August 2023

Life Sentences

‘You never know who you might meet’

By Kate Grenville
A piece of motherly prompting, at first dismissed but later embraced, helped in the author’s life and her writing

I was a shy teenager and Mum had to propel me out the door to the few social opportunities my 1960s milieu offered. When she said “But you never know who you might meet”, of course, being a teenager, I rolled my eyes.

It might be a banal line, but it’s served me well. For a start, it’s how I met the man I married, the father of my children, the good companion of happy years. Instead of saying no when a man I definitely didn’t want invited me to a book launch, I said yes. You never know who you might meet. Odd how you can think you’ve got no time for some silly platitude your mother repeated and yet find yourself going along with it.

Actually, it mightn’t have been Mum’s line as much as the fact that I had a new garment I wanted to wear: a black jumpsuit with a big teasing zip that ran from neck to navel. (My shy days must have been behind me.) I saw my date for the night – a Young Conservative type – realise he’d made a mistake when his eye went to the temptingly prominent tab of the zipper. The kind of woman who’d wear that kind of thing wasn’t the kind of woman who’d have a place in his future. That was fine by me.

If meeting Bruce was all Mum’s line achieved, it would have earnt its keep. But now I think about it, I can see that it also lies behind all the books I’ve written.

I grew up thinking you wrote a novel the same way you wrote a school essay: planning it within an inch of its life. I’d written two very dull and unpublishable novels by those rules, but by the time I was wearing that zippered jumpsuit I was trying another way. My first published novel started life not as a tidy set of chapter summaries but a single picture, a memory of the famous Sydney bag-lady Bea Miles, a large woman in a tennis eyeshade, declaiming Shakespeare in front of the State Library. On either side of that image was a blank: where had she come from? Where would she end up? But you never know who you might meet, so for once I threw away the rules and let myself step out into the unknown. One picture led to another, stepping stones across a dark pond. At the end of it I’d met a woman I liked and admired, a woman who surprised me on every page.

That was 10 novels ago and I’m still enjoying never knowing. My grandmother, for instance. She died when I was a child, so I only have a few isolated memories of her. And she was a more deep unknown, because everything I knew about her came from her daughter, my mother – a second-hand knowing. According to Mum, Grandma was cold, unloving, a bully, maybe even a bit unhinged. I thought I knew that person, because she matched those few memories I had of the cranky old person who lived with us for a few years.

But then I started to write my mother’s story, and that meant thinking about Grandma. Yes, she’d been irritable, unsettled, restless, dominating. But how could she not be? The world she was born into, in 1880, was a rotten one for women. No jobs, no money, no contraception, and clothes and social rules that stopped you doing anything interesting. Women were the weaker sex, as men liked to say, but only because men kept them that way.

Telling my mother’s story, I met someone I hadn’t expected to meet. Not my mother’s bullying mother and not my cranky grandma, but Dolly Maunder. She was a woman who – I came to see – had taken the brutal limitations of her life and wrenched them into a shape that gave her some room to move. She made sure she wrenched an exit-hatch for her daughter, too. Dolly Maunder was strong, ingenious, persistent, pragmatic and, in spite of what Mum had thought, a mother who loved her daughter, loved her enough to fight for her future.

That mother in turn fought for me, even when I was that graceless teenager. You never know who you might meet. Not such a bad rule of thumb, after all.

Kate Grenville

Kate Grenville is the author of 10 novels and six non-fiction books. Her latest novel is Restless Dolly Maunder.

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