In my new novel, The Wizardry of Jewish Women, some of my characters visit Melbourne. It’s a nostalgia trip and is essential to one of the characters in particular, who had no time for nostalgia and who desperately needs it. What I was doing when I wrote it, was confining to writing some of my own feelings of Melbourne, and the feelings about the city that I have co9llected from its literature over the years.
Lucy Sussex explains it, in Blockbuster! Fergus Hume’s hansom can murder mystery was written in the nineteenth century and very much set in the Melbourne I knew. I know I knew the city many decades later, but the way she describes Marvellous Melbourne (boom period Melbourne, with its brilliancy and its slums) is something I gathered as a teenager, walking those same streets. I find the same Melbourne now, when I play in the amazing Trove database and discover that my great-aunts were key features in the Talk of the Town, informing society of the incoming fashions from Europe. These spinsters were Melbourne career women nearly a century ago. The fact that they were spinsters is important, for they were treated less than perfectly by the family because of their status and elderly single woman are still not Melbourne’s favourite breed. For me, Melbourne is the place for the gourmet meal with friends and since the time most people started to have children, it’s easier to dine with fellow parents. Canberra is even worse for this, but I had Canberra in my novel for different reasons and no doubt will talk about it elsewhere. I love talking about places I’ve lived.
My Melbourne, Hume’s Melbourne: they’re rather closer than most cities appear over a century. This is because Melbourne’s the kind of town that gets under one’s skin. I have family history in Sydney, but I can’t tell you where that history happened there. I once gave Talie Helene (musician and writer and a very, very patient person) a tour of a bit of my family’s central Melbourne, when I was writing this novel. I didn’t always get the location right. My eighty year old great-great-grandmother broke both her legs in the wrong location entirely. The paper mourned “Poor Mrs Cohen, she’s going to die.” She did, but it took her ten years. My great-great grandmother and I walked the same streets when I was at Melbourne University, for Mrs Cohen’s home (now demolished) was right next to my end of campus.
Melbourne gets under the skin of its people because it has a continuity to it. The stories don’t stop. New people come, old people leave, but the stories are still there and they still encompass all our lives.
I have stories for different parts of Melbourne, from Hawthorn to Moonee Ponds. When I read Ivan Southall’s biography I read his thoughts on the rampaging blackberries in the Dandenongs and thought wistfully “Our father didn’t let us pick them.” When I read Shute’s On the Beach, I saw the tram going up an empty road in Hawthorn.
I haven’t lived in Melbourne since 1988, and it’s still in me. I can find my grandfather’s office in Flinders Lane, where my grandfather and his brother connected with everyone else from the garment industry. I know where my great-aunts’ shop is and my great-uncle’s dental practice.
My family hasn’t been in central Melbourne for nearly fifty years. We moved out to the suburbs and then some of us moved beyond. My stories encompass other places because I personally know them. Hawthorn is where I grew up, and Hawthorn is – in a poetically inspired moment by my publisher and the bookshop – the place where The Wizardry of Jewish Women is being launched. Melbourne is only a small part of the novel, but it’s that important.
We are of the city, always. When Lucy describes Fergus Hume’s Melbourne, it’s also my Melbourne. The layering and the sense of the past is particular to the city. Other cities have similar things, but the way Melbourne’s works is its own.
When I moved to Canberra it was temporary. I always intended to move back to Melbourne. I never did. This is not even the beginning of an issue, however, for when I wrote this novel I discovered I’d never left. My characters had, and they did their return journey, but a sliver of my spirit is always there.
Thank you, Gillian! This novel looks like it is going to be a great read!