One more gifted girl who gave it all up

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

‘Why have such scores of lovely, gifted girls / Mar­ried im­pos­si­ble men?’’ This long, ex­as­per­ated cry launched one of Robert Graves’s best known po­ems, A Slice of Wed­ding Cake. Why? The four-let­ter word love is a pos­si­ble an­swer but not so sat­is­fac­tory.

Aus­tralian scholar Ju­dith Arm­strong has made this vexed ques­tion her field of ex­per­tise and she’s here to help. She has writ­ten with great in­sight about Sonya Tol­stoy, wife of Rus­sian nov­el­ist Leo, and Nina Chris­te­sen, wife of Mean­jin founder Clem. And in Dym­phna, per­haps her best book to date, she looks at Dym­phna Clark, wife of his­to­rian Man­ning.

In Au­gust 1938 the Mel­bourne Her­ald ran a para­graph un­der the head­line: “Ro­man­tic stu­dents go abroad”. The arch tone of the head­line was re­peated in the para­graph that noted Miss Dym­phna Lodewyckx, the re­cip­i­ent of the rich and pres­ti­gious Mol­li­son Trav­el­ling Schol­ar­ship, was off to study in Ger­many for her PhD.

On board also was, to quote the pa­per, her fi­ance, (Mr CMH Clark), trav­el­ling to Ox­ford to be­gin his PhD. In Septem­ber 1938, Man­ning Clark was an ap­pendage to the star­rier Miss Lodewyckx. Per­haps this was the first and last time he was in brackets.

Dym­phna Lodewyckx was bril­liant, sen­si­ble, dis­ci­plined and am­bi­tious. Pho­to­graphs re­veal she was not a beauty but at­trac­tive in an earthy, straight­for­ward way. Her Flem­ish-speak­ing fa­ther was a pro­fes­sor of Ger­man at Mel­bourne Univer­sity, where her Afrikaans-speak­ing mother taught Swedish. At home in the tran­quil outer sub­urb of Mont Al­bert, English was only some­times the spo­ken lan­guage — although Dym­phna spoke it with her older brother Axel.

Dym­phna was born in 1916 and ma­tric­u­lated in 1932, but her par­ents, wor­ried she was too young to go to univer­sity, sug­gested a year in Ger­many where she could study Latin and per­fect her Ger­man. The pro­fes­sor’s daugh­ter had a brain that drank up lan­guages. Even­tu­ally she was flu­ent in eight.

She re­turned from Ger­many more in love with the lan­guage than ever and af­ter grad­u­at­ing in 1936 and work­ing for the pub­lic ser­vice as a trans­la­tor, she won the schol­ar­ship that gave her the chance to ful­fil her sin­gle-minded am­bi­tion of re­turn­ing to Ger­many.

In 1938 she was 21, Man­ning a year older. They were deeply in love and phys­i­cal lovers, although, nat­u­rally, they had sep­a­rate cab­ins on the voy­age to Europe. Man­ning had a small schol­ar­ship but did not know what he wanted to do, although he had vague and shift­ing ideas.

One of the plea­sures of Arm­strong’s book is that she makes it clear where her sym­pa­thies lie with­out be­ing dog­matic. There is an agree­able as­per­ity of tone but her char­ac­ters speak for them­selves through the au­thor’s imag­i­na­tive rein­ven­tion. She knows that there are many pos­si­ble ver­sions to one life and all are true. This is one ver­sion of one life.

In her pref­ace, Arm­strong thanks Bri­tish writer Hi­lary Man­tel for in­spi­ra­tion. Man­tel, of course, gave a new and in­ti­mate in­sight into the his­tor­i­cally re­viled Thomas Cromwell. And in Dym­phna, the world ac­cord­ing to her is re-cre­ated in a sim­i­lar, nov­el­is­tic way.

Arm­strong does this by choos­ing sig­nif­i­cant mo­ments and real in­ci­dents that she gleaned from a close read­ing of the let­ters be­tween the Clarks and to their friends and rel­a­tives. She also takes the lib­erty of cal­i­brat­ing what might re­ally be be­hind the words Dym­phna writes. Her per­cep­tions ring with psy­cho­log­i­cal truth.

Dym­phna was hot-housed be­cause of her par­ents’ in­ter­ests and be­cause of her ob­vi­ous in­tel­li­gence, but what did she do? She was dis­ap­point­ingly con­ven­tional; she fell in love, mar­ried, and de­voted her­self to him. In those days, not long af­ter the suf­fragette move­ment and be­fore the sec­ond-wave fem­i­nism of the 1960s, women saw them­selves as hand­maid­ens, en­ablers and help­mates to the great man. It’s hard to be­lieve now, but these of­ten ex­cep­tional women did not ques­tion that self-sac­ri­fice was right and proper.

Dym­phna did this with a mix­ture of high­minded be­lief and prac­ti­cal­ity. She was trained to be­lieve that shar­ing your life with a man meant serv­ing, and she ap­plied her­self to this with her usual dili­gence. She had six chil­dren, she moved wher­ever Man­ning needed them to move, she cleaned, she cooked, she was the

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.