Restless Dolly Maunder by Kate Grenville


The Australian Kate Grenville is one of my favorite authors; I especially love her books The Lieutenant, The Idea of Perfection, and One Life: ┬áMy Mother’s Story. This one is a fictionalized account of her grandmother, Dolly Maunder Russell. In 1881, the year Dolly was born, a new law required that children remain in school until they were 14 years old. That is how it came to be that her older siblings knew less about the world than Dolly. She was a good student, but when she raised the possibility of becoming a school teacher with her father, he said, “Over my dead body,” a phrase that echoed in her head her whole life. One joke among the farmers at the time was that “Children were cheaper than fences.”

Dolly married a farm worker on her father’s farm and the two were tenant farmers on another property of her father’s. After seven years of failed crops due to drought or rainstorms, ending in a destructive cyclone, she insisted they leave farming. Bert’s brother, a bookie in Sydney, found a shop for them in a village near the city and staked them to the first month’s rent. Their 14 years of schooling, their diligence, and Bert’s charm made them successful.

While they were farming, they had three children, Frank, Nance (the author’s mother), and Max. The author writes about Dolly’s disconnect with her children:

Women were supposed to love being mothers, it was supposed to come naturally to them and give them all they wanted, but she knew in her private heart that it wasn’t that way for her. Perhaps some women just weren’t cut out to be mothers. Or perhaps it was what had happened at the start, when her own misery and confusion and rage had stained the way she felt about those children born into the middle of her unhappiness, the way a bit of beetroot stained an apron.

Shortly after Frank was born, she discovered a contract signed by her husband to send money to a young woman he impregnated shortly before he married Dolly. Her mother had been a party to the contract and no one had told Dolly about this.

Dolly and Bert sold the store and bought other businesses, generally a hotel with a bar and became increasingly successful. It was always Dolly who decided a change was needed, but they worked together to find a promising business. She had a variety of reasons to move: ┬áBert took up with a young woman who worked for them, she didn’t want to spend hours working closely with Bert, there was always something. They became successful enough to retire for some years, but then became restless and bought a high end hotel in the mid-1920s. It was a great shock to find themselves nearly bankrupted by the Depression and they were forced to go back to farming.

The story of Dolly as an unhappy person, willing to make those around her unhappy, reflects the view of Nance, the author’s mother. At the end of the book, Kate Grenville speaks of her grandmother’s generation as a transitional one. She says, “if you were born clever and energetic, but female, you had to endure a life of injustice and frustration.” She makes the case that Dolly’s story is that of thousands of others who ultimately gave their daughters a better chance at happiness.

I was moved by the last chapter “Thinking About Silences” that acknowledges the land taken in silence by her forebears from First Nations people. “As Dolly’s granddaughter, I want to acknowledge that silence and that sorrow. I’ve told one story here, but standing beside it is another.”

Kate Grenville, Restless Dolly Maunder, Canongate Books, 2023, 256 pages (I read the kindle version).

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