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Australian women and their gardens

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast. I would be your host Matt Smith and my guest today is Katie Holmes, an Associate Professor in La Trobe University's History Program. She has been researching the history of gardens in Australia and has published a new book exploring Australian women and their gardens, called Between the Leaves. Thank you for joining me Katie.

Katie Holmes:

Thanks Matt. It's great to be here.

Matt Smith:

Now, in your own words, what is your book about?

Katie Holmes:

OK. Well, the book is about the ways in which different Australian women have written about their gardens, and what I try to do in the book is explore the sorts of things that they wrote about, and what their gardens meant to them. And then in turn think about the sort of place of their garden in the their relationships, be they familial relationships or relationships with friends. So, it becomes a way of also exploring women's lives in a broader context. But I'm looking in particular at this relationship between gardens and writing.

Matt Smith:

And how important were gardens in earlier Australian life?

Katie Holmes:

Gardens were really important, and I've written about this with some colleagues in another book, called Reading the Garden. One of the things that is so important for settlers when they come to Australia is to start to develop a sense of home, to start to develop an understanding of the landscape that they're living in, and gardens become a really important way of doing that, whereby they can plant things that they're familiar with, from home, but also plant and use the native plants that are surrounding them. There's a sort of an assumption amongst a lot of people that when settlers came they just cut down everything and they didn't want to use native plants at all. In fact, what we've found is that that's not the case. They made quite good use of native plants, until there was a a big enough stock, if you like, of exotics and then they started to use those perhaps more. But in this particular book, Between the Leaves, what I'm thinking about and looking at, is a slightly later period – it's more twentieth century Australian gardens, but still finding that gardens are really important to women. They're important to men as well, but this book focuses on women. And I start by looking at some women who were establishing gardens around the turn of the twentieth century, so it's going back to a time when still there was quite a bit of clearing to be done, and still they were struggling to understand the landscape that they were living in.

Matt Smith:

Now an important part of your book is the connection that women's gardening had with their writings as well. And you've used a lot of letters in this book I've noticed, but what sort of connection did you find?

Katie Holmes:

Between gardens and writing?

Matt Smith:

Yeah, yeah.

Katie Holmes:

Well, I think one of the things is that when a place such as a garden is important to someone, they spend quite a bit of time there, they want to write about that to the people who are important to them. So one of the things that I think that writing does, and writing about the gardens in particular, is that it starts to develop their relationship with the receiver of the letter, in interesting ways. It's like a kind of invitation into their own private space. So when a woman writes to her aunt for example, and talks about her garden, one of the things that she's doing is sort of inviting her into her home, into her garden, and talking about the places that are important to her. It's also a way of kind of validating the work that she's doing there, and giving it some recognition. And I think the other thing that starts to happen that then women start to exchange plants, so they send cuttings to each other, so the garden becomes also a place where that relationship takes a very particular form, that their plants are symbolic of that relationship as well.

Matt Smith:

How did you go about writing this book and what were the sources you were using?

Katie Holmes:

Well, I started working on it quite some time ago – it's been one of those books that's been a long time, the writing and the researching – and I began by looking for places where women had written about their gardens, and in particular I was interested in their private writings, so mainly I was looking for letters and diaries. That meant that I needed to do quite a lot of research in libraries, trying to find those sorts of documents, and that's pretty time-consuming work. And I was incredibly lucky in finding some wonderfully rich collections. So once I, for example, found a collection of letters, and there's a number that I worked with that I talk about in the book, some of them people might know, letters from Jean Galbraith, or Catherine Susannah Pritchard, Judith Wright, so there are some well known women in the book, but there's many others that people won't have heard of, but once I found those sources, then I would literally take notes on them and spend time deciphering handwriting and all that kind of thing, and then I had this whole body of material and I thought, what on earth am I going to do with this and how am I going to organise it and structure the book. And in the end I thought the way that makes most sense is to actually write about the women in individual chapters, so that enabled me to tell their story if you like. And so the book became a book about nine different women and nine different stories. There's many themes that run through those stories that are common, but what I wanted to do was give the reader a really strong taste of that particular person and her garden and her writing.

Matt Smith:

It sounds like you probably racked up quite a few frequent flyer miles, travelling around trying to gather this material then.

Katie Holmes:

Yeah, and some debts to friends who put me up while I was busy researching in libraries.

Matt Smith:

And visiting gardens as well I imagine. Did you go to these gardens?

Katie Holmes:

Yes, I did try to go to a number of them. That's I think an important step to take, because you get a much stronger sense of the garden if it's extant, you know, a lot of them were no longer in existence. You get a sense of the garden but you also get a sense of the surrounding landscape and how it fits and what the person's tried to do.

Matt Smith:

Did you find diaries more informative or letters, what gave the better sense of the garden from the woman?

