Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Saint Jean: My book review of Jean Galbraith: Writer in a Valley by Meredith Fletcher

Jean Galbraith had no car, no television and, until her final years, no telephone. These conveniences became pervasive elsewhere during Galbraith’s lifetime (1906-1999) but their absence in her home shaped the literary legacy of this much loved botanist from Victoria. Galbraith was first and foremost – in her mind and that of her biographer Meredith Fletcher – a writer, and she wrote almost always from her family home near Tyers, in the Latrobe Valley 158 km west of Melbourne. As we learn, she was also a gardener, conservationist, botanist, farmer, family carer and Christadelphian.

It is this last attribute (you can look it up) that gives me the courage to call this book a hagiography. This is not meant as a criticism or with any cynicism. Jean Galbraith was saintlike (in a good way) in her frugal existence, her caring for others and her desire to preserve and celebrate what she viewed as God’s creation. Like Galbraith, the author Meredith Fletcher writes without sentimentality but with sincere love and affection for her subject. And, unlike the authors of a few biographies I’ve read recently, Fletcher is a good writer.

Writing began for Jean Galbraith as something to do when her eczema stopped her walking in the bush. Soon though, Galbraith lived to write and wrote to live. Her first nature essay was published when she was 11. At 13 she wrote her first flora, inventing names for the plants she didn’t know (an approach I rather like). Despite a clear talent for writing, and a growing interest in reading, Galbraith left school after Grade 8, not wanting to leave Tyers nor incur the expense of further study (both strong themes in the book).

Then the ‘miracle’. At age 16 she did get out of Tyers, to attend a Field Naturalist Club of Victoria flower show at Melbourne Town Hall. Here she met and was mentored by schoolteacher turned botanist, Herbert (‘H.B.’) Williamson, chief organiser of the show and himself encouraged by Ferdinand Mueller to botanise. She corresponded with Williamson weekly until he died in 1931, the start of many such relationships: Edith Coleman became her orchid mentor, joined by Charles Barrett, Donald Macdonald and others.

At 19 she returned to the city, attending two vacation schools at The University of Melbourne, in music and philosophy. Classical music remained a passion for life, after writing and plants. The year 1925 was also when she began her professional writing career, being invited to contribute to the Australian Garden Lover magazine under the botanical botaniconym ‘Correa’. She contributed monthly (480 articles in 480 months she said in 1965) until December 1975, 50 years later.

As evidenced by her first stories, Jean was a keen gardener. The cover of her most famous book, Garden in a Valley, shows her garden at the Tyers home ‘Dunedin’, linear and orderly, at least in the early years. She grew local plants but never tried to reconstruct nature in her garden. In her writing, native Australian plants and ‘the bush’ were never far away and, over time, she progressed from garden notes to nature writing. Her writing style has been described as more like William Wordsworth or John Muir than the ‘blokey’ writing of her Australian peers and mentors. In particular, according to Fletcher, unlike her (mostly male) contemporaries she didn’t nationalise nature. Galbraith observed and recorded, with few embellishments other than what was needed to create a convincing portrait of her subject. She wrote about what she saw around her, right down to the view through a narrow window as she separated milk from cream in the mornings.

To my tastes, Galbraith’s writing is a little overworked and without the mischievous glint I enjoy, but as with Dr Samuel Johnson – one of my literary heroes – I can appreciate the writing and intent without liking the style. UK editor Michael Walter once advised Galbraith that at 91 words her dedication for a book was too long and in danger of looking ‘typographically inelegant’: the first sentence had 19 commas. In response, Jean reduced it to ‘For the Latrobe Valley Naturalists and all who helped’. Still, she loves commas, which I do, as well.

Galbraith also wrote for ABC Radio, including nature study scripts for primary school children. She had no children of her own but ‘a natural affinity’ with the young; according to Fletcher she showed respect without condescension. She wrote many children’s stories, some hitting the mark, some not. Feedback included ‘too abstract and scientific for the age range’, reminding me of a knockback my father (who died when I was six) got from ABC Radio. His story was called ‘The Funny Moo-Cow’. “Dear Miss Entwisle”, began the reply, “the idea of tricks belongs to older children who enjoy these. That kind of fun is a little too subtle for pre-school children. Enclosed are some notes on story writing which you may find helpful. Also your manuscript is enclosed”. My father clearly knew when to play the gender card, albeit not successfully on this occasion. Galbraith’s use of Correa as a pen name confused readers, some wanting it to be a woman, some a man. However most readers thought the writing was feminine in style, and appreciated it as such.

Galbraith contributed to emerging magazines such as Australian Plants when the Australian Plants Society (aka Society for Growing Australian Plants, aka Australian Growers of Australians) formed. She wrote for British magazines promoting Australian plants and for school magazines. As Galbraith had said in her earlier career, ‘you must have a lot of work published to make a living’. Her writing was not only widely valued, but her ‘promptness and attention to deadlines were an editor’s dream’. She wrote in long hand, which may have been less appreciated by editors. (In her 80s, when she contributed short items to Anne Latreille for inclusion in the gardening page of The Age, Anne would type them herself so Jean could get the full payment.)

