Autumn Laing tells her story over the course the last year of her life; she has become a crotchety old woman, having been a self-destructive teenager and later a volatile woman. After twelve years in a peaceful marriage, living on a farm where she and her husband preside over a group of artistic friends, her husband brings home the artist Pat Donlon. Their lives are never the same; Donlon cares only about finding an Australian artistic voice and cheerfully uses and abuses all those around him for his own needs. Autumn is in thrall to him but knows she cannot live without Arthur.
Autumn relives the fateful weeks when her friend Barnaby takes Pat and her to his parents' station deep in the bush in Queensland and Pat finds the way to "paint Australia." At the end of this intense interlude, Pat moves into a new phase and eventually becomes one Australia's most important new artists and Autumn returns to her farm where she struggles to find her way back to equilibrium.
The impetus for Autumn Laing was the true story of Sidney Nolan, a famous Australian painter, a woman named Sunday Reed, and a group of artists who gathered around Sunday Reed and her husband. The Reeds hosted and supported aftists at their farm during the 30s, 40s, and 50s in an area that was then outside Melbourne. Sunday had a tempestuous affair with Sidney Nolan and refused to return 25 of his best known paintings, a series featuring Ned Kelly, Australia's iconic outlaw of the 1870s. I encountered these paintings when I read Peter Carey's History of the Kelly Gang. The wonderful Sidney Nolan pictures of Ned Kelly were a part of the inspiration for Carey to write that book.
This is my third Alex Miller book and I have noticed that he writes about women in a particularly insightful way. He describes situations and feelings that relate to the conditions women experience. He wrote in the acknowledgements that the story was hijacked by Autumn and that it was a joy to be with her. I'm happy that he shared that joy with us. Autumn is a rich and fun character and you have to love an old lady who does not care a fig for the niceties. She lives alone and can't be bothered to cook; she eats cabbages every day and farts continuously, she says. She speaks lovingly of the Old Farm where she lived more than 50 years, her beloved Rayburn (a stove), the old Ponty (Pontiac), her dear friends Freddy and Barnaby, and Stony, the silent man who has helped with the farm from the beginning. The artists are Europe-focused and consider themselves a success only if so designated by Europeans. It is Pat Donlon who is not impressed with this idea. Autumn expresses the issue in this journal entry written after returning from the cattle station in Queensland:
I learned that for the people who live there the outback is elsewhere. Further out, that is where they say the outback is. But it is this very outback sense that weighs on them with its encompassing silence and renders them mute. When I brought up the subject while Margery and I were having a cup of tea she said, 'Oh, this is nothing, Autumn. Here is not the outback.' That is what they say. And say very little else. They deny the reality of their lives, and it is this denial that silences them. 'You should go right out,' they say. 'Then you would see the real outback.' I asked her, 'And have you been yourself?' She laughed. 'No! No, Bill and I have not been.' They know they are speaking of a place that has no location. No reality of its own. Their governing illusion is that they themselves are not the inhabitants of the outback they speak of. To go in search of the true outback would shatter this illusion and leave them defenceless before the truth. The truth that they are without imagination for their own country, silenced by their denial.