Australian Women Writers Abroad

Jillian Elaine Adams

Abstract


At a time when a trip abroad was out of the reach of most women, even if they could not make the journey, Australian women could imagine “abroad” just by reading popular women’s magazines such as Woman (later Woman’s Day and Home then Woman’s Day) and The Australian Women’s Weekly, and journals, such as The Progressive Woman and The Housewife. Increasingly in the post-war period, these magazines and journals contained advertisements for holidaying abroad, recipes for international foods and articles on overseas fashions. It was not unusual for local manufacturers, to use the lure of travel and exotic places as a way of marketing their goods. Healing Bicycles, for example, used the slogan “In Venice men go to work on Gondolas: In Australia it’s a Healing” (“Healing Cycles” 40), and Exotiq cosmetics featured landscapes of countries where Exotiq products had “captured the hearts of women who treasured their loveliness: Cincinnati, Milan, New York, Paris, Geneva and Budapest” (“Exotiq Cosmetics” 36).

Unlike Homer’s Penelope, who stayed at home for twenty years waiting for Odysseus to return from the Trojan wars, women have always been on the move to the same extent as men. Their rich travel stories (Riggal, Haysom, Lancaster)—mostly written as letters and diaries—remain largely unpublished and their experiences are not part of the public record to the same extent as the travel stories of men. Ros Pesman argues that the women traveller’s voice was one of privilege and authority full of excitement and disbelief (Pesman 26). She notes that until well into the second part of the twentieth century, “the journey for Australian women to Europe was much more than a return to the sources of family identity and history” (19). It was also:

a pilgrimage to the centres and sites of culture, literature and history and an encounter with “the real world.”Europe, and particularly London,was also the place of authority and reference for all those seeking accreditation and recognition, whether as real writers, real ladies or real politicians and statesmen. (19)

This article is about two Australian writers; Helen Seager, a journalist employed by The Argus, a daily newspaper in Melbourne Australia, and Gwen Hughes, a graduate of Emily McPherson College of Domestic Economy in Melbourne, working in England as a lecturer, demonstrator and cookbook writer for Parkinsons’ Stove Company. Helen Seager travelled to England on an assignment for The Argus in 1950 and sent articles each day for publication in the women’s section of the newspaper. Gwen Hughes travelled extensively in the Balkans in the 1930s recording her impressions, observations, and recipes for traditional foods whilst working for Parkinsons in England. These women were neither returning to the homeland for an encounter with the real world, nor were they there as cultural tourists in the Cook’s Tour sense of the word. They were professional writers and their observations about the places they visited offer fresh and lively versions of England and Europe, its people, places, and customs.

Helen Seager

Australian Journalist Helen Seager (1901–1981) wrote a daily column, Good Morning Ma’am in the women’s pages of The Argus, from 1947 until shortly after her return from abroad in 1950. Seager wrote human interest stories, often about people of note (Golding), but with a twist; a Baroness who finds knitting exciting (Seager, “Baroness” 9) and ballet dancers backstage (Seager, “Ballet” 10). Much-loved by her mainly female readership, in May 1950 The Argus sent her to England where she would file a daily report of her travels. Whilst now we take travel for granted, Seager was sent abroad with letters of introduction from The Argus, stating that she was travelling on a special editorial assignment which included: a certificate signed by the Lord Mayor of The City of Melbourne, seeking that any courtesies be extended on her trip to England, the Continent, and America; a recommendation from the Consul General of France in Australia; and introductions from the Premier’s Department, the Premier of Victoria, and Austria’s representative in Australia. All noted the nature of her trip, her status as an esteemed reporter for a Melbourne newspaper, and requested that any courtesy possible to be made to her.

