‘And so it begins. I am Sybylla.’
At a Writers’ Festival, a woman named Sybil Jones is talking about the significance of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. A panel of writers sit behind her, facing the audience. One of those writers is drawing a likeness of Sybil and, as she contemplates, her drawing starts to move. Just like the women behind the wallpaper in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story. Sybylla, for that is her name, takes our contemplative writer by the hand, draws her into the paper and into the past. Here we will spend some time in the lives of five Australian women writers between 1901 and 1979.
Each of these five women (and other women in their lives) is limited in some way by being female, by having particular expectations of them in terms of behaviour and occupation. Writing is not seen as a fitting female occupation and it, as in some cases, it is barely tolerated then it must be fitted around the myriad of other duties expected. It is not just the men in their lives responsible for these limitations: other women also impose expectations and requirements.
‘It is hard knowing there are women behind this wallpaper who never get near the outside pattern. Trapped always underneath, behind the shapes of other women even, who keep them locked in. These women are wallpapered over again and again. In time, they are stuck behind layers of glue, paste and faded prints. Who ever heard Ruby’s story?’
And Sybylla, freed from the page through our writer’s creativity, takes us into the different challenges faced by each of the five women as each one struggles to find time to pursue personal dreams as well as family and social obligations. Has anything changed since 1979? I wonder.
‘Some stories are dangerous, aren’t they?’
Reading this novel reminds me of how few works by Australian women I had read until comparatively recently. Why is that? There are some incredibly good Australian women authors out there. I cast my mind back, to my school days. Very few Australian works appeared in the English curriculum I studied during the 1960s and early 1970s. Yes, there was some poetry by Judith Wright. I recall few Australian novels, and Patrick White is the only Australian novelist I recall studying. Yes, I did read novels by Elyne Mitchell, Eleanor Dark and Ethel Turner. Just not at school.
I enjoyed reading this novel, thinking about the other Australian women writers I’ve read work by since and the ones I’ve yet to read. This is a novel to read and to think about. It isn’t just family and social issues that get in the way of women’s creativity. Women’s creative output is, it seems to me, generally not as highly valued. How can we change this?
‘We will lie between the worlds, you and I, pressed here against the letters and the page, caressed perhaps by a hand in passing, a rare touch that moves us for years. Here we will watch and walk, wait and let the faces wander by, a thought here, a catch of an eye threads a needle through a hook …’
Odette Kelada won the 2016 Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. ‘Drawing Sybylla’ emerged from Ms Kelada’s PhD study about women and creative freedom. And, while I’ve not yet read ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, I will soon.