Surfing for new commentary on novelist David Ireland, I come across a blog post by Bill Holloway, truck driver and literary scholar, about Ireland’s 1979 novel, A Woman of the Future:
I re-read this novel to see how it intersected with my idea of the Independent Woman, but from the perspective of the 2000s, the woman of David Ireland’s future turns out to be not so independent after all, or at least not in any way Miles Franklin or even Kylie Tennant would have understood, but just a compilation of all the author’s wet dreams.
My heart accelerates. I was thrilled by the novel’s 2012 republication. Before that, I’d bought every used copy I could find and distributed them to friends; I had even hoarded some, like canned beans, for the literary end-times.
In 2018 the controversy surrounding the novel that won the 1979 Miles Franklin Award has largely been forgotten. Considering the list of significant novels entered that year, including Thea Astley’s Hunting the Wild Pineapple, Robert Drewe’s A Cry in the Jungle Bar and Randolph Stow’s Visitants, the judges took a wild leap when they selected A Woman of the Future. One of them, Harry Heseltine, announced that the panel was ‘four-to-one’; with the ‘one’, Colin Roderick, publicly condemning Ireland’s novel as ‘literary sewage … a sex-ridden fantasy, doomed to oblivion.’
In fact, Ireland’s profile has enjoyed a late revival in the last five years or so. Three more of his novels have been reprinted by Text Classics since 2012, and in 2016 he released a new novel, The World Repair Video Game, serialised by Island magazine and shortlisted in the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. But since the 1990s, little of any depth has emerged about A Woman of the Future.
And now Holloway’s blog post winds me up. I can’t pretend to critical indifference; I believe the novel’s significance remains undiminished. I’ve got to get out of the bunker and argue for it.
Okay, briefly: the novel chronicles the life of an Australian girl, Alethea Hunt, from birth to late adolescence, and thence to a mysterious metamorphosis. The narrative is a series of her own ‘posthumously’ collected fragments of writing, including diaristic accounts, short essays and poems. These ‘papers’ provide sketches of her moral upbringing and of a dystopian suburbia in which her neighbours suffer an inexplicable wave of biological mutations. Objects grow out of bodies, parts of people begin to disappear, bullying and exclusion are customary. Alethea’s family lives in a social hierarchy that divides the Frees (a proletariat of mutants who are employed with ‘mock-work’) from the Servers (who, because they are not mutated, are able to qualify for higher education and professional employment).
Compelled by a sense of her exceptionality and a desire for full self-knowledge, Alethea studies herself as a ‘girl plant’ whose physical and intellectual growth is conditioned by the tension between this social structure, the values of her progressive parents, and something internal that she cannot fully quantify. She is compelled to explore and observe the limits of her organism, including sexual free will in which masturbation, incest and masochism each have their place. As she matures, the question of her personal fate becomes increasingly bound up with those of potential, agency and attitude within her environment. The novel, then, is an anti-bildungsroman (in which Alethea’s adulthood is replaced with radical biological ‘change’) and an anti-kunstleroman (in which her change renders her unable to continue writing).
The eighties brought a flurry of national and international commentary on the novel, and it was rarely apathetic. Andrea Mitchell heaped praise on Ireland’s ‘forceful, human and intelligent’ imagining of a female consciousness; while Ken Stewart found ‘Alethea’s fragmented jotting, gratuitous, discursive and insufficiently focussed’. The best criticism appeared early on: in Helen Daniel’s thorough but lightly handled study, Double Agent: David Ireland and His Work, and in a compelling MA thesis by journalist Tim Richards at the University of Melbourne. Daniel and Richards give us ways to interpret the contemporary importance of the novel — they go beyond the author and his supposed ‘wet dreams’, to consider the affective and political impact of Alethea’s story and world.
They find lots of work to do. Ireland’s oeuvre is characterised by glitchy world-building and a spinning moral compass. Daniel writes: ‘The majority of Ireland’s characters do not linger long enough to disclose their private thoughts and feelings,’ yet there are notable ‘characters who do linger’. These are usually narrators who:
… may be communicative about themselves and eager to voice their feelings. But behind them, Ireland is distracting us by pointing to contradictory images; this is Ireland territory, the space between the narrator’s version of what is happening and the information Ireland is giving us.
