Review: Fiona Wrighton Hilary McPhee

Editorial Interventions

‘Begin, I tell myself, at the beginning of an adventure, not at the end of a marriage of twenty years.’ It is with this line that Hilary McPhee opens the second chapter of her second memoir. It’s telling, both because it reads almost like an editorial intervention – as if the editor is present even as she writes – but also because it indicates that there’s something much more important going on than the ‘adventure’ that forms the main narrative arc of the book (and which she introduces in the opening chapter). Other People’s Houses is, ostensibly, about a writing project McPhee, one of the founders of the legendary Australian publishing house McPhee Gribble, undertook in the mid-2000s, just over a decade after the sale and closure of the company. McPhee was charged with assisting the former Crown Prince of Jordan, Prince Hassan bin Talal, in writing a book about his life and his role as a builder of the nation and its institutions, and as a diplomatic figure in the greater region and internationally. But beneath this and behind this, Other People’s Houses is a book about loneliness, and learning how to manage solitude in the wake of tumultuous events: the death of a parent, the dissolution of a marriage, serious illness.

Loneliness isn’t an easy emotion to write about, in no small part because it isn’t an easy emotion to admit to. In The Lonely City, Olivia Laing writes of her loneliness – also in the wake of a romantic break-up – as something ‘shameful and alarming’ as well as ‘enclosing and engulfing.’ Laing quotes psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, who claims that we lack a proper language to speak about it. ‘The writer who wishes to elaborate on loneliness,’ Fromm-Reichmann writes, ‘is faced with a serious terminological handicap: loneliness seems to be such a painful, frightening experience that people do practically everything to avoid it.’ Perhaps it cannot be faced head-on, perhaps it has to exist in the margins.

During the writing of the Jordanian book, McPhee bases herself in part in Cortona, a small town in Tuscany, where she learns from a group of local women that Italian has no word ‘to distinguish loneliness from solitude.’ Both states are covered by the word solitudine, which is, she writes, ‘closer to wretched loneliness than to the often pleasurable solitude.’ Later, a woman at the fruit market questions her about ‘being a donna sola,’ and McPhee responds by buying too much food for one person, and then returning to her apartment to imagine how she might die by her own hand. Her loneliness is wretched, and sometimes almost impossible to circumnavigate.

I sometimes think that the problem is that loneliness so often feels like a failure, as if being lonely were an indication of some insufficiency of self; I know my own abhorrence of it is tinged by the fact that it feels like a vulnerability, a need, and I do still hate to need. And yet there’s a complication here for writers, who, by and large, need solitude in order to work and think. Loneliness is an occupational hazard, because solitude can so easily spill over or darken into something deeper, something else.

McPhee hides her loneliness from the friends who visit her in Cortona, showing them the town but not speaking of her emotions, ‘hoping that they would report back,’ she writes, ‘that I was thriving.’ She builds herself a strict routine to give shape to her days, has to ‘unlearn’ cooking for more than one. She visits a church in a nearby town and is overcome in front of a painting. ‘I am motherless, fatherless, husbandless, cracked wide open’ she writes in her diary. Until this point in her life, McPhee has never lived alone, and the experience is unmooring.

Perhaps it is this loneliness that made McPhee particularly vulnerable to the ‘seduction’ of the offer from the Jordanian royals to take part in the writing project. ‘Such a gift of a project, it looked to me then,’ she writes, even though hindsight has made the efforts surrounding her recruitment – tours of ancient wonders and archaeological sites, meals with the royal family in the palace compound – look more carefully orchestrated. McPhee describes herself as having ‘fallen for’ the project, as if it were a romance, and as if this orchestration were, indeed, a seduction. McPhee is initially sceptical about the project, hesitant, both because it seems so unlikely, and because she is ‘not a ghost writer.’ But the prospect of conducting research into a region that she loves – having first visited the area in the 1960s, and maintaining a long-term interest in archaeology – and interviewing the erudite and fascinating Prince Hassan, is appealing. ‘How could I resist?’ McPhee asks. In her newly isolated, cracked-open state, work is also a welcome distraction, especially on a project that requires great cultural and geographical distance from home, and everything that has changed there, and left her so adrift. And it is because of the great distance between Amman and Melbourne that McPhee chooses to base herself in Europe for the duration of the project, staying alternately in the Cortona apartment and an attic in London, both of which are owned by friends. It is from these spaces that the book takes its title.

