Essay by Lucy Treep
Eve Langley’s first novel, The Pea-pickers (1942), has surprised and delighted readers since it was written. Douglas Stewart praised it as ‘the most original contribution to Australian literature since Tom Collins wrote Such is Life’ (31), and Norman Lindsay described it as ‘a book that will live’ (2). Before publication the manuscript shared the Bulletin’s S. H. Prior Memorial Prize in 1940, with The Battlers by Kylie Tenant and the ‘John Murtagh Macrossan lectures’ by Malcolm Henry Ellis. On reading the manuscript Frank Dalby Davison wrote, ‘It has the dew on it … It contributes something fresh to Australian literature. It is rare. I think it will be cherished’ (2). The predictions of Davison and his colleagues have proven to be accurate: twenty-first century readers still find this engaging novel ‘fresh’ and ‘original’, and enjoy the protagonist’s theatrical flouting of social conventions. Langley skilfully weaves together many strands in her vibrant text, and perhaps most successful is the humour that frequently pervades the narrative. This humour is often at the expense of the narrator, though rapid shifts in perspective and the wit and vigour of her voice urge the reader to laugh with Steve at the same time as we laugh at her.
The Pea-pickers is best known for the decision of its female narrator to don male clothing and adopt a male persona based on a member of the Kelly gang, Steve Hart. Elizabeth McMahon observes that ‘from the colonial period onward the transvestite is a recurrent figure in those rural and bush settings which function as metonyms of Australia, and onto which mythologies of distinctively Australian identities are so often invented’ (1). In The Pea-pickers, the sisters’ desire to cross-dress is aligned with personae adopted straight from the foundational literature and bush lore of Australia. This alignment situates Steve’s demands to have her gender identity treated as fluid and unfixed directly alongside her rigid definitions of national identity; on the one hand, the contradictions and ironies of a female narrator with a male persona vividly assert the potential of multiple viewpoints and truths in a way that still seems compelling today, while on the other, in the parallel narrative of national identity, other viewpoints are subordinated, mocked or erased.
Inevitably then, alongside Steve’s transvestism, her racism and ethnocentrism are now aspects of The Pea-pickers for which the novel is notorious. Steve and her sister Blue work alongside itinerants of a number of ethnicities, and the novel’s characters, a mix of new immigrants, other itinerants, and landowners are situated within a lovingly described Australian countryside. After a long day working in the fields, Steve walks across the hills in the evening:
I trod the hill of yellow grass; the land was veiled in the smoke of the still-burning bush-fire that was wallowing in red seas from some desolate shore to the end of its journey. Above the dry grass the blue smoke wandered, and in the mystical twilight I cried, ‘O Patria Mia! Patria Mia!’ and my naked brown feet kissed the dear earth of my Australia and my soul was pure with love of her. (169)
On the back cover of the 1958 publication of The Pea-pickers, Douglas Stewart of the Bulletin describes Langley’s lyricism as ‘a unique refreshment of our literature’ and praises her ‘love of Australian earth and Australian people and skill in painting them…’ These days, Steve’s declarations of connection with the land of Australia are perceived as appropriation of indigenous authenticity. The relationship that Steve has with the Australian landscape, and with the new immigrants that she meets, and the almost complete elision of the local Aboriginal community in The Pea-pickers illuminate the nationalistic narrative of the novel.
