First published in 1959, Bobbin Up is Dorothy Hewett’s debut novel famously written at her kitchen table in the space of eight weeks whenever her children were in bed. But it’s not really a novel; it’s more a collection of short stories focused on a bunch of diverse characters, all female, who work together at a woollen mill in Sydney during the 1950s.
It doesn’t have a lead protagonist, a deliberate decision by the author, because — as she points out in her “Introduction” to this UK-published edition — “it set out deliberately to tell the brief history of a group of women millworkers […] whose lives interconnected at the mill then separated off as they walked out the gates when the whistle blew”.
In these densely written chapters — which are alive with vivid descriptions of homes and streets and suburbs and beaches and public transport — we meet a bunch of hard-working women whose lives are dominated by their long shifts in the factory.
Gwennie joined the press of women round the bobbin boxes, pushing, shoving, clawing to grab the pitifully few decent bobbins. Bad bobbins made the work harder, the machine mucked up all the time, but there was never enough “goodies” to go round. It sickened Gwennie to join in that mad, vicious scramble. She always hung back and was left with an armful of rough-edged, half-broken fawn ones.
But it’s often what happens in their home lives that makes this book such a fascinating read, for here we are confronted with the reality of being a woman in the middle of the Twentieth Century; where working a strenuous factory job doesn’t excuse you from also having to keep a home, do the housework, prepare the meals and look after loved ones; where the lack of birth control means the threat of an unwanted pregnancy is a constant worry for anyone sexually active; and where men, often violent or abusive (or alcoholic), rule the roost.
The precarious nature of keeping a roof over your head is also a common theme. (In her “Introduction”, Hewett, who was comfortably middle-class and well educated, says that when she first arrived in Sydney from Perth she was shocked by the “poverty and sub-standard housing” in inner-city Sydney where, for the first time, she “mixed exclusively with the working class”.)
Bobbin Up is a fascinating portrait of inner-city Sydney at a particular point in time, with its slum landlords, tumbled down houses and dark alleyways.
Dawnie walked home through the long, asphalt lanes of factories, filled with managers’ cars, and the steady rattle of machinery. Past the little semis, with cracked plaster walls in yellow, cocoa and liver red, defending their privacy from the street with rows of murderous iron spikes.
It is also an intriguing examination of the working class and wears its politics on its sleeve. Hewett was a Communist Party member (when it was illegal) and edited its paper for a short time. She uses this experience in two chapters at the rear of the book, which focus on Nell, a Community Party member, who edits a bulletin — called “Bobbin Up” — that she distributes at the mill, informing the women of their rights. This eventually leads to a strike.
Here’s the lead story in the bulletin:
“W. H. Holler treats his two-year-old racehorses no better than he treats the women who sweat in his Alexandria mill. This week his strappers at Randwick went on strike — they said Holler was running his two-year-olds into the ground. As three-year-olds they were only fit for the scrap heap. It’s the same brand of greed that Holler uses in his spinning mills… only there it’s women, not horses he’s using up, in conditions not fit for a horse to work in.”
Today we might criticise someone from the middle-class writing about the working class because it’s not “lived experience” and because it’s not really their story to tell, but Hewett explains that at the time there was little, if any, working-class literature in Australia.
“The lives of such women remained a mystery. They could not write themselves, and they had no spokesperson to translate them into literature.”
Unfortunately, reading this through modern eyes, some of the vernacular and the working-class speech feels clunky and “wrong”, but I think the intention came from a good place. Hewett isn’t making fun of her subjects; she’s merely trying to convey them as authentically as possible.
Bobbin Up isn’t perfect, but it’s an impressive snapshot of another time and place, and the storytelling is conveyed in rich, descriptive language that often sings off the page. I really enjoyed being in the company of these complex, hard-working, vivid women, experiencing their struggles and small victories.
This is my 3rd book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021, and my 1st book for #AWW2021. I also read this for Bill’s Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week (Part II, 17-23 Jan. 2021) but ran out of time to review it in the relevant week. Better late than never, I guess.
And because Hewett was born in Perth, this book also qualifies as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.