McPhee’s friends are both women who are used to lives spent largely alone, who have shaped their houses and their lives to suit themselves, who understand, as she puts it, ‘how to live with [them]sel[ves].’ She knows, furthermore, ‘ranks of women’ who claim to ‘thrive’ more completely when they are alone, comes from a family with ‘several precedents’ of women who have done so too. There’s a quiet and understated questioning here of what marriage and family might cost a woman, however successful her career, what kinds of lives they might preclude, or what exactly it is that is given up when we fall into these arrangements: beneath McPhee’s sadness and sense of loss there is also an exhilaration at being independent and unknown, a sense of freedom, a ‘wild joy’. The pleasures of solitude, that is, are always present alongside the pangs of loneliness, and it is impossible to untangle one from the other.

Travel, I think, always engenders a kind of loneliness, involving as it does a removal from everyone who knows you, each small intimacy of an everyday life. At times, McPhee relishes this, twice referring to her delight at feeling ‘invisible’ in the new environments – Jordan and Cortona both – that she is moving through. (‘There is a kind of bliss in no one knowing where you are,’ she writes.) Yet she is aware, too, especially in Jordan, that there are many subtleties of culture and communication that she has no access to – people who may not be prepared to answer her questions openly, the often baffling dynamics of the royal family itself, the unwritten rules of compound life, to say nothing of the long and complicated political history of the region she is living in. McPhee is aware of the risk of Orientalism, even if she does not address it directly: she reads widely about Jordan, but is always cognisant that she cannot escape seeing the place through her own ‘acquired’ lens; so too does her status as a ‘guest of the palace’ – without a visa, without any real rights, but cocooned within a ‘magic circle’ – complicate this sense of remove.

McPhee’s children visit her in Europe one Christmas, and she is startled by how easily her fifteen-year-old daughters stay in contact with their friends and family at home, Skyping and emailing after midnight mass on Christmas night. ‘Homesickness is not an issue,’ she writes, ‘for a generation used to constant communication,’ but I’m not sure that this is true. I am from the same generation as McPhee’s daughters, and very similar in age; and have always found that being in contact with home while I travel, watching on social media as my friends move through my familiar spaces or spend time together, so often sharpens my sense of isolation, makes the physical distance feel larger even as it is compressed virtually. It’s a similar conundrum, I think, to that McPhee faces as she tries to come to terms with her divorce, at the same time that her ex-husband is promoting a new book, speaking on the radio and appearing on TV: ‘I kept catching myself falling for his mind all over again,’ she writes, ‘…laughing at his drollery; yes, missing him.’ This absence is felt more keenly because it is so close to being present.

Illness too is a particular kind of loneliness, another kind of removal: it is something that can only be faced alone. McPhee writes about her treatment for cancer, undergoing post-operative scans in the basement of a hospital, ‘lined up’ in the corridor with other gown-clad patients, silent and cold and feeling ‘only just’ like a human being; and realising that the brusque and rough-mannered doctor performing the procedure is the first man that she has spoken to face-to-face since her admission. The experience is one of ‘terror and humiliation’, which cannot be waylaid by visiting friends. McPhee’s loneliness is exacerbated by a well-meant but intensely awkward visit from her ex-husband, who she knows is in the process of ‘emptying out our old house by the sea,’ and by the knowledge that when she returns to Jordan she cannot mention her illness – because ‘the word cancer is tabu and carries much shame.’ McPhee’s illness is something she must bear alone. Like all illness, it can’t be shared as an experience, not really: it is always confined to a single body, an interiority of very private pains and fears.

There’s one more well of loneliness in Other People’s Houses, and it’s one that is elided for much of the book. Early on, McPhee mentions that she has been to the Middle East before, in the mid 1960s, as a ‘young woman, recently married, dreaming of becoming an archaeologist’ and travelling in a cargo ship – but the reason for this trip is not explained until much later. Similarly, the project McPhee is working on before being approached by the Jordanian family she describes as ‘a “Body Book”’ about ‘the perception and treatment of the bodies and minds of women’ in her mother’s and grandmothers’ eras, but the deeper reason for her interest in this subject matter is held back for much of the book, and all the more devastating for this. McPhee is alluding to another experience in her past beyond the social, beyond ordinary ken, that this much more recent isolation cannot help but chime with. Both unfurl slowly, and largely in the background, but together they form the real backbone of the text. There’s so much that is unspoken in this book, present only as an emotional through-line: a sense of sadness and loss, a questioning of the conditions of women’s lives that sits beneath the surface of the text, and that colours, at frequent intervals, the material at hand.

