SHE is a victim of Australia’s 1930s-1940s polio epidemics; she has a house, drives a car, runs a freelance career as a visual artist, and conducts long protests against Queen Elizabeth II’s first Australian visit and a Miss Australia pageant held in Manly’s Epic Theatre.
In the second half of the 20th century when men commonly held stereotypical views of women, Harriet Chandler lives and shines in Australian writer Moya Costello’s fictional biography. The character is reminiscent of feminist Sybylla Melvyn in Miles Franklin’s best-known novel “My Brilliant Career.”
“The intention of my inter-textual novella was a homage to a predecessor, while at the same time making my own creative space,” Costello tells Shanghai Daily. “I aimed to foreground women and art, to value a unique voice and singular talent.”
The Chandler character first appeared in Murray Bail’s 1987 novel “Holden’s Performance.” As only a minor character in the story, Costella has plenty of creative space to work with and ends up writing a vivid story of an inspiring woman who overcomes a disability.
In Bail’s story, Shadbolt passes through the cities and landscapes of Australia. His reassuring presence and photographic memory make him useful to men of power and women who need his protection. These include former corporal Frank “Bloodnut” McBee, a scrap dealer who woos his mother; his uncle Vern, a shortsighted proofreader who likes facts and eating newspaper with his breakfast cereal; and the crippled artist Chandler, who inspires Holden despite her physical limitations. For a time, she is his paramour and “Shadbolt’s compatriots think she is his “femme fatale.” However, there are no details of Chandler’s birth or of her life before or after meeting Shadbolt.
Having studied Bail’s work for her masters degree and PhD, Costello says she believed Chandler deserved her own story.
Costello creates Chandler’s journal entries and discussions of her artwork to paint a picture of her family life. Her parents are both working-class intellectuals. When they are told their daughter is sick and may not be able to walk again, they bring her home and encourage her to fight gravity and “fly.”
Chandler has what might be considered, in some quarters at least, four strikes against her.
“Only three and you are out,” Costello writes. “Female, an artist, a minor character in a text and polled by polio.”
She lives on the ridge of a cliff on the coast of an island continent, a metaphor for Chandler’s life on the margins of society. Still she builds a good career as a graphic artist at a time when women are mostly expected to be homemakers.
The 17th century Chinese critic Xie Ye (1627-1703) once said: “When I write something different from former masters, I may be filling in something missing from their work. Or is it possible that the former masters are filling in something missing in my work.”
In this sense, Costello’s “Harriet Chandler” is a compelling portrait of a woman who first appeared in “Holden’s Performance.”