The Pea-pickers is famously based on Langley’s experiences as a young woman when she and her sister dressed in male clothing and worked as field labourers in Gippsland, Victoria. Langley’s biographer, Joy Thwaite, comments:
This was an enchanted period of Langley’s life wherein the seasons of all the years merged into one magical ‘Primavera’ of infinite possibilities. In her memory, the summers of the years 1925–28 were fused…Youth, hope, a sense of adventure, a belief in her own talents and her ability to function independently as a man buoyed her up, spurred her on in her desire to travel Australia, to write majestic poetry and prose, to achieve fame as the definitive and inspired chronicler of Gippsland and its people. (38)
Langley’s vivid recreation of rural 1920s Australia brims with allusions to the transformative possibilities of life. The novel starts with a sly nod to one of the best-known transformation stories of the western world, the ‘fall’ in the Garden of Eden. The first page opens with a newspaper clipping purportedly from the Interstate Weekly: ‘And reports from Bairnsdale, in the Gippsland district, indicate that Mr Nils Desperandum, of Sarsfield, will have the largest crop of apples, this year, for miles around’ (3). The punning name of the orchard owner with the good crop of apples, Mr Nils Desperandum, hints at an antipodean Eden. This metaphoric worry-free paradise attracts the attention of the sisters, and when they receive an offer of work from Mr Desperandum, their subsequent journey to Gippsland is charged with references to fairytales and other myths, contextualising their efforts at self-transformation within a pattern of metamorphosis. Allusions to death, gatekeepers, threshholds and the underworld of Greek mythology run through Steve’s descriptions of her train ride to Gippsland. These allusions to the alternative realities of the mythical world seem particularly appropriate in a text where the unconventional dreams and fierce emotions of the narrator often create a dissonance between her and the surrounding world.
As Steve and her sister Blue board the train to Mr Desperandum’s orchard they wear ‘wide-legged trousers, silk shirts and sweaters’ of ‘gold and royal blue’, and they stroke ‘imaginary black whiskers’ (15). In the time period that Langley has fictionalised conventions were rigidly adhered to, and the lives of women highly circumscribed. Decades later, Gippsland locals still remembered the time when Langley and her sister, having adopted male clothing, arrived seeking employment as itinerant field labourers. Thwaite cites Eb Coleman, who lived in Gippsland at the time:
When they first came to Metung they called them ‘the Trouser Women’. They shocked the locals. Some people didn’t have such a bright idea of them. They thought they were pretty common. Then they became popular because they were such good workers. They had to live pretty lean. (39)
Coleman remembers that the police ‘were going to summons [the Langley sisters] for masquerading as men, but [the sisters] overcame that by wearing bangles’ (Thwaite 39–40). In The Pea-pickers, in a sequence that describes the sisters slipping in and out of train carriages pursued by policemen who pop up in ways that are reminiscent of a Punch and Judy puppet show, Steve and Blue are repeatedly accused of ‘masquerading as boys’. In Langley’s fictional recreation of the events that took place in the 1920s, the gold bangle that Blue wears causes confusion with regard to her gender, rather than confirming it as Coleman remembers.
Steve and Blue make no attempt to hide their womanly shapeliness, often appearing ‘amply feminine in [their] masculine clothes’ (Pea-pickers 64). As they walk down the main street of one town the two women attract the attention of the hotel proprietor who calls out ‘I say! Aren’t those two … girls?’ (72), and as they walk the back streets of another town men and women ‘cr[y] out to each other, wondering what [they are]’ (66). While rarely turning from the interested speculation regularly aroused by the sisters’ chosen attire, Steve and Blue are each other’s most ardent and gratified spectators. Steve and Blue are happily, if wryly, aware that the shape of their womanly bodies is obvious through their masculine clothing. Comically, when the ‘elderly proprietress’ of a hotel in Cootamundra expresses surprise at the appearance of the two women, the sisters ‘stare at each other sternly’ and ask “‘Did I look like a girl, then? Did my bosom appear large to you, old man?’” (71).
Though Steve insists on being referred to by her male pseudonym, and on being treated like a man, the sisters frequently wear ‘half boy clothes, half girl clothes’ (104). Steve describes an outing with Macca, a young man to whom she is attracted:
I put my arm around his waist as we walked awkwardly on the rough road. I was wearing trousers, too, like him, but with my usual touch of the ludicrous had added to the outfit a woman’s blouse and a straw school hat of ridiculous droop.
A small dark girl, plump and faintly moustached, passed us with an amazed stare. (178)
The clothes and various adornments that the two sisters wear are in a collaborative relationship with the bodies they attire. The outfits that Steve, in particular, wears are part of a performance rather than a masquerade, expressive of the fluidity of her identity, which is made visible in the shifting distance between the expressions of Steve’s clothes and of Steve’s body underneath. The sexually ambiguous outfits deliberately chosen by Steve as a way of refusing conventional gender constructions articulate Steve’s strong desire for a life of extended, if not infinite, possibilities.
