I was delighted to learn that Debra Adelaide’s latest book, The Women’s Pages had made the Long List for the Stella Prize (an award recognising female Australian authors both fiction and non-fiction). I have long been a fan of her insights and complex characters.
The Women’s Pages does not disappoint. Debra Adelaide weaves a masterful story though plaits would perhaps be more apt as there are three narrative strands interwoven with a number of themes.
The main strand is the contemporary story of Dove, the adopted daughter of Jane who has recently died. While she was dying Dove read her mother, Jane’s favourite book, Wuthering Heights. And this is the second strand – the writing of Wuthering Heights and the struggle of Emily Bronte to write that book under the name of Ellis Bell. Dove herself is writing a book and has the leisure to pursue that with Jane’s legacy. Dove is writing the story of Ellis, a young woman whom we first meet in Dove’s story in 1968. So there are three time frames at work, the 1847 period, the period from 1968 and the contemporary scene.
As Dove is writing her novel and struggling with her grief, she returns to Wuthering Heights. She imagines the ill Emily out on the moors and in that cold parsonage struggling with the characters of Catherine and Heathcliff, and young Cathy and young Heathcliff, having a will of their own and a life beyond the pages.
On page 182 she writes “She thought about the maddening autonomy those characters exercised ….. Emily Bronte never compromised in her portrayal of Heathcliff and Cathy.”
Dove, too, struggles with her characters, particularly Ellis as she leaves her husband and forges a career in the world of women’s magazines. Ellis starts as a general assistant with the women’s pages, moves to The Women’s Pages, a prominent women’s magazine which later becomes ‘The Pages’ as the world of newspapers and magazines changes. The authenticity of the detail here is a great strength. Dove researches the locales for Ellis’s story, wandering the streets of Ashfield to find exactly the right house. Adelaide has placed Dove in inner city Sydney around Newtown. It is no surprise again at the authenticity of the descriptions of places and ‘the vibe’ as Adelaide is at nearby UTS.
When we meet Ellis she is keeping house for her father, Ellis’s mother simply having disappeared early in Ellis’s life. Mrs. Wood has kept house and looked after Ellis but has recently retired.
A theme of the book is missing mothers – the motherless Bronte young women, the adopted Dove, Ellis’s missing mother.
Debra Adelaide paints an accurate picture of the feminism of the late 60s and early 70s, with the debate on abortion, the treatment of women in the workplace, the fight for career opportunities and family life. The portrayal of the curtailed lives of most women is also quite accurate.
For me, the ending is a surprise and a delight. Debra Adelaide reveals her total control of her material with finesse.
And then you see the clues she has dropped along the way.
As a postscript: DOVE is an old typeface which has an interesting story attached and a typescript Adelaide had the publisher use for the opening sentence of each chapter.
If Debra Adelaide is not on your list of ‘must read’ authors I’m sure this book will persuade you to add her to that list.
The Women’s Pages by Debra Adelaide is available from Dymocks.
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