Today’s belated Book Snap is also celebrating International Women’s Day and introducing Women’s History Month. International Women’s Day is celebrated every year on March 8th and this year’s theme is Choose to Challenge. It is an encouragement to call out and challenge gender bias and inequality as well as draw attention to the achievements of women. Women’s History Month is an extension of that idea, lasting for the whole of March but drawing particular attention to the achievements and challenges of women throughout history.
For a long time women have been one of the invisible groups who have been ignored in history. You have heard it said, history is written by the winners. It was also mostly written by men, so of course, it was pretty much all about men. Women didn’t rate much of a mention at all. Women’s History Month is just one way of trying to make amends for that, by drawing attention to the achievements and experiences of women through history as well as just reminding everyone, that hey, women were there too, throughout every age and event.
Throughout this month I would like to make a special effort to focus on Australian Women’s history. For each Book Snap during March I am hoping to feature a book that focuses on women’s experiences during a particular time or event in Australian history or highlight the achievement or contribution of an Australian woman. The first book is Come In Spinner by Dymphna Cusack and Florence James.
Set in a beauty salon at the Hotel South Pacific in wartime Sydney, it revolves around the life and loves of three women, Deb, Guinea and Claire. Their romantic entanglements are further complicated by the tensions of war, with American troops in ‘occupation’ and where anything could be obtained – for a price.
First published in 1951, Come in Spinner has an interesting publication history. Cusack and James began writing the story in 1944 while living in the Blue Mountains. Their goal was to “write about the women’s world we knew, where men’s labour was in short supply and women were ‘man-powered’…We would tell the Sydney story as we knew it, pulling no punches.” The story won the Daily Telegraph Australian novel competition in 1948 for being the “best novel of modern Sydney yet written by anyone” however by the time it was published the rave reviews had turned to “a muckraking novel fit for the literary dustbin.” Despite the outrage, the novel continued to be in high demand for decades, although most readers probably never knew that it was a severely abridged version. In order for the book to be published Cusack and James were asked to cut up to 100,000 words from the original. In those days, many Australian novels were first published overseas and James recalls the ludicrous attempt of the Britisher publisher to change “racy Australian idiom into ladylike English dialogue”. Cusack and James eventually had to find another publisher as the Daily Telegraph refused to publish the novel. It was not until 1988, though, during negotiations for the television miniseries, that a full and complete edition was finally published.
Having read the full and unabridged version of Come In Spinner, I can say that it certainly opens up your eyes as to what was really going on during the war. I can understand how it must have caused a bit of a stir when it was first released, shocking certain circles in society and smashing the idea of women waiting patiently for their husbands and boyfriends to return from the war. It tackles a number of topics which were definitely taboo during that time, such as women’s sexuality, promiscuity, prostitution and abortion, as well as taking a good look at class conflict.
The wealthy do not come off at all well in the novel. They are shown to be selfish, snobby and entitled, more concerned about profiting from the war than the living conditions of the working class or soldiers fighting at the front. The young women with rich fathers were particularly obnoxious, nothing more than spoilt brats, who expected to get what they wanted when they wanted – appointments at the drop of a hat, special service in their hotel rooms. As far as they were concerned, the salon worker “was neither mouth to be filled nor ears to listen, only hands to serve,” so their noses were put severely out of joint when one of the main characters, Guinea, turns up a fancy ball at the hotel in the company of an American Colonel. Not only does she become the centre of attention on the dance floor, she is featured, most shockingly, on the front page of the newspaper!
One of the main themes of the book is the double standards of behaviour and morality imposed on women. While women were expected to wait patiently and faithfully for their men to return, the men were having a high old time on their overseas adventure. When Guinea’s boyfriend, Kim, came back from the Middle East boasting of how he would “love ‘em and leave ‘em”, she decided…
“Two could play that game. What was sauce for the gander was sauce for the goose. …it made her sick the way the Aussies came back and squealed about the Yanks getting off with their girls. You’d think they were a lot of monks themselves.
It becomes clear, by the number of tokens Guinea has collected, that she too is taking a “love ‘em and leave ‘em” attitude to men and she is not shy in putting Kim in his place, saying: “ Go bag your head. It makes me want to puke when I hear you fellows going on with all this purity bunk, after putting the hard word on all the girls from Sydney to London. And then you come back squealing because there aren’t enough virgins left to go around.”
Deb, on the other hand, has formed a relationship with the wealthy Angus while her husband, Jack, is away fighting. Deb’s motives are different from Guinea’s, though. Working in the hotel salon has opened her eyes to the world of the rich. Remembering the hardships of the Depression, a life with Angus promises comfort, safety and security. It offers better opportunities for her child. A taste of independence has also allowed Deb to reflect on her marriage to Jack, and the way her desires, hopes and dreams are expected to make way for his. Tired of the way Jack is always making decisions without even consulting her, Deb starts to imagine a different life, but would it be any different with Angus?
Angus is older, conservative and a stickler for the traditions that separate the classes. He abhors the changes he see happening in society and especially the wartime activity occurring in the hotel.
Vulgarians, that’s what they all were, with neither knowledge or taste; chasing showy pleasures, swallowing any liquor they could get. All they wanted was a stimulant and an aphrodisiac; though what need there was of either he could not see, with all these trollops flirting their bottoms under swinging skirts, their breasts impudent and aggressive under skintight frocks. People said the breakdown in manners and morals was due to the war, but he had been young in the last war and he would take an oath it had not been like this.
Of course, this kind of behaviour has probably always been going on, just not in plain view. Men have always behaved badly – it was just hidden away under a veneer of respectability. Angus also has very entrenched ideas about the separate roles of men and women. He has left a few women in his wake too, but in Deb, he sees the epitome of female elegance and submission that he idealises.
Women were losing their femininity nowadays and their husbands and fathers encouraged them…mustering, trucking, working like a man…There was something abnormal about this fervour on the part of women for the war effort. Probably sex compensation…Well, he could tell them, as a soldier, how men preferred to find their women when they came home.
One of the most shocking and tragic examples of double standards applied to women is that of Monnie, Guinea’s younger sister, who gets tricked into prostitution. Monnie is young and naive, and has led a fairly sheltered life up to this point. Invited to a party by some former acquaintances on the “game”, Monnie’s drink is spiked and the next morning she wakes up naked in a strange bed with an American soldier by her side. As an innocent victim, this awful experience should not have the power to ruin her life. But this is the 1940s and the fear of family shame and disgrace keeps her trapped in a brothel until she is arrested by police. Mind you, the fellow does not get arrested! Of course, if Monnie had come from a wealthy family it would be different, as Guinea knows full well.
From what she could see at the SP (South Pacific), it wasn’t vice they picked you for, it was for being poor and not having influential friends. You could get away with anything so long as you were rich.
While Come In Spinner is set during World War Two, its publication in 1951 marks it as a contemporary text not a work of historical fiction and readers should be aware that it does contain racist attitudes and language, which would have been typical for the time, but would be considered offensive today. It’s a sensitive issue, but when looking at historical events we often have to accept them on their own terms, recognising it as history as it was, not as we might like it to have been.
Come In Spinner was still an enjoyable read and the Australian lingo was quite entertaining. At just over 700 pages it is quite a lengthy read, and to be honest, I think it could have been a bit shorter, but it does depict the challenges and changes facing women during that time and the different ways in which women responded.