This ironic ‘territory’ reminds me of Joyce, Stead and Coetzee: in their novels, too, there is ‘the space between’ author and narrator where great cynicism and great pathos coexist. One of the most original qualities of Alethea’s narrative presence and voice is that we are impelled to take it seriously, and to navigate it on its own terms. She’s a woman in a hurry.
A Woman of the Future exceeds both Ireland’s control of the narrative and the book’s historical moment. It poses open-ended questions about the fictive and mythic tropes of Australian settlement and national identity that remain electric. Richards dubs the novel’s setting ‘Stutopia’: a place ‘within and outside of history, somewhere yet nowhere … a warp in time, in addition to being warped by time’. While he proffers that it’s set ‘somewhere post-1975’ in suburban Sydney, what does it really matter? And while Ireland’s writing could be compared to Patrick White’s in that they both think ‘on a grander scale’ – what a mediocre expectation we have of Australian fiction! – A Woman of the Future avoids putting forward theoretical patterns or a philosophical solutions. This lets it slip the grasp of many dated, binary myths and metaphors.
And so, unlike conventional dystopian heroes, Alethea does not represent the failures of her own society, or of Ireland’s. When critic DR Burns writes in 1990 that the scenes of Alethea engaging in ‘totally indiscriminate, after-school hours sex’ have become passé, he misses the point of the possibility for her actions to be interpreted out of time. This is not Puberty Blues. The novel similarly fails to lend itself to generic categorisation. I’ve been calling it dystopian as a placeholder, but it’s lazy, just as it would be naive to enjoy the novel as an extended comical sketch of Australian stereotypes. Rather than failing to reconcile the tension between prophecy and satire, A Woman of the Future has its reader thrash about in the churning ‘distance between the Australian dream and the Australian stupor’, writes Richards. Neither Alethea nor Ireland throws us a floatie.
The character of Alethea has been variously interpreted as outdated and misogynistic, perverse and shocking, a metaphor of Australia and a metaphor of essential Woman. Sneja Gunew critiques the depiction of women in Ireland’s fiction ‘as eternal, mythical and unchanging, an essence or a set of fixed meanings’ that perpetuate the patriarchal construction ‘which links woman with the natural, most pertinent in Australian writing and its pre-occupation with landscapes.’ Gunew argues that Ireland participates in the tropes that have seen Alethea’s character essentialised, remarking that ‘it is hardly surprising that readers are encouraged to replace the female narrator entirely by transforming her into the voice of the continent.’ Alethea, she writes, is the ‘ultimate male fantasy’.
But the reading of Alethea as a metaphor for Australia or femininity is disputed by Meaghan Morris, who distances it from Ireland’s intentionality. She writes that it ‘seems to be based on the quaint notion that women (like children and blacks) are close to nature’. Morris suggests that critics such as Gunew reiterate an expectation for a female character to speak the truth. Read it again.
At the start of the novel, an ‘Editors’ Note’ acts as a prologue and creates the first device for undercutting the conflation of Ireland with his narrator. The note explains that Alethea’s papers are published ‘without alteration’ and specifically, that the chronology and sequencing of the material is ‘the order in which she left them.’ Moreover, Alethea’s reflections on her own authorial agency – ‘I was a fair liar and a natural hypocrite’ – reveal creative powers that are mirrored by her mother’s writing and her father’s acting. She explicitly compares herself to Australia (and many other things) a number of times, but the supposedly grand metaphor is posed, after Alethea is gang-raped, as an unanswered question: ‘Am I perhaps Australia?’ Isn’t it clear? She’s anticipated the cliché before the critics get there.
As well as a feminine Australia, the novel troubles the idea of a cohesive nation. In the late seventies the Indigenous Land Rights movement became publicly organised and visible. The Land Rights Act had been passed in the Northern Territory in 1976. A new generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had suffrage and were establishing community leadership against the extension of colonisation through land access, health, education, state representation as well as entrenched social racism. Ireland forms his novel in this era, and while its style is not polemical, A Woman of the Future blows open the settler colonial illusion of Australia as a utopia of classless social justice and ‘fair go’ equality. While the structure of its two classes, the Frees and the Servers, is initially explained by Alethea as a factual, organic division, she learns that it is a more or less eugenic hierarchy reinforced by the justice system as well as social attitudes. While Frees or ‘proles’ are permitted to reproduce, their mortal changes are watched with indifference as unfortunate but ‘natural’ fates.
