Saturday, March 19, 2011

"And her ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong ..."

If you were to ask the average person what they know about the Australian woman, Christina Rutherford Macpherson, most likely you will be met with a blank stare or - at best in this day and age - "Is that the real name of Elle Macpherson?" - ie the fashion model.
Christina Macpherson c. 1900. National Library of Australia
Christina has an unkind fame that has been obscured by varying degrees of hysteria and legend and, not least, the self-importance of others, from hack journalists to radical unionists and from music theorists to academic historians. My attempt to find out more about her has been both intriguing and frustrating.
Christina Macpherson was buried in Melbourne's St Kilda Cemetery in 1936 and her grave remained unmarked until the mid-1980s when a TV documentary team rediscovered it and a niece of hers arranged for this plaque to be placed on her grave.

Image: Iain Macfarlane.
 Waltzing Matilda is one of the world's most recognisable songs, and there have been numerous theories, debate and controversy about its real origins. There is no doubt that Christina was connected with its first outing - using an autoharp she played the first sketchy score to the poet A B (Banjo) Paterson to which he penned the words. That first score has now become a National Treasure, even if it is obvious that the original melody Craigilea bears little resemblance (at least to my non-muscial ear) to the Waltzing Matilda now known world-wide, with this latter being apparently the invention of Marie Cowan although that, too, has its origins elsewhere in British folk tunes. Marie's name usually appears on all sheet music as the composer and/or arranger of that version. To complicate matters further, there is another version called the "Queensland", as sung here by The Seekers.
For anyone wishing to read more, the National Library of Australia has a complete web section devoted to the history of Waltzing Matilda and its myths. The website of Roger Clarke also dazzles and confounds with even more information.
There is no intention of adding to the fantasies or theories in this blog as it is the woman Christina Macpherson herself who interests me and is a prime example of late 19th Century fifteen minutes of fame factor.
What else did she do in life apart from crying at an opportune moment as a baby resulting in the shooting of the notorious bushranger Mad Dog Morgan and later scribbling down a tune for a visiting journalist? See her brief biography in this Friends of St Kilda Cemetery newsletter.
Obviously, she never married. Did she remain an isolated spinster and pine away, still carrying a torch for Banjo Paterson - as some have suggested? Or did she busy herself with the usual charity and family care duties that was the fate of so many single women from that era? In the Australian Electoral Roll between 1914 and 1933, she was simply listed as "home duties, F [female]" which suggests she didn't do much at all and probably had a small private family income.
Newspapers of the era are mostly silent on her (apart from Waltzing Matilda connections) and just about the only record of her in a personal way is a brief mention of her death in the Wills and Estates column of The Age in June 1936 in which she was described as a spinster who lived in Avoca Street, South Yarra, and who left the sum of £3,624 to her sister, who is unamed but is probably the Lady McArthur who found among her effects the letters that passed between Christina and Banjo Paterson relating to Waltzing Matilda (Melbourne Sun, 14 April 1941) and thus confirming her connection to the music.
Rather surprisingly, neither Christina Macpherson nor Marie Cowan rates her own entry in the online Australian Dictionary of Biography. It is even more disappointing that they are not considered noteworthy for entry in the Australian Women's Register or the Australian Women's History forum either.
As can be see from searching the Music Australia archive, Marie Cowan (died 1919) is linked to numerous versions and possibly other music compositions, but her biographical details are even more sketchy than those of Christina and there does not seem to be any accessible image of her.
Is the music to Australia's "unofficial national anthem" less important than Banjo's famous words?
When one considers how much of Australia and its history, both at home and abroad through two World Wars and all subsequent ones, as well as its national pride, culture and identity have been associated with the melody/melodies of Waltzing Matilda, it would be fitting if the women who were involved in its creation are given greater recognition for their contributions!
It is ironic also that the murky history of Waltzing Matilda continues to this day and despite its creator/s being dead for more than the requisite 50 years, it seems that copyright still belongs to the Americans and thus Australians are unable to play it professionally without first obtaining permission from the copyright holder in the United States to do so. 

Image: National Library of Australia

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Flower Power

It is interesting how the names of some women that were once well-known and lauded in the media for their design and domestic advice have almost disappeared from the lexicon.
Julia Child has had a revival, thanks largely to a recent blog that became a film. Likewise Elizabeth David had a bit of a comeback with new biographies and a telemovie. And despite earlier disgrace, Martha Stewart still manages to hold her own as the domestic guru on craft and interior design as well as the kitchen.

Modern women may be baffled by how much store was once set on the art of flower arranging for the home. Today, no-one would think twice about making up a decorative arrangement that mixes flowers with bits of fruit, grasses, pine cones or feathers, but there was a time when it was frowned upon and considered to be “avant garde” and it was Constance Spry who was instrumental in bringing about that change.
Spry was the Martha Stewart of her day and although she was considered primarily a society florist, she was much more than that.