This assignment was an indication that The Argus valued its women readers. Her expenses, and those of her ten-year-old daughter Harriet, who accompanied her, were covered by the newspaper. Her popularity with her readership is apparent by the enthusiastic tone of the editorial article covering her departure. Accompanied with a photograph of Seager and Harriet boarding the aeroplane, her many women readers were treated to their first ever picture of what she looked like:

THOUSANDS of "Argus" readers, particularly those in the country, have wanted to know what Helen Seager looks like. Here she is, waving good-bye as she left on the first stage of a trip to England yesterday. She will be writing her bright “Good Morning, Ma'am” feature as she travels—giving her commentary on life abroad. (The Argus, “Goodbye” 1)

Figure 1. Helen Seager and her daughter Harriet board their flight for England

The first article “From Helen in London” read,

our Helen Seager, after busy days spent exploring England with her 10-year-old daughter, Harriet, today cabled her first “Good Morning, Ma’am” column from abroad. Each day from now on she will report from London her lively impressions in an old land, which is delightfully new to her. (Seager, “From Helen” 3)

Whilst some of her dispatches contain the impressions of the awestruck traveller, for the most they are exquisitely observed stories of the everyday and the ordinary, often about the seemingly most trivial of things, and give a colourful, colonial and egalitarian impression of the places that she visits. A West End hair-do is described, “as I walked into that posh looking establishment, full of Louis XV, gold ornateness to be received with bows from the waist by numerous satellites, my first reaction was to turn and bolt” (Seager, “West End” 3).

When she visits Oxford’s literary establishments, she is, for this particular article, the awestruck Australian:

In Oxford, you go around saying, soto voce and aloud, “Oh, ye dreaming spires of Oxford.” And Matthew Arnold comes alive again as a close personal friend.

In a weekend, Ma’am, I have seen more of Oxford than lots of native Oxonians. I have stood and brooded over the spit in Christ Church College’s underground kitchens on which the oxen for Henry the Eighth were roasted.

I have seen the Merton Library, oldest in Oxford, in which the chains that imprisoned the books are still to be seen, and have added by shoe scrape to the stone steps worn down by 500 years of walkers. I have walked the old churches, and I have been lost in wonder at the goodly virtues of the dead. And then, those names of Oxford! Holywell, Tom’s Quad, Friars’ Entry, and Long Wall. The gargoyles at Magdalen and the stones untouched by bombs or war’s destruction. It adds a new importance to human beings to know that once, if only, they too have walked and stood and stared. (Seager, “From Helen” 3)

Her sense of wonder whilst in Oxford is, however, moderated by the practicalities of travel incorporated into the article. She continues to describe the warnings she was given, before her departure, of foreign travel that had her alarmed about loss and theft, and the care she took to avoid both. “It would have made you laugh, Ma’am, could you have seen the antics to protect personal property in the countries in transit” (Seager, “From Helen” 3).

Her description of a trip to Blenheim Palace shows her sense of fun. She does not attempt to describe the palace or its contents, “Blenheim Palace is too vast and too like a great Government building to arouse much envy,” settling instead on a curiosity should there be a turn of events, “as I surged through its great halls with a good-tempered, jostling mob I couldn’t help wondering what those tired pale-faced guides would do if the mob mood changed and it started on an old-fashioned ransack.” Blenheim palace did not impress her as much as did the Sunday crowd at the palace:

The only thing I really took a fancy to were the Venetian cradle, which was used during the infancy of the present Duke and a fine Savvonerie carpet in the same room. What I never wanted to see again was the rubbed-fur collar of the lady in front.

Sunday’s crowd was typically English, Good tempered, and full of Cockney wit, and, if you choose to take your pleasures in the mass, it is as good a company as any to be in. (Seager, “We Look” 3)

In a description of Dublin and the Dubliners, Seager describes the food-laden shops: “Butchers’ shops leave little room for customers with their great meat carcasses hanging from every hook. … English visitors—and Dublin is awash with them—make an orgy of the cakes that ooze real cream, the pink and juicy hams, and the sweets that demand no points” (Seager, “English” 6). She reports on the humanity of Dublin and Dubliners, “Dublin has a charm that is deep-laid. It springs from the people themselves. Their courtesy is overlaid with a real interest in humanity. They walk and talk, these Dubliners, like Kings” (ibid.).

In Paris she melds the ordinary with the noteworthy:

I had always imagined that the outside of the Louvre was like and big art gallery. Now that I know it as a series of palaces with courtyards and gardens beyond description in the daytime, and last night, with its cleverly lighted fountains all aplay, its flags and coloured lights, I will never forget it.

