ‘the most trustworthy, complex, plausible and compelling’ available version of Webber, slipping between the gaps in the public record to uncover truths and subvert the history told by those in power.
McGregor achieves her aim by layering source materials with compassionate character development, a vividly imagined 1930s underground Sydney, and a discordant symphony of vernacular language. Using fiction as a vehicle to switch the focus on Webber from object to subject, McGregor pushes the reader up close to her anti-heroine, conjuring an intimate first-person voice not unlike Ned Kelly in Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang (2000), Lizzie Borden in Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done (2017), and Bea Miles in Kate Grenville’s Singer family trilogy, in particular Lilian’s Story (1984). These characters are all outcasts or outlaws, reclaimed from history.
In McGregor’s novel, it’s 1932, and Iris Webber arrives by train in Sydney with ‘a pound and a halfx… and a spare slip and bloomers’, having hailed from Glen Innes in the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales via a stint in Hay Women’s Prison. A few years earlier, Iris had shot her husband Ned—20 years her senior—in the arse, over unpaid debts. After being acquitted on a technicality, she high-tails it to the big smoke, dreaming of a better life: a job, her own apartment, independence after a miserable marriage, and some small measure of material comfort to escape generational poverty. But her modest ambitions dissipate almost immediately after she alights, naive and overwhelmed at Central Station, ‘like a cathedral, light streaming in through its high vaulted roof’. Iris is swept up by May, the opportunistic ‘knock-shop’ madam, and straight into a subsistence lifestyle of sex work. After all, this was an era of limited job choices for poor women.
Iris is reliant on the streets for her livelihood—she keeps her head above water by turning tricks and busking with her accordion. She also thieves, scams and swindles with her mates through the microcosm of Surry Hills, Darlinghurst and Central Station, with occasional ventures into the far-flung, more respectable suburbs of Glebe and Maroubra. The first time Iris sees the ‘striated black curve’ of the Harbour Bridge is when she is delivered to the cells of the Coroner’s Court in a ‘Black Maria’.
As a known lesbian and childless divorcée with no male protector, with twice-beaten charges of shooting men, Iris doesn’t fit the mould of what a woman ‘should’ be. These characteristics mean that she stands apart and are the attributes that attract what McGregor in the accompanying exegesis describes as bait for ‘zealous’ police targeting and punishment. We also learn that Iris is a well-read autodidact, unusual for someone of her social class and lack of education. McGregor describes her as a ‘driftnet reader, scavenging whatever material she found’, her letters displaying ‘a strong grasp of legalese, fierce righteousness, and rhetorical flair’. This makes Iris Webber an insightful and engaging narrator.
With a discontinuous narrative shifting in time and between first- and third-person perspectives, McGregor first withholds information about Webber, maintaining just enough ambiguity so as to build empathy and thus suspend passing our judgement on her. McGregor’s protagonist is slippery, suggesting that the yardsticks for what constitute guilt and innocence are not cut-and-dried but rather a spectrum, particularly for those who do what they must to get by in an unjust society.
In Iris, McGregor has created an urban epic, a vivid portrait of Depression-era Sydney, drunk on corruption and populated with a chaotic ensemble cast of brutal cops, sly groggers, sex workers, petty criminals, and gangsters. Life on the city streets is fast-paced and knife-edged (literally, with razors as the preferred weapon), a relentless cycle of survival in the slums. Allegiances are critical but ever-shifting, and betrayal is Shakespearean in scale. Every day is soaked through with violence, especially for women—at the hands of police, their peers and at home. The women in McGregor’s novel are the lead characters, all pushing against the constraints of their gender and class, the trajectories of their lives ‘unrelenting in [their] misery’. Even Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh, the ruthless madams of inner Sydney, although monied and living in comparative luxury, are still subject to the whims of men in their lives, be they husbands, lovers or cops on the take. Conversely, the men in Iris are hopeless drunks, gamblers and thugs, yet women are reliant on them.
