You get a sense that writing One Life: My Mother’s Story was a deeply personal experience for Kate Grenville, as one might expect, but not in the whimsical way many of us have fond memories of our mothers passed.
In conversation with author, teacher and critic Tegan Bennett Daylight at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on Thursday, Ms Grenville commented: “Gosh, I was lucky to have fluked her as a mother.” Beyond that, it is clear she respects Nance Russell’s life story as more than a biography; she sees it is a tale of a generation of women who paved the way for those to come.
One Life spans the period from Nance’s birth in 1912 to her death in 2002. Nance was like every woman, but not just any woman. Affected by a childhood of loneliness, rejection and separation from her parents, she asked herself, “Why don’t they love me?”
She never thought – as many would – there was a deep problem within her. Ms Grenville believes that’s what gave Nance the resilience she needed throughout her life.
Unusually for the time, Nance Russell finished high school and in the 1930s went on to study pharmacy. She was one of only four women in a class of 80 men at university, and worked on her apprenticeship at the same time.
She started her own pharmacy at a time when it was outrageous for a woman to go out to work. She married, had three children, worked, and helped her husband build their house. But she wasn’t privileged or in any way special other than her endless drive. On her passing, Nance Russell left behind fragments of memoirs for her daughter to patch together.
On the very stage at the Roslyn Packer Theatre where the play of her acclaimed book, The Secret River, was performed, Kate Grenville described the difficulties she had as a writer transforming her mother’s left-behind material into a book. She says, “the first 26 drafts were an unreadable mess, or unpublishable at least.”
She tried using her mother’s material, but there were gaps. She tried writing a biography, but it was full of presumptuous phrases. She experimented with her own narrative voice and that didn’t work. She tried writing her mother’s voice, adding the missing fragments “but that felt phony”.
After draft 26, Ms Grenville stopped using verbatim chunks from her mother’s memoirs. While this felt like a betrayal, she was still able to use some of Nance’s beautiful phrases, like ‘a lovely long flowing of days’. She also told the story in third person. “It was funny. The further I went away from her notes, the closer I got to a speaking voice that worked.”
Ms Grenville acknowledges she couldn’t have stepped inside her mother’s life to the extent she needed to write the book while she was still alive. She recalls she did assemble some of the fragments and asked her mother to add to them. “But so far as I know, she never touched them,” she said.
“Once she died, I was starting to have a different relationship with her. I was becoming like a friend, woman-to-woman, an equal. It would have been wrong to do that while she was alive because that mother-daughter relationship is so precious.”
As Tegan Bennett Daylight observed, Nance Russell was an ideal mother for a writer to have. She had a love of literature, books and reading. Ms Grenville recalls that her mother “loved poetry and knew Keats off by heart, as people did in those days. For all the moments of my life, Mum had a line of poetry that was exactly appropriate. Mum felt that literature was a template for life”.
To some extent, Nance made it easy for her daughter to write the story, agreeing to an interview before she passed away. “Nance wanted her story told,” Ms Grenville said. “She knew she was unique and represented a generation of women who had gone through changes, and for whom unsung stories were never told.”
One wonders if Nance Russell recognised her limitations or merely ran out of time to write her own story. Kate Grenville records in the prologue that many of her mother’s memoir fragments began with comments like, “I have often thought about writing a book – people do it all the time – it can’t be that hard. Up till now I’ve never had the time or the right pencil…”
It is Nance Russell’s real-life advice to her daughter that may well be the most poignant of all. From a woman who accomplished so much with so little: “A woman can do anything, just not everything at once.”