In 1961, fed up with being ignored, poet Gwen Harwood sent two acrostic sonnets to The Bulletin under a male pseudonym, spelling out: “so long bulletin”, “fuck all editors”. The scandal made headlines – not only because The Bulletin was duped, but because a woman dared to use such an obscenity. Harwood’s recollection that one friend declared her “cut off from decent motherhood” inspired Edwina Preston’s latest novel, Bad Art Mother.
Preston puts fictional character Veda Gray at the centre of Melbourne’s 1950s and ’60s bohemian milieu, made famous by the likes of Mirka Mora, Joy Hester, and John and Sunday Reed. Veda is a poet fighting for legitimacy in a scene dominated by men confidently proclaiming the value of their work while women struggle to be taken seriously. Veda barely dares to admit to the “fact” of her own writing as she suffers repeated rejections by the male editors of well-known literary magazines.
Her son Owen is the primary witness to his mother’s highs and lows, as she swings wildly between withdrawn sullenness and attempts to win him back with her equally unsettling “fun fun fun self”. Owen’s Italian father, prominent restaurateur and gallery owner Jo, is busy running soup kitchens for the homeless. Stability for Owen comes care of his “sort-of-aunt” Ornella and Mr and Mrs Parish – a childless couple who, as Veda becomes less and less trusted to look after him, suggest the boy live part time with them, ostensibly to give Veda more time to write.
Preston makes full use of the humour and insight provided by the child’s perspective, with Owen a frequent observer of the “inappropriate” behaviour of the grown-ups. A sensitive child, he absorbs the misogynistic language of his father-figures while feeling instinctive empathy for the women who raise him. His narration is interspersed with letters from Veda to her sister Matilda that reveal the painful dilemma for the artist–mother: Does being an artist make her a bad mother? Can a mother only make bad art? She asks Matilda: “What sort of a mother would choose a book over a child?”
That we learn early of Veda’s posthumous fame infuses the book with rage at the history of women’s silence, held to impossible standards and denied the visibility they deserve. But Preston writes with great tenderness for every character and, while real-life comparisons are easily made, Veda Gray is a magnificent creation in her own right.
Wakefield Press, 336pp, $32.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2022 as "Bad Art Mother, Edwina Preston".
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