These extended possibilities include the freedom to roam the countryside. When a sergeant in Springhurst asserts that Steve and her sister ‘have no right to be getting around like this’ (69) he is referring not just to their mode of dress but also to their unfettered movement through Gippsland. Yet, Steve’s restlessness is not just a show of defiance in the face of gender-based restrictions. Steve is a poet, in the Romantic mode, and thus driven to roam the landscape whilst passionately composing verse. From the very first lines of The Pea-pickers Langley deftly encourages the reader to identify Steve, the narrator, as a poet, dwelling in poetic surroundings. That hot Australian morning on which Steve reads the news in the Interstate Weekly, she is sitting in ‘the poet’s corner’ (3), as the space at her end of the table is called. Steve worships Keats and Wordsworth. She models her poetic outpourings on the Romantic verse that she loves, and as she wanders alone across the landscape, she emulates the well-known figure of the Romantic outsider-poet.
As a poet, Steve also admires Australian verse and she imagines herself within the tradition of the bush poet, another lonely figure in the Australian landscape. When planning their first journey into Gippsland, Steve and Blue describe it as a trip back in time to the days of the archetypal Australian bushmen: a golden past that they consider encapsulated by the writing of Henry Lawson. The sisters call out to one another as they prepare to leave:
‘Wonder what we’ll find up in Gippsland, Blue, eh? Old-timers… old music… strong horses and the memories of old days, I suppose’.
‘But, Steve, it might be all changed now. We think we’re going up into a district that’s a mixture of Mia and Henry Lawson. But a new generation’s come since then’ … Feverishly we made ready for Gippsland, that she might welcome us by turning back old times, and letting us see the days of which our mother had spoken. (13–14)
Their journey takes the two women to the site of overlapping origin stories; back to the time of Lawson, and that of the old-timers, and also to the childhood home-district of their mother, Mia, who looks ‘like an old bushman’ (8), and is ‘Gippsland incarnate’ (9).
Langley places Steve and her family within a number of well-known tropes of national identity. She repeatedly emphasises the strong connection Steve and Blue feel they have with the land. The house they live in with their mother Mia seems of the land rather than on it, slowly decaying into the ground, and surrounded by giant plum trees that hold ‘the soil in their hands’ (4). The family wallow in the sound of Aboriginal place-names:
At night we sat down and wrote out columns of Australian place-names, glorying in their ancient autochthonousness. English names, in Australia, we despised. ‘Effete,’ we said. ‘Unimaginative. But… ah, Pinaroo… Wahgunyah… Eudarina… Tallygaroopna… Monaro… Tumbarumba… Bumberrah, and thousands of others! How fine they are!’ (10)
As Steve says, she and Blue, ‘being of coarse and fertile earth, were more sensitive to the etymon than to anything else in the world’ (10). Strongly identifying Steve with the indigenous of Australia through her discussion of the beauty of the Aboriginal names, Langley cleverly links Steve’s love of language with these names.
The complex manner in which Langley associates Steve and Blue with indigeneity is clear in the only episode in which Steve speaks with an Aboriginal man.
When the man appears near the sisters’ hut one morning he agrees to sell Steve and Blue two boomerangs. In the ensuing conversation the Aborigine’s speech is placed directly beside that of both Steve and Akbarah, a field worker purportedly from Afghanistan. Steve questions the Aborigine, who leans ‘against the post-and-rail fence near the shed, and languidly, in a well-bred voice’ offers to throw the boomerangs for them:
‘What do you make [the boomerangs] from?’
‘Oh, I find a wattle-tree that has a root shaped somewhat like a boomerang, and I work on it with a piece of glass or sharp tools until I fine it down,’ said the aboriginal and, collecting his money, he strolled off into the bush.
Akbarah smiled at me. ‘You have magnificent teeth, Akbarah. What do you clean them with?’
