History happens to us in dreams: it is experienced and understood there as much as in our waking lives. Neuroscientists have known this for some time, but these pandemic years have provided a sudden abundance of data, intensive and immediate, and global in scale, for those who work with dreams. Their reports are of dreams about swarming insects, billowing gas, and other transferred contaminations; about shadowed monsters and snipers lurking on the other side of a window or wall. There are more literal dreams about funerals and hospitals, accidental handshakes or hugs; about forgotten face masks, a new variant of that archetypal dream of public nakedness realised suddenly and far too late. In pandemic dreams, the dead speak. The dreamer cannot find their way home, is pursued. All of these are dreams that grapple with upheaval and threat, with fear, with the difficult adjustments to a world unsteadied suddenly, transformed.

In times of crisis and sudden change, researchers now know, our dreams become more vivid, animated by a heightened intensity of emotion, a higher degree of novelty and new experience that the brain continues to adjust to and make sense of while we sleep. In times of turmoil, we remember our dreams more often and more clearly when we wake. They linger, do not easily let go.

What any of this means, we don’t really know, and in no small part because we still don’t know if dreaming has any biological function or serves a vital purpose; nor if the content of dreams is any kind of signal from the brain, or simple noise. But to me, this is not important – dreams are imaginative matter, and it is imaginative purposes to which we most often put them. Dreams have been omens, curses, promises and warnings alike; they have been otherworldly messages and subconscious eruptions, announcements of vocation, processes of rehearsal and restoration, inspiration, divine or otherwise. Their power is recombinatory: the physical world mixes with memory mixes with metaphor, with stories, speculations and preoccupations, with anxieties and desires. And part of the special power, these meanings that attach to them, is that their strangeness and mysterious potency means they often do not feel like the products of our own minds.

It is this sensation that Jane Rawson places at the centre of The History of Dreams. The novel’s four protagonists, a group of young women living in Australia in the turbulent late-1930s at the book’s opening, all have or learn the ability to create dreams, to imagine or write them by will, and to seed them in other peoples’ minds. They are witches, to use their own term, and they are determined to use their unusual magic ‘to bring power to the powerless’ and to weaken those who stand in their way. The dreams they concoct can introduce doubt, fear, disgust into their recipients’ subconscious minds, can be reminders of lost loves, idealisms and fervours, or provocations to see afresh the people, environments and social worlds that they take for granted or exploit.

Even as a word, though, a dream is slippery: held within it, at times, is an imagined or projected future; a hopeful vision of something different, something better; an everyday delusion (tell him he’s dreamin’). A dream is a flight of fancy, those wild and rambling inventions of the imagination; a dream is ever-present and often-evoked as a rhetorical claim to shared aspiration and identity.

All of these kinds of dream are present in Rawson’s novel, in different permutations. Because A History of Dreams is, ultimately, a book about imagination, and about the ways in which the imagination operates, and what its purpose or power might be in politically bleak and oppressive times.

Rawson’s protagonists are no strangers to oppression, even before the political machinations and changes that drive much of the novel’s plot are underway. They are women, after all, and living in a time in which this one fact will determine so much of their lives. And yet at the novel’s opening (at the very end of 1937), they are still on the cusp of adulthood, and not yet able to understand the degree to which their gender makes so much of what they dream, or imagine for their futures, impossible. Margaret, for example, has an obvious academic brilliance, which has her dreaming of university and the ‘great things’ she intends to accomplish in her career – without even considering that her father might forbid any further education, or consider university ‘a waste of time for girls’. Instead, this final year of schooling is followed by book-keeping work in a small firm, arranged by her family, where she is supervised by a patronising man who double-checks all of her sums. It is heartbreaking, frustrating, embittering – but it is also unthinkable to her that she might disobey.