Just now, down in the street below, somebody is packing the boot of a car to go for, presumably, on a few days’ jaunt. There is one suitcase, maybe with clothes, and on the footpath 47 bottles of the most beautiful wines in the world. (Seager, “When” 3)

She writes with a mix of awe and ordinary:

My first glimpse of that exciting vista of the Arc de Triomphe in the distance, and the little bistros that I’ve always wanted to see, and all the delights of a new city, […] My first day in Paris, Ma’am, has not taken one whit from the glory that was London. (ibid.)

 

Figure 2: Helen Seager in Paris

It is my belief that Helen Seager intended to do something with her writings abroad. The articles have been cut from The Argus and pasted onto sheets of paper. She has kept copies of the original reports filed whist she was away. The collection shows her insightful egalitarian eye and a sharp humour, a mix of awesome and commonplace.

On Bastille Day in 1950, Seager wrote about the celebrations in Paris. Her article is one of exuberant enthusiasm. She writes joyfully about sirens screaming overhead, and people in the street, and looking from windows. Her article, published on 19 July, starts:

Paris Ma’am is a magical city. I will never cease to be grateful that I arrived on a day when every thing went wrong, and watched it blossom before my eyes into a gayness that makes our Melbourne Cup gala seem funeral in comparison.

Today is July 14.

All places of business are closed for five days and only the places of amusement await the world.

Parisians are tireless in their celebrations.

I went to sleep to the music of bands, dancing feet and singing voices, with the raucous but cheerful toots from motors splitting the night air onto atoms. (Seager, “When” 3)

This article resonates uneasiness. How easily could those scenes of celebration on Bastille Day in 1950 be changed into the scenes of carnage on Bastille Day 2016, the cheerful toots of the motors transformed into cries of fear, the sirens in the sky from aeroplanes overhead into the sirens of ambulances and police vehicles, as a Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, as part of a terror attack drives a truck through crowds of people celebrating in Nice.

Gwen Hughes

Gwen Hughes graduated from Emily Macpherson College of Domestic Economy with a Diploma of Domestic Science, before she travelled to England to take up employment as senior lecturer and demonstrator of Parkinson’s England, a company that manufactured electric and gas stoves. Hughes wrote in her unpublished manuscript, Balkan Fever, that it was her idea of making ordinary cooking demonstration lessons dramatic and homelike that landed her the job in England (Hughes, Balkan 25-26).

Her cookbook, Perfect Cooking, was produced to encourage housewives to enjoy cooking with their Parkinson’s modern cookers with the new Adjusto temperature control. The message she had to convey for Parkinsons was: “Cooking is a matter of putting the right ingredients together and cooking them at the right temperature to achieve a given result” (Hughes, Perfect 3). In reality, Hughes used this cookbook as a vehicle to share her interest in and love of Continental food, especially food from the Balkans where she travelled extensively in the 1930s.

Recipes of Continental foods published in Perfect Cooking sit seamlessly alongside traditional British foods. The section on soup, for example, contains recipes for Borscht, a very good soup cooked by the peasants of Russia; Minestrone, an everyday Italian soup; Escudella, from Spain; and Cream of Spinach Soup from France (Perfect 22-23). Hughes devoted a whole chapter to recipes and descriptions of Continental foods labelled “Fascinating Foods From Far Countries,” showing her love and fascination with food and travel. She started this chapter with the observation:

There is nearly as much excitement and romance, and, perhaps fear, about sampling a “foreign dish” for the “home stayer” as there is in actually being there for the more adventurous “home leaver”. Let us have a little have a little cruise safe within the comfort of our British homes. Let us try and taste the good things each country is famed for, all the while picturing the romantic setting of these dishes. (Hughes, Perfect 255)

Through her recipes and descriptive passages, Hughes took housewives in England and Australia into the strange and wonderful kitchens of exotic women: Madame Darinka Jocanovic in Belgrade, Miss Anicka Zmelova in Prague, Madame Mrskosova at Benesova. These women taught her to make wonderful-sounding foods such as Apfel Strudel, Knedlikcy, Vanilla Kipfel and Christmas Stars. “Who would not enjoy the famous ‘Goose with Dumplings,’” she declares, “in the company of these gay, brave, thoughtful people with their romantic history, their gorgeously appareled peasants set in their richly picturesque scenery” (Perfect 255).

It is Hughes’ unpublished manuscript Balkan Fever, written in Melbourne in 1943, to which I now turn. It is part of the Latrobe Heritage collection at the State Library of Victoria. Her manuscript was based on her extensive travels in the Balkans in the 1930s whilst she lived and worked in England, and it was, I suspect, her intention to seek publication.

In her twenties, Hughes describes how she set off to the Balkans after meeting a fellow member of the Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW) at the Royal Yugoslav Legation. He was an expert on village life in the Balkans and advised her, that as a writer she would get more information from the local villagers than she would as a tourist. Hughes, who, before television gave cooking demonstrations on the radio, wrote, “I had been writing down recipes and putting them in books for years and of course the things one talks about over the air have to be written down first—that seemed fair enough” (Hughes, Balkan 25-26). There is nothing of the awestruck traveller in Hughes’ richly detailed observations of the people and the places that she visited. “Travelling in the Balkans is a very different affair from travelling in tourist-conscious countries where you just leave it to Cooks.  You must either have unlimited time at your disposal, know the language or else have introductions that will enable the right arrangements to be made for you” (Balkan 2), she wrote. She was the experiential tourist, deeply immersed in her surroundings and recording food culture and society as it was.

Hughes acknowledged that she was always drawn away from the cities to seek the real life of the people. “It’s to the country district you must go to find the real flavour of a country and the heart of its people—especially in the Balkans where such a large percentage of the population is agricultural” (Balkan 59). Her descriptions in Balkan Fever are a blend of geography, history, culture, national songs, folklore, national costumes, food, embroidery, and vivid observation of the everyday city life. She made little mention of stately homes or buildings. Her attitude to travel can be summed up in her own words:

there are so many things to see and learn in the countries of the old world that, walking with eyes and mind wide open can be an immensely delightful pastime, even with no companion and nowhere to go. An hour or two spent in some unpretentious coffee house can be worth all the dinners at Quaglino’s or at The Ritz, if your companion is a good talker, a specialist in your subject, or knows something of the politics and the inner life of the country you are in. (Balkan 28)

Rather than touring the grand cities, she was seduced by the market places with their abundance of food, colour, and action. Describing Sarajevo she wrote:

On market day the main square is a blaze of colour and movement, the buyers no less colourful than the peasants who have come in from the farms around with their produce—cream cheese, eggs, chickens, fruit and vegetables. Handmade carpets hung up for sale against walls or from trees add their barbaric colour to the splendor of the scene. (Balkan 75)

Markets she visited come to life through her vivid descriptions:

Oh those markets, with the gorgeous colours, and heaped untidiness of the fruits and vegetables—paprika, those red and green peppers! Every kind of melon, grape and tomato contributing to the riot of colour. Then there were the fascinating peasant embroideries, laces and rich parts of old costumes brought in from the villages for sale. The lovely gay old embroideries were just laid out on a narrow carpet spread along the pavement or hung from a tree if one happened to be there. (Balkan 11)

Perhaps it was her radio cooking shows that gave her the ability to make her descriptions sensorial and pictorial:

We tasted luxurious foods, fish, chickens, fruits, wines, and liqueurs. All products of the country. Perfect ambrosial nectar of the gods. I was entirely seduced by the rose petal syrup, fragrant and aromatic, a red drink made from the petals of the darkest red roses. (Balkan 151)

Ordinary places and everyday events are beautifully realised:

We visited the cheese factory amongst other things. … It was curious to see in that far away spot such a quantity of neatly arranged cheeses in the curing chamber, being prepared for export, and in another room the primitive looking round balls of creamed cheese suspended from rafters. Later we saw trains of pack horses going over the mountains, and these were probably the bearers of these cheeses to Bitolj or Skoplje, whence they would be consigned further for export. (Balkan 182)

