Jill Hellyer, ‘Letters to Huldah’ in The University of Queensland - Australian Women’s Book Review
Life Writing as Conundrum by Suzanne Dixon
Jill Hellyer's autobiography (1924-2012) provides plenty of “talking points” for a reviewer. Inter alia, it covers her crucial role in the fledgling Australian Society of Authors (ASA), her own writing, her dreadful marriage to an overbearing older man, her horrific struggles with one son's mental illness and another's physical handicap, the belated revelation of her daughter's sexual abuse, her years as a mental health activist, and her friendships. But only the most determined reader is likely to appreciate them. The book presents itself as a puzzle, as an obstacle course that perhaps mirrors Jill Hellyer's own life experiences. Consider the front cover, a posed photograph of the young Jill Hellyer, with the title Letters to Huldah over a subsidiary heading categorising the book as biography. Hmm, letters and biography, thinks the reader, who then finds it is not a biography of “Huldah.” On the back of the dustjacket along with any other editorial help, and without spelling it out, the vague blurb hints that the book is autobiography. The 120-word, prefatory “Author's note” (a reductive summary of the life of Huldah Sneddon, 1906-2006) yields the bare fact that Huldah was once Jill Hellyer's English teacher.
Letters to Huldah is not a set of real letters. The collection is divided into uneven sections, by year 1988-1994. But that is no guide to content as the events in each section are as likely to be from the 1930s, 1950s or even after 1994. Thus in the opening segment, 1988, the reader is presented with a series of "letters" recounting first the death of Jill Hellyer's mother in 1937, followed by a mixture of childhood reminiscence and contemporary concerns of the author, who was sixty-four in 1988 and in her eighties when compiling this work.
"Then what am I reading?" you ask yourself. "Life-writing? Novelised memoire? Random jottings from a writer's notebook over six decades supplemented with letters and minutes?" All of the above, perhaps. While the book bears no resemblance to any of the collections of letters I have read, it is emphatically not an epistolary novel. Oddly, it is sometimes reminiscent of the mannered essays in letter format of earlier periods – the classical Pliny the Elder's neat description of his nurse's small farm or the philosophical reasoning of the Venetian courtesan Veronica Franco. Yet Hellyer's work has the disadvantages of reading real letters – unexplained social context, no dates or points of reference, poorly identified characters drifting in and out of anecdotes, domestic detail. All of these things are interspersed with lyrical and physical descriptions of place. Not ''real letters to Huldah," then; more like wide-ranging musings with Huldah perhaps in mind.
I did not have the sense that this format was conscious writerly play. Forget Modjeska's Poppy, Sontag's Volcano Lover or Brian Matthews' genre-crossing faction Louisa; Letters to Huldah seems more an unintended jumble than an experiment. But I persisted and I suggest other readers do the same. Who knows? Other readers might enjoy the mysteries. Like an early modernist novel (To the Lighthouse perhaps) or an old fashioned whodunit, this piecemeal anti-narrative eventually sketches in the intended revelation – in this case, the author's life and thinking, if not her personality.
For all my frustrations, I was gradually drawn into the life of Jill Hellyer herself and finally stopped bitching about the inevitable Huldah-Hellyer confusion. (It is not until more than half-way through the book, we learn that JH chanced in 1962 to make contact again with Huldah, who had been her English teacher at high school in the 1930s.) In dribs and drabs we learn of Jill's struggles to establish herself as a writer, especially a poet, with the familiar handicap of her gender and nationality accentuated by subsequent choices, particularly the disastrous choice of husband, who isolated her, was jealous of her talent, and fathered her three children (while already having four from his previous marriage).
The writer's struggle to write, to be read, and if possible to be recognised or even remembered, is a familiar and perennially fascinating tale. Jill Hellyer gained that recognition among her peers, primarily as a poet. And she brings a poet's sensibility to her writing here, along with the developed rhetorical and – literally – prosaic skills imposed by her necessary roles as lobbyist, as mother fiercely doing battle for her brood, and sometimes as unwelcome prefect of her fellow writers. As a young woman she succumbed to the attractions of a destructive mate – whatever his appeal, she lacked the life skills and self-confidence to resist. How many gifted female artists have gone down that road?