At first, Alethea sees only passive acceptance of the status quo; as she casually remarks, ‘It wasn’t even a secret that nuclear shelters were available for less than a tenth of the population’. Many of the Servers or ‘pros’ behave as if their lucky avoidance of mutation is a birthright: ‘the private pro word for proles is the Id … But of course Id means Idiots, those who let themselves be organized and ordered and ruled, and do nothing’. This is a ‘particularly cruel’ view, Alethea realises, when the social organisation is geared from the beginning to prevent the Frees from being ‘allowed or qualified to do anything’. Moreover, what they are permitted to do is mimic the work of the ruling class, that is, to assimilate. As she matures, she discovers that ‘resentment’ and active disobedience have been taking place around her.
With its focus on the act of giving and taking power in Australia, the novel invites the possibility of an alternative to neocolonial nationalism. Alethea’s family scorns their neighbours, the Carraways, who are ‘searchers for Australia’s past’:
Useless to talk to them of the ever-extending past that prehistorians were constantly uncovering: the Carraways were concerned only with traces of white civilization … Mr and Mrs Carraway had a legion of helpers: young people converted to the religion of the country’s past, older Australians dedicated to the idea that there might be something worth preserving, something the rest of us had overlooked, something hidden somewhere that would make sense of our being here and what we had done to the land.
The Carraways are members of the ‘Australian digger’ movement, whose epithet had ‘been given a new meaning’. A new form of mock-work, the popular act of digging is a kind of fruitless mining boom: people are ‘licensed to dig’ and it is ‘serious business … looking for the past’. Ireland himself expands on this attitude. He told Janet Hawley in 1978:
Australians don’t think enough about what it is going to be like for their grandchildren. We only think in short timespans, and after that the energy is gone. We scratch the surface because it is too hard to go deeper. We deal with all the immediate problems, and never think on a grander scale about preparing for the future.
The novel’s diggers can be read as engaging in a desperate, reactive attempt to shore up a white history.
Lorraine Johnson-Riordan writes that, ‘Whoever controls history controls Time and the future. In that sense, history is as much about the future as it is about the past … The possibility is ever present that new stories can be told, challenging currently accepted meanings.’ Alethea’s ‘papers’, then, are a series of ‘new stories’ that proliferate yet more views on the future. The character of Old Mac reflects an ongoing struggle for land rights as well as inalienable sovereignty. While the diggers look for the past, Old Mac finds it by walking to remaining areas of bush. He persists in accessing the bush reserve, to ‘battle his way through’ to the area he remembers. In his head is lodged ‘a patch of old, greying timber … like a weathered tree stump’ so that he carries the land of his boyhood literally in his mind. When he speaks of wanting rain, the weather is manifest in his head so that ‘a shoot appeared below the inset dry timber part’. Unlike the detritus prized by the diggers, Old Mac makes Alethea think of deeper layers: ‘bones, old campfires, flints’. His influence allows Alethea to perceive two, layered topographies in her suburb: ‘the new plots with their borders and paths and shrubs had been laid down on the old bush soil’.
If reduced to a pat metaphor of fertility, Alethea’s experiences and learning about her world reiterate the colonial metaphor of healthy, modern prosperity overcoming primitive, organic darkness. But her observations of place and identity subvert the metaphorical pattern and proliferate other possibilities. In one section she composes an origin myth of ‘Po River’. At first, it is a sort of nativist mythology: ‘The persistence of deep rivers that have worn away thousands of feet of rock and in old age are narrow watercourses had been told in stories rivers tell when they meet, and River knew them’. As it continues, though, the myth itself starts to raise questions for Alethea: ‘can we conceive of the actions we ought to live by, in harmony with this conception of time?’ Ultimately, she scatters its significance: ‘I knew what it meant when I wrote it, but I can’t make it out at all, now’. This passage is an example of the slipperiness of image and metaphor in the novel, and particularly its treatment of the Australian imaginary as in flux, disintegration and re-formation.