Akbarah mumbled, ‘Might be get little bit bark from wattle-tree and rub on tooth’. (112–3)
In this dialogue both the Aborigine and Steve speak standard, even elegant, English in contrast to Akbarah who speaks a kind of pidgin English. In The Pea-pickers this is the only time a non-Anglo-Saxon person speaks as the Aboriginal man does; usually the immigrant workers use the pidgin English often ascribed to indigenous people. Akbarah Khan and landowner Karta Singh frequently refer to Steve and Blue as ‘you fella’, and the faltering English of the Italian workers is ridiculed by Steve. The Aboriginal man has the nonchalant style of an Englishman of leisure and speaks in perfect English, and through careful presentation of speech patterns Langley aligns Steve with him and her country. By constructing an opposition here between those who speak like Steve’s beloved Keats, and those who don’t, Langley overcomes the distinction she insists on elsewhere between those with Anglo-Saxon/white identities and all others. However, by asserting this ideological contradiction Langley obscures the fundamental similarity in the interests of Steve and Blue, and the ‘new’ immigrant workers with regards to the Aborigines of Australia; in one way or another they all desire to occupy the land once solely held by the Aborigine.
Yet, despite this construction of Australian identity through association with indigeneity, indigenous people are almost absent from The Pea-pickers. Langley effectively effaces the substantial presence of Aboriginal people working in the Gippsland fields at the time that she places Steve there. Bruce Pascoe comments that The Pea-pickers:
…is set in the market gardens of East Gippsland and celebrates the Australian worker not in soft focus Empire glory but as it was, full of Italians, Germans and battling Australians. Dramatically different from how the Bulletin saw the iconic worker of the wide brown land… but [Langley] is colour blind. The pea, bean, maize, grape and fruit harvesters of that era were predominantly black. (209–10)
As Pascoe comments, ‘today, talk among members of Aboriginal communities never proceeds far without mention of peas and beans, grapes and maize and the districts of Bruthen, Bairnsdale, Bega and Mildura’ (209). Langley renders this highly visible community invisible. That Langley describes in great detail the multicultural nature of the market gardens within which Steve works makes her effacement of the Aboriginal community more profound. Pascoe observes:
The picking industry is dominated by Aboriginal families but [after one brief encounter between Steve and an Aboriginal man] Langley never mentions them again, preferring to concentrate on the Italians with whom she shares almost no language but does share the knowledge of European culture… (210)
Langley does evoke the 1920s community of Italian field workers in vivid detail, but the Italians are not portrayed simply as fellow labourers.
Steve and Blue often show genuine respect and affection towards the Italian men beside whom they work, and in their clumsy attempts at speaking Italian the sisters reveal an awareness of the difficulties of learning another language. Yet any expressions of regard are overtly undermined by the frequent depictions of the Italian men as childlike, and (ironically in the context of the sister’s cross-dressing) feminine. Both the Italians and Karta Singh and his friends are described using animal metaphors to enhance Steve’s strong sense of superiority in their company. In these instances, the subversiveness of Steve’s verbal acumen and wit is limited by her support of a status quo that mandates the exclusion of non-Anglo-Saxon Australians as aliens and outsiders. In The Pea-pickers, Langley depicts not so much an accurate picture of 1920s rural Australia, as an accurate image of common societal attitudes of that time. The novel works to consolidate most of these attitudes, while seeking to challenge prevalent gender constructions.
Davison, Frank Dalby. ‘The Prior Prize Winners’. Bulletin (23 October, 1940).
Langley, Eve. The Pea-pickers. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1943.
Lindsay, Norman. ‘The Pea-pickers’. Bulletin (3 June 1942).
McMahon, Elizabeth. “Transvestism and Colonial Narratives of Itinerancy and Settlement’. Outskirts, Vol 6, May 2000.
Pascoe, Bruce. Convincing Ground: Learning to Fall in Love With Your Country. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2007.
Stewart, Douglas. ‘A Letter to Shakespeare’, The Flesh and The Spirit: An Outlook on Literature, 1st edn. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1948.
Thwaite, Joy L. The Importance of Being Eve Langley. North Ryde: Angus & Robertson, 1989.
© Copyright Lucy Treep 2015