There’s a sense of doubled-time at work as McPhee describes her Jordanian ‘adventure’, a frequent slipping between the experience as she felt it at the time (aided, she often mentions, by diaries and notes) and everything she has figured out or guessed at since – all of which was left unspoken, elided at the time. The romance of the initial approach, the access to the charming and intelligent former Crown Price, the tours of the Jordanian countryside – these don’t exactly wear thin for McPhee, rather, they are complicated by the difficulties and frustrations of the project itself. In a sense, this is a book about a different book, which never came to pass, but McPhee uses this narrative as an entry point to writing about politics and place.

What McPhee is interested in, here, is the way in which Jordan in particular, and the Middle East in general, are largely absent from the mainstream, white Australian imaginary, except as either the setting of the foundational myths of the Judeo-Christian tradition, or far more frequently and awfully, the locus of the worst of our xenophobic tendencies, and sites conflict and fear – despite the diversity of our population and our long diplomatic engagement with the region. There is ‘little room’ for subtlety in conversations about the Middle East, McPhee writes, ‘in the Australia I inhabited’, overseen by John Howard and at war with Iraq; and the West is ‘one-eyed about the Arab world.’ McPhee’s stay in Jordan also coincides with the publishing hoax in which Norma Khouri’s Forbidden Love, about an honour killing in Amman, sold 250,000 copies before being exposed as fiction.

What McPhee sees in Jordan is a country with much in common with Australia, in terms of the desert landscapes and environmental challenges, the ways in which Jordanians continue to be affected by their colonial pasts, and the country’s uncertain or difficult place within its regions. She is interested too in how Jordan has responded to its large population of refugees from Palestine and Iraq – Jordan has the largest population of refugees, by proportion, of any country in the world – and how the country sees its future in the face of an increasingly-hostile West. Much of McPhee’s account of her time in Jordan reads as a kind of travelogue, albeit a very intelligent and curious one, where she visits ancient sites and other cities, orange farms and infrastructure projects, a Bedouin wedding and an impoverished suburb of Amman.

And what McPhee experiences is also interspersed with what she reads as she tries to understand the place in which she is living – biographies of important figures, histories, the travelogues of writers who have come before. She is looking both for information about the region, for ways if understanding where she is and what she is doing, as well as for examples of books that might work as models for the one she is supposed to write. So too is her understanding of Jordan shaped by her conversations with the former Crown Prince, whom she calls Siddi Hassan, who regales McPhee with information, both in their interviews, and by sending her supplementary materials of ‘articles, speeches, Arabic poetry, philosophy, examples of western misreadings or gross assumptions.’ McPhee is working here to counter, or at least address, these kinds of misreadings and assumptions, at the same time as knowing that her ‘acquired lens’ remains in place. At times she feels as though she is ‘on the cusp of a different way of seeing’, but she is also aware that this never quite arrives.

It’s easy, I think, to read these two stories – that of McPhee’s unusual copywriting gig, and that of her struggle to come to terms with loneliness – as twinned stories of failure: a project and a partnership, neither of which quite worked out. Indeed, McPhee does this explicitly, when writing about her return to Australia: ‘I’d run away, but now had a failed book and a failed marriage to deal with.’ In this context too, illness and ageing can too easily be seen as failures of the body. I don’t think this is unimportant –it’s far more common, after all, to read, or even write, stories about successes, triumphs, enduring loves, odds overcome. Triumphant stories are satisfying stories, where all and any suffering is meaningful and worthwhile because it is surmounted, because it forces a protagonist to rise to the occasion and prove their mettle, because it makes the ultimate victory sweeter – and I think these narratives do a real disservice to failure, which is common and ordinary and a part of all of our lives.

But I don’t want to read loneliness as a failure, as a negative space or an absence of love, and I especially hate any kind of metaphor that aligns illness with a deficiency or fault. I don’t want loneliness to only be important as something that makes people brave or resilient or defiant, or something that sets them beyond the pale. I like to think of stories like this instead as stories of selfhood, of the reassessment and realignment that has to happen when the things that we expect don’t quite pan out or endure in the ways that we’ve assumed they will, and for this to be neither shameful nor brave, but the ordinary, necessary business of getting on and getting by, of being a person in the world.

And this is, after all, that is the real strength of Other People’s Houses – its respect for the ordinary and the messy, and its appreciation of loneliness and its place in any kind of life. McPhee’s ‘year of facing the music’ (which lasts for several years, really) leaves her with a different kind of domesticity, a different kind of book, a different kind of life than the one she’s been expecting, but these are neither better nor worse than what came before. Quieter, perhaps, and more solitary at times, but no less full of love or ideas or contentment.

Published March 19, 2020
Part of Juncture: JUNCTURE is a fellowship program presenting a series of new essays on Australian and international literature by leading critics.  All Juncture essays →
Fiona Wright

Fiona Wright is a writer, editor and critic. Her book of essays Small Acts...

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