Similarly, Alethea’s relationship to the idea of the desert is at odds with the literary trope of the ‘dead heart’. Morris points out that, for Alethea, the centre of the continent yields ‘new shapes to the mass of obscure feelings which Australians summon up about the spaces of the land.’ By forming these ‘new shapes’, Ireland’s novel unsettles ‘two profoundly masculine myths which haunt our culture – the link between women and the lures of animality, and the image of femininity as a dark, silent continent.’ For me, Ireland’s novel looks outwards to an as-yet unrealised future that not only acknowledges but listens to the human resilience and custodianship on the continent. Alethea’s social science teacher, Mister Chandrager, tells her that Australia ‘sits on the comfortable coast of life’, an idea which she finds ‘repugnant’ because it hits a nerve. Through her writings, both she and Ireland play with new stories of animation, agency and sustenance.
A Woman of the Future defies cohesively metaphorical readings, in favour of the multiple conflicting narratives it proposes. In this way it is closer to an experimental essay than a novel. Allegory doesn’t explain a number of the novel’s key narrative events, which provoke critical ideas about the neocolonial nation. For example, as the ‘changes’ sweep across her neighbours’ bodies, Alethea’s seemingly docile, mythically-charged and hierarchical society is shown to be just as proliferative as the narrator herself. The future belongs to the mutants — and yet it cannot.
The era of Alethea’s childhood is a collage of postwar allusions: suburban and post-nuclear. Early in the novel, she reports that class struggle has become ‘redundant’: the Frees are aspirational without hope of improvement; this releases the Servers from the guilt of privilege or the fear of its loss. While Alethea’s early understanding of this social structure suggests unity and passivity, even on the day of her birth we see that discord is constant:
A demonstration of grotesquely changed women was going past, marching ten abreast … [My father] was still smiling as a group of demonstrators detached from the main body and ran over screaming … ‘It’s no laughing matter!’ One small red-haired girl screamed. Her face was worked into a plasticine mask of hate, and she kicked him.
We learn that waves of protest have come and gone like tides:
On the wall of an old building a night painter had written:
The lettering was many years old. Once it had meant something.
This ebb and flow infects Alethea’s own ‘changes’ — her mind, and then her body, moving along with the society as it kicks. The struggle has moved inward, it’s as though the Frees are thawed from a biological stasis and thus begin a new evolutionary phase, one linked to psychology rather than environment or labour. They are able to develop independent forms of life. And yet, incongruously, the state proceeds as usual.
Government isn’t directly represented, but Alethea’s grandfather spouts an old Labor ideology mixed with ominous threats. He speaks of 1975 (the first year of Malcolm Fraser’s term as Prime Minister) as yet another moment when post-Federation Australia ‘hadn’t looked’ carefully at itself. Thus, he rails, ‘the tyranny of the state’ is a product of a voting public that grows apathetic. At the mall – anticipating the shopping plazas of the nineties so hated by Paul Keating – Alethea sees the middle class comfort of ‘shoppers’ who, as in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, ‘had blank faces and moved toward the mouths of shops looking for things to exchange for the money in their pockets, not even conscious the economy was on their shoulders.’ And there are the intermittent ‘wandering crowds’: mobs of unoccupied Frees that surge through urban streets. It is their number and lack of purpose – the inversion of Alethea’s original, independent and ambitious possibility – that is more typically frightening than the horror of biological changes.
This status quo also presages John Howard’s prime ministerial vision of national ‘unity’. In her 2005 Quarterly Essay, Judith Brett explains Howard’s notion that unity ‘comes from the historical experiences and daily practices of the people’, but that it must be shaped into a narrative in order to be communicated. The unity of the population in A Woman of the Future is generated by the people’s own narrative of class fate, even when they rebel against it. Furthermore, the novel’s image of bodily growth – a coming-into one’s class and therefore one’s social fate – enacts the very mythos that Howard himself expressed on Australia Day in 1997:
The symbols we hold dear as Australians and the beliefs that we have about what it is to be an Australian are not things that can ever be imposed from above … Rather they are feelings and attitudes that grow out of the spirit of the people.
