Memoir of a spirited woman in chaotic times
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