March 2023

Arts & Letters

Matters of life and Beth: Beth Spencer

By Helen Elliott

Photograph by Claudia Taranto

The Australian author of ‘The Age of Fibs’ shares with Elena Ferrante and Annie Ernaux the desire to write truthfully of ordinary women’s lives

What? Who? I was holding a book and asking myself these questions. What did I just read? Who wrote this… this parcel of nerves, energy, perception, poetry, philosophy tied with some witty barbed wire? The page was lit. It was also familiar: this was the coup de foudre that lovers feel. Reader, that blow isn’t restricted to people. I had recently felt it with the Italian Elena Ferrante and, more recently still, the French Annie Ernaux.

And here it is again with the Australian Beth Spencer.

What? Who? Ernaux and Ferrante now go everywhere by the deep fame of one name. Ernaux won the 2022 Nobel Prize in literature. Ferrante’s 2011 My Brilliant Friend has become global shorthand for admiration between women. Beth Spencer has also won prizes – smaller, uncelebrated local prizes befitting a country with a modest population and a hesitant literary history – but in Australia the mass readership that makes the names Ernaux and Ferrante recognised, beloved, is non-existent. No mighty publisher has committed to Spencer; despite rave critical reviews and devoted readers, she has not found the same prominence or security of her European counterparts. Publishing is as concerned with commerce as the next business.

Perhaps, too, the name Beth is not helpful. Marketing will know: a name is a gesture to the world and Beth, all sibilant, sounds like a fading sigh, unlike sturdy, lyrical Annie or Elena. And Beth has psychic baggage. She was the saintly sister in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. She dies and we’re relieved. Guilty, but still relieved. One hundred years later we’ll understand Little Women’s Beth March was everything a woman was expected to be in 1864: kind, lovely, self-effacing. A girl with no agency. In the world of literate women, the American classic was central (and still is, to judge by the interest in re-filming it). Women may now ask, Are you Lenu or Lilla?, but just as many still ask, Are you Jo, Meg, Amy or Beth? We are rarely Beth.

Beth Spencer, our Beth, is the opposite of fictional Beth March. Her writing startles with life, which she slyly turns inside out, dismantling the conventional in one immaculate flick. Spencer shows Australian life as particular and as universal as the French life of Ernaux and the Italian of Ferrante. All three make art, high art, from ordinary lives, especially ordinary female lives. Ordinary female lives half a century ago, governed by those laws of family and society, must now seem incomprehensible to many, but we, the ordinary, most of us, need to know and to mark where we came from. The wonder to me, unused to this, is where did these writers learn to value the ordinary feminine, to eavesdrop on themselves, to acquire the sensibility to write a thesaurus of the self that launches past the quicksand of narcissism? In the decade before there was a television set in every house, they needed literature to tell them who they were. By a marvellous accident they found Little Women and it became their private sacred text. Never having been outside their neighbourhoods, it did not occur to them that girls just like them read Little Women in every country and adapted personally and culturally.

Spencer was born in Victoria in 1958. Her father played football for Hawthorn and worked as a farrier; her mother stayed at home working at what she would not have described as “home duties”. There were six children to look after, and Beth, innately as unconventional as she was observant, was the youngest, the last to leave. At around seven years old, she discovered Little Women, an old Sunday school prize of her mother’s from the 1920s. She later wrote a thesis on it. And in the meantime, in the spaces, there was television.

In The Years, Ernaux – teacher, housewife, mother – writing of the years leading up to the revolution of 1968, says that on Sunday afternoons they watched the American series Bewitched on television. On the other side of the world, at six o’clock every night, Spencer, like thousands of other girls, was also watching Bewitched: a “quicksilver world where the galaxy is one’s backyard”. Out of our side eye we always recognised that someone like Samantha would not fall in love with whatshisname. The unconscious delight (or was it astonishment?) of the show was that the women had all the power while pretending not to have it. More provoking was that Sam’s mother, Endora, never bothered to be nice. Agnes Moorehead’s face defined the opposite of nice at a time when being nice was the female bedrock and Beth was a suitable name for a suitable girl. In 1965, an alternative woman reached for the traditional version of an alternative woman – the despised, and even executed, witch. No one would despise Sam’s blonde witch version. It rattled us, made us laugh and wonder.

Spencer, growing up in a house without books, took her cues from such popular television shows. Her brilliant essay about the underlying narrative in Bewitched opens her latest collection of essays, stories, poems and pieces, The Age of Fibs (fibs being both stories and a bra brand). The second piece, “Fatal Attraction in Newtown”, is a reading of the 1987 film that will make you know how codebreakers feel when they crack one.