What grows out of Alethea’s neighbours is grotesque, but also oddly banal. This, I think, is where the ‘wet dreams’ appear in the novel — but they are not Ireland’s. They are the mediocrity of psychic delusions, paranoia and desire: unwanted extra genitals, wanted extra genitals, some old growth timber, a coffin. A parking attendant, Mister Parkes, seems to manifest fear of invasion. He develops a hole in his throat as a result of ‘the chemical environment on the planet’, a ‘manifestation’ of ‘unexplained entries or invasions.’ Alethea offers a list of possible causes for the changes, but the social diagnosis is never concluded in the novel. Who is empowered and who subjugated by this society is, ultimately, difficult to say.
Alethea tries hard to make the social narrative true by believing it – but she fails. She ought to be a Server by her intellect, but her body becomes Free. Throughout childhood and early adolescence Alethea plays it out through sex, but this runs its course as men physically ‘began to own’ her. A mapped-out story of the future – based on the story of the past – will not provide a place to thrive. Nor will Ireland’s book, which must end and yet, in order to achieve its vision, must be able to incite ‘weird growths’ within the reader and exceed its metaphors. As a ‘posthumous’ narrative, A Woman of the Future removes the possibility of Alethea answering these mysteries in the text, and as an epistolary structure it fictively ‘removes’ Ireland from narrative responsibility. It seems that, in order for the possibilities of Alethea’s character to grow, we readers must be capable of sustaining an imagination of our own, in which she can move. The plains of western New South Wales, in which leopards roam, is something more like it.
Re-reading A Woman of the Future, I find that the novel’s orientation towards future reservoirs of power aligns it no longer with Miles Franklin and Kylie Tennant, but rather, Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and Jack Cox’s Dodge Rose. Each of these novels imagines a possible future of Australian identity, and in doing so, emphasises the multiplicity of the national story.
It could be aligned with the narrative techniques of a largely female modernist tradition, which lays the foundations of an écriture féminine. Helen Daniel points to this mode:
The major antithesis of the novel is the notion of an individual biography, following a linear, chronological development, but created out of a multitude of fragments which circle and overlap the biographical timetable, ripples of growth and change flowing out of the central consciousness and washing over simple linear notions.
This Cixousian model of writing, in which ‘self and outer world are not conveniently distinct’, argues Daniel, seems to have been absorbed by Ireland via the literary ecology of the late modernist mid-twentieth century. Yet this poetics of voice and form has been reinhabited very recently by another male Australian novelist, Jack Cox, in his 2016 debut, Dodge Rose. In these pages, Alys Moody describes how Cox’s novel is ‘polyglot and densely allusive, distracted and discontinuous, voracious’. In Cox’s novel, slippage of chronology and motif form the weave of a story about Australian inheritance, in which the personal (sex and race) is political and cultural (the colony). This is how, argues Moody, modernist style can be ‘made new’ for a new historical context. Also orientating his story toward the future – an alternative Australian modernity – Cox demonstrates that formal experimentation remains an urgent and necessary vehicle for contemporary Australian fiction. Both Ireland and Cox seek to harness their narratives of nationhood to the intersection of nation-building and feminism associated with early twentieth-century narrative styles — metamodernism, as Moody points out. Like Cox, Ireland draws on modernist uses of form such as fragmentary and non-linear structure, and ‘extraordinary proliferation of detail’ noticed by Daniel — a type of psychological realism. And as in Cox’s novel, this manner is somewhat anachronistic, perhaps deliberately so. But rather than critiquing the foundations of modernity as defined by Australian settler colonialism, Ireland chooses a slippery, unfinished, mutable narrative structure in order to show an empirical knowledge of identity, ‘a consciousness in motion with its society.’ As Moody incisively writes of Cox’s treatment of Australian pasts and futures in Dodge Rose, the result of such ‘difficult’ narrative approaches is a purposeful sense of discomfort that reflects a larger, cultural inequality and frustration:
… the novel’s difficulty becomes readable as a political commentary on the difficulty of what Fredric Jameson calls ‘cognitive mapping’ – the ability to locate oneself in relation to the systems of global capital and, we might add, colonial temporalities – in a contemporary, still-colonial Australia.
