Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Lees Shorthouse - Part 8: Interiors - discovery and self-discovery

The unstoppable Ethel had completed yet another perilous voyage, this time into a little explored interior, possibly even into her inner self. A few years ago I completed a Masters Degree assignment using three of the postcards she sent home to England between November 1914 and November 1915, dates which we know from her Journal were significant in her decision to leave Adelaide. It seemed to me that she was unconsciously constructing two ‘selves’ – one in the messages home, and another who was experiencing life as a possible ‘new’ Australian. I don’t think it too far-fetched to suppose that she wanted to present herself to Minnie and the rest of the family back home in wartime England as a dutiful daughter undergoing her own kind of suffering. But some of the Journal entries reveal that she had been sampling the delicious excitement of exploring alien cultures and lifestyles. Oodnadatta would provide even more of these, as we shall see.

The first postcard I analysed was dated November 18th, 1914, and sent from 81 Angas Street, Adelaide. The house still stands to this day, and is home to a charity supporting survivors of torture and trauma. This elegant, balconied colonial building is evidently one of the homes in which she was employed after she left Woodside. The picture on the postcard is a montage of happy, largely female, faces squeezed into the word ‘souvenir’, and quite a contrast to the message on the reverse:

…just to wish you all a Happy Xmas and Prosperous New Year. Would enclose Money Order for Grandma but nothing is safe to cross the Sea at this critical Time…

Ethel gives the impression that life in the city is proceeding normally, and she is obviously earning enough money to be able to consider sending some home. The traditional seasonal greetings remind us of the notion that many expected hostilities to be over by Christmas. But the underlying truth was starker: in France, where her brothers Charley and Tom were serving, the Battle of the Marne had taken place in the September, and the first Battle of Ypres, Flanders, had occurred in the October. No doubt news had reached Australia by telegraph, so it can be expected that these events were a concern to Ethel. The sea she had crossed with such high hopes in 1913 had now become unsafe. And bear in mind her Journal entry for November 1914 where she records her ups, downs and misfortunes – these she kept hidden from her family, who would not be able to read that document for many years, if at all.

The second postcard I believe to be more deeply ‘encoded’ than the first, given what we know of Ethel’s true frame of mind. On the reverse of an image showing “Natives bathing, River Murray” Ethel gives no address, simply the date, August 11th 1915, by which we know from her Journal that she was still in Adelaide. But was she still at the house in Angas Street, or elsewhere? The meticulously penned message is framed in formal language:

My dearest Sister Minnie thank you for kind letter of today, I am hurrying to catch the mail which leaves to-day for England so P.C. is written quicker. I feel it most keenly not hearing  from Brother Charlie, a letter from him is due to me however I will drop him P.C. to follow on to his destination. This is a view of South Australia in the Country, one does not see a native very often in the City, occasionally one meets one. With fondest Love to you all. Your affectionate Sister Ethel  xxxxxx

Yet we know she is in turmoil, desperately looking for a way out, and will be in Oodnadatta exactly one month later. She makes her written ‘self’ present on both the home front in Staffordshire, and the battlefields of Europe, whilst planning her flight to the red desert of the Outback.

For me the third postcard is the most densely inscribed, both in content and meaning, especially when juxtaposed with the corresponding Journal entries. I query Ethel’s purpose in the closely-heaped detail:

Oodnadatta, Far North, South Australia                            Nov: 8th 1915
My Dearest Sister Minnie this is a View of the  whole township of Ood: White buildings are the kind of houses we live in, largest one in corner is the only Hotel here, next are the shops, where we obtain groceries, (such as we can get) one is almost starved here, unable to obtain anything fresh. Note camels with loads and one black fellow, there are a few white people but majority of dwellers are Natives. There [sic] Huts stand back but you cannot detect them. Wishing you all a Happy Xmas and Prosperous New Year by the time this reaches you Yule Tide will once more be here. Fondest love from Sister Ethel  xxxxxx

Is she attempting to draw closer to her family by sending the bleak image of a near god-forsaken prospect, and confiding her experiences as a pioneer of the Outback? It is not clear if she wants to share her hardships – “almost starved here” – or to set up an insurmountable barrier of alienation. The war has three more years to run, though of course Ethel cannot know that. But she has already witnessed the effects of hatred and bloodshed. The journey into the desert has removed her from much of the modern world. The address itself, with its aboriginal name and the distancing effect of the phrase “Far North”, is a prelude to a catalogue of otherness confirmed by the view of the township below: the unfamiliar red and dusty ‘Martian’ landscape, the white buildings resembling tents, the camel train, the sole child by the winch, the Aboriginal man in western attire, all might have filled Minnie and Grandma with pity and horror, were it not for Ethel’s seasonal greetings. Yet we are left to conjecture what kind of Christmas celebrations, her third in Australia, could be mustered in the burning heat of a desert ‘winter’, with little to eat, and that only brought in on the ‘fortnightly train’ mentioned in the Journal entry for 26th October 1915.

Two entries in her Journal on October 26th and 31st, 1915, I found particularly moving and revealing. Ethel writes of her direct encounters with the Afghan families who operated the camel trains in the desert. She is allowed to hold a three-day-old baby, and it must have driven home to her the conditions endured by these people who, like her, were experiencing life in a ‘strange land’. A second visit to their camp brings her face to face with “a white woman residing there, who was married to an Afghan”. Ethel comments that “she seems quite happy and reconciled to her Fate, though banished from all her Relations.” Yet Australia must have been teeming with other examples of mixed marriage, even in the urban areas. In spite of it being a British Dominion, the country was a mixture of many races and cultures: there were the Aboriginals, largely ignored and abused by the Europeans; Turks; Irish; Germans; Afghans; the dominant British. Perhaps Ethel was beginning to feel within her the stirrings of an Australian ‘self’. Did she doubt that she might be able to return to England? If so, she might even become banished from her own relations there, having to adjust to an altogether different life.

One of the many imponderables is what significance the three postcards have now. Since the early 1990s, when they have been able to be considered side by side with the Journal, they have revealed a different Ethel from the one who apparently existed for her family during the first years of the war. When the three postcards arrived in England they would doubtless have been passed around for all to read, maybe even propped on the mantelpiece, picture side out, for visiting friends to peruse and comment on. They directly conveyed the stoical, family-oriented Ethel into the bosom of her admiring domestic circle. Out on the fringes of the Simpson Desert, however, there was an altogether different woman, who had ‘gone walkabout’ into another culture, another time. The Journal remained, for many years, a record of the secret self which Ethel could have chosen to reveal or annihilate at any point.

The abrupt end to the Journal in December 1915 leaves us with many questions. The final entry sees Ethel, and friends, apparently going deeper into the outback, by train, on foot, meeting sheep farmers starved of social contact, and Aboriginals naturally suspicious of these questing Europeans. Who were these friends? How had she met them? Were they employers or comrades? Did Ethel see herself as one of those female explorers about whom Martha Vicinus has written? Or was she just killing time until she had the chance to return to Staffordshire? We, of course, know that the war would end in 1918. But, at some moment, she and her companions must have received the news, and she made her way back to ‘civilisation’ and a port from which to voyage back to England.

1 comment: