Today I’m moving on a decade to the 1950s, and to talk about Nevil Shute’s classic novel, A Town Like Alice. This novel doesn’t fall into the romance category in the way the other two novels do, but it’s definitely a love story.
I re-read A Town Like Alice recently, and discovered again how much I love it. One thing that really struck me on re-reading was how astonishing the heroine is considering a) the era the novel was written and b) the fact that not only was the author a man, he was also British and lived in Australia. Amazing! I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying attitudes to women in both those countries during the fifties weren’t brilliant.
The heroine’s name is Jean Paget, and when we meet her she is working as a secretary in a handbag manufacturer’s. Jean – the sole surviving member of her family after the war – has inherited a distant uncle’s estate. The uncle, assuming that unmarried women are incapable of handling money, insists the bulk of the estate should be held in trust for Jean until the age of 35 (!) The terms of the will are all the more ironic when we see what Jean has achieved by the time the novel finishes – and even before that apparent age of female reason.
So, Jean Paget. An ordinary sounding name, for an ordinary girl, with an ordinary job in a factory. As we get to know her story, though, it transpires Jean is anything but ordinary. Jean spent the war years in Malaya, and when war came she and a group of women and children were captured by the Japanese and marched across the country, in terrible conditions. Almost half the group dies. Jean’s resourcefulness, and her ability to speak Malay*, help keep the rest of the group alive. By the time war is over, her name is known throughout the island.
During the women’s march they come across an Australian POW, Joe Harman. Joe is a tough ringer from the outback, and a resourceful kind of guy. He helps the group by scrounging and filching medicine and food from the Japanese. He is much struck with Jean, but takes her for a married woman, because she carries a baby on her hip everywhere she goes.
The bit that follows in italics contains BIG spoilers to the story, so if you don’t want to know what happens, skip the italics!
Joe gets caught stealing some chickens for Jean, and is crucified agains a tree by the Japanese. The women are forced to watch, and then to march on, leaving Joe for dead. It’s not until Jean returns to the island after the war that she discovers from some of the islanders that Joe actually survived. She determines to go to Australia to look for him.
Jean decides to use part of her inheritance to return to Malaya after the war, to build a well for the women of a village which harboured her group. The villagers are Muslims, and the Malay women have very little say in the run of things. Jean has to persuade the men that a well for the women will benefit them all. There is a quotation from the Koran that Jean repeats several times in the novel: “If ye be kind towards women and fear to wrong them, God is well acquainted with what ye do.” She tells the villagers that the well is “the gift of a woman for women, and in this thing the men shall do what women say.”
I found it remarkable that a male author of the fifties should create such a strong female lead, with such feminist themes. Jean goes on to live in Australia. She settles in the outback, and begins to lay the foundations for a wealthy town – a town like Alice Springs. She sets up a small manufacturers making handbags out of crocodile skin, along the lines of the company she worked for in London. Her company employs women only. She builds an ice cream parlour to attract more women to this male outpost, and soon has a thriving group of shops. Jean proves herself to be not only brave and resourceful, but also a great entrepreneur. She does all this before the age of 35 – so one in the eye for the terms of her uncle’s will.
All in all it’s a brilliant book for its time. Of course there are some things which jar to a modern audience. Joe refers to the aborigines as “boongs”, and they are seen as less reliable than white workers. But again, Nevil Shute steps out of the attitudes of the fifties by having Jean stick her neck out to build an ice cream parlour especially for the aborigines, in spite of possible opposition from the white locals. Jean’s relations with the Malays are also perfectly natural, in contrast with the superior attitude from some of the white women in her group when the march starts. Jean eventually persuades the English women to adopt Malay dress, and to ditch the ridiculous court shoes and stiff clothes which are hampering their progress. Eventually, through Jean, the whole group ends up working in the paddy fields alongside native Malayan women. The English women and the Malayans end the war great friends, and with affectionate memories of each other.
It’s a great novel, and even without reading deeply into the themes, it’s also a cracking adventure and a wonderful love story. Joe Harman is one of my favourite ever heroes.
*I particularly like the fact that Jean converses in Malay. There are so many modern romances where the heroine makes no attempt to speak anything other than English, and because of her everyone else in the entire novel has to do the same, no matter what country they’re in
Have you read A Town Like Alice? If so, what did you think? And this was my choice of romance for the fifties – what do you think I should choose for the sixties? If you have any ideas, or any comments at all, please let me know – you know I always like to hear from you!