In the end – whatever or whenever that may be – posterity is fickle. Few modern libraries now stock the books of once-popular novelists like Charlotte Yonge, and critical literary successes like Ivy Compton Burnett. Australians who certainly read their poetry at school look blank at the names of Judith Wright, Oodgeroo/Kath Walker or Douglas Stewart. The achievement stands nonetheless. This book may stimulate a new readership to explore the writings of Jill Hellyer and her peers or mentors.
Living in remote rural locations in post-war Australia with minimal income and emotional support, while bringing up small children was an even tougher task than it would be now. Yet Jill Hellyer – who characterises herself as shy and self-doubting – persevered with her own writing and maintained her links with Sydney writers, who recognised her gifts and encouraged her to cultivate them. Many Australian readers will enjoy, as I did, her anecdotes about authors already prominent or promising in the 1940s and 1950s – Dal Stivens, Douglas Stewart, Alec Hope, Frank Hardy – and the emergence of the ASA as a more 'business-focused' writers' association than the Federation of Australian Writers. Jill Hellyer is refreshingly indiscreet in her accounts of internecine strife, freely naming names. Typically, though, she is sparing with crucial background details, alluding in passing to the ideological struggles which went on in the 1950s as part of the Communist/fellow-traveller discourse and image of arts groups, above all those of Australian writers.
Sloughing off her appalling husband at last, she moved to Sydney where she could make a meagre living with her secretarial skills. But children are a life sentence.
Handicapped or troubled children more so. It became clear to her quite early – but it sometimes took a disgracefully long time for educational, health and government authorities to acknowledge – that both of her sons battled serious conditions. As she repeatedly said, "the average is two or three years to get a doctor to believe there's something wrong with your child." She had to become a warrior, prepared to take on MPs and government departments to fight for both her boys; this was a role she could never relinquish. To Jill, the dissolution of the residential psychiatric hospitals was a catastrophe for her schizophrenic son, Allan Stephan. In spite of her heroic attempts
to get him the medical treatment he needed and to keep him from the situations which triggered his worst episodes, she had to repeatedly battle for him in magistrates' courts. Some readers might have seen Jill and Allan on Andrew Denton's TV show Enough Rope, in 2003 and – because there had been such a strong viewer response to them – again in 2007, when Jill was 81 and Allan 55, still her "lovely boy" (http://www.abc.net.au/tv/enoughrope/transcripts/s906725.htm).
Her other two children also had a lot to deal with, her younger son Laurie was deaf and eventually went blind. He, too, developed behavioural problems. It takes so little time or effort for me to write that; to gloss over the constant, wearying, life-grinding effort involved. For the son, for his mother, for the whole family. And all the time she was getting older. Her letters deftly convey something of the unremitting struggle. She wryly jokes about the volume of her correspondence over the years with the NSW Department of Health. And that was only a small part of it.
Her firstborn, Linda, was a great comfort and support to her, but Linda's life was neither simple nor happy. Eventually, Jill learned that her beloved daughter had suffered repeated, incestuous rape as a child and adolescent. Yet again, Jill was in court to support one of her children. This criminal case had the desired outcome, the conviction and imprisonment of the abuser, but anyone who has ever been involved in any form of child abuse or sexual assault knows that the legal ordeal is only part of the experience of the survivor. It is extraordinary that Jill and her family had the generosity to expose this suffering to the public gaze.
The story is not all misery. There is a lot of fascinating information, engagingly told, about the Hellyers' family history, about the good and bad of Jill's own childhood and youth, about some of the great events of the past, and about her friendships. About her achievements as a writer – of letters, as well as of the poetry for which she is best known, and of her short stories. We get some sense of how important Huldah Sneddon-Turner was to the adolescent Jill, but, as with many other things in the book that interested me, I had to do my own research to form a picture of Huldah. I am told the format was Jill Hellyer's own choice, so presumably the lack of index and footnoting (or even a basic family tree) was hers as well. But enough of that, for I came to love this book. In fact, I find myself groping for the language to express how much it moved me. So many terms have been appropriated by facile 'inspirational' quick fixes in advertising and social media, that I risk gushing ("heart-warming") or resorting to stodgy academese (“it rewards the initial effort"). Suffice it to say that hers was a truly worthwhile life, richly lived, and that she is the writer to bring it to the reader in all its vividness, pain and complexity.
Suzanne Dixon is a writer, activist, teacher and former academic. Her scholarly publications include biography, history of the family and childhood, and women’s work and sexualities. She has written many reviews and some feature journalism, short stories and plays. She lives on Stradbroke Island.