Intellectual fearlessness, politics and the spiritual impulse: the remarkable career of Amanda Lohrey

·19-min read
Amanda Lohrey. Richard Bugg/AAP
Amanda Lohrey. Richard Bugg/AAP

I first encountered Amanda Lohrey’s work as a PhD student, attempting to write a survey of politicians in Australian fiction. This project was abandoned when I realised that I did not have the stamina to read and write about so many woeful novels (especially those written by politicians themselves).

But this ill-conceived project led me to one novel that was not at all boring, but was thrilling, challenging, and deeply political: Amanda Lohrey’s The Morality of Gentlemen (1984).

Like Lohrey, whose husband Andrew was for many years a Tasmanian Member of Parliament, I was once a fascinated spectator of politics. Before starting my postgraduate study, I had been working as a political staffer and was personally invested in the drama of politics. I wrote bombastic speeches, drafted reports that nobody read, and tried to stay out of the factional negotiations I did not have the ambition to enjoy.

The Morality of Gentlemen was the first novel I had ever encountered that captured the entanglement of personal desire, ideological commitment and institutional constraint that I saw in the daily experience of politics.

What strikes me most about Lohrey’s fiction and nonfiction alike is its courage. Underpinned by erudition, this is a body of writing that often flies directly in the face of current literary trends to pre-empt major social or cultural preoccupations. The intellectual fearlessness that underlies Lohrey’s novels is right on the surface of her nonfiction, from her earliest publications onwards. She takes up a common way of doing, saying or thinking about something and baldly asks: why?

A working-class childhood

Amanda Lohrey was born in Hobart on 13 April 1947 and grew up on its working-class waterfront. She tells Charlotte Wood:

I was raised by men for the first five or six years of my life. My mother worked and the men in my family were shift workers. So often during the day I was looked after by my father – which meant he just carted me around wherever he wanted to go. The pub, the bookmaker’s club, the wharf – there was no concession. He’d take me over one of the big boats that would come into the harbour in Hobart, or have a few drinks with his mates while I sat out on the hotel steps with my raspberry lemonade, and the drunks would come out and give me a shilling. It was quite a good life, really! And it meant I grew up feeling comfortable around men.

This was a childhood in which clashing narratives about the world and how it worked were part of daily life. The 1950s was a period of intense ideological and religious conflict in Australia, with a failed referendum to ban communism in 1951 and massive division between Left and Right in the Australian Labor Party, leading to a split, with Catholic anti-communist members breaking off into the Democratic Labour Party. It was a period of McCarthyist sentiment in Australia that Lohrey witnessed first hand.

These disputes, which would later be fictionalised in The Morality of Gentlemen, were very close to home, and a young Amanda Lohrey heard both sides of the story. Several members of her family had been union officials, including in the Waterside Workers’ Federation. She notes that “a couple of them had also been, at various times, members of the Communist Party”. They were, women and men, “strongly of the Left”.

She recalls being regaled by her grandmother, aged five, with stories about King O’Malley, and about how Ben Chifley “was a labour rat because he put the troops in the mines when the miners went on strike”. However, at her Catholic school she was privy to the anti-union, anti-communist rhetoric of the DLP:

I copped it from both sides. You’d get a set of stories at home and a set of stories at school and they didn’t quite match up. You start shuffling the variables around and in the end you come up with your own story.

A Catholic education

Lohrey has told me, apologetically, that she is not very good at recalling her own history. She reports a reunion with school friends who were shocked at how little she remembered of their time together. In an email she explains, “what’s happening now is always more interesting”.

For this reason, I was delighted when I came across an autobiographical piece called Work in Progress or A Writer’s Lament, which Lohrey published in a 1986 collection on Catholic childhoods. Her contribution focuses on sexuality with a determination to be clear and straightforward in the face of the elisions and fearful paraphrasings that sex was met with in her own education.

It begins with usual forthrightness to discuss her earliest memories of masturbation. In the face of being constantly called to account for any perceived impurity or sin, Lohrey recounts a feeling not of shame “but of a privileged naughtiness, something which was a desirable secret from the adult world and which belonged to a whole repertoire of special pleasures”, containing “a feeling of excitement, of discovery and, above all, of independence”.

Characteristically, she uses this topic of masturbation not to think about her own experience but, rather, for what it reveals about the reasons for Catholics and other repressive institutions to so insistently police it: “power and autonomy are the last things that such people can afford to let a child have”.

