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Poppy, by Drusilla Modjeska.

October 12, 2012

Poppy, by Drusilla Modjeska. MacMillan (1997)

A moving and beautiful account of the author’s mother told with a mixture of fact and fiction.

Drusilla Mojeska is a fine writer, an accomplished novelist and, for a time, teacher of literary criticism. She takes to heart the recent writings about the varied nature of “truth.” In writing Poppy, she brings together what can be documented about her mother with less reliable memories and fiction. In her acknowledgements, she thanks her sisters and hopes that “the resulting fiction is not too far from their truths, and that if it is, I apologize as much for the facts that disregard their memories.”

Modjeska did all she could to assemble all available factual materials. During the summer before her mother’s death, she questioned her extensively about her life. Then she immersed herself in what she had learned and created a story that she believes does justice to the facts while expanding on them. To establish that she was not sticking to the bare facts, Modjeska even uses fictional names for family members and friends. The result is so seamless that I could not distinguish fact and fiction. At first this bothered the historian in me. As an historian I had assumed that the diary and letters by her mother that often provide the narrative in the book were real documents. Then I remembered that Modjeska says explicitly that her mother kept no diary. Gradually I accepted appreciated her skilfulness and quit asking what is “true.”

Modjeska is also aware of how any daughter writing about her mother writes about herself. She sees her mother’s life from her own perspective and asks what she has inherited from her. Thus Poppy’s story is full of Modjeska’s life and her emotions, especially her changing views of her mother. Like so many daughters, Modjeska had originally identified with her father.

I had aligned myself with Richard so that I could believe that there was reason in the world, and order: well schooled in denial I preferred to live there than follow Poppy into the hinterland of another history….And so it was my turn to prove I was unlike her, and in so doing to prove that I was…

Gradually, however, she comes to appreciate and love her mother and to see her mother’s struggle for her identity as permitting Modjeska’s own strength and independence.

Modjeska moved to Australia after her marriage, but her mother lived her entire life in England.  Poppy seldom talked about her childhood, and her daughter does little to recreate it beyond acknowledging her tyrannical, authoritarian father and her difficult unloving mother. Modjeska is not willing, however, to follow the popular practice of blaming mothers for their children’s lives. While Poppy’s childhood taught her how to be silent, her loving nurse gave her the strength to meet her later challenges

When World War II broke out, Poppy left home against her parents’ wishes and joined a women’s military group. During the war she met Richard and married him as the war was ending. For both of them the war was fought to preserve the English way of life as imagined in the security of a perfect family, happy together in their own little cottage. Modjeska was born shortly after their marriage. Her childhood memories are of their perfect family, held together by her mother’s glowing happiness and songs. I grew up in the USA during the same years as Modjeska. I found her description of the cloying power of these years and their demands for perfect happiness to be as true for me as for her.

The strain of maintaining such perfection had its price. When Modjeska was 13, her mother had a “nervous breakdown.” Instead of the counseling she would probably receive today, Poppy was given numerous electric and insulin shock treatments. She was hospitalized for two years. Her daughter has nothing but outrage for the “barbaric” way her mother was treated. Trying to learn all she could about what her mother experienced, Modjeska was appalled. She believed that the treatments did her mother more damage than her original depression and notes that within a decade the massive use of such methods was replaced by gentler forms of treatment.

Released from the hospital, Poppy slowly found the strength to put her life together. The security of the happy family never returned, but Modjeska and her two sisters grew up and their father left. Gradually, Poppy found what her daughter calls “her voice.” She had always had a fine singing voice, but slowly Poppy found the ability to express herself in her daily life. She opened herself to the feelings that the doctors had tried to destroy. Along with other women she read and discussed The Second Sex. She started working with a therapist who listened and encouraged her to live more fully.

