The Road from Coorain & the Good-natured All-rounder

There was a time, in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, before Mel Gibson went crazy, when Mel Gibson was wonderful, when Australia was very much at the center of the popular imagination. Gallipoli, Mad Max, Picnic at Hanging Rock fired our (or my) imaginations.

My copy of The Road from Coorain comes from that time, and its cover boasts “In the tradition of My Brilliant Career…” but I never read it until now. I might not have read it at all, but my father picked it up and sent me a quotation from it, which reminded me that it had been on my bookshelf all along.

I’m thinking a lot—more, even than usual—about women’s lives, women’s educations, and how ordinary women grow into extraordinary ones, the kind of women who embolden themselves to change the world. Jill Ker Conway, a historian and former president of Smith College is such a woman.

Jill Ker Conway’s memoir of growing up on a sheep farm in rural Australia, her efforts to get out, and her gradual realization that education could become a way for her to leave home, leave her grieving widowed mother behind without forcing a rupture of her bond or her daughterly duty. That interests me so profoundly. The mother’s demand almost derailed Vera Brittain: she did return home from nursing near the trenches when her mother had a breakdown during the War. The mother’s demand threatens to derail Conway, too. And I’m interested in these women, conventional but ambitious woman, who worry over hurting feelings and try to figure out how to achieve without causing a rupture:

“Some of the inner tension went out of me because I saw a solution to the dilemma I could discuss with no one. If I were to become a success academically and chose a career which would take me away from Sydney, it would finesse the whole question of leaving home” (168)

Divas and revolutionaries are amazing, but what fuels my imagination more, these days, are meditations like this one, on the problem of women’s leadership:

“We were an elite. Ergo we were born to be leaders. However, the precise nature of the leadership was by no means clear. For some of our mentors, excelling meant a fashionable marriage and leadership in philanthropy. For others, it meant intellectual achievement and the aspiration to a university education. Since the great majority of the parents supporting the school favored the first definition, the question of the social values which should inform leadership was carefully glossed over. Eminence in the school’s hierarchy could come form being a lively and cheerful volunteer, a leader in athletics, or from intellectual achievement. The head girl was always carefully chosen to offend no particular camp aligned behind competing definitions. She was always a good-natured all-rounder.” (102)

The good-natured all-rounder. What a fantastic phrase. It calls to mind all those amazing athletic, pretty, kind, smart girls of advertising: Gibson girls, Ivory girls, Breck girls. What pressure we put on ourselves to be that impossible girl.

Then, this observation about an early, wonderful boyfriend interested me: “In his company I enjoyed the experience an intellectual woman needs most if she has lived in a world set on undermining female intelligence: I was loved for what I was rather than the lesser mind I pretended to be” (179). This observation, about what women want, reminded me of a less wholesome version of the same thing, from Katie Roiphe’s Uncommon Arrangements, on John Middleton Murry: "He also managed to be both coldly self-involved and extremely needy, which proved to be an irresistible combination to women with strong personalities who did not want to be entirely in control” (93).

And finally, I leave you with this Didion-esque observation about the misery of women living in bohemia:

“The women, having rejected bourgeois fashion, often seemed rather drab. They talked intensely about ideas, but their eyes were watchful because it required close attention to sort out the shifting amatory relationships of the group. When I rejected the inevitable sexual advances, I was looked at with pained tolerance, told to overcome my father fixation, and urged to become less bourgeois. It was a bore to have to spend my time with this group rebuffing people’s sexual propositions when what I really wanted to do was to explore new ideas and to clarify my thoughts by explaining them to others” (221)

I love how, unlike Didion, who experiences the communes of the sixties with misery, Conway just feels impatient and irritated.

It’s not too late. This memoir, beloved in the late-1980’s, is still terrific.