Lohrey’s account is vivid in detailing the absurdities of such acts of policing: the icy-faced Mother Imelda, unable to name the deed but nonetheless attempting to entice nine-year-old Amanda to admit to it. Amanda responded by returning her stare, unblinking.

But this account also considers the longer term impacts of this constant surveillance and being called to account: a distrust of authority, of friends, and a “defensive distrust of other women”:

Apart from my mother it is always men who give me support and encouragement, who tell me I am clever and give me books to read. My grandfather gives me A Short History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik), my uncle, Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. The women tell me that I am untidy, that my hair is a mess, that my body is suspect and my attitude unladylike.

These experiences suggest why Lohrey writes in such searching detail about masculine subjectivity. They also explain her umbrage at suggestions that she writes about masculine worlds she could not possibly understand.

Lohrey was constantly warned about “reading [herself] out of the church” when caught reading Freud, Stekel and Marx, although the latter was a bit confounding:

what was this word “bourgeois” that seemed to crop up in every second sentence but couldn’t be found in my dictionary?

At fourteen, she escaped Catholic school and enrolled at the local grammar school, “a transition unheard of at that time and one subject to excommunication”. The relief was immense:

I felt as if I’d been let out of the madhouse. There was no battleground of seething sub-texts.

Good work was rewarded and Lohrey was taken seriously “as a prospective scholar and critic”.

A Catholic education can shape you in contradictory ways: it can generate a passionate engagement with a sense of spirituality that is everywhere directed and circumscribed; a strong sense of what you, as a woman, are not supposed to be, and a concomitant desire to be exactly that thing.

Seriousness in girls was unladylike […] Anything personal, speculative, theoretical or political was the mental equivalent of a run in the stocking, a ragged hemline or chewed fingernails.

At the end of A Work in Progress, Lohrey recalls being in Venice in 1983, and on a whim deciding to enter an 18th-century church and light a candle to the Virgin. She enters and “instantly recoils” at the images on its walls, feeling

physical revulsion. Nothing is there. There is nothing in the church for me and nothing in me to connect with it. It was a fantasy, a desire to recover a lost innocence, a childlike faith in irrational possibility.

Nonetheless, writes Lohrey, the “spiritual impulse remains. Desire. The need to embrace the world.” This impulse remains an enduring interest in her fiction.

Writing and politics

In 1988, Lohrey told Dawn Titmus:

I always wanted to write but I thought writers should do something useful like, you know, reform society and then come home and write at night. It’s a young person’s view of writing because they don’t know how demanding and tiring it’s going to be. Then I went off to do a PhD at Cambridge. I couldn’t stand doing academic research, it was so restricting – I kept wanting to elaborate and improvise and make it up. I just got very sick of it and started to write instead where I had more freedom, didn’t have to stick with the facts.

While fiction has been the focus of Lohrey’s writing career, she has long been an astute and original commentator on culture and politics, especially in the 1990s and 2000s. She was prominent among a group of writers making names for themselves during this period: Robert Dessaix and Drusilla Modjeska (with whom she published the collection Secrets), Helen Garner and Robert Manne.

Lohrey’s essays are often more blunt, serious and overtly political – and less personal – than those of some of her contemporaries. Her early literary criticism points to Lohrey’s thinking about the relationship between fiction and politics, and politics and literary form. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, she was well aware, and critical, of the rise of the “women’s novel”, which privileged female subjectivity and in which “characters are defined by their feelings for themselves and others close to them, rather than as social actors who are significantly related to public events or issues”.

The novels she wrote in this period set out to do something quite different by engaging with a broad canvas of subjectivities in their relation to political and social contexts.

In her early criticism, Lohrey is thinking against the grain of many of her contemporaries in ways that prefigure the concerns of her later writing. The Liberated Heroine: New Varieties of Defeat? is a long review-essay published in Meanjin in 1979, considering novels by Marilyn French, Erica Jong, Alison Lurie and Joan Didion, and it lays out Lohrey’s views on the emerging genre of American women’s fiction.

The essay takes its reader on an erudite consideration of the forms of agency available to women across literary history. Lohrey traces the figure of the woman attempting to escape her conditioning from George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke to Henry James’ Isabel Archer and Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood. For each of these characters, the result is “some form of defeat”.

The nature of the success available to women in fiction and in reality is a live question for Lohrey. One of the books under review is Erica Jong’s How to Save Your Own Life (1977), a novel of sexual adventure which ends in a romantic relationship. Taking issue with Diana Trilling’s reading of this ending as a failure, Lohrey asks:

What would constitute “victory”? Running for Congress? A life alone? Is the need/desire for an intense emotional commitment necessarily unliberated? Is it not the coupling but the mode in which the relationship is conducted thereafter, on a day-to-day basis, that adds up to victory or defeat?