Conclusion

Reading Seager and Hughes, one cannot help but be swept along on their travels and take part in their journeys. What is clear, is that they were inspired by their work, which is reflected in the way they wrote about the places they visited. Both sought out people and places that were, as Hughes so vividly puts it, not part of the Cook’s Tour. They travelled with their eyes wide open for experiences that were both new and normal, making their writing relevant even today. Written in Paris on Bastille Day 1950, Seager’s Bastille Day article is poignant when compared to Bastille Day in France in 2016. Hughes’s descriptions of Sarajevo are a far cry from the scenes of destruction in that city between 1992 and 1995. The travel writing of these two women offers us vivid impressions and images of the often unreported events, places, daily lives, and industry of the ordinary and the then every day, and remind us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Pesman writes, women have always been on the move and Australian women have been as numerous as passengers on the outbound ships as have men” (20), but the records of their travels seldom appear on the public record. Whilst their work-related writings are part of the public record (see Haysom; Lancaster; Riggal), this body of women’s travel writing has not received the attention it deserves. Hughes’ cookbooks, with their traditional Eastern European recipes and evocative descriptions of people and kitchens, are only there for the researcher who knows that cookbooks are a trove of valuable social and cultural material. Digital copies of Seager’s writing can be accessed on Trove (a digital repository), but there is little else about her or her body of writing on the public record.

References

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“Exotiq Cosmetics.” Advertisement. Woman 20 Aug. 1945: 36.

Golding, Peter. “Just a Chattel of the Sale: A Mostly Light-Hearted Retrospective of a Diverse Life.” In Jim Usher, ed., The Argus: Life & Death of Newspaper. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing 2007.

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“Healing Cycles.” Advertisement. Woman 27 Aug. 1945: 40. 

Hughes, Gwen. Balkan Fever. Unpublished Manuscript. State Library of Victoria, MS 12985 Box 3846/4. 1943.

———. Perfect Cooking London: Parkinsons, c1940.

Lancaster, Rosemary. Je Suis Australienne: Remarkable Women in France 1880-1945. Crawley WA: UWA Press, 2008.

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Riggal, Louie. (Louise Blanche.) Diary of Italian Tour 1905 February 21 - May 1. <http://search.slv.vic.gov.au/MAIN:Everything:SLV_VOYAGER1635602>.

Seager, Helen. “Ballet Dancers Backstage.” The Argus 10 Aug. 1944: 10. <http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/11356057?searchTerm=Ballet%20Dancers%20Backstage&searchLimits=l-title=13|||l-decade=194>.

———. “The Baroness Who Finds Knitting Exciting.” The Argus 1 Aug. 1944: 9. <http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/11354557?searchTerm=Helen%20seager%20Baroness&searchLimits=l-title=13|||l-decade=194>.

———. “English Visitors Have a Food Spree in Eire.” The Argus 29 Sep. 1950: 6. <http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/22912011?searchTerm=English%20visitors%20have%20a%20spree%20in%20Eire&searchLimits=l-title=13|||l-decade=195>.

———. “From Helen in London.” The Argus 20 June 1950: 3. <http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/22836738?searchTerm=From%20Helen%20in%20London&searchLimits=l-title=13|||l-decade=195>.

———. “Helen Seager Storms Paris—Paris Falls.” The Argus 15 July 1950: 7.<http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/22906913?searchTerm=Helen%20Seager%20Storms%20Paris%E2%80%99&searchLimits=l-title=13|||l-decade=195>.

———. “We Look over Blenheim Palace.” The Argus 28 Sep. 1950: 3. <http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/22902040?searchTerm=Helen%20Seager%20Its%20as%20a%20good%20a%20place%20as%20you%20would%20want%20to%20be&searchLimits=l-title=13|||l-decade=195>.

———. “West End Hair-Do Was Fun.” The Argus 3 July 1950: 3. <http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/22913940?searchTerm=West%20End%20hair-do%20was%20fun%E2%80%99&searchLimits=l-title=13|||l-decade=195>.

———. “When You Are in Paris on July 14.” The Argus 19 July 1950: 3. <http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/22906244?searchTerm=When%20you%20are%20in%20Paris%20on%20July%2014&searchLimits=l-title=13|||l-decade=195>.




Copyright (c) 2016 Jillian Elaine Adams

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