Eve Langley (1904–74) was the daughter of Arthur Alexander Langley and Mira Davidson. Her father, of Irish descent, was an itinerant agricultural labourer and a talented violinist. He persuaded Mira, the daughter of a well-established Gippsland farming family, to elope with him. Because of this union, Mira was disinherited and spent her life in poverty. When Arthur died, she took her daughters and returned to Gippsland to manage a hotel at Crossover for her brother. The family moved to Brunswick and later to Dandenong. Because of her unsettled childhood, Eve suffered, like Henry Lawson and John Shaw Neilson, from a rudimentary education. She writes: ‘My first illness was that most common to the children of the poor . . . a bad education and, like the bite of a goanna, it was incurable and ran for years. My early arnicas of Matthew Arnold, small balsams of Wilde, Rabelaisian cauterizers, Shavian foments and Shakespearian liniments have only added to it and spread the offence.’ (p. 4) Although Eve’s education ended at Dandenong High School at the age of fourteen, she remained a voracious reader. Her reading included the Bible, classics like Virgil’s Aenead, Shakespeare, romantic poets, especially Keats, the plays and poems of Oscar Wilde, nineteenth-century symbolist French poets like Verlaine, and Rupert Brooke, the English poet of World War I.
Eve and her younger sister, June, grew up to be lively, adventurous tomboys, who initially scorned the traditional roles of marriage and domesticity. In 1924, when Eve was twenty and June nineteen, they set out for Gippsland, their mother’s childhood home, to work as agricultural labourers, packing apples, picking peas and harvesting sweet corn. The sisters set off on their adventure dressed in men’s clothing, with the assumed names of Steve and Blue. Their dress gave them a certain notoriety and they were even questioned by the police at one stage of their journey. Their employers accepted them with goodwill since both were strong, reliable workers. Eve already saw herself as an artist, a writer, who longed for fame. The novel is based on her writings during the twenties when she kept a diary and wrote numerous stories, poems and articles. She did not write the novel until 1940 when the circumstances of her life had changed dramatically.
In 1932, Eve followed her mother and sister to live in New Zealand. This was not a good move for her, since she was a territorial creature, devoted to her homeland. She lived in poverty, supporting herself by journalism and domestic work. Worse was to follow. She conceived a fatal attraction to a New Zealand painter, Hilary Clark, more than ten years her junior. He was still studying art and supporting himself as a painter. She pursued him relentlessly, despite his having no desire for marriage or a family. The New Zealand writer, Ruth Park, a friend of Langley’s, writes of her at this time: ‘I never wanted to talk to or question Eve. To listen was enough. Her ideas were to me, dazzling. She opened doors in my mind in all directions. She would quote from Seneca, Montaigne, Epictetus, the Greek playwrights . . . It was she who, in this careless drifting manner, filled my mind with treasure which still delights me. New Zealand, at this time, was a chill conservative country . . . this may explain my enchantment with this strange free person, Eve Langley. In appearance, she was for those times, a very unusual and unorthodox figure . . . Eve was the first woman I ever saw who constantly wore slacks. She had bare, scratched, brown feet and wore thick leather sandals of a Franciscan type made for her by her [future] husband Hilary Clark [or Clarke].’ This extract comes from the first pages of Ruth Park’s notes on Eve Langley. Joy Thwaite quotes it on page 280 in her book, The Importance of Being Eve Langley, published by Angus and Robertson, 1987.
In 1938, after the birth of their first child, Bisi, Eve finally married Hilary Clark. In an interview with Joy Thwaite, on the 13 September 1983, he said: ‘Finally Bisi was conceived and I still made it clear that I wasn’t ready for marriage. But about the time that Bisi was due to be born, I’m not the sort of person who can father a bastard, so I succumbed, but I didn’t go and live with her. So, we got married and some time later, I think there was a gap between, I used to visit her. She lived at Birkenhead, [in the slums of Auckland], in a little cottage or bach down the back of some old Maori people’s place. Nice old Maori people. But, she was terribly lonely and terribly miserable, I think. As usual, she was always writing. She used to write hours a day and neglect the children for her writing.’ Eve Langley wrote The Pea-Pickers in 1940. She was ill, pregnant with her third child and living alone with her small children in desperate poverty. From her diaries, she creates the golden years of 1924 to 1928 when Steve and Blue set off for their adventures in Gippsland and the Ovens Valley. The novel won an Australian literary prize, the Prior Prize. She shared it with two other writers, one of whom was Kylie Tennant. In 1942, when the book was published, Eve was a patient in the Auckland Psychiatric Hospital to which her husband had committed her. He left the children in an orphanage when he was called up for military service. In The Importance of Being Eve Langley, Joy Thwaite chronicles the events of Eve Langley’s bleak life lovingly and meticulously. None of Langley’s many subsequent novels was published, except White Topee in 1954, which was edited by the writer’s friends.