The combination of registers also draws Ireland and Cox into dialogue with Wright’s The Swan Book. Their purposes and traditions cannot be conflated, but there is a common urgency to cut across genres and tropes in a transformative, highly localised way. There is also the presence of horror, which both Ireland and Wright approach on a continuum with realism, a relationship that calls to mind Charlotte Wood’s allegory of timeless white patriarchy in The Natural Way of Things. As in Wood’s narrative, for Ireland nothing is too high, low, absurd or gravid for the purposes of interrogating the limits of nationhood and gender. And while it reaches back into an earlier passage of Australian writing, Eve Langley’s anachronistic The Pea-Pickers anticipates the galloping energy, unconventional epiphanies and cultural visions of the female narrator in A Woman of the Future.
The gentleness and maternity of Alethea’s father, Bayard Hunt, leaves his daughter unprepared for the violence of boys. But it also equips her with an apathy about her own change, in which she sees beyond the social binaries of class and gender, and into ‘the next rebirth.’ Therefore it is this futurity, not her dystopian reality, that defines the fate of the character. The body, in Tim Richards’ reading, is ‘unfinished, always becoming’; specifically, the central presence of the grotesque body in the novel ‘constitutes a major threat to officialdom’. ‘In the play of nonsense,’ he goes on, ‘the actual is stolen back from the producers of the old myth’. This applies as much to racial and class myths of nationhood as to those of gender. The ‘nonsense’ suggested by Ireland’s biological grotesquerie, Richards concludes, ‘informs that the worth of tradition is itself subject to transformation by time and context’.
Of the novel’s gang-rape scene, Daniel perceives that Alethea ‘is still untouched, still essentially virgin as Australia is’. While I admire Daniel’s thorough analysis of the novel immensely, I part from her at this reading — as both a female and an Australian. The rape is one of the last sexual encounters that Alethea relates, and her impassive narration of it suggests to me an exhaustion of availability. There is nothing immaculate about Alethea, intellectually, spiritually or physically; like Australia, she is no terra nullius. Her naive, aspirational edges are adapted to an accumulated history and knowledge. Her vitality has been there from the beginning, but it is endangered if submitted to another’s ownership. Having said this, I find Daniel’s metaphorical treatment of rape distastefully limited, especially if ‘original’ or Indigenous Australia may be figured as its subject. Once again, the metaphors of Ireland’s novel exceed themselves and invite a reading that considers character and story as equal to symbol and analogy.
As Daniel says, Alethea and her story ‘consists of a bundle of papers tied up with string’: constantly threatening to unravel. Alethea is made fictionally responsible for the novel’s voice and structure, plus her mother is also a writer, specifically, an epic diarist who appears to be transcribing her experiences as they happen. Not only, then, does the novel represent two female scribes, but these writers are shown to be witnessing and writing the life of their father/husband. The confluence of author and father is irresistible, the more so because of the creative pride that Alethea’s father takes in her actions. In this regard Alethea’s mother is a witness to her daughter but not a creator, or, rather her creative act is increasingly defined as literary rather than maternal. Daniel remarks that in fact, as Alethea gains vivacity and possibility, ‘her parents become static’. In turn, Alethea takes pleasure from narrativising her father with creative flair: ‘My father didn’t write that: I did.’ By contrast, she never can find her mother’s writings. Ireland is clearly concerned with the problem of ventriloquising a female voice and seeks innovative ways of troubling the act.
