“They let you dream/Just to watch ’em shatter/You’re just a step/On the boss-man’s ladder” (Dolly Parton, 9 to 5)

I’ve not done too badly with contributing to November’s plethora of reading events, despite my snail-like reading speed. Unfortunately I’m not going to manage a #MARM post, but I did find a short novel by an Australian author to squeeze in, so here on the final day of the month is my hastily written contribution to AusReadingMonth hosted by Brona at This Reading Life. At 204 pages it is just a teeny bit too long to count for #NovNov though…

I went into Bobbin Up by Dorothy Hewett (1958) with quite low expectations, set by the author herself 😀 In her introduction to my 1985 VMC edition, she explains “looking back on the 36-year-old Communist who wrote Bobbin Up, I am embarrassed by at her proselytising, stubborn blindness, this Antipodean Alice in Wonderland who had a protracted love affair with an idealised working class.”

However, she also acknowledges: “Sometimes sentimental, sometimes didactic, sometimes clumsy and overwritten Bobbin Up was the work of a still young writer struggling to find her own style and voice. Its form, which was criticised at the time as too episodic, seems to me to suit the subject perfectly”

As a middle-class woman who chose to work in a factory and then write about it, I was put in mind of Nell Dunn.  While both authors are open to accusations of class tourism and exploitation, I think they wrote with the best of intentions, attempting to shine a light on ignored and marginalised female workers. The novels are sixty or so years old, and these days we understand allyship differently.

These disclaimers out the way, I really enjoyed Bobbin Up. I thought it was stronger than Hewett suggested and was a compassionate portrait of the lives of women on low incomes in 1950s Sydney. Although she sets in the fictional Jumbuck Woollen Mills, the frequent references to songs playing on the radio and the sputnik gliding overhead root it firmly in a specific time.

Hewett captures the work environment in broad strokes before focussing in on particular workers:

“Women came in from everywhere, laughing and chiacking down the long, slippery aisles between the rovers, spinners, and winders. Relief healed their aching backs, relief loosened their tongues, they ran and pushed and scurried, jamming into the washroom, five minutes to change and scrub up and catch the bus to Redfern, Marrickville, Paddo, Woollahra and all points north, south, east and west.”

Their lives are hard and the women’s bodies are broken by tough, unrelenting work.

“Violet McHendry, forty-five, sharped tongued, hard as nails, was always fighting a losing battle with life in the grey, warped, weatherboard semi in Maddox Lane. But she still kept, until the day she died over her washtubs, ten years later, that peculiar girlishness, that grace of face and voice, that has nothing to do with time.”

The best time they can hope for is when they are young, still fit and might have some energy to enjoy the times when they’re not at work.

“[Beth] passed proudly and yet compassionately, conscious of her youth and motherhood. The old men stared after her, jealous of the radiance they could never share again, loafing on borrowed time, unwanted, under the dapple of poplar trees.”

There is domestic violence, self-medicating with alcohol, sixteen-year-olds being told they’ll be raped if they ‘lead men on’. But also some tender relationships, resilience and hope.

“Upstairs Lil had a view. Across the crooked slate and corrugated iron roofs of Waterloo and Redfern the Housing Commission flats stood out like a dream of luxury amidst green lawns. The sunlight slanted golden against their solid brick walls, a rainbow of mist from their water sprinklers circled them with enchantment.”

For Nell, the committed communist (presumably based on Hewitt, and she does seem to make her the most self-critical character), the hope is for a better society:

“Everything fell into place like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, and the best part of it was she knew she had always been right. There was something more than the narrow, bitter, cranky world she’d been reared in. There was another world to be built, here on earth, based on the kind of brotherhood and selflessness and energy she’d seen displayed long ago in the strike in the textile mills.”

I do agree with Hewett that Bobbin Up is somewhat overwritten and clunky in places, but it wasn’t particularly torturous. Amidst the bleak subject matter, it balanced the story somewhat, without obscuring the difficulties the women face.

“You could never be lonely in Waterloo, always conscious of the myriad lives woven and interwoven with your own, breathing, battling, loving, fighting, suffering in the stifling summer dusk.”

To end, a song about the charms of women who work in factories:

23 thoughts on ““They let you dream/Just to watch ’em shatter/You’re just a step/On the boss-man’s ladder” (Dolly Parton, 9 to 5)

    • It is definitely a period piece, and the episodic nature suits it in that way, like it’s sketches from a particular moment.

      I think now there would rightly be questions of Dunn & Hewett’s approach, but I’m wary of judging them too harshly by today’s standards as I genuinely think they were doing what they thought was best at the time. Hewett explains that many of the women couldn’t write, and that once the book was published the main objection raised with her was from someone she’d described as flat-chested!

      Liked by 2 people

      • I was going to say that if these class tourists hadn’t toured at that period the stories would probably not have been told at all due to levels of illiteracy. Now it’s more feasible for most groups to write their own stories, in the west at least. Sounds interesting, and reminded me of those highly polished shiny slippery corridors that were everywhere back then, as a kind of hazard course! Why??

        Liked by 2 people

        • That’s it FF, and I think that’s what Hewett was acknowledging in her introduction – she wasn’t sorry she’d written it but she was aware of the shortcomings.

          Those floors were everywhere! My school had them and the caretaker always had that massive polishing machine out, then we’d throw ourselves across the newly hazardous surface! How we didn’t break bones is a mystery 😀

          Liked by 1 person

    • I think you might enjoy this one Kaggsy!

      That’s a really good point that I hadn’t thought about – maybe super slick marketing departments in publishers wouldn’t want that kind of introduction now? I thought it added to the whole piece in terms of a historical document really, it was interesting to see how her attitudes, thoughts and writing style had changed and developed.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: That’s a Wrap #AusReadingMonth2021 – Brona (This Reading Life)

  2. I do love those green spine Virago Modern classics. I read a whole stack of them in my twenties the year I lived in London. The little local library had shelves of them and I read as many as I could! Just seeing one makes me feel nostalgic for that time.
    And I’m so glad you found an Australian one.

    I’ve only read some of Hewett’s poetry to date, but this one is on my radar for the “compassionate portrait of the lives of women on low incomes in 1950s Sydney” that you mention.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Mme Bibliophile. I’ve been carrying around Bobbin’ Up in my backpack for a while now, but not actually got round to reading it. I’m sorry if Hewett in old age disclaimed her Communist past. The old communists, if not the Party so much, held rampant capitalism at bay for a generation.
    Bill Holloway

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Bill, I hope you enjoy Bobbin Up when you get to it. I don’t know a lot about Hewett but I read somewhere that it was the brutality of Stalinism and then the suppression of the Prague Spring that caused her to become disillusioned. As you say, I hope she was able to still see the good that individuals like herself and others had managed to do.


  4. Like others here, I hadn’t come across this book (or Dorothy Hewitt) until your post popped up in my reader, but you’ve convinced to look out for a copy. It’s interesting you should mention Nell Dunn. Inez Holden is another writer who springs to mind, especially given her novels and non-fiction about factory workers in the war.

    Liked by 1 person

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