One more gifted girl who gave it all up
‘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