by Fiona Kelly McGregor
Published 27 September 2022
I was late even to realise how little queer history I know. I can’t help but think this – I was late – purely because the realisation was so recent. It was accidental too: I offered to proofread a paper on nineteenth-century queer activism for a girl I’d recently met – such is my understanding of flirting – and that so much of what I read there was entirely new to me, utterly unknown, felt tremendous as much as it hurt. It is recent, this realisation, but I keep having to remind myself that it both is and isn’t late: every history that is suppressed is, by definition, difficult to find.
In the afterword to Iris, Fiona Kelly McGregor states this problem like so: ‘The public record … was written almost exclusively by apparently heterosexual, white Anglo-Celtic men of the law and media’. I love the qualifications in the sentence. Though it seems throwaway, slippery enough to read as simple cheek, that ‘apparently’ is important, and very much the point. What is speaks to, after all, is everything the record cannot say or contain, all that’s hidden, unapparent.
Nevertheless, Iris begins with the public record: with a typescript of its protagonist, Iris Webber’s, real-world police record and charge sheet from 1937. The police and judiciary procedures that follow this arrest it documents – interrogation, remand, a court trial – form the novel’s framing narrative and provide much of its overall impetus. But its beating heart lies elsewhere – of course it does – and as Iris’ story unfurls, it becomes increasingly obvious how much exists – within a life, within the world – that the record can’t account for or even register.
(This can be true even of the simple fact of a name. Iris Webber had three different surnames across her lifetime, all of which identified her only in relation to another – a father, a short-term husband, etc. And so McGregor generally refers to her by her first name instead. It’s this lead I’ve decided to follow, and this reasoning: the usual convention documents only that which doesn’t fit.)
In many ways, then, Iris reconsiders our official, public-record history – its absences and silences, its misshapings and misrecognitions. And it also offers a reconsideration of a woman whose position within this history is complicated, doubly, by her queerness. After her death, Iris Webber was commonly referred to as ‘the most violent woman in Sydney’ – an epithet that was coined only after her ‘sexual deviancy’ became known to police, and that stuck, despite her crimes consisting mostly of ‘gathering alms’ (begging or busking) and using ‘insulting words’. Despite too that her contemporaries included the infamous Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine, who between them collected over 300 criminal convictions in three decades. And yet, after the strange notoriety within her lifetime, Iris has since been largely forgotten by history – while Leigh and Devine have retained the requisite cultural currency for inspiring TV melodramas and tea-towels, a café and a cocktail bar (that the bar in question is named for the brothel-owner Devine rather than the grog-trader Leigh notwithstanding).
This is not to say that McGregor’s project in this novel is purely corrective, or has this kind of redressing of the historical record as its goal. McGregor’s interest is more human and more intimate in scale: it is in Iris as a person (and also as a woman and a queer) and in all of her attempts to negotiate a world in which she has so little power. In all of the ways in which circumstance and context both shaped her and constrained her, in how to live when even the smallest of freedoms are hard-won, and fleeting.
McGregor first learned of Iris Webber accidentally, when an oversized mugshot was displayed in an exhibition. The image was captioned with that easy epithet, ‘most violent woman in Sydney’, alongside an extra detail, that she had shot a man ‘in a fight over a woman.’ Iris, McGregor writes, is interested in ‘how and why’ this ‘could have happened’ – the italics are her own, because it is the speculation, the attempt to understand and empathise, that is the real project here. What possibilities, what other means of remembering and making history there might be, existing outside of the record.
Iris has no language for queerness. For much of the novel, she has no concept for it either. She has no way of imagining anything other than a heterosexual desire, no suspicion that she might ever need to do so. Of course, she doesn’t – there is no way to be conscious of something about which you do not know, no way to understand something entirely unencountered. There is no way to be something that does not exist.
Historical consciousness is difficult like this – and so often presents a real formal challenge within historical fiction as a result. Neither the writer nor the reader can ever unknow their modern sensibility, nor put aside the knowledge and conventions that underpin their ways of thinking in order to apprehend, unburdened, a different era’s consciousness. There’s an impossibility already at the heart of the attempt – and it’s exacerbated when the gap between these sensibilities, and the forces that shaped them, is vast. Where an earlier era’s prevailing attitudes are abhorrent and oppressive to a modern mind, that is, the mismatch is particularly difficult to negotiate: a character entirely uncritical of their contemporary society and its attitudes can be a difficult vehicle for imaginative connection; but one who rejects them wholesale is glaringly anachronistic. And the purpose is defeated either way.
McGregor handles this deftly, though, by allowing Iris to come into her knowledge about herself and her desires so slowly and subtly that it’s almost unnoticeable to begin with. Iris certainly does not realise that this is happening (and only begins to reflect on what she has learnt much later). She does not look for information or seek out others like her, because it never could occur to her to do so. And even after she learns about the possibility of ‘deviant’ desire, after she has understood her difference, every new revelation and new experience her exploration of it brings always comes as a genuine surprise. What she discovers, each time, is pleasure, and joy.
