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Jessica (Margaret) Anderson Biography

Jessica Anderson comments:

Nationality: Australian. Born: Jessica Margaret Queale, Gayndah, Queensland, 1916. Education: State schools in Brisbane; Brisbane Technical College art school. Awards: Miles Franklin award, 1979, 1981; New South Wales Premier's award, 1981; The Age Book of the Year award, 1987. Lives in Sydney. Agent: Elaine Markson Literary Agency, 44 Greenwich Avenue, New York, New York 10011, USA.



An Ordinary Lunacy. London, Macmillan, 1963; New York, Scribner, 1964.

The Last Man's Head. London, Macmillan, 1970.

The Commandant. London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin'sPress, 1975.

Tirra Lirra by the River. Melbourne, Macmillan, 1978; London andNew York, Penguin, 1984.

The Impersonators. Melbourne, Macmillan, 1980; as The Only Daughter, New York and London, Viking, 1985.

Taking Shelter. Ringwood, Victoria, New York, and London, Viking, 1990.

One of the Wattle Birds. Ringwood, Victoria, Australia, PenguinBooks, 1994.

Short Stories

Stories from the Warm Zone and Sydney Stories. New York, Viking, 1987; London, Viking, 1988.


Radio Plays:

The American, 1966, The Aspern Papers, 1967, andDaisy Miller, 1968, all from works by Henry James; The Maid&quoteright;s Part, 1967; The Blackmail Caper, 1972; Quite Sweet, Really, 1972; Tirra Lirra by the River, 1975; The Last Man's Head, from her own novel, 1983; A Tale of Two Cities (serial), from the novel by Dickens; Outbreak of Love (serial), from the novel by Martin Boyd.


Manuscript Collections:

Mitchell Library, Sydney; Australian National Library, Canberra.

Critical Studies:

"Tirra Lirra by the Brisbane River," in Literature in Northern Queensland, vol. 10, no. 1, 1981, and "A Rare Passion for Justice: Jessica Anderson's The Last Man's Head, " in Quadrant (Sydney), July 1988, both by Donat Gallagher; "The Expatriate Vision of Jessica Anderson" by Elaine Barry, in Meridian (Mel-bourne), vol. 3, no. 1, 1984; interview with Jennifer Ellison, in Rooms of Their Own, Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1986, and with Candida Baker, in Yacker 2, Woollahra, New South Wales, Pan, 1987; "Jessica Anderson: Arrivals and Places" by Alrene Sykes, in South-erly (Sydney), March 1986; article by Gay Raines, in Australian Studies (Stirling, Scotland), no. 3, 1989; Fabricating the Self: The Fictions of Jessica Anderson by Elaine Barry, St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia, University of Queensland Press, 1996; A Study Guide to Jessica Anderson's Tirra Lirra by the River by Valerie McRoberts, Ballarat, Australia, Wizard Books, 1998.

The settings of my seven works of fiction relate neatly to the three places where I have spent my life: mostly Sydney, a substantial portion of Brisbane, and a dash of London.

Now that I intend to write no more fiction, I can appreciate the pleasure I had in writing those seven books, and discount the pain, by realising how disappointed I would be if I had failed to produce them. That is not to say that I am wholly satisfied, but that I worked to my full capacity, and am pleased to have had this chance of deploying my imagination, observation, and experience.

* * *

In one of the more quietly startling moments of Jessica Anderson's Tirra Lirra by the River, Nora, the elderly narrator/protagonist, tells the reader almost off-handedly that in middle age she tried to commit suicide. One reason for the attempt was the failure of a face-lift operation, and she links this with the horrifying revelations coming out of postwar Germany: "… if I leap to explain that the weakness resulting from six bronchial winters, and the approach of menopause, left me morbidly defenceless against the postwar revelations of the German camps, it is because I am ashamed to admit that in the same breath as that vast horror, I can speak of the loss of my looks."

Anderson's novels do not tackle broad social, political or historical issues head-on. Rather, the large event, the major issue, is always in the background, while her characters move in a world where small personal experiences, experiences which are as nothing on a world scale, profoundly influence them.