Alethea’s characterisation is far too complex to fulfil the ‘ultimate male fantasy’ that many of the novel’s detractors have alleged. She is contextualised within an entire society of Frees who are rooted to their materiality. In their society, fear is attached to the body, but this fear seems to have no common psychic or cultural origin. People come to discover a source of change within themselves, and they treat this often literal growth as an extension, rather than alienation. The familiar biological changes of Alethea’s human adolescence overlap with her own, more-than-human ‘changes’: a process she calls her ‘brief flowering.’ Because of the retrospective voice in some of her accounts of childhood, Alethea brings a prescient awareness of her impending change ‘before my hand can no longer hold a pen.’ What happens to her body is ‘the end of a long chain of biological possibilities … forced to arrive.’ It is realised in full at the novel’s end, and like the other changed characters, it occurs neither as a cataclysmic event nor as a divine transformation. The changes seem closer to reincarnation, in which the future life is already seeded within the current one; a ’change beyond the change’. Her metamorphosis begins at her birth, where she is marked as different:
They were surprised to see the caul on my head, which was patched and marked with uterine material, like a small spotted cub … So began my aloneness, my separateness from others.
It is ‘the beginning of my end,’ she writes, which ‘separated me from the entire past of the race.’ In this way she considers her changed self an extension of the human — an undefined mutation that blurs the line between domesticated and wild.
Alethea becomes a leopard, and flees. What can this change signify? Gunew reads the leopard as ‘a monster’, but I don’t see any evidence of its monstrousness in the novel. As clothing the leopard skin is a cartoonish sign of primitive man as well as a low expression of a predatory, playful sort of female sexuality. If authentic, is is also luxurious, rare: desirable. As Ireland himself remarks: ‘I wanted … something absolutely strange and a reminder of all that this country isn’t … that doesn’t have vices and stupidities attached to it’. Thus transformed, Alethea is with neither culture nor nature, but in a class of her own.
Leopard skin is also the first surface upon which baby Alethea is placed, and the marking of this material as an object of her desire may be the moment at which her body absorbs its change. What, then, does Alethea bring to the sign of the leopard? The leopard is fast, but not the fastest of mammals; it inhabits many continents and various habitats; it is a hunter (signed by Alethea’s surname) yet it maintains peaceful cohabitation with humans and, in the novel, with flocks; it is nocturnal and largely solo. Confoundingly to Ireland’s narrative mode, the leopard is popularly fabled to represent unchangeability: the indelible markings of its pelt as an origin myth. Perhaps most importantly, it is figured in the novel as genderless. At Alethea’s birth she is referred to as ‘it’; from her point of view, ‘I was born a person … I was a human.’ This sense of self is reinforced by Alethea’s father: ‘I was the only girl I knew to have been loved by her father … just as mother did;’ and by her mother, who declares ‘The past was abolished’ when she dresses baby Alethea in blue.
Gunew concludes that, ‘far from giving us constructive representations of the female, A Woman of the Future offers, in symbolic terms, the total annihilation of the female.’ I interpret the ‘annihilation’ differently. Alethea and the Frees experience a metamorphosis that redefines the human body in ways that exceed its culturally gendered focus. She is freed from both gender and sex. She is also freed from – or is it lost to? – language. She loses promised authority and her family; she gains the fulfilment of her physical power. We wonder if either her writing or her metamorphosis have given her what she wishes for her friend, Lil: ‘the joy of passing on life [without having to] sacrifice yourself in any way.’ Richards points out that, ‘the range of critical opinion regarding Alethea and her change is quite diverse’. This is exactly what Ireland wanted, telling Hawley: ‘My readers will have to decide why Alethea changes, and if she is a failure, opting out, or whether, in the course of obtaining as much freedom as possible, she is changing into something entirely different, something animal-like.’ It is the one experience about which Alethea has nothing to say.
Ireland’s leopard remains an image of hope, as Clifford Hanna wrote in 1980, ‘a recognition that the imaginative potential still exists, despite two hundred odd years of “national sleep”.’ Home where there is invasion; continuity where there is transience; identity where there is exclusion. Revisiting A Woman of the Future is not like discovering a prophetic message or a time capsule. It is not like a centrefold pinned up in the garage. It is like being given a good hard shake by the furry hand of Alethea Hunt. In her own words:
Maybe the word I’ve left out is “now.” Maybe everything is unique and important now … a bundle of words, or some other thing – chemicals, maybe – waiting to be reconstituted’.
A full sense of present possibility is a tactic for rewriting the inscription of power. Like Alethea and her maker, we know that bundles of words make a difference. The Australian re-constitution. Alethea, where the bloody hell are you?
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