By Susan Johnson | Allen & Unwin | $29.99
“If a separated man – about to be divorced – is in possession of a good fortune, must he be in want of a new wife?” So Susan Johnson rewrites Jane Austen’s opening sentence from Pride and Prejudice, declaring her new novel, The Landing, to be a domestic comedy about marriage and marriage-like relationships. If Austen’s arch “truth universally acknowledged” drew attention to the urgent need of women in the nineteenth century for the financial support of a man, then Johnson’s question draws attention to significant differences in early twenty-first-century Australia.
Few of the women characters hovering around the separated Jonathan Lott need the financial support of a man of good fortune. Some are heiresses, others professional women – even his ex-wife has inherited a fortune of her own. And the fifty-five-year-old Jonathan, father of two grown daughters, is perfectly capable of cooking a meal and has sufficient opportunities for sexual comfort; frankly, he would prefer to have his old wife back. Here we have one of the mysteries of contemporary social life, especially amid calls for marriage equality – why does anyone get married? An argument can be mounted for the religious, and for the young, sexually active and fertile. But for those of mature years, able to earn a decent living and look after themselves, there appears to be little material benefit.
The Landing concerns itself with the wealthy middle class – the present-day Australian equivalent of Austen’s county gentry. In the first few pages we learn that Jonathan is the senior partner in a law firm and a member of the Brisbane Club. He drives to his newly built, architect-designed holiday house on a lake beyond Noosa and most of the action of the novel occurs among his neighbours there. Divorce has disrupted the lives of several of them: Penny has reached the tolerance limit with her misery of a husband and now teaches art; her daughter Scarlett has run off with the elderly next-door neighbour, who has left his wife Rosanna to her new-age therapies. Gordie, an ageing roué and doctor, has been widowed and is visited by his daughter, Anna, trailing European titles and husbands like a femme fatale from a Henry James novel. Despite their separations, most of these characters are quite happy to share neighbourhood dinners with their ex-partners and their new loves.
They are people who are concerned about wine and food, aware of couture labels and informed about the lives of international celebrities. With a light touch, Johnson manages to make them both intelligent and silly. No important matters – and certainly no urgent survival needs – seem to concern them. Over the barbecue, they talk about the threat of Muslim terrorism with more concern about ideological appearances than any real confrontation. The local council’s plans to build a public footpath between the waterfront properties and the lake present a more immediate problem, but for most of the year the magnificent houses at the Landing are empty. Johnson quietly reminds us that the lake and its surrounds once belonged to Aboriginal people, so issues of public access have a clear irony.
Johnson undermines the comfort of her middle-class characters with the vulgar Sylv and Phil, who run the Landing’s one shop and spend their time wryly observing the activities of its wealthier residents. Then there is the waif, Giselle, neglected by her mother, who wanders among its houses looking for attention. No one helps Giselle, and she pops up as if to comment on the frivolity of the main characters.
Alongside this contemporary narrative of material comfort and failed love Johnson tells the story of Penny’s French-born mother, Marie. Fleeing the war, Marie found herself in Brisbane in the 1950s and was bullied into marriage to the heir to the local department store. By the time of the novel’s present, she is a widow in her eighties, still beautiful and domineering. Her experience of marriage reminds us of a possibly forgotten history of deprivation and struggle.
Marie represents a time when women had little choice about marriage – it was necessary for survival, though she certainly did more than survive. Anna, too, comes from a place where marriage provides the luxuries necessary for status – private boarding schools for the children, travel to Europe. Scarlett, with her two babies and ageing husband, is bound to have a struggle ahead (though the inheritance from the department store will no doubt help). Penny regrets Scarlett’s lost education and career, and the way the feminist gains of the 1970s and 1980s have no meaning for her.
For these women, marriage retains something of its nineteenth-century purpose – to provide financial support and status. It is one of the paradoxes of our time that, for all women’s calls for equality, inheritance and marriage continue to provide more reliable financial support for women than careers that still pay less to women than men. None of Johnson’s women are engaged in workplace battles, and her novel is more interested in love than work. Yet those elements of the nineteenth-century novel – marriage and inheritance – still play their part in her narrative of contemporary Australia. Of course, the romantic decisions of her women characters have none of the moral dimension of those in a novel by Austen, George Eliot or even Henry James. There is not much vice here, but plenty of harmless folly.
With its ironic attitude to its characters, The Landing is a rare thing in Australian fiction – a comedy of manners. In the kind of scenario David Williamson regularly puts on stage for our entertainment, Johnson gathers her characters together at two social events and gives them witty dialogue. Like Williamson’s characters, they are a little too superficial and well-off to invite any strong sympathies, but Johnson likes them too much to mock them with fully fledged satire. Few Australian novelists can manage the consistently ironic tone that is Johnson’s strength in this and earlier novels, like My Hundred Lovers and Life in Seven Mistakes. She is writing to amuse us while raising a few unsettling questions about our understanding of love and our responsibilities to each other. •