"I for Isobel" by Amy Witting

 Amy  Witting, 1918 - 2001, had written her  beautiful little novel of Sydney about young Isobel  when she, the author,  was a  mature woman by any standard . It was published in 1989 when she was 71 years  of age.  She had her very first  story published  in The New Yorker in 1965 when she was a 47 years of age and teaching at Cheltenham Girls High School,  befriended and encouraged by fellow teacher and established writer, Thea Astley who had admired the story called 'Goodbye, Ady, Goodbye, Joe'.  

Anyhow, when  I for Isobel was published it was a recognised success and resulted in most of her earlier work of poetry  and stories  before then being  re-published .  Her works include the sequel  Isobel on the way to the corner shop, several volumes of poetry including a collected poetical works of  1998, short story collections and two other novels.

I for Isobel  is structured around five chapters which are each like perfectly crafted short stories bringing to life significant stages and awakenings in the life of Isobel. The whole novel comes together when read through as a rare insightful telling of childhood , family relationships and adolescent experiences with a positive, believable ending.

 We first meet Isobel at age nine as she is pondering about and wishing  to get a her birthday present (a first) from her parents in the eponymous chapter  "The Birthday Present" where they are holidaying at a summer  boarding house. Her mother is a jealous, sad woman in an unhappy marriage who uses her often unfair corrections of Isobel, a nine year old, to justify her own unhappy, straightened existence.  Isobel's dawning awareness of this as a nine year old is resoundingly stated in this sentence towards the end of this chapter:
 "There was not much to cry about, for her mother's intentions were far more violent than her blows. Her hands flapped weakly as if she were fighting against a cage of air"
 This book astounds with pictorial and verbal economy in making small scenes such as this so etched, so developmental and real, you can hardly believe it. The story is told from Isobel's point of view but not in the first person. A factor which, I observe, gives a greater weight to the strong dialogue throughout the novel.

 The second chapter "False idols and fireballs" tells a wonderful story about  Isobel witnessing a fireball  - which turned the "welling storm water rosy red" before her eyes. At the end of this chapter Isobel experiences an awareness of adult fear and subterfuge which is so different from her own - but is it?

In the evocatively entitled longer chapter 4, "Glassware and other breakable items", Isobel is starting out on her own in the world of work . She is now a school-leaver aged orphan, and being  set up in a boarding house in Sydney and a typing job by a friendly-enough Aunt.  The characters in the Boarding House and at the Glass Importers where she is working as a typist are very well sketched and add much colour and delight to the story. Isobel's working experiences as a translator of letters from German at the Glass Importers  are often  humorous -  with dry, ironic observant  humour being a feature  of the writing in Isobel . It is in this chapter that we see Isobel find her feet a bit in the world of young adulthood. Several  great scenes are set in a cafe with a group of Sydney University students who  befriend her , and from whom she discovers a whole new world  of poetry and literature.

The final chapter 5, entitled "I for Isobel" sees our main character come into her own via a couple of painful experiences including one obsessive , silly behaviour pattern she has set herself - in order, I suppose, to thumb her nose at society and the tough lessons life has given her.  In the final sections of the story Isobel comes to a strong self  realisation. I found the ending believable because  my reading of Isobel's rite of passage, and her analysing of the world around and the experience she was gathering,  was that she going to sort things out in her own way .

I cannot recommend this book more highly. Amy Witting brings an awesome intelligence to the telling of her tales in a prose which is  spare, poetical and full of rich images. Various suburbs of Sydney feature in the story and it holds up as one of those novels  which can be pointed to as 'being about Sydney'.  I enjoyed that part of the book very much too - there  are many good  descriptions of street scenes, public transport and so on.

I for Isobel is a work to savour and bears re-reading several times. As a background note on her personality we know Amy Witting is a pseudonym and this choice, as was said in a biographical note by Yvonne Miels of Flinders University, reflects a long held promise to herself to 'never give up on consciousness'  not to be unwitting but  to always remain 'witting'.    I also recommend for any one enjoying this  book to have a quick look at some of the entries on various web sites about her.

For discussion , I would like to ask.
Did you find Isobel a convincing character?
Can you date the settings of the book?  I am not sure   - I thought the 50s but I havent come across a reference yet.
 Do you have a favourite section or incident?

Faye Lawrence

1 comment:

John Kennedy said...

Thanks, Faye. I would probably not have read this without your recommendation, but I did enjoy it, and agree with you that it is a beautifully written short work. I think your suggestion that it could be regarded as five short stoties is perceptive. Each chapter is to some degree independent, and could be read as a short story, though they all contribute to building up a picture of Isobel, her development, and her world.

The unloving and unloveable parent is not too common a theme, but Wittig presents such a person very convincingly, without making her a total monster.

I am far from sure of the period in which the novel is set. There are few clues: the Penguin Classic translations mentioned did not exist before the 1950s, but in some ways the novel has more the feel of the 1920s or 1930s, when its author was young.

I did wonder a bit about Isobel's decision at the end to become a writer. I am not sure that the groundwork for this is convincingly prepared.

But this is a novel well worth reading, especially for anyone interested in Australian literature.