Poppy found herself in useful professional work. She found love with a man, a love in which at times she was able “not to escape herself, but to find herself.” Seeing the statues of strong women in Crete inspired her; “the agile, the squat, the working women of Minoa: mothers, priests, animal handlers, acrobats, preparers off food. Where did such women come from, Poppy had written.” Later in her life she spent time at a ashram in India, learning Buddhist practices of mindfulness mediation which helped her live the rest of her life with contentment. Modjeska finds it hard to accept her mothers’ new orientation, until she realizes

…what Poppy found was neither a religion or a commodity, but guidance, or a practice, for life lived in small ways. The faith she found was not a faith in an external God, or a guru with manicured hands, but a mystery that can’t be destroyed even by the church, and with it a faith in herself, the obverse of the verdict she’d felt herself born to.

I strongly recommend Poppy to those interested in mother/daughter relations, in life in the post-World-War period, and in the lives of sensitive, articulate women in anytime and place.

For another memoir/novel that deals with the author’s mother, read Bite Your Tongue, by Francesca Rendle-Short, who alternates chapters of fiction and documentation. (My review)

16 Comments leave one →
  1. October 12, 2012 3:31 pm

    Your review reminds me of a colleague with whom I worked some years ago whose mother underwent the same terrible electric shock treatment. I must pass on your recommendation of this book to her, I’m sure she would be touched by it.

    • October 12, 2012 5:36 pm

      Yes, Modjeska is very clear about how bad the “treatments” were and how damaging. What I found found remarkable was that her mother recovered, found what her daughter calls her “voice” and eventually used meditation and mindfulness practices to achieve an unusual level of calmness and acceptance. That is so hopeful.

    • January 23, 2016 10:10 am

      My mother also went through this; she and my dad were also an WWII era couple, but for a lot of reasons I wasn’t born until later so I was young enough that I don’t actually remember this but still felt deeply affected by it; however my mother took a different route and not sure she ever did really find her “voice”; know that she did end up on medication that then seemingly was pulled from her by the new ones that came out that created their own set of issues, till finally toward the end of her life she was able to get back on the one she’d had originally that she had felt really helped her, however I don’t think she ever recovered from what had actually been done to her in the institution

  2. October 12, 2012 5:56 pm

    Lovely to read this review of a well-loved book. One of the things I really like about the book blogosphere is being able to revisit books read a while ago through the reviews of new readers. Unlike the reviewers we read in mainstream media, who focus only on the newly published, book bloggers range far and wide across the backlist. Thanks!

    • October 13, 2012 9:25 am

      Thanks. Part of why I have become drawn to Australian books is that I am discovering a slightly older group of them that I never heard of before. Another part is the wonderful Australian women book bloggers.

  3. October 13, 2012 4:17 am

    I’m thrilled you reviewed this. I love Drusilla Modjeska and don’t think she is anywhere near well known enough. I have this to read but haven’t got to it yet – really must try to find time to pick it up. Have you read The Orchard? I adored that one. Thank you for a wonderful review.

  4. October 13, 2012 9:27 am

    Thank YOU. This is the first of hers I have read, but I am certainly going to look for more by her. Do read this one; a fascinating life and interesting blend of fact and fiction,

  5. October 15, 2012 8:38 pm

    I’ve heard about this one before, but you’ve definitely made me want to read it! (I’ve decided you could probably single-handedly curate my TBR list, hehe. I’ve just finished The River Midnight and Unbound Feet.)

    • October 20, 2012 9:15 am

      You’d love this one, too. And I depend on you for book suggestions.

  6. October 16, 2012 6:48 am

    Excellent review.

  7. annabelsmith permalink
    January 2, 2013 1:48 am

    A thoughtful review of a book I love. I read it first as a young woman through the lens of being a daughter, and later as a mother with a young child, suffering from depression myself. I think it’s such an insightful mediation on the mother/daughter relationship and also a sensitive exploration of depression and its effects on family members. I see someone also recommended The Orchard and I certainly second that recommendation.

    • January 2, 2013 9:45 am

      As you can see, I loved this book, partly because I also empathized with her mother and partly because she writes so well. I am looking for more of hers but they are hard to find here in the US.

Trackbacks

  1. Historical Truths: Changing Perspectives on Our Pasts « Me, you, and books
  2. MY FAVORITE BOOKS FOR 2012 « Me, you, and books
  3. Stravinsky’s Lunch, by Drusilla Modjeska. | Me, you, and books

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