In her column, Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.
If the Australian writer and critic Thelma Forshaw is remembered for anything today, it’s most likely the hatchet job that she gave Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch in 1972. Of the many reviews the book received, Forshaw’s—published in the Age, a newspaper based in Greer’s own hometown of Melbourne—was by far the most disdainful: “King Kong is back. The exploits of the outsized gorilla may have been banned as too scary for kids, but who’s to shield us cowering adults? To increase the terror, the creature now rampaging is a kind of female—a female eunuch. It’s Germ Greer, with a tiny male in her hairy paw (no depilatories) who has been storming round the world knocking over the Empire State Building, scrunching up Big Ben and is now bent on ripping the Sydney Harbour Bridge from its pylons and drinking up the Yarra.” Understandably, Forshaw’s slam piece caused quite a stir, and it was reprinted in a number of papers across the country, often alongside carefully chosen photographs of Greer looking suitably unkempt.
Forshaw’s summation of Greer’s feminist manifest as “a blood-curdling gorilla scream,” full of “over-the-back-fence grizzle,” was, by and large, seen for what it was: “a scurrilous personal attack masquerading as a book review,” as one of the Age’s readers, J. Morton, wrote to the paper to complain. Forshaw became briefly notorious, and the following week the Age ran an interview that allowed “this feminine pillar of male chauvinism”—as John Lewis jestingly described his colleague—to explain herself:
I’m a housewife because I want to, I write because I want to, I love my husband who is a male, chauvinist pig and I love my two children—and it all adds up for me.
Trying to learn more about the woman behind the misogyny, I fell down an internet rabbit hole, but then I found myself intrigued by Forshaw’s forthright, unrepentant voice.
I’m a loner, I can’t take the group performances at all. I’d probably be an asset to the Women’s Lib. Movement, I suppose, but I don’t want to get caught up and be used just because I’m articulate.
Had she not laid out her beliefs quite so clearly, one could be forgiven for pronouncing her unapologetic self-assuredness as downright feminist!
I’m really a funny lady, a funny, bawdy lady. Read my book of short stories—An Affair of Clowns—you’ll see what I mean.
I decided to do as she suggested and read her stories, so I tracked down a secondhand copy of An Affair of Clowns.
Published in 1967, five years before the damning review, it’s a slim volume; twenty-two “short stories and sketches” in less than two hundred pages. “I’ve always been fascinated by people, to the point, sometimes, of being paralysed with fascination,” Forshaw told the pioneering oral historian Hazel de Berg in an interview conducted in 1969. “I can’t see scenery, I can’t see interiors, I can’t see where I am if there’s a person with me. I’m only aware of that person, almost entirely. And, I think this is the basis of my writing.” And indeed, all other detail is incidental; from setting to storyline. Plot is entirely by the by, and in this Forshaw’s work reminded me of the working-class Jewish American writer Bette Howland, whose own stories—which bring to life her fellow Chicagoans and were written mostly in the seventies and early eighties—have recently been republished to notable critical acclaim. But where Howland deals in grittiness, Forshaw was attracted to gaudiness. There’s something showy, almost carnivalesque about her characters, though they’re always eminently believable. The book is separated into three sections: “Some Customs of My Clan” consists of pieces about a working-class Irish Catholic family, as narrated by the young daughter, an aspiring writer; “The Melting Pot” takes a slightly broader view, encompassing Sydney’s midcentury, working-class international milieu; and finally, “Outsiders” then draws the collection to a close with a selection of stories about people living on various margins. Each individual is far too idiosyncratic to be termed archetypal, but An Affair of Clowns is a charismatic portrait of the mid-twentieth-century, urban, white Australian working class. “Thelma Forshaw sees human beings with a penetrating and unsentimental eye,” reads the blurb on the book’s dust jacket, “yet with profound sympathy, and with an irresistible humour that is never superficial, but deeply rooted in life.”
Some of the pieces in “Some Customs of My Clan” are little more than vignettes, but others are more substantial. Take the searing portrait of the narrator’s parents’ troubled marriage in “The Widow,” in which Forshaw’s father—who died only a week after her eleventh birthday—looms especially large: “Hellenic body. Gladiatorial mind. Vital, violent, sudden. A wife-beater. A mountain swooping to leather his child.” In another story, “Rom: Bride of Christ,” the narrator bumps into an old classmate from her Catholic school days, who tells her that one of their ex-teachers wishes to read the stories that the narrator had recently published in a magazine. This embarrasses the narrator, and she hopes her friend hasn’t passed them on as requested. “They were about Real Life,” she worries, “not fit reading for nuns.” This in itself, no doubt, was Forshaw writing from firsthand experience.