Rejecting second-wave feminist definitions of liberation, Lohrey’s fiction of the 1990s and 2000s – Camille’s Bread, The Philosopher’s Doll, Vertigo – instead uses romantic relationships as scaffolds for narrative exploration of freedom and constraint, with point of view alternating between the men and women in such partnerships.

Lohrey has argued that

we live in a rich consumer culture in which, we are told, we have more freedom and more real choice than ever. But how real are those choices when we are burdened by obscene mortgages and a deteriorating environment? Many of us feel that our moral ground needs to be reassessed, that there has to be something more to life than record levels of credit card debt.

The scale of the responses that Lohrey considers in her nonfiction and fiction range from the party-political to the deeply personal, from Catholic politics of the 1950s to contemporary western engagements with meditation and desires for the numinous in the contemporary world.

She is always aware of how personal desires – for fulfilment, self-knowledge, freedom – are shaped by institutions and communal connections.

The trope of unjust neglect

At the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2004 Lohrey was signing copies of her recently published novel The Philosopher’s Doll. I went up to her with my copy of The Morality of Gentlemen and she said, in a politely exasperated way, “not this old thing!”

At the time I read this as modesty, but now know that this exasperation was both real and justified. For a long time Lohrey occupied an uncertain position in the Australian literary field. She was an established writer with a decades-long publishing career who nonetheless had won very few literary prizes and not sold rights to any of her novels overseas.

With The Morality of Gentlemen, her first novel, Lohrey was pegged as the political novelist Australia had been waiting for: someone who could write about the world of the waterfront, a successor to Frank Hardy (though of course she was really more a successor to Dorothy Hewett, Katharine Susannah Prichard and M. Barnard Eldershaw). Australia’s critical culture, blokey then as it is to some extent still, celebrated The Morality of Gentlemen in ways that it was not able or willing to celebrate her later works until very recently.

Discussions of Australian writers are peppered with what Fiona Morrison describes as the “trope of unjust neglect”, and Lohrey has been no exception. In a controversial 1986 talk, Gerald Windsor used Lohrey as an example of a writer who has been “passed over” because she does not write in what he describes as “Garner/Farmer territory – domestic pain”.

Almost thirty years later, winning the Patrick White Award in 2012 prompted a resurgence of interest in Lohrey’s work, including a long and appreciative piece in Island by influential critic Geordie Williamson. This is a clear instance of what Morrison describes as the “recovery review”, replete with its key tropes of belatedness and unjust neglect. He describes Lohrey as “under-appreciated” but interestingly focuses his piece almost entirely on The Morality of Gentlemen, despite the fact that she had published a further four novels in the interim.

In looking over the reception of Lohrey’s work, I find myself wondering about what forms of recognition have been available to contemporary writers over the past four decades. A writer might receive attention via reviews, other media, prizes, setting on school and university syllabi, and scholarship, and this may or may not translate into sales and international rights.

In Lohrey’s case, there has been plenty of recognition via reviews. Only one of her first six novels received any literary awards: Camille’s Bread was awarded the ALS Gold Medal and the fiction award at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. She also won the Queensland Premier’s Award for fiction and the Steele Rudd Award for Reading Madame Bovary. Her novels are very occasionally taught on university literature courses. She has been subject to little scholarly attention. Until The Labyrinth, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Prime Minister’s Literary award for fiction in 2021, none of her novels have sold in high numbers.

The fact that so much changed for Lohrey so quickly in the wake of her Miles Franklin win suggests that the major prize is a powerful catapult to public recognition in the contemporary field, for a writer with a long career as much as for a first time novelist. But there is another factor at work in securing a writer a place in any national literary culture: expectations about gender and genre.

The classification “women’s writing” had emerged by the time Lohrey published her first novel, and it was both shaped and contested by feminism. Lohrey’s work sat very uneasily in relation to it. Her novels have also been difficult to fit into emerging genres of literary fiction as defined by publishers and critics. Hers is a deeply independent approach to fiction, often out of step with prevailing trends.

In her response to Windsor, Lohrey writes about how women writers had struggled to

establish the domestic sphere as a “legitimate” and “serious” focus of ambitious writing, every bit as important as war or bullfighting. That battle has been won and I begin to suspect a swing in the opposite direction. Women have now to claim their right to write about everything else, the so-called domains of work, sport, war, politics and so on. It would be too cosy for all concerned to quarantine women writers in the domestic sphere, heaping them with praise for their fine sensibility in the hope that they’ll stay put.