Katie Holmes:

That's an interesting question actually, because in earlier work that I've done I've worked on Australian women's diaries. My first book was called Spaces in Her Day and that was looking at women's diaries of the interwar years, the 1920s and 30s. So in this one I wanted to perhaps look a little bit more at letters but I did find some diaries. In some ways letters I found a bit more expansive in terms of the gardening, because they're communicating very directly to someone else and wanting to explain things in a little bit more detail. You get a bit more descriptive writing than perhaps you do in the diaries. The diaries can be fairly brief. There's one exception to that in this book and that's the diary of a young Tasmanian woman called Mildred Hood, and she started writing her diary when she was 18 and it's an extraordinary document. It's just amazing. She's from a fairly low socio-economic group, limited education, and she had a market garden really, and she wanted to grow enough vegetables to make enough money to put herself through medical school. And so the diary becomes a sort of record of her ambition to do that, and she kind of rails against all the constraints that were on her. That was a particularly illuminating diary. But the letters gave me an insight into both women and also their relationships, and that was one of the things I really enjoyed exploring.

Matt Smith:

One of the amazing things that I found quite early in the book is Gertrude Bell's diaries which were kept in a laundry.

Katie Holmes:

The way I came across Gertrude Bell was initially I found her daughter Enid Bell had given a couple of Show Week lecturettes as she called them, in the 1950s, and there were copies of these in the John Oxley Library among the Bell Papers, and Enid Bell talked quite a lot about her mother Gertrude and the Coochin Coochin garden, so I contacted the Bell family and they're still living at the Coochin Coochin property and I went and visited them. After a while of chatting with them and talking about the garden, they opened up that there were these diaries, Gertrude's diaries still in the family and in fact they had them, and they had them in, this … it was a big room, it wasn't like a small laundry, it was a big room, because this was a big property. But certainly it had been used in the past as a laundry. And there in this box, with a whole lot of other things including letters written World War I and stuff, were all these diaries of Gertrude Bell, and yes, I did, I felt like I'd struck gold.

Matt Smith:

How did you choose what stories to tell, because I'm sure there are some that didn't make the book.

Katie Holmes:

That's a good question Matt. How do you choose the stories? Well, I think everybody when they're coming to the point of writing up their research material, you have to be selective. In a sense that selection process starts from the very moment when you start to read and take notes from letters or diaries or whatever other material that you're working on. And then as you go and you come to the point of writing something up, one, you've got to think about, well what is going to work in terms of the overall story I want to tell here, what's going to be interesting enough for the reader, and inevitably you're making choices about those things. Asking exactly how I made the choices, that's a really tricky one. I guess it's about what you've got room to tell, what's going to be most interesting, what's going to be most revealing of the woman or her writing or her garden. So I guess they're the criteria of selection that you use.

Matt Smith:

Do you have a strong connection with your own garden?

Katie Holmes:

Yes I do. About five years ago I moved with my own family, my kids and my husband, back into the home that I'd grown up in and my parents – the garden had got too big for them and they were downsizing and we had the opportunity to move into the house and it was one we couldn't really turn down, and when my parents had moved to this house and garden, it was very, very dilapidated, the garden was basically a mess of oxalis and various other things and slowly, over about thirty years, my parents worked very hard to transform this garden into a really beautiful place. So now I'm living in that same house and garden as it were, so there's lots of memories that I have of it. And of course that raises interesting questions about when you want to change something, you're also changing a place of strong associations and memories, and that can be an interesting one to navigate.

Matt Smith:

What was your favourite story that you explored in the book?

Katie Holmes:

Well, I've already mentioned the story of Mildred and in some ways I think that Mildred was one of my great finds. It's so unusual to have a diary like that. Maybe she wasn't so unusual but it's very unusual to find her kind of diary. I loved that story though it had a somewhat sadder ending than one might hope – she never did manage to become a doctor. I also found the story of Catherine Susannah Pritchard and her son Rick and the story of the wisteria in her garden – that's a very poignant story. I loved writing about Judith Wright and her garden and her friendship with Kathleen McArthur, who was a wildflower illustrator and looking at the relationship between Judith Wright's poetry and her garden. You know what, I loved them all. I guess there were some women who were easier to write about but they're all really interesting I think anyway. I hope the readers do but some of them are quite unexpected. For example, I never imagined that I'd come across a story about domestic violence in looking for a story about women's garden writing, but there's one of those in the book too.

Matt Smith:

What was that one?

Katie Holmes:

That's the one of the Queensland woman, who I call Wendy O'Dowd and she was writing in the 1950s to an aunt and she had a pretty difficult relationship and as the letters go on you start to realise that in fact her husband is drinking and it seems he's violent as well, so the story I tell there is about the way in which the garden initially is sort of set up in the letters as this place of common interest where they can work on together when in fact there wasn't much else in their relationship that kept them together. But then even that, the garden can't sustain – but I can't tell you what happens because you have to read the book.

Matt Smith:

Your book is Between the Leaves, stories of Australian women writing and gardens, and it's available from the University of Western Australia Press. Katie Holmes, thanks for your time today.

Katie Holmes:

Many thanks, Matt.

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