Margaret and the other three protagonists have formalised their friendship by creating their own four-member club, the Semaphore Supper Club. It begins as something imaginative and playful, very much in the tradition of the Pickwick Club in Little Women – but as the group develops more worldy and political interests and intent, the purpose of the club shifts in this direction too. All four women are outsiders – Margaret’s intelligence and ambition is matched by her sister Esther’s eccentricity and wild creative flair; their schoolfriend Audrey’s radical and impassioned politics; her colleague Phyl’s ‘deviant’ sexuality and class background. As such, their ambitions are also streaked with the unconventional: Esther dreams of a many-faceted future life where she will compose music (and ask T.S. Eliot to write the libretti for her operas) and learn to fly aircraft, Audrey of revolutionary work akin to Rosa Luxemburg’s (her parents chide her for being ‘too young to understand how the world worked’) and Phyl of newspaper reporting from distant ‘ships and jungles’, in far-flung places where she might be free to pursue her desires. Margaret’s future career, she thinks, is either in archaeology or astrophysics.

These dreams at the book’s opening are fantastical, obviously. They’re childish because the dreamers are still children, but it is this that also makes them poignant – the hope within them is entirely undiluted, untempered by external considerations, and their imaginative freedom is unconstrained. These characters do not and cannot share what the reader already knows about their time and context; and that they have no sense that their imagined futures are doomed to failure sets them up as tragic figures right from the outset.

But they also do not anticipate or imagine becoming witches.

Rawson’s imaginative leap, when she aligns these women with witchcraft, is remarkable. Remarkable because it is both unexpected – despite its detailing of each character’s daydreams, a solid and unbroken realism dominates the book until this element is introduced – and wonderfully apt. It is precisely these kinds of women – unconventional and spirited – who were historically most likely to find themselves charged with witchcraft, whether for their intelligent knowledge of herbal medicine or midwifery, their inability to fit in, their outright rebelliousness, or for remaining unmarried. In fiction, too, it is a lineage of misfits, outcasts, and dissenters, alongside women of thwarted potential and stymied passion or ambition, who have been drawn together in depictions of witches, regardless of genre: historical, speculative, gothic and fantastic witches so often share these traits.

It is ‘startling, glamorous and unique’ Audrey who teaches her friends this craft, and explains its history and rules. Audrey’s line of teachers starts with her Great-Aunt Delia (‘a fierce and independent woman, the kind who never wanted to owe anyone anything,’) who used her powers, wonderfully, to rouse ‘suffragist impulses’ in Adelaide’s women at the turn of the last century. And it includes two women with great, creative, and globe-trotting desires, all thwarted, alongside a string of close friends and spinster aunts, ‘all the way back to… the famous witches of Yorkshire.’

Rawson’s witches are women who remain unmarried – her rules determine that ‘giv[ing] up the right to control your own life’ means an abdication of controlling supernatural powers as well – and they must use their skills for good, to protect or uplift the disenfranchised and oppressed. But what is unusual – and even subversive – about Rawson’s witchcraft is that it grants only a very limited and particular power. The ability to create nightmares is, after all, a long way from the ability to summon demons or the dead, afflict people with illness or misfortune, curses and charms. Planting or controlling dreams seems a meagre magic in comparison – ‘it’s not very mystical, is it?’ Esther even says at one point. Except that Rawson’s employment of this sole power places imagination – and the ability to shape or direct it – at the very heart of human action, political power, and change. Audrey claims that her with dreamwork, even just across her adolescence, she has ‘upended emotions, addled minds, planted paralysing fears’ and ‘stoked terrifying desires’ in the recipients of her dreams.

I keep thinking of that political adage, that there are two ways to inspire a population: with hope, or with fear; and of how so many of our politicians rely entirely on the latter.

There’s one more act of speculation that builds the world of A History Of Dreams – an alternative political history for Australia, that also begins in the late 1930s. This too is a speculation both surprising in terms of the book’s form, and frighteningly plausible. Shortly after these women find their powers, Margaret is invited by an old school friend – and crush and academic rival – to what he refers to as ‘a poetry club’ in the city. It is a club, though, that has more sinister intentions: named ‘Australia Rex,’ its political interests and agitations are in eugenics, nationalism, unity and strength, alongside the ‘truly Australian literature’ that Margaret’s friend mentioned in order to pique her interest. The club is fascist, that is, built according to politics that are inherently racist (‘A nation of sun-bronzed youths, a strong race, a white race’) and misogynist (‘If Australia is to regain greatness, the chief business of women must be maternity.’)

