Allen & Unwin; $23.99
This is a fictionalised account of part of the life of Clarice Majoribanks Beckett (1887-1935), a Melbourne artist who created hundreds of evocative landscapes and seascapes.
Clarice Beckett has probably always been much underestimated, even neglected. But go online, and you will get an idea of her stunning work which seems to be always and primarily a meditation on the light.
Kristel Thornell brings this wonderful woman to life in Night Street which was a co-winner of 2009’s Vogel Award for young writers.
Clarice lived for her art. Eschewing marriage, she decided to live at home, with her parents, cooking and cleaning for them when her father’s fortune dwindled and the family could no longer afford servants. But nightfall and dawn were her own times, when she would drag her mobile easel (which she had made herself) to the beach or the streets of Melbourne. Here she would try to capture the beginning or the end of daylight; a solitary figure intent upon her work, often in the rain, and therefore, cold and wet.
Contemporary painter and for a while, her teacher, Max Meldrum, (she had studied prior to this at the Gallery school with Frederick McCubbin) had declared that women were incapable of giving themselves to art, since they lacked the propensity for solitude. Her life being the singular pursuit of excellence in her own art, proved him quite wrong. Meldrum may never have retracted this silly statement, but he did acquire respect for Clarice’s work, featuring it in several exhibitions. It was at one of his classes, too, that Clarice met her first love, Arthur Blackburn, a married man with whom she had a brief affair. Thornell handles this episode in her book with delicacy and charm.
I loved Night Street for its portrayal of a remarkable “unsung” woman and its preoccupation with the making of art. It also reminds us of the almost impossible strictures that were imposed by society on the lives of Australian women of this time. The fact that Clarice, while appearing to live as a conventional spinster, had such a vibrant interior life – as evidenced by her wonderful paintings – should be an inspiration to any woman.
Night Street would be the perfect choice for a Book club. I am very much looking forward to Kristel Thornell’s next novel.