Women and the life of art

Self-publishing and boutique publishing ventures are not always exercises in self-indulgence. Forms of local writing, ranging from fiction to biography, memoir and history, have their own genuine interest and market, but tend not to attract the established publishing houses, if only because of the limited returns. In filling the gap, do-it-yourself publishers like Michael Jorgensen’s Black Jack Press manage to make available fascinating and valuable work that would otherwise never see the light. Such a case is his edition of Sue (originally Sylvia) Vanderkelen’s novel The Cruel Man, which her family has held in manuscript since her death in 1957.

In the 1930s, Sue Vanderkelen was a beautiful young woman who could not choose between the social acceptability of her silvertail upbringing and the bohemian alternative of her circle of friends. She was the daughter of the Belgian Consul, grew up in Melbourne’s Toorak, and was educated at a Catholic boarding school. She met the painter Colin Colahan (a Xavier College boy) in her late teens, and eventually they began a long and tortuous love affair. Neither of them, for different reasons, was able to take the final step of commitment to the other.

Through Colahan, Vanderkelen was drawn in to the Meldrumite group of artists, and became a devoted acolyte of Justus Jörgensen, who taught her painting and gave her relentless advice on how to live her life. Indeed, she was pulled between these two forceful rivals until Colahan left Australia in 1935. She then threw in her lot with the Jörgensen tribe and helped in the creation of the artists’ colony at Montsalvat, in Eltham, cooking meals for the workers and donating money for the buildings, one of which became known as ‘Sue’s Tower’. In the 1940s, she began quietly to write about it all.

The novel is set in the years leading up to her lover’s sudden departure, and although it is intensely autobiographical, it does have a wider canvas of characters and interests. I have to say here that I have mixed feelings about Michael Jorgensen’s editorial interventions, especially his decision to change the fictitious names given by Vanderkelen to her characters to the ‘real’ ones. In doing so he feeds our desire to pry into the private lives of well-known people—always irresistible—but also potentially undermines Vanderkelen’s writing by making this a book more about celebrities than about her insight into the human heart. It is precisely to get away from the constraints of the actual that a writer adopts the strategies of fiction. We should respect her choice.

Despite this, I found myself enjoying both elements—the drama of revealed lives, and the intelligence, grace and impressive honesty of the writing.

The Cruel Man has three sections, the first dealing with the search for marital equilibrium. Justus is a young man intent on sublimating his romantic impulses into art, and Lily a rather self-contained medical student who finds him physically unattractive but a wonderful companion. It is a strength in Vanderkelen’s writing that she refrains from making obvious criticisms and instead allows her characters to be themselves in all their failings and pretensions.

The second section deals with the painful subject of Vanderkelen’s own failure to find satisfaction in her relations with Colahan and Jörgensen. Colahan, an Irish charmer with a quick wit and considerable talent, is happy to have Vanderkelen on his arm and in his bed, but isn’t interested in marriage. She, enough a creature of her times to fear the social stigma of being his mistress, wants—or knows she ought to want—the security and status of a wife. Her ambivalence is important; she shares much of the contempt for bourgeois respectability that characterises her bohemian friends. But her natural tendency is to blame herself for her equivocations. Vanderkelen’s insight into character and motive is acute and convincingly realised, especially in respect to herself, where she is devastatingly honest.

The final section is about the Skipper family, and how a hypochondriacal Mervyn Skipper and his wife Lena were drawn into Justus Jörgensen’s orbit. Their young  daughter Helen is commandeered, both educationally and sexually, to form the basis of the ‘understanding’ marriage between Justus, Lily and Helen that was prefigured in section one of the novel. It is a disturbing story, again told without authorial moralising, but creating the picture of an egotistical figure whose power over others remained enigmatic and ambiguous: was it for good or ill? If it was cruelty, was it the sort that proved ultimately to be kindness? The Cruel Man doesn’t hand us answers, but it does deepen our understanding of the questions posed by this unruly group of moderately gifted artists.

Issued simultaneously with this novel is a collection of Michael Jorgensen’s own autobiographical pieces, More Hats, an expansion of his Men in Hats and Other Tales published in 2000. There are parts of Jorgensen’s memoir that complement the Vanderkelen novel in fortuitous ways, particularly where he gives us insights into the man even he recognizes as both ‘semi-tyrannical’ and a successful guru to many people. 

Garry Kinnane is an academic and critic.

 

 

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