Tirra Lirra by the River is one of three novels by Anderson which begins with a woman arriving in Australia from "overseas." In The Commandant the woman is 17-year-old Frances, arriving from Ireland in the 1830s to live with her sister and brother-in-law, Captain Patrick Logan, the commandant of the title, who is remembered in Australian history as a fanatical and brutal disciplinarian, loathed by the convicts under his charge in the penal settlement at Moreton Bay. Frances initially takes on the traditional role of innocent observer, until events make her unwillingly responsible for a young convict receiving 50 lashes—thus drawing her into "the system." In Tirra Lirra by the River and The Impersonators, however, the role of onewho-arrives is more complex: both elderly Nora (Tirra Lirra) and middle-aged Sylvia (The Impersonators) are Australians returning home after many years of absence in Europe, bearing the accretions and conflicts of two cultures. The arrivals in these three books provide a promising opening, with their inherent possibilities of movement and change; yet they also provide a direct entry into several of Anderson's major themes. (Her two earlier novels, An Ordinary Lunacy and The Last Man's Head, open with smaller-scale but nonetheless portentous visits.)

Anderson is fascinated by the tug between the old culture (Europe) and the new (Australia). In her novels, arrival is always part of a longer journey, an inner journey as well as a physical one, and thus relates to the acquiring of wisdom and the conflicting desires for flight and sanctuary. To arrive at an unfamiliar place normally sharpens one's awareness of environment, and descriptions of place—particularly of houses, and the harbour and gardens of Sydney, shown as being deeply part of the consciousness of the women characters in particular—are among the strengths of Anderson's later novels.

Tirra Lirra by the River, the most highly regarded of Anderson's works, has in fact appeared in three forms: as a short story, as a radio play, and finally as a prize-winning novel. By no means overtly feminist, it has been praised by feminist critics as showing the difficulties of women's lives from the point of view of a woman born early in the century. As the title suggests, the novel has links with Tennyson's poem, "The Lady of Shallott." In the poem, the Lady, generally accepted as artist or perhaps anima, lives secluded in a tower on an island, weaving her magic web and watching the world indirectly through a mirror. When she hears Lancelot pass by, singing, she looks down for the first time on the "real" world; the mirror cracks, the web flies out the window, and the lady, dying, floats in her boat down to Camelot. Nora relates to the Lady in a quite complex way, which has at its base the idea of her as artist seeing the world indirectly, through the mirror of a culture (European) not her own. The process begins when she is a child, and she sees how a flaw in the glass of a window transforms the appearance of ordinary sticks, stones, and blades of grass into the magical landscape—with rivulets, castles, and lakes—of her story books. Enchanted, she fails even to see the "real river" near her home. After a failed marriage, she goes to London, working there for many years making theatre costumes; finally, she returns to Australia, and, like the Lady of the poem, faces the "real:" for her, suppressed memories, mistaken beliefs, a real river instead of the river running down to Camelot, and the discovery that embroidered hangings she made before she left Australia are the most promising things she ever did. Like the Lady, she becomes very sick, but unlike the Lady, she recovers, and the novel ends with her globe of memory (one of the recurrent images of the book) in full spin, with no dark sides hidden. Anderson habitually tests and qualifies her themes, and in Tirra Lirra Nora's spiritual/physical journey is counterbalanced by the lives of other women, who are partly defined, though not judged, by the journeys they make—or do not make.

As noted above, The Impersonators, a more diffuse and less successful book than Tirra Lirra, takes as its point of departure the return of Sylvia after nearly 20 years away. Here the conflict is framed in terms of what appears to be the cultural richness of Europe and the raw discontinuity of Australia; implicit is the question whether Australians who have been abroad to centers where culture is more securely consolidated are under an obligation to "come home and use what they've learned." In the end Sylvia, like Nora accepting that which for her is "real," recognizes that she has been yearning over "other people's rituals," and decides to stay in Sydney with her lover. An equally important theme is signalled by the title of the book: in the materialistic, fractured Sydney of 1977, when the story is set, most of the characters are in some sense impersonators, living part of their lives behind protective masks. Anderson's portrait is sharp-eyed and unsentimental, but compassionate rather than satirical. In 1994, she followed up her earlier works with One of the Wattle Birds, and throughout the 1990s her writing continued to receive critical attention in Australia.

—Alrene Sykes

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