Iris’ slow shift in consciousness is masterfully handled, that is, but it’s also striking for this joy, especially as the book progresses. Joy, and pleasure too, are so often – because so easily – overshadowed by the suffering that’s all but inevitable in historical queer stories, a suffering that overwhelmingly comes to feel like a preclusion of any and all happiness. Iris’ joy is radical.
As her self-awareness slowly builds, Iris eventually becomes able to reinterpret some of the small moments and incidents that she could not have understood as significant when they occurred – to reconstruct her own obscured history. Her teenage recognition of a friend’s beauty in her formal dress, her catch of breath. Her inability to pull her gaze away from a colleague smoking in a slip in her first days in a Sydney brothel; the lurch in her stomach when working ‘a double’ with a different colleague, how striking she found her softness when they embraced. There was nothing, at the time, for these to signify. Nothing to see: an absence is never visible, not even to the absented.
For many of the years portrayed in McGregor’s novel, Iris lived on Clisdell Street, in the southern part of Surry Hills, not far from Central station. It’s a street I know well – so ridiculously steep that people tilt themselves along the length of their bodies when they walk it in either direction, that the parked cars look impossibly balanced, that I always feel my movement as a swoop down onto Devonshire and can imagine, for a moment, something close to flight. At that end of Clisdell, on the Devonshire corner, there’s a restaurant that serves ‘Japanese-French fusion’ to live jazz. Next to that, a yoga studio, then a digital marketing agency, a venture capital firm – I swear I’m not making this up – a childcare centre, interior designer, gym. Uphill, at the other end of Clisdell, is Belvoir Street, home to the theatre – and I keep wondering what someone like Iris would make of all of this, now.
In the weeks after reading Iris, I know I’m walking differently through these streets. I detour a little, here and there, to find the streets that are part of the book’s territory but unfamiliar to me still, zigzag along the full length of others to properly map them in my mind. It takes three attempts, but I eventually find Frog Hollow, or (more accurately) match the park I’ve so often walked by to the name and the history that I’d not known.
Iris describes Frog Hollow as ‘once the draccest slum in all of Australia’ – with Clisdell Street’s neighbourhood running a close second. The park I know stands where there were houses, once, in a sudden scooping recess between the hilly streets all angling up towards Moore Park. There were houses here, all of them razed in an effort to ‘clean up’ the area in 1925, all of their residents relocated to other (outer) suburbs. There’s no trace of any of this now – erasure is the very point of slum-clearing, and the park itself only remains because the swift downturn of the Depression put a halt to the planned redevelopment. On the day I finally locate Frog Hollow, there’s only one person there, a woman looking almost aggressively bored and silently throwing a red rubber stick, again and again, for her lanky dog. The garden beds are planted with clivia and agapanthus, shade plants that require little care. On two sides, the blank backs of apartment buildings, angular and shockingly white: it’s so difficult to imagine what this place might have looked like, how the people who’d carved out their homes here might have lived, their movements and interconnections, their work and their longings and their hurt and their dreams. A man in a suit calls out from the stairs, descending, and the woman’s face lights up, at last.
What I realise is that in the weeks after reading Iris I have been walking through these streets with a tread that feels connected to the novel’s lines of movement, at once historical and fictional and somewhere in between, with a strange and wonderful doubling of vision. Iris is a novel full of walking: almost everywhere that Iris goes she goes on foot, often chanting the street names that make up her routes. She walks between houses, between shops and pubs and rented rooms, lifts and lurks and touts. It is the only means of movement that she can afford, and while this makes for a geography that is constrained, it is also one intimately known. It’s this intimacy, I think, that has made so much of the novel and its world bleed through like this, the vivid immediacy of McGregor’s descriptions and of Iris’ voice. And it’s a gift, to see and feel my city differently, afresh.
All of these are fringe positions.
There’s so much that’s fascinating about Iris Webber as a historical figure, and the character McGregor has speculatively built from and around this is similarly compelling. She is sharp, and has a natural intelligence that she can direct, intently, towards whatever she needs to understand or learn. She has a tough pragmatism, having lived her entire life from hand-to-mouth and working, hard, wherever she can. But Iris isn’t hard, by any means – she is fiercely loyal to her friends and to the people who have helped her, and she takes and makes her own enjoyment, relishes her life. Her existence has always been precarious, but she is determined and she gets by.
And she is charismatic, disarmingly so. Her charisma is a constant presence across the novel, and it is carried almost entirely on and by her distinctive voice. Iris’ first-person narration (in her own account of her life) is the most striking and compelling feature of this work. Her narration is observant and witty – she wonders, for example, if a policeman’s ‘having such thin lips made smiling painful’ and elsewhere considers living with her aunt impossible because ‘it’d be remorse and virtue to pay along with board’. It is vernacular too – the depth of McGregor’s research, her immersion in oral histories and contemporary literature is especially evident in the unfaltering fluency of Iris’ voice. I keep thinking about how often this kind of narration, full of character and colour, is lauded as an act of ventriloquism – a performance, a throwing of voice – but that here it seems to be, above all else, an act of listening. All of these other voices, on the record, drawn together: and the sound of what is absent in their echo.