Rawson’s depiction of the poet-politicians who make up the club is brutal in the very best of ways: their clubhouse is shabby, and signposted by a hand-lettered piece of cardboard; the poets themselves are self-righteous and self-important, slimy, ‘slack-limbed’ and interminably dull. For all their talk of vitality and virility, Margaret describes them as ‘evinc[ing] all the energy of the consumptive’. Their poetry, of course, is execrable. Matt’s verses even include the rhyme ‘Oh, noble savage! Tall and lean and black/ […] Of art and science, do you feel the lack?

Rawson builds this scene, these men, by layering – detail laid thick on detail in a way that heightens their ridiculousness. And it’s terribly funny – except, of course, that it’s also not funny at all. These men are dangerous: Margaret and Phyl, who has accompanied her to the meeting, both sense this. And it’s historically true: Rawson has modelled Australia Rex on a number of real organisations – including the virulently anti-semitic Australian League of Rights, which was founded in Adelaide in 1946, and the Australia First Movement, which self-described as fascist, and counted among its members prominent literary figures and active politicians. That organisations like these did not succeed in gaining any kind of power is considered a near miss by many historians; that they might do so in the future has, in these last years, seemed more and more feasible a proposition.

But these contextual details aren’t ever given to the reader. This is a tactic Rawson commonly uses in her work – under-explanation and suggestion are often driving forces for her narratives, many of which also thematise uncertainty and the unknown. Rawson’s previous novel From the Wreck (2017) is narrated in part by a wonderfully strange, other-worldly, vaguely octopus-like consciousness – whose precise nature is never explained nor justified; in her stories, the interconnections and relationships between characters, timeframes and worlds are often left for the reader to infer, without any of the breadcrumbs that writers often plant to suggest a ‘proper’ path or gently guide a reading. The level of trust Rawson places in the reader, and the relative autonomy she grants them, is what makes her books so interesting, especially because their unspoken or uncertain elements never feel like a demand to decode something embedded, but an invitation to make meaning where and what you will. So too is the wild imagination at work within the books reinforced by her refusal to neaten up ambiguities and loose ends, because it so often allows their strange undercurrents to tug a little harder, and for a little longer.

‘Poets are dangerous’, Esther says, shortly after Margaret and Phyl return from the Australia Rex salon.

 ‘You’re all insane’, the tongue-in-cheek response she’s given.

These poets are dangerous, even if they’re also ludicrous. The coven does recognise this – and so it is on them that they decide to first use their magic. Their anger is focussed on the ideas of these men about the role of women in their envisioned world – as wives and mothers, and never anything else – rather than on the overly racist, authoritarian or militaristic aspects of their ideology (although Phyl does take pains to point out that they are ‘not huge fans of the lavender set, either.’) Their anger begins with what is personal to them, that is, and it largely stays within this realm, even though they clearly understand the broader implications of these politics. But these women, with the exception of Audrey, have never been political creatures until this point. They live at a time and in a place where they are actively discouraged from any kind of political engagement. It makes sense, then, that it is the personal threat – coming as it does on the heels of their recent experiences with disappointed dreams and disempowerment – that incites their action, even enables it, and that directs it, too.

This first dream is difficult to concoct, in part because, as Audrey explains, the magic ‘won’t work’ unless it can be targeted at the dreamer’s ‘secret being,’ and so it requires empathy and attempts at understanding in order to be effective. At this point, none of the women have had anything much to do with men outside of their families – save an employer or two – so have little information to go by. There’s a childishness (that is, lots of diarrhoea) to their initial suggestions as a result, as well as a sense that the group can’t quite believe the risk ‘these poets’ might pose – it is still unimaginable – and it is precisely this that is their undoing.

If the last few years have taught us anything about imagination, it’s that imagination is no real match for the future. That there is so much we could never – in our wildest dreams – imagine for our world that happens, regardless. It is impossible to think of the unthinkable.

