Step Up, Mrs Dugdale
(Matilda Bay Books)
It’s a great pleasure to welcome to the blog Lynne Leonhardt, with her second novel, Step Up, Mrs Dugdale. Lynne and I have been friends since we were each working towards our PhD in Creative Writing—Lynne writing the work that would become her first novel, Finding Jasper (shortlisted for the 2013 Dobbie Award), and me writing what became The Sinkings.
In Lynne’s author bio, it’s possible to catch glimpses of her preoccupations as a novelist. She grew up on an orchard in Donnybrook in the South West of Western Australia—a world familiar to anyone who has read Finding Jasper. She studied music and English literature at the University of Western Australia while bringing up four children (yes, she is Wonder Woman), and Lynne speaks, in this post, about the influence of music, along with art, on her identity and her writing. She is the great-great-grand-niece of leading Australian suffragist Henrietta Augusta Dugdale, the protagonist of her new novel.
Here is the blurb for Step Up, Mrs Dugdale…
In 1867, Henrietta Augusta Dugdale, dairywoman of Queenscliff, is pushed to breaking point and leaves her fourteen-year marriage. With access to her children denied, she enters the freethinking world of Melbourne bohemia and sets out to change the law that casts women as property, with no legal rights of their own.
A fearless crusader for women’s justice, the indefatigable ‘Mrs D.’ outclasses those who try to silence or belittle her, all the while haunted by the loss of her three sons, the dark undercurrents of the past and the mysterious fate of her first love.
From newfound facts and family memorabilia, Lynne Leonhardt has created a luminous tale of love, loss, triumph and fortitude, set against the evocative coastal landscape of Port Phillip Bay and the wonder-city of Melbourne at the height of the gold-rush boom. Step Up, Mrs Dugdale is an unforgettable portrait of a pioneering suffragist—a hero for women, a trailblazer for her time.
Over to Lynne…
2 things that inspired the book
Australian national identity was the thesis topic of my exegesis, part of a PhD in Creative Writing, which I completed in 2007. One of my focal points was the glaring absence of female representation in our national narratives. Because a male heroic tradition of mythical proportions had long dominated social constructions of national identity, women’s experiences and stories either had been inched out or had remained untold.
Finding Henrietta’s roots were the same as mine. By a fortunate stroke of serendipity, that same year I was introduced to Henrietta Augusta Dugdale (née Worrell) by my brother, who had come across the Australian suffragist while googling his second name, ‘Worrell’. From her online biography, it was clear we were related. Why then hadn’t we been told about this heroic member of the family before? I dug out a copy of our old family tree and there she was, literally hanging out on the end of a limb in obscurity. What I saw as the sidelining of our great-great-grand-aunt from family history was a calling. Hardly surprising that my Henrietta quest came as a natural follow-on from my PhD. The more I learned about this remarkable woman—both the public side and the private—the stronger my own sense of identity became.
2 places connected with the book
Despite all the advancements of the Victorian era, women lost ground they had gained during the Enlightenment. Ironically, the Doctrine of Two Separate Spheres for men and women became more prescriptive, each being defined in diametric opposition to the other. Woman’s place was restricted to inside the home while man’s was outside. Woman’s place was considered private; a man’s, public. Women, especially middle-class married women, were expected to be the ‘Angel in the House’. Bestowed by men, this romanticised rank was used as an argument against giving women the vote.
For women, like Henrietta, arriving in Victoria during the early 1850s, the Doctrine of Separate Spheres was severely disrupted. Initially there were no homes, no privacy, no separation between the sexes. With little more than a sheet of canvas over their heads, women were exposed to the hostile elements and the hurly-burly hotbed of gold fever. Pioneering women had to redefine themselves very quickly out of sheer necessity, in order to survive the harsh practicalities of life in this unknown land.
2 influences on the book
Art and music are integral to my writing because of their strong correlation with each other. Both art and music were early childhood pastimes when I was growing up in the countryside. I now feel they are very much a part of me. Identity is rooted in the arts. As much as the arts reflect culture, they affect mores and the fundamental sense of self. Like literature, every piece of art and music in itself tells a story, thus being part of a much bigger story in turn.
For me, the visual quite often precedes the written word. Wherever I am, my inner artist’s eye is always on the lookout. The framing and composition of artworks—what is included and what is left out—even in old family photographs, says a lot about society and its contradictions. Sadly, the lack of recognition of women artists through the nineteenth into the twentieth centuries has mirrored that of women writers and musicians. But, I suspect that in art, women could probably express themselves a little more freely.
Nineteenth-century paintings provide windows into domestic interiors of the time—the roles, the décor, fashions and fabrics, even the different shades of dye. Many an hour I have spent trawling through online galleries, immersing myself in Victorian culture, and the cross-pollination of imagery and ideas has added value to my written words.
Because of the enormous creative energy this novel has taken, I haven’t felt the need to dabble in art for quite some years. But the first thing I did when I had finished the final edit of Step Up, Mrs Dugdale was attempt a portrait of Henrietta. The photograph I tried to work from depicts her in her late thirties, but unfortunately the quality is poor. When I look at my version of Henrietta, I get the feeling she could well be looking at us ‘liberated women’ of the twenty-first century and I’m left wondering about her thoughts.
The appreciation of music is perhaps even more subjective than that of literature and art. Music engages heavily with the subconscious realm. It has an effect on the brain and on our most vital human organ, the heart. Yet music is also a form of escape. It takes one out of oneself. It consoles but it also gives rise to strength. So often, it can convey feelings that cannot otherwise be expressed.
Henrietta, a highly skilled pianist, reflects upon the power of music following an afternoon concert, how music has form of its own:
Music, Beethoven claimed, was the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life. Ah, but there was good music and bad music. Good music like this removed one from the dross of life in a way that transcended all spiritual and physical boundaries.
My musical background and love of music have enabled me to tap into Henrietta’s interior world, as I understand it. Though a long-lapsed pianist, I am familiar with the pieces that she plays in the story, continuing to play these favourites now and then. For all my slip-ups, I am sure the emotion communicated has helped me in translating experiences across time and space.