Her most influential botanical work was Australasian Systematic Botany Society Newsletter 166 (March 2016) 39 Wildflowers of Victoria, a no-fuss guide to the vascular plants of my home state. In 1949 Winifred Waddell, of Wildflower Diary fame, secured funding for the book, asking Galbraith to be co-author. Jean Galbraith was eventually the only author, although Waddell contributed to the orchid section and Jim Willis was on hand for any technical questions (Waddell was apparently difficult to work with and on occasions Jim also acted as an intermediary between the two women).

Out of this project Jim Willis became yet another active correspondent, admiring Galbraith’s expertise as field botanist (that said, you don’t hear of many people Jim didn’t admire or support – should there be a God, and one with a predilection for saints, he too would be near the top of the queue). The publisher gave Galbraith six months to plan, research and write the flora. Yes, really. It took another year but it’s an amazing achievement given the lack of a contemporary flora (Galbraith’s book was published in 1950, twelve years before the first volume of Willis’ own handbook).

While happy to have the book published, Galbraith was frustrated to discover all her edits added in proof were omitted. So, after the first edition sold out – all 4,000 copies – ,she set to work to make the next edition more accurate. In 1962 she slept in the National Herbarium of Victoria for a fortnight, bunking down in a sleeping bag on Mueller’s couch. Jim Willis happened to be acting Director of the Botanic Gardens at the time and was happy to look the other way. It’s hard to fathom but the publishers of the second edition again failed to include her edits. Only with the third edition, in 1967 (and the one I have on my shelves), did the text reflect her intent.

Galbraith later wrote A Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of South-east Australia. This volume wasn’t as well received as Wildflowers of Victoria but it again featured her trademark pithy descriptions and simple keys. Galbraith was not afraid to simply list the key distinguishing characters when that was more useful than a formal key. Good on her.

In the end Galbraith travelled further afield than Melbourne, to Queensland, Western Australia and eventually to London. In Albany to celebrate 50 years since ANZACs departed for Gallipoli, she noted that ‘there were enough white spider orchids [picked from the wild] to fill a bucket’, something she wasn’t happy about. I’ve heard similar stories about bunches of wildflowers collected from East Gippsland back in the day. Galbraith changed her approach and advice to wildflower picking as it became clear it threatened the existence of some species.

As the twentieth century advanced, there was the inevitable loss of bushland around ‘Dunedin’, mostly due to forest clearing for paper and coal mining. Galbraith became the Gippsland representative for the Native Plants Preservation Society and attended the formation meeting of the Latrobe Valley Field Naturalist Club, both of whom fought, with Galbraith’s help, to preserve precious bushland remnants. In her final years she sent submissions to the Land Conservation Council, helping to shape planning decisions in her neighbourhood and beyond. Fletcher adds that her conservation efforts were in part a response to her faith: don’t destroy what God created Galbraith wrote. She was not anti-development but an advocate for what she called ‘balanced development’.

Jean Galbraith attracted many friends and fans, and in time she became a mentor to others. Leon Costermans said he was inspired by her series on wattles in the Victorian Naturalist to write his influential plant guides. Edna Walling became a friend and advocate for her book on Victorian plants and in the 1960s the two of them worked on a book that was unfortunately never published.

I have to confess I knew next to nothing of Jean Galbraith’s life before I read this biography. I should have but I didn’t. I now feel privileged to have shared her life through Fletcher’s writing and to have discovered the remarkable person behind a book on my bookshelf. It got me thinking about how difficult it must have been to be a woman at that time (and still). Not in this case professional recognition or acceptance (that was forthcoming from all) but finding the time and resources to do creative work. To say Jean Galbraith lived a simple life is an understatement. Writing and the family farm were pretty much her only source of income: she notes that when she was finally eligible for the aged pension it gave her a rise in salary. Galbraith was said to throw nothing out. She recycled all paper and cardboard, and always made her own Christmas cards, embossed with pressed flowers.

For much of her life she cared for other members of her family, and for the frequent visitors to her home. Explaining to a friend why she couldn’t enjoy the garden on a ‘gloriously sunny day’, she said, ‘by ten o’clock I had finished my housework and made the butter and set the milk, so I sat down to write’. Only later in the day, while out gathering kindle to start the fire, was she was able to enjoy a little of that day’s sunshine. This delightful book tells of a wonderful woman, and her bread and butter.

Notes: This review first appeared in Australian Systematic Botany Society Newsletter 166: 37-40 (March 2016)  

Publication details: Jean Galbraith: writer in a valley By Meredith Fletcher Monash University Publishing, Clayton, 2015 292 pp. ISBN: 978-1-922235-39-8. AU$39.95 (paperback) http://www.publishing.monash.edu.au/ books/jg-9781922235398.html Also available as an e-book ISBN: 978- 1-922235-40-4 

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