No one in Spencer’s world went to a university; she herself spent four years at a tech school (woodwork and sheetmetal, needlework and cookery), then a high school. Every Sunday she drove to church with her family, noticing as they passed the huge sign for Penguin, the publishers. At seven she called the company’s offices and asked about what “a friend” who had written a story should do. Creative girls, brilliant girls from nowhere – intellectually excellent but socially inferior – have to fashion their own toeholds. There is no uncle, cousin or connected teacher to consult, to call upon to set them on the sleek and ascendant road, aka “entitlement”. Spencer made it to university and began to understand academic excellence. She also began to understand class inferiority, despite her parents never displaying any class shame. How naive it is to call Australia egalitarian, classless. Class begins with the acceptance that there is a right way to do things and a wrong way – and the right way is owned by the one per cent of the population who are keen to preserve the status quo. Attending university, Spencer becomes suddenly aware of her father’s broad Australian accent, his working-class grammar. “In them days, at uni, I learnt words like déclassé and embourgeoised”, she writes. She was 17 then and about to transition: not from one gender to another, but from working class to middle class.

Ernaux, Ferrante and Spencer document similar specific and individual transformations that could only have been for girls. A girl needed to work harder than any boy, and some did. They slaved and persisted. Ferrante’s little women in Italy, Ernaux and Spencer all went from working-class girls to women shaping and defining their culture; from factory fodder to the possibility of being a writer.

In a piece in The Age of Fibs called “Playing Cards on a Red Rattler”, Spencer writes:

The first time I met private school boys I was fifteen. We were standing around in a group at some inter-school Christian thing that I was into then, when one of them asked me what school I went to. “Lilydale tech,” I replied. Silence. One of them reached into his pocket. “Here,” he said, and handed me a cent.

There it is. The definition of contempt and a lack of respect that still situates Australian class. Ernaux has this to say about pain: “Pain cannot be kept intact, it needs to be ‘processed’, converted into humour.”

So, what is it that inspires such coup de foudre in these books, with these writers? (Now I’m doubting if what I thought was the perfect phrase is exact: heartblow is certainly accurate but it smacks of romance, and reading the adroit Spencer makes me uneasy with the word.) The point of all these women, the reason why, 30 years ago and even now, their readers sit up straight and hold our breaths, is that these truthful, intimate words about a woman’s life are shorn of romance. That’s the absent filter. There’s a brutality I associate with truth that I remember in the writing of the overlooked French writer Violette Leduc. Leduc, Ferrante, Ernaux and Spencer are all from a class where education was not the expected thing, or even the most desired thing, from parents with few expectations. Yet an unexpected education for these young women was transfiguring. It enabled those feelings filtered through a casual contempt – they all talk about this – to be translated into language. It amounts to agency, otherwise unknown to women and to most men of their class.

In her 2016 prose poem Vagabondage, a slender book about the year Spencer spent living in a van after she sold her beloved country house, she includes an epigraph from Foucault: “But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or a house be an art object, but not your life?” Spencer writes her life – our lives – as being in a state of flux, in transition from who we were into who we are becoming and who we might be. And she uses popular culture that directly and instantly mirrors who we are at this moment in time when we are passionately alive. It also tells us who we were, and who our parents were. This is writing from the centre, not from any hip, experimental edge or arcane cult. It is profound and sometimes difficult, and sometimes, yes, like life, boring. Her work reflects life as montage: of herself at various ages, in various emotional states, in various places, in health, in sickness, in love, in lust with boys on bikes and men with children clinging to their legs. Spencer is always trying to get a grip on life. Like Ernaux, she defines herself against the political shifting world. She requires readers to have the gift of patience, to look at poems, essays, stories, fragments of biography, and radio and musical pieces, to bear with minute repetitions from different angles. In 1996, she could write about insulting or hurting her mother with the news that she wanted an education so she could be a better mother. Decades later, visiting her 90-year-old mother in a nursing home, she waves goodbye and ends a piece with this: “And I can still feel the imprint of her heart on mine.” Her work sings with moments that achieve this; saying the unsayable.

Last December, Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles was voted number one in Sight and Sound’s critics’ poll of the greatest films of all time. It featured Delphine Seyrig, the actor who erstwhile defined “ladylike”, in a dreary housecoat. This is the first time a woman director has topped the poll, conducted every decade, or even made its top 10. Jeanne Dielman dared to hold long shots on the ordinary, on the banal in a woman’s life, something so revolutionary that people walked out at its opening. Marguerite Duras was so bewildered she reportedly started screaming. Still, some saw originality and brilliance.

Akerman, who was only 25 when she directed Jeanne Dielman, suicided in 2015. She was too ahead of her time. This century, an ultra-connected world in flux teems with fresh insights that we derive from the screens in our houses or from AI worn on our bodies. Our lives are lived as montage: flickering, suggesting, piercing, illuminating and foreshadowing are how we live. The adage that the personal is political is now intimately empirical, experienced every day. Who we were and how we got here is critical, and we yearn to make any sense of it. Beth Spencer grasped this last century; she montaged and continues to montage her life – our lives – with depth and precision. The result is the radiance of the ordinary. Now is her time.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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