Over the next few months, the wheel of Rawson’s alternate history, as it were, begins to turn, despite the coven’s efforts. After the death in office of the Prime Minister Joseph Lyons (Rawson also hints that in the book’s timeline, Lyon’s heart attack may not have been a natural occurrence), it is a member of Australia Rex, already a government minister, who ‘temporarily’ takes his place. This man, Hubbard, Rawson has largely left undescribed, although his agenda and interests are evident in the previous portfolios he has held – first Police, then ‘Order and Borders’ (another of those details both funny and horrific, and so almost-real). His first speeches reference stability and unity, the ‘place’ of women and the importance of modesty. His first acts are ‘crackdowns’ on unions, targeted attacks on refugees and migrants, increased policing and surveillance, and a prohibition on public gatherings.

Audrey in particular feels these changes as a ‘shifting’ of the world, a ‘coalescing’ of all of the small entitlements, aggressions and cruelties of misogyny into something more powerful – because it is permissive. For Margaret, it is a new appreciation of precariousness, a sense that ‘a sinkhole’ is liable to open at any moment beneath her feet. The anger that these women have only just found within themselves, that is, is now accompanied by fear; the forces that oppress them are suddenly more visible, and explicitly encoded in the law. Again they try to act, organising an ostensibly traditional protest – a public space and a placard – and augmenting it by distributing paper cups of dream-spiked tea to passers-by. That this dream succeeds – the next day sees around twenty men, inspired by what they have dreamt, briefly protest outside Parliament House before they are swiftly arrested – only makes the scale of the problem and the limits of the women’s power clear. It is one thing, Margaret thinks, to ‘tak[e] on’ individuals and small-scale abuses of interpersonal or social power – but something else entirely to try and fight a government. A government may be made up of individuals, each part a single living, dreaming person – but it is somehow still bigger than the sum of these, especially when it governs by control.

And yet these women have to fight – it is soon obvious that it’s not only their ambitions but their very lives that will not be tolerated by this new regime. In the society that it is bringing into being, there is no place for political dissent, for non-reproductive sexuality (or for women’s sexuality of any kind), for women to exist as people and with any rights at all. Even their small-scale, tea-serving protest is enough to see Esther and Margaret forced out of their family home and Audrey and Phyl lose their department store jobs. It becomes dangerous, and then illegal, to be unaccompanied in public; difficult, and then illegal, for women to work. The desperate fear of this, that claustrophobic sense of the available options always narrowing, of the world itself moving out of reach Rawson captures with an almost brutal efficiency, the reader also subjected to this swift shock and disorientation, and forced to adapt as quickly as the characters must do. At first, these women find, and help build, a small resistance based in a boarding house whose owner ‘pride[s] herself in providing a refuge from the world of men.’ But the resistance is torn apart within months – the house raided by operatives, the equipment seized. Audrey and Esther are both arrested during the raid, and held in a place unknown.

A society, too, is made up of individuals, each person with their own desires and ideals, interests and priorities, beliefs and fears. What binds it together, what holds each part in some loose connection with the whole, is never something tangible or that can be easily or properly defined. It is imagined – to borrow Benedict Anderson’s formula – the stuff of story, of symbol and myth, of narratives and metaphors and the foundational assumptions they encode and compound. It is imagined, what beholds us, and largely unconscious, and it is far from logical. It is as slippery and as potent as our dreams.

The new government knows this. And having quashed its overt opposition, it is control of the imagination of its populace that it now turns to. The new government’s Bureau of Public Enlightenment (wonderfully-named) not only establishes a ‘national’ (never ‘state’) newspaper, radio and TV station, alongside production companies for movies and music, but within months of Audrey and Esther’s arrests also begins to build a Dreams Division. It understands immediately, that is, understands what it might mean to be able to imbue a person’s dreaming life with its messaging. The Bureau spokesman is coy about the means by which the division works, saying only that is uses ‘ground-breaking technology… an Australian development, world-leading’.