The vernacular slang that peppers Iris’ speech is striking, but so too are her dry asides, and her wonderfully colourful metaphors which are especially astute when she describes other people: a woman dancing who ‘could have been a silk scarf’, or the gangster Kate Leigh, with ‘shoulders like sides of beef’, a ‘leather bag you could’ve clobbered a mug to death with’ and ‘that many rings on she may as well’ve been wearing knuckle-dusters’. Iris frequently uses understatement to devastating effect, and delights in almost slapstick blow-by-blow descriptions of drunken pratfalls and chaotic accidents. And when there are no words – where there were no words – she has none. McGregor never tries to force this voice and this vernacular to contain what it does not and could not, which accounts, I think, for how few false notes it sounds.
‘I feel like I’ve been defending myself my whole life,’ Iris says.
Other histories and lineages exist here too, of course. In contemporary fiction, where there’s something about this place and time that has enthralled a number of writers – something rough and wild and resistant, some sense of unfixedness, a city unsolidified, some impression of the kind of hardship Sydney works so hard to forget. These all are amplified, I think, by the remarkable (and rare) visual record rediscovered in an archive of silverplate police photography and its images that always document a violence but do not detail it. They have a narrative, that is, almost tangible but always elided – and therefore potent fuel for any writerly imagination. I’m thinking here of Peter Doyle’s work with these images, in City of Shadows and Crooks Like Us, of Pip Smith’s Half-Wild, Justine Larbalestier’s Razorhurst, a whole genre of Sydney noir.
In queered historical fiction, there is a lineage that invents queer characters to occupy events and times and places in the past – Sarah Water’s Victorian novels, Sara Knox’s The Orphan Gunner, even Hannah Kent’s Devotion. Another that re-imagines, often wildly, real historical figures, as queer – Jordy Rosenberg’s madcap Confessions of a Fox, or Ali Alizadeh’s The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc. Others that are smaller, more personal, and often based on family stories or legends. Each lineage has different kind of questioning of history and of queerness at its heart – a different agenda – but all are based in absence, and in attempts to trace it back or trace it differently.
There is a history too of writing Surry Hills and Darlinghurst: writers like Ruth Park, Kylie Tennant, Elizabeth Harrower, Dymphna Cusack, Christina Stead. Many of their books are fleetingly referenced in Iris, in details of character and place – there’s a playful homage to this history hidden in between the lines. And within McGregor’s existing body of work, of course, there are lines of thinking and fascinations that continue across Iris. An abiding interest in difference, in encounters with it, and attempts to understand each other across it; and in the body, in sexuality and sensuality and the physicality of a life. Class and work, and the force with which they press upon an individual; borders and margins and what it means to inhabit or traverse them. All of these histories are at play, here.
One of Iris’ early, and most explicit, encounters with other people who shared her ‘deviancy’ (this is her term, her time’s term) takes place when she is led – and at her own understated response to the barest hint of an invitation – to a clandestine queer dance hall. Black Ada’s, named for its proprietress, fronts as a dance school – a few swift costume changes, the addition of shouted instructions from Ada on the stage, make up the façade; the venue is not far from the cleared site of Frog Hollow. Inside, Iris is agog, all eyes: she is enthralled by the energy and intensity of the dancers, by their clothes and costumery and its disregard for gender norms. So too is she struck by the lack of aggression, the kindness in the crowd – and by the realisation that there are within it a handful of people she already knows.
And Iris relaxes. She relaxes into this kindness, so rare in her world, and then feels herself ‘rise’ as she banters and wins favour with the wickedly arch Ada – as if her spine is straightening, at last.
This is what community means and what kinship might offer; this is why it matters. In this room, and for the first time, Iris does not feel her difference. And with its relief comes her recognition of constant it has been across her life.
Iris dances with Maisie, another working girl who she has recently befriended, and the attraction that has been building between them suddenly becomes electric. When they kiss, finally, it is, in this rare place, ‘the most natural thing’ in the world, until the sudden presence of the Vice Squad interrupts and forces all of the patrons to scatter.
Even cut short the evening is a turning point for Iris. She falls asleep thinking of her kiss and the desire that she has found. The desire that she knows now, and that is her own.
Iris starts with the public record, but where it ends is with the world – with details perfectly ordinary, unspectacular, achingly human. With cabbages in a grocery window, and a woman tucking her hair into a scarf. A streetside game of mah-jong, a group of newspaper printers on smoko, a three-deep crush of men outside a pub before the swill. A tin shack, a milk bar with a chequered floor, ‘two tarts’ chatting on a stoop. Iris walks past all of this in stiffened leather shoes, and she soaks in of these details and lives as she heads home. All of this life within the city, all of these modest, marvellous ways of inhabiting its spaces and moving through its streets: so much of it undocumented and unfit for the record, but meaningful, important and alive.