Memoir of a spir­ited woman in chaotic times

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - He­len El­liott

Plain-speak­ing Jane By Jane Caro Macmil­lan, 372pp, $34.99

I wish I knew Jane Caro. Smart, kind, thought­ful, ir­rev­er­ent, funny, de­cent, at­trac­tive. Who wouldn’t want a friend like her? Did I men­tion sen­si­ble? A sen­si­ble friend is an es­sen­tial.

There are as many rea­sons for memoir and au­to­bi­og­ra­phy as there are in­di­vid­u­als who write them, and some surely are pompous and vain, but Caro has no tick­ets on her­self. Her mod­est aim in Plain-speak­ing Jane is to of­fer a few sug­ges­tions about the way she has found life to be. The way she has found her­self in the thick of it.

Caro is a prod­uct of the ef­forts of sec­ond­wave fem­i­nism, which was pri­mar­ily about en­abling women. She is se­verely en­abled: this is her ninth book, even though she didn’t start writ­ing un­til rel­a­tively re­cently. She writes fic­tion and non­fic­tion, she has chil­dren who have grown up to be suc­cess­ful. She has lov­ing and loved par­ents, she has proven ex­cel­lence in her orig­i­nal field, advertising, she is a doc­u­men­tary­maker and broad­caster, a colum­nist, speaker and tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity. She’s also been with Ralph, whom she met when she was 18, for al­most 40 years. “My luck­i­est break,’’ she writes, “was in meet­ing Ralph and be­ing smart enough to hang on to him. There is no doubt that he made up for my fail­ings.”

Caro has prob­a­bly for­got­ten half of her achieve­ments — she’s the type of woman who does things and moves on. From the ev­i­dence of this book, her ac­count of her life so far, she doesn’t linger once she’s made a suc­cess­ful ar­rival.

Fam­ily does mat­ter and Caro was lucky in hers. Born in 1957 in Lon­don, she was the first child of a con­fi­dent young cou­ple who seemed des­tined for suc­cess. Their at­ti­tudes car­ried over to their chil­dren. Her pretty mother was the daugh­ter of flour­ish­ing Manch­ester shop­keep­ers (Methodists) and her lively fa­ther (an ir­rev­er­ent non­be­liever) was a grad­u­ate of St John’s Col­lege, Cam­bridge, with ev­ery ex­pec­ta­tion of do­ing well in the busi­ness world. In 1963 the fam­ily mi­grated to Aus­tralia when he was of­fered a good job in Syd­ney. They came by ship not as £10 poms but in a cer­tain state of lux- ury where a five-year-old could press a bell and the stew­ard would ap­pear.

Aus­tralia was the nat­u­ral home for the nat­u­rally demo­cratic and fu­ture-look­ing Caros and they never looked back. Jane’s mother later went to univer­sity as a ma­ture-age stu­dent but in those balmy, pre-fem­i­nist days she hap­pily looked af­ter the chil­dren while her hus­band climbed the cor­po­rate wa­ter­spout and life seemed to of­fer the end­less Aus­tralian surf, sun and what­ever other ease grim Eng­land did not. Caro’s aunt and ma­ter­nal grand­par­ents also em­i­grated, so the fam­ily was not iso­lated in the way that made mi­gra­tion such a dis­tress­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for so many hope­ful voy­agers to the new world.

The Caros’ eldest daugh­ter was ob­vi­ously clever and ob­ser­vant, although she de­scribes her­self oth­er­wise: “I was a weird and un­ap­peal­ing child. Not only was I un­der­sized and un­co­or­di­nated, I was mouthy and opin­ion­ated.” For the last two years of pri­mary school she went to what was called op­por­tu­nity class, a school for chil­dren who were con­sid­ered smarter than av­er­age. But she never starred at school and at univer­sity did an or­di­nary de­gree, pre­fer­ring to be a star in cam­pus re­vues rather than academi- cally suc­cess­ful. In third year she had what she now sees as a sort of ner­vous break­down due to an ob­ses­sive com­pul­sive dis­or­der re­lated to anx­i­ety neu­ro­sis.

Caro writes about this in her prag­matic way. She has some thought­ful ob­ser­va­tions about how such an ar­gu­men­ta­tive, black-and-white fam­ily as hers could pro­duce a daugh­ter who, while seem­ingly su­per-con­fi­dent, had no idea of her own iden­tity. What the young Jane did was as­sume dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ties to fit in, some­thing easily done in the charged so­cial en­vi­ron­ment of the 1970s. She might have ap­peared a con­fi­dent, happy, loud­mouthed young woman but there was a more sen­si­tive and anx­ious side that kept break­ing through. The gap be­tween how she ap­peared when she was young and how she was re­ally feel­ing will re­ver­ber­ate with many women. No doubt it fos­tered her lovely emo­tional lit­er­acy.

She is en­dear­ing when she con­fesses she got most of her great starts in jobs be­cause of who her fa­ther was rather than on merit. But the world she knows about, the glam­orous world of advertising, some­how suited her and shaped her val­ues as the re­al­i­ties of women work­ing in a male world started rapidly chang­ing. She has

fab­u­lous de­tail about mak­ing it in a world con­fig­ured largely by and for men. She doesn’t hold back and she doesn’t just blame men. “It is my ob­ser­va­tion that all of us ab­sorb some el­e­ments of misog­yny as we grow up ... The Sex Dis­crim­i­na­tion Com­mis­sioner de­scribes misog­yny as be­ing like as­bestos in the walls; we ab­sorb it with­out re­al­is­ing it. The re­sult is that we un­con­sciously as­sume that men — par­tic­u­larly white

mid­dle-class men — have merit un­til they prove oth­er­wise.”

Plain-speak­ing Jane suf­fers from too much de­tail, it seems rushed and is slightly “I did this and then I did that”, but it is a can­did nar­ra­tive of a spir­ited woman’s life in chaotic times. A bet­ter ti­tle might have been Can-Do Jane.

He­len El­liott is a writer and critic.

Jane Caro came to writ­ing rel­a­tively late in her ca­reer

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.