“I do write almost straight from life,” she told de Berg. Earlier in the same interview, when describing her childhood, Forshaw confirms the particulars of “The Widow”: “Both parents drank, and the atmosphere was violent a lot of the time.” Love and violence often go hand in hand in this family; aggression, it sometimes seems, is almost a form of affection, and family members—described en masse in “The Wowser” as “a small flock of black sheep”—are drawn together for one of three reasons: to drink, to gamble, or to gossip. Even a Mother’s Day trip to the cemetery to pay tribute to the narrator’s dead grandmother is an opportunity to nurse both hangovers and stories of family scandal.
One of the most mesmerizing and intricately drawn characters here is Aunty Dee, a cleaning lady who’s the subject of some of the best writing in the book. “Like most women of her occupation, she basks in the material glory of her employers,” Forshaw writes in “The Ladies’ Parlour Clique,” one of the shortest pieces in the book. At less than three pages, it’s little more than a tableaux really, a snapshot of life in the bar where her aunt spends her hard-earned cash each afternoon.
Forshaw admits to de Berg that she borrows from those around her “perhaps more undisguisedly than most writers,” and that it got her into trouble. This passage from “The Wowser” prompted the son of the aunt upon whom Aunty Dee was based to threaten to sue Forshaw for libel:
Aunty Dee was a true criminal type, who corrupted at a touch. She was the evil genius of her clan, the witch doctor who presided over orgy and wake, broken marriage and psychopathic child. She loved the young as the rake loves a virgin. Now and again she arranged for me, just turned seventeen, to meet the wealthy or influential men whose flats she serviced. But they always went away quietly after treating me to a paternal lunch, daunted, I think by the passionate purity I wore like an amulet. A purity not of innocence, but formidable with witnessed knowledge. I shall always believe that Aunty Dee tried to launch me as a courtesan—with an eye to a percentage, naturally.
We find similar stings in the tail throughout the collection; Forshaw doesn’t mince her words. Paragraphs of intrusive commentary like this one, ruminative but pithy, are dotted throughout the book. Although they ostensibly interrupt the narrative, the reader swiftly learns that they’re actually the jewels in the collection. Forshaw intuitively understands what makes people tick. In “The Pawn,” for example, she ponders the many suitors who turned up to flirt with her newly widowed mother. “I suspect now that much of her charm lay in her knack of winkling out a man’s secret sorrow and, no matter how petty the grievance, making him feel he bore the burdens of a King Lear. She was a dab hand at giving a man stature.” To describe Forshaw’s tone as loving would go too far, but there is a tenderness in the way she depicts her demonic, riotous, scandal-mongering family; the accompanying wry wink and shoulder shrug always implicit.
“I’ve had a hell of a life,” Forshaw told Lewis when defending her attack on Greer, “but I’m still free, I’m buoyant—that’s why I don’t go in for all this whingeing.” The stories in An Affair of Clowns echo this. Forshaw dips her toe into life’s darker corners—whether it’s the violence of her parents’ marriage, or the alienation and loneliness felt by immigrants—but it’s not a depressing collection and she doesn’t seem to believe in victimhood, either. As she promised, her humor wins out in the end. I’m not the only one who thought so. “Listen, Forshaw,” wrote her friend, the prize-winning writer Thea Astley, in 1963, “I read your letters and they are literally flashing opal mines of wit. You are seriously one of the funniest, no, THE funniest woman I have ever met.”
But Forshaw’s life wasn’t all fun and games. The cockiness she expressed in the Age fell away when she told de Berg about the “divided loyalty” she felt “between caring for my children to the fullest extent and the claims of writing” that “dogged” her. Her conclusion is not an especially liberating one (though undoubtably it owes much to both the era and the environment in which she came of age)—“I think that no woman can achieve true greatness because of this conflict. If she has children, she hasn’t got a hope.” In reality, the situation, it seems, was not anywhere near as cut and dry as she implies in the Age. “Perhaps I want too much,” she tells de Berg, “I want to be better than, perhaps, I’m capable of being.”
Forshaw is astonishingly candid throughout this entire interview, even when detailing her flaws. She knows, for example, that a critic should be “dispassionate, and judge a work purely on what it sets out to do,” but, she admits, she finds this impossible. Instead, she explains, she finds herself reacting to a book “as if it was a person,” becoming “madly involved with the author and what he’s doing and his personality […] Sometimes I’m very angry, and sometimes I’m amused, sometimes I’m contemptuous, and I think I get this emotion into my reviews.” This, of course, is exactly what happened with Greer’s book. Perhaps feminism came too late for Forshaw—she was sixteen years older than Greer, thus forty-nine years old when The Female Eunuch was published, and had been a wife and mother for the past twenty-four years, which was half of her life. She knew what she’d given up in making the choices she had, but her ambition was still there. “I don’t want to be mediocre; I don’t want to be just another writer. I want to be one of the best, and I don’t think you can be if your heart is elsewhere,” she told de Berg. But though she lived for another two and a half decades—she died at age seventy-two in 1995—An Affair of Clowns was the only book Forshaw published.
Lucy Scholes is a critic who lives in London. She writes for the NYR Daily, The Financial Times, The New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub, among other publications.