Helen Elliott is a prominent literary critic and journalist who has chosen to reflect on 11 people who made an impression on her growing up.
Eleven Letters to You is an intriguing book that’s easy to read in for the form of letters to the eleven people who have clearly made a lasting mark on her.
I also found it incredible that she could remember with such accuracy feelings and reactions which she sets down so vividly with colour and honesty. Even family secrets traditionally left in the cupboard are wheeled out for all to examine and interpret.
For me, the book ends up being a delightful walk down memory lane of the 1950s and 1960s. I can’t help however, recalling the Simone Beauvoir remark: “How impossible is memory? And what a constant trickster time turns out to be.”
Even though Helen issues an apologia at the beginning of the book explaining she is a simply a hinge which holds her eleven people together, she is “as truthful as an imaginative person can be.” We also soon learn that her subjects become less relevant as the subject for examination becomes herself.
Helen’s memories begin as a three-year-old, a year after her parents moved to the outer suburb of Boronia, east of Melbourne. These blocks of land offered promise and renewal and were generous in size and almost affordable. Her father Jackie, a returned soldier, was a man in love with the words ‘idyllic’ and ‘pastoral’ and both fitted Boronia for a city boy looking to raise his two children, Helen and her brother Clive.
The nine women and two men are from the first twenty years of her life, mostly teachers, include a few whom she felt didn’t like her much. Memorable is her first employer, Mr Cohen, who tells her after a year at the PMG “A girl like you doesn’t belong here.”
A child with a deep wish to impress adults, particularly her father and mother, Helen did not leave home or travel anywhere outside her locale until well into her adult life, even though her friend’s mother suggested she come to England for a trip when Helen was working at the Box Hill library.
“I was in despair,” she writes. “A trip for her was a flight to the moon in a rocket to me. How could I ever leave my parents? Without me they would die. Without them I would die.”
This cleaving to her parents, neither of whom by this stage were very old or particularly infirm is an interesting pointer as to why her letters were only written to teachers and someone she worked briefly for when she left school. Only one aunt, Frances, who she came to say goodbye to when she was leaving Australia to study overseas at age 27, is outside these early years.
“Frances’ husband Harold was my father’s brother and both in some indefinable way, were terrified of everything in the world, always holding their breaths in case they got breathing wrong. At times, for them, it was exhausting just to have to stay alive, on earth with people, even with those they loved,” says Helen.
In many ways, intimate memories about her parents are a gift to the reader to understand the author’s actions and motivations. She admits that, in those days, people like Frances and Harold who appeared to be so miserable in their marriage were like many couples. The women saw their path in life as one of endurance, patience and acceptance.
“Their way of life was dignified by the church and the church was often the only place women could find camaraderie,” says Helen. “I didn’t know happy marriages, but Frances’ unhappiness had something extreme about it.”
Helen came to believe that she shared with Frances the same impulsive, ridiculous romanticism. Was this true, she wonders, was this why people like her became disillusioned and stayed in marriages because they couldn’t face the shame of divorce and the poverty that might follow.
It is insights like these that I find so appealing about her memoir. Also insightful was the time her teacher, Mrs Maddocks, was so beguiled by Helen that the young girl could do no wrong. It still burns in Helen’s chest that when she was teasing a girl called Glenys, she threw her overcoat over the wall of the boys’ toilet in a fit of devilry.
“It was forbidden to go into the boys’ toilet. Only shameful, dreadful, dirty children would go into the toilet block they were not allowed near” recalls Helen. Poor distraught Glenys reported Helen and both girls were called to the headmistress’s office. Glenys and her tale were believed, and Helen was made to recount her mischief in front of her class. Instead, she lied because she knew, as her teacher’s pet, Mrs Maddocks would believe her.
As it turned out, Glenys was ignored by her class mates and disgraced doubly so as a liar. Helen even today accepts in her heart she would do the same again to remain Mrs Maddock’s shining girl. Glenys was the sacrifice.
It takes a brave person to write with such truthfulness and to look back on life to reveal rare and vulnerable episodes with such style and finesse.