Why I am thankful for feminism: ‘Restless Dolly Maunder’ by Kate Grenville
October 9, 2023
Kate Grenville’s latest offering is a novel woven from family stories of her grandmother, who was born into rural poverty towards the end of the nineteenth century.
Readers of The Secret River will recognise Dolly as the granddaughter of Sarah Wiseman, the daughter of that earlier book’s fictionalised protagonist based on Solomon Wiseman. Solomon, the author’s ancestor, was an emancipated convict who settled in the upper reaches of the Hawkesbury River in a spot later named for him – Wiseman’s Ferry.
The novel describes in painful detail the restrictions on women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially (but not exclusively) for poor women.
The small worlds they inhabited, the never-ending chores it was assumed they’d be responsible for simply because they were born female; the limited options for their futures – marriage, or spinsterhood while working as a nurse or teacher.
Girls were of no account, you learned that early on. Good enough to make the bread and milk the cow, and later on you’d look after the children. But no woman was ever going to be part of the real business of the world.
Restless Dolly Maunder eBook location 14 of 293
Dolly is born wanting more, wanting movement in her life when the world tells her she must be still, be satisfied with her lot. Whip smart yet denied an education past 14 years, and lucky to get that, being young enough to benefit from new government laws that required all children under 14 to regularly attend school.
As always with this author, the prose is uncannily evocative: Grenville has the ability to climb right inside her characters’ heads and make the reader feel they are there as well. Simple language but always the exact right word chosen for the right moment in the story.
Dolly is a prickly character, not particularly likeable at any point in the story. But the author’s skill is to make us care about her anyway. There is an especially poignant moment in her author’s note, describing a childhood encounter between the young Kate and her grandmother, where she looks back with empathy and wishes in retrospect that she had responded differently. I am sure we have all experienced such moments, haven’t we?
Dolly experiences the ups and downs of economy, drought, commodity prices, war, Depression; all of which impact on her and her family.These are factors beyond her control but she brings to bear her characteristic decisiveness (and restlessness) as she tries to respond to these big picture challenges.
All you could say was, you were born into a world that made it easy for you or made it hard for you, and all you could do was stumble along under the weight of whatever you’d been given to carry. No wonder at the end of it you were tired, and sad. But glad to have done it all, even the mistakes.
Restless Dolly Maunder loc 281-282
This book made me feel, once again, deeply thankful for the achievements of feminism that have allowed women in the western world, at least, to move beyond the small worlds prescribed for them.
She thought of all the women she’d ever known, and all their mothers before them, and the mothers before those mothers, locked into a place where they couldn’t move. My generation was like the hinge, she thought. The door had been shut tight, and when it started to swing open, my generation was the hinge that it had to be forced around on, one surface grinding over another. No wonder it was painful.
Restless Dolly Maunder loc 281
We have a long way to travel yet, and so many women around the world still experience difficulties and disadvantages because they are female. Restless Dolly Maunder shows us why that is not acceptable.
Restless Dolly Maunder was published by Text Publishing in July 2023