‘Dreams to be proud of,’ designed to ‘help Australians be the best they can possibly be’; dreams designed to encourage ‘correct’ and compliant behaviour, to define and delimit a person’s sense of self and opportunity; dreams that serve as ‘reminders’ of the national ethos and reinforce it, constantly. The Bureau is aiming to shape imaginations, to exert influence the very core of its peoples’ interiorities, long before any external disenchantment or defiance can find form. Planting its own stories, its own appeals to those base instincts and desires, works both to provide templates and master-narratives to guide the imagination’s trajectories, and to fill completely any space that it might otherwise use for its own ends.

It is this, after all, that is the premise at the heart of Rawson’s book: that our imaginative freedom is a very real freedom, regardless of how abstract or impractical it may be, how difficult to put it to work. And that our imaginations are still our own, despite all of the oppressive and fearful forces of the world, with all of the stories they present to us and ask us to believe: we still govern our own imaginative lives, our dreams. What this might mean, of course, Rawson doesn’t explain – but leaves it up to the reader to imagine the possibilities for themselves, naturally.

It’s hard not to notice that writing is one such possibility. An obvious one, except for how often, or how many of, the writers I know despair at the thought of what purpose or point our work can have in times like these. That Phyl writes stories ‘in the dead spots of her day’ – a playful spy thrilled based on her friends’ imagined selves, and a ‘more private, serious book about a better future’, that the rebellion writes its own illegal gazette – and that the dreams the protagonists concoct are often written: these details are important.

The fatal flaw in the Bureau of Public Enlightenment’s plans is that a dream that doesn’t meet or map to a person’s ‘secret being’, their heart and mind, is one that will ring hollow, or will not stick. It will not have any of that strange half-life in the mind that dreams that most affect us somehow maintain, their almost-memory that can feel as real as the experiences of our waking days. The government sends men dreams of physical and sexual prowess, of ‘bulging biceps and lacerating minds’ and warfare, ‘opening fire on the riff-raff,’ dreams that don’t need to be substantial or insightful because what they intend to foster is entitlement, a self-evident enjoyment and ‘delight.’ But the dreams written for women prove impossible: impossible to believe, as Phyl puts it; or in Margaret’s words, with ‘a tinny ring of falsity at [their] heart.’

These are dreams of finding joy in the ‘high shine’ of a polished floor, of the relief of giving up work the day before a marriage; dreams of babies, of a hot meal laid out on a decorated table; dreams of babies. Dreams of penury and loneliness and illness, of solitary death as the inevitable consequence of not marrying; dreams of pregnancy, of beauty and charm, of babies. Most are dreams of obvious moral instruction, too generic and two-dimensional to be taken seriously, let alone inspire or provoke any reaction. Others aim to flatter, or, more frequently to shame – but even these ‘dissolve in the sun,’ because the self-doubt that they rely upon has been created by a person ‘who ha[s] never had any of their own.’

What is clear is that the people creating these dreams do not understand the women who are their intended recipients, do not appreciate their humanity, and above all else, underestimate them, wildly. Being underestimated provides opportunities for women – the main characters, the formal resistance, everyday citizens alike – to push back, many of them in small ways, some of them in larger acts of sabotage and rebellion. Understanding that the people who govern them do not understand them in the slightest is an incredibly effective call to arms.

Even as these political realities unfold and are contested, and the potential power of dreams tested in both directions, the friendship between the four women at the centre of the narrative remains important, for all of them. Each of them knows that this friendship is the most integral and most sustaining relationship they have; it is integral to how they understand themselves, and what bolsters and sustains their ambitions and dreams – even before it becomes the source and site of their supernatural powers. It is more important than their families because it is more reliable and supportive; and the risk that the government poses to each of her friends is never far from the characters’ minds. What’s fascinating here is that the friendship, as much as, maybe even more than, any of the characters is what comes of age across the novel. It must adapt and mature and make space for injuries and disappointments, small hurts and betrayals, for compromise. As the political climate changes and pushes each woman in unanticipated directions, and into confrontations and reckonings their adolescent selves never could have countenanced, it is to their friendship that they always circle back, always work to maintain. What sustains them, what might sustain us, isn’t just what we can imagine and how we dream. Perhaps it is also what we can be for each other, and the communities we can form through care, conscious and chosen, but no lesser a magic.

Published May 30, 2022
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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