The Windsors 1937 (AP image)
Her most famous early project was probably the design of the flowers for the wedding at Chateau de Cande of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1937 - not a good social move by Spry, given those circumstances - but her status was restored by the time of the wedding of Princess Elizabeth ten years later and the subsequent 1953 Coronation for which Spry designed the flowers in Westminster Abbey, the celebratory dinners and along the processional route. She also often designed arrangements for operas and ballets at Covent Garden.

Spry also ran schools (including the forerunner of the Cordon Bleu School) and gave advice on gardening during war-time when flowers were pulled up in favour of vegetables. But some of her ideas still seem rather outlandish - how many modern brides would consider parsley or cabbage leaves in their bouquets - as was fashionable in the 1930s?

In the 1950s, no conscientious housewife would have been without her recipe book, The Constance Spry Cookery Book which is intermittently in print (latest edition 2004).

Women living in the British Dominions and Colonies in an era when the mother country England was still treated with deference and awe seemed to be particularly fascinated by Spry and would follow her advice and suggestions slavishly. In certain circles, sending one’s daughter overseas to England to be “finished” at the Constance Spry school was a highly prestigious aspiration.
It is hard to imagine what - apart from flower arranging, deportment, and knowing not to eat peas off your knife - the girls were expected to achieve. Some of these establishments were also called “charm”  schools and basically existed to teach frumps how to become sophisticated and cultured (e.g. how to read a French menu and wield a cigarette holder with aplomb) and thereby snag a rich husband.
Research of Australian magazines and newspapers of the day (see TROVE) show numerous reports gushing over the latest Constance Spry publications and endless society column boasts about the lucky ladies about to sail to, or just returned from, study at Spry’s school.
This photo from The Australian Women’s Weekly, 23 March 1955 shows a group of society types at a fashion event in London and in which Australian-born Mrs Vyvyan Holland (her husband was the son of Oscar Wilde) is frightfully game to wear a hat of “real white lilac” made by Constance Spry. We trust there were no bees about!

Another photo, also from the AWW dated 13 May 1950, shows the Sydney model Judy Barraclough choosing flowers at one of her “favourite London haunts” - Spry’s shop.

Before dismissing Spry as outdated and inconsequential in this day and age, it is worth considering what she achieved for herself in what was an era of great transition for many women.

In a review of her latest biography by Sue Shepherd, Robert O’Byrne in The Irish Times shows an insight into Spry that has been overlooked.
Spry’s innovations within her field deserve to be acknowledged, but so too, and more importantly, does her position as a role model for women seeking to take control of their lives.
... But breaking free from the constraints of [her] upbringing, [she] had the foresight to recognise how a natural aptitude could be deployed to generate income and provide employment. Thanks to flower arranging, Spry gained global fame, publishing books and giving lecture tours around the world while running a school where other women could learn the skills that had proven so profitable for her.

In our celebrity-driven age when unkempt chefs compete with each other as to who has the foulest mouth and worst hygiene habits at the expense of the food, and manners and etiquette have become laughable or despised, maybe it would be refreshing to have the wheel turn back a little and a new Constance Spry bring back some elegance and style into our lives.

Click here for a rare Pathe newsreel of 1945 with some of Spry’s design tips.
This blog carries an extensive summary of her important contribution to flower design. And, as keen gardeners may know, Spry was instrumental in saving many rare flowers from extinction and there is a famous rose named after her.
Her 1960 obituary in The Illustrated London News was brief and succinct.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Spitfire Women

In various countries around the world March is Women’s History Month and it seems more important than ever for young women in particular to learn about the struggles and challenges that beset earlier generations in order to achieve rights for women. The right to vote and equal pay are standard now in most Westernised societies, but even there, there are still many careers and professions where women remain in a minority or are unrepresented.
On Australian ABC television this week, this report on the Royal Australian Air Force's need to find women fighter pilots indicates one area where women have yet to break the gender (if not sound) barrier.
If women during World War II proved themselves capable of flying Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancaster bombers in often harrowing situations, one would have thought by 2011 it would have become normal to have them flying modern fighter jets. 

The BBC documentary "Spitfire Women" should be compulsory viewing for any young women interested in flying as a career.
There is also a recent book on the subject by Giles Whittell, "Spitfire Women of World War II". 
What an inspiring group they were.
And what is astonishing - and a little frustrating - is that it has taken more than half-a-century for the contribution of these women to become better-known but it also proves that women in all fields of endeavour still have a long haul ahead in making their history as valid as anything their male counterparts achieve.
Here are some links relating to Women's History Month.

Women's History Network (UK)
Women's History Forum (Australia)
National Women's History Project (US)

And for anyone interested in reading unusual and interesting stories from women's history at any time of the year, the magazine Herstoria is excellent and highly recommended. If not available in stores where you live, you can subscribe online and save trees!