Old money and frontiers a veterans’ affair
“See how the world its veterans rewards”, Alexander Pope wrote, and added: “A Youth of folly, an old age at cards”. That the three novelists considered here are veterans is indisputable, but there has been nothing foolish or idle about the successive careers each has pursued. Ian Callinan (born 1937) was a judge of the High Court and coincidentally, and then subsequently, the author of plays and novels. Belvedere Woman is his 10th work of fiction.
While working as a lawyer in Perth, Nicholas Hasluck (born 1942) wrote poetry, short stories and novels, of which Quarantine (1978) was the first. The Bradshaw Case is the 13th.
Don Aitkin, a political scientist who became vice-chancellor of the University of Canberra, published his first work of fiction, The Second Chair (one of that rare species here, the campus novel), in 1977. It was 38 years before the second. A late burst of energy (he was born in 1937) sees Moving On as his fifth.
The Belvedere of Callinan’s title is a Brisbane suburb for families with old money, such as the Rentles, who “didn’t work. They owned property.” Sandra, the dissatisfied, soon-to-be 50 protagonist married Jack, a rare working Rentle, obstetrician and gynaecologist, who has long been an unfaithful husband.
Sandra’s rebellious friend Lucy, who has been abandoned by one spouse and buried another, points out that Jack’s only advantage over other “society doctors” is “an intimate knowledge of the target areas because of expansive and personal investigation”.
The book is set in 1975, but the turmoil of a wider world is disdained in Belvedere. Callinan skewers its complacencies, partly through the insurrectionary observations of Daniel Beacham, a working-class boy who will become an “evasive billionaire”, and live in unrequited love for Sandra. Nonetheless, he tells her sternly: “Your lot don’t travel, they just relocate the enclave.” Whatever its arrogant sense of itself (“this suburb is like a good club”, as Sandra’s father boasts), he reckons that Belvedere is “just a place where ideas, and change, and happiness are stifled”.
Sandra’s loneliness leads her to long retrospects, which Callinan fashions as sharp set pieces illuminating the world she has found too hard to forfeit. There are the Nelson sisters, dressmakers to the rich and each the mistress of “old Fred Lucas, the investor”; the ball where Sandra (dressed in a Norman Hartnell copy gown) sees Dan flatten Jack; a scene on the Gold Coast where Lucy is decorating an apartment for a rich southern client; the London sojourn that Sandra and Lucy long ago shared.
Callinan’s observations are tartly to the point: “Sandra was not one to stay offended at anything said by a social equal.” Forty years on, such little worlds as Belvedere are no longer impregnable. Callinan’s approach is valedictory as well as satirical. The idle rich have gone, replaced by children who “applied themselves to increasing their inheritances”. The old pseudopatricians now seem comical, but they have been arraigned to witty and worldly effect in Belvedere Woman.
Aitkin’s “A tale of the Millennium”, Moving On, begins as does Callinan’s novel, with a rich, discontented woman. Ros Fowles has been deserted in the cliched flight of her husband to his secretary, with whom he starts the family he had not wanted with her. A phone call from Linda Mueller, the goddaughter who calls her aunt, leads Ros into present complications and reactivates others from her past.
Linda works for the publishing arm of an international firm run by the charismatic but controlling polio victim Peter Morris. Ros invites her to the country property, Riverview, she owns inland from Newcastle. There she has installed a former lover and writer, Brady Smith, to whom she introduces Linda, perhaps not altogether free from the hunch that he might become her sexual mentor.
Not content with setting up these possibil- ities, Aitkin astutely explores a series of long and vexed family relationships, in particular between mothers and their daughters and sons.
The novel’s plotting is crafty, with random surprises — a fall and a flood — and a refusal to accommodate tidy resolutions. Rather, Moving On relates timing awry and missed opportunities. Aitkin is alert to all that the imperious will demands, and of how often it is thwarted.
Thus Linda feels “the return of that awful sense you had no say in your life”. Her emergence from the well-behaved, unassertive mouse into a woman whose new-found strength also increases her disappointments is one of the strongest portrayals in the novel. Morris, although some regard him as “truly formidable”, never convinces, while the damaged Brady is almost too wise and self-abnegating for his own good, or our belief.
Aitkin gives us a persuasive portrait of Ros, who seemed likely to have taken over the novel until he found so much else of interest in the cast he had assembled. This is a bold, patient fiction that Aitkin wryly dedicates to “those who need to move on, and those who did”.
The first words of Hasluck’s The Bradshaw Case are from a diary entry of April 10, 1891, by pastoralist Joseph Bradshaw. While exploring in the Kimberley he recorded how “in the secluded chasms of these rocks were numerous Aboriginal paintings which appeared to be of great antiquity”.
Indeed they were — dating back 20,000 years — but controversial because the delicate