Lohrey is a writer who has refused to stay put: her novels figure work and home, city and country, sex and politics, in ways that make them difficult to pin down. Her novels are also restlessly experimental. Each includes a form of narrative experimentation that allows the possibility of alienating its readers and reminds them not to get too lost in the story, but rather to think about it.

This is most explicit in The Morality of Gentlemen, which is clearly influenced by Bertolt Brecht’s theories of estrangement or alienation. Early in Lohrey’s career, she described this in Brechtian terms as short-circuiting emotional identifications, “whereby you disorient the audience through a series of devices that destabilize the realist or naturalist conventions of what has come before. One thing you can do, for example, is destabilize the point of view.”

In thinking about Lohrey’s writing, I keep returning to the way that Rita Felski uses Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth to talk about the kinds of knowledge that the novel can give us about the world. In Uses of Literature, Felski writes that Wharton

investigates structures of feeling, probes the contours of unspoken assumptions […] draws out the innumerable principles of distinction around which a particular culture organises itself. We come to recognise the object that we often, all too vaguely, call society […] as reproducing itself through the accretion of endless particulars, through the steady accumulation of everyday events, fleeting observations, and microscopic judgments.

Like Wharton, Lohrey uses fiction to investigate what a particular society at a particular time can do to a person. Both writers trace how financial constraints (especially debt) structure affective experience and interpersonal relationships. In the many shifts of perspective across Lohrey’s novels an interest becomes apparent not just in society but in consciousness.

When interviewing Anna Krien at a writer’s festival in 2010, “Lohrey referred to the English critic James Wood’s proposal that the writer’s true obligation is to map out changes in consciousness at any given moment”. Lohrey is always looking both outwards and inwards: to political, social and economic structures and how they shape the possibilities and experiences of our inner lives. As chronicles of lived experience in Australia across four decades, her books are strongly tethered to the material world of institutions and money and the everyday. At the same time, they are interested in the role of that which we do not understand in driving and sustaining us.

When I am teaching my first year students I often point them to E.M. Forster’s wonderful description of how novels can present a sense of human subjectivity as knowable:

In daily life we never understand each other, neither complete clairvoyance nor complete confessional exists. We know each other approximately, by external signs, and these serve well enough as a basis for society and even for intimacy. But people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader, if the novelist wishes; their inner as well as their outer life can be exposed.

In Lohrey’s novels we never have the sense that we know her characters fully, or indeed that the novel does. Counterintuitively, Lohrey’s use of dreams is a marker of the extent of her realism. Her novels are more like real life than the novels Forster describes, because her characters, like us, don’t know other people or themselves particularly well.

Lohrey’s writing does not always wear its symbolism lightly; her novels often seem to be meditating on what something means and asking the reader to think about it. These puzzles are often set for her readers in the form of a dream. In Camille’s Bread, the mystery encoded in Marita’s dreams is the knife wielded by Stephen, which comes to represent a knot of ideas around violence and gender.

Dreams are at the foreground of The Labyrinth, in which Erica sets about to make the labyrinth of her dream a reality, even though she does not clearly understand what it means. These are novels that push back against the idea that human behaviour or motivation is ultimately knowable or rational. As Lohrey says to Charlotte Wood:

dreams are a message from another realm that we don’t understand. Any narrative that doesn’t have a few messages from that realm is, for me, deficient. Too mastered, too known, too literal.

Lohrey’s novels spoke to me in the late 1990s as a young woman working out whether to devote her career to politics or to literature, showing me how imbricated the two can be. Reading them as her career progressed, they have spoken to me again and differently: about masculinity and its effects, the relationship between human and non-human worlds, and how to survive disasters both personal and broader scale. Lohrey’s career trajectory – from fairly well known to barely known at all to suddenly quite famous across the course of more than 40 years – raises fascinating questions about how contemporary literary culture works.

Is her career remarkable and strange, or representative of the vagaries of recognition for the majority of contemporary writers? I can’t decide. What I can conclude is that the novels themselves are remarkable: their formal innovation and clarity of address, and the combination of political engagement, willingness to turn the lens of literary fiction to activities that might seem part of the banalities of everyday life, and openness to questions of human motivation and the numinous, make her unique among contemporary novelists.

This is an edited version of the introduction to Lohrey by Julieanne Lamond (Melbourne University Publishing).

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Julieanne Lamond, Australian National University.

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Julieanne Lamond does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.