While being a poor woman relegated you to the margins of a life dependent on others, being a poor queer woman was a whole other step outside the legitimate order—‘marginalised even within the margins, demonised, trivialised’. Although McGregor acknowledges that there is no evidence Webber ever identified as a lesbian, her research shows that Webber had intimate relationships with women and did not hide them, something unique at the time and for her social class. When Iris falls in love with fellow sex worker Maisie Matthews, she struggles to understand this attraction as anything other than a perversion, albeit one she can’t resist. Her open infatuation puts her in danger—it attracts more violence from her peers and makes her a target for the police.
To underscore the contradictions of queer identity in the interwar period, McGregor fictionalises the adversarial relationship between Webber and Sergeant Lillian Armfield—the first female police officer in New South Wales and also a known lesbian—who was particularly harsh towards Webber. As McGregor notes, ‘to be openly queer seemed only possible if you were privileged and protected … bohemian or monied’. Unfortunately for Iris Webber, the tough streets and shanty houses of Sydney were a world away from the contemporaneous sexual permissiveness and illicit glamour of Gertrude Stein’s Paris and Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury group.
Despite these grim hardships, McGregor resists casting Iris as a victim. Neither does she romanticise her life via a triumphant story arc, instead giving us a nuanced portrait of a woman who ‘prevailed’. Although not an underdog story per se, the novel manages a hopeful ending, leaving the door ajar for part two; McGregor has promised a diptych. Iris, whom McGregor sums up as ‘obsessive, righteous, courageous, foolhardy, intransigent, arrogant’, will surely become known as one of the great women characters of Australian literature, alongside Edith Campbell Berry in Frank Moorhouse’s trilogy (1993–2011) and Sybylla Melvyn in Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1901).
In a national literature that leans heavily on bush tropes and rural settings, Iris is a fantastic descendant of other great city novels, especially the Sydney captured by Ruth Park, Kylie Tennant, Elizabeth Harrower and Christina Stead. McGregor cites these authors, as well as Margaret Atwood and Kate Grenville, as influences for the distinctive vernacular dialogue in Iris. She combines rhyming slang, regional quirks and class-specific vocabulary, showing a deep appreciation for the cultural signifiers of speech and how it shapes, defines and labels the speaker. It is also an act of preservation, a record of hidden lives captured through language. This vernacular playfulness is reminiscent of Confessions of the Fox (2018), Jordy Rosenberg’s ribald historical novel notable for its exhaustive slang synonyms for female genitalia. In Iris, we are treated to such gems as ‘Peas in a pod you’n that flat-faced sheep-fucker, the way yous rock into Steak-n-Kidney’ and ‘Strewth lookut this spread! I feel like the Queen of Sheba! Who’s she? Dunno. Some fat moll from Ancient Somewhere-or-other.’2 Iris cements McGregor’s reputation as a stand-out chronicler of the grit, joy and politics of queer Sydney as seen in her earlier novels, Chemical Palace (2002) and Indelible Ink (2010), and in her short-story collection, Suck My Toes (1994). While this latest novel is evocative of the city during a specific era, its success as historical fiction is in its transcendence of time. McGregor’s concerns have a universality that is echoed in modern-day Sydney—police brutality against marginalised groups, discriminatory law enforcement and legislation, negative media representation and social attitudes towards the ‘illicit economies’ of sex work and drugs. These economies persist in their value and viability to queer people today: for McGregor it is a lived experience, what she describes as ‘independent and anti-authoritarian lifestyles [that] provide opportunities to people lacking financial or cultural capital, dissolving class barriers more than most legitimate employment’.
Ultimately, Iris is a gymnastic act of queer subversion and reclamation. McGregor restores the public record, facing off with the question of whose version of truth prevails, a critical challenge in a settler-colonial state in the twenty-first century. McGregor asks us to be always alert to the social and political systems that curtail our freedoms and those of others, which limit our choices and force us to keep ourselves hidden.
Justine Hyde is a writer, librarian and arts bureaucrat living on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri people.
1 Fiona Kelly McGregor, ‘The life and times of Iris Webber, marginal crim of sly-grog Sydney, 2011–2017’, <https://opus.lib.uts.edu.au/handle/10453/123265>.
2 See McGregor’s exegesis for a glossary of terms.