The Pea-Pickers, by Eva Langley.
The Pea-Pickers, by Eve Langley. Sydney, Australia: Angus and Robertson, 1942.
A lush, lyrical Australian classic about two young women going off to work among other rural laborers in southeast Australia in the 1920s.
In The Pea Pickers, the narrator and her sister leave the genteel poverty of their Melbourne home , to work the crops in southeastern Australia. Dressing as men, they take the masculine names of Steve and Blue and enter the countryside in Gippsland where their mother grew up. Steve, the narrator, considers herself a poet. The book she narrates is not a coming-of-age story, but a vibrant ode to adolescent emotions and enthusiasms.
Steve is a wonderful, moody adolescent, said to be created from Langley’s journals from her own adventures. Highly idealistic and dreamy, her moods swing widely from extreme happiness to extreme despair caused by her awareness that loss and death are inevitable. She is spunky and delightful, if self-centered in a young, naive way. With her we enter a remembered or imagined place when we were not limited by responsibility.
We were adventurers, jongleurs, actors and singers, come to stay for the wet season, to entertain, and laugh and sing, and then to depart without paying. In every way, it was understood between us, that we should avoid paying tribute to life.
Most of all Steve is forever longing to be loved. Her male attire is not convincing up close and does not stop her from attracting first one and then another young man. The pride that she and the men take in their “innocent and pure” love reads strangely, however, in the twenty-first century. And readers can easily see, as Steve does not, that whatever her dreams of a lifelong love, which is unlikely with the man on whom she showers her affection. Despite her awareness of inevitable loss, she tries to believe that her love will last forever. And at other times, she expects another better love eventually to engulf her. Mostly she suffers loudly and long about her lost love. At times wishes she were a man, primarily so that she won’t have to deal with fickle male admirers.
The Pea Pickers has no strong plot driving its action. Instead Steve describes places and people and incidents that occur. She loves the land and describes it in detail, first in Gippsland and later in “the Australian Alps.” Objects in the landscape take on life and motivation for her. But often her vision of it is a melancholy one.
Purple mists came swimming across the silver sedge to us, and in the mist was God, was all eternity. Purple were the waters and brown and blue the twilight, chill the wind and solemn my heart above the mother-hushing waters. White pelicans stood on peninsulas of sand and opened their mouths as we passed, giving a silver salute of fish; above flew white cranes. And I loved that land with the intensity of death.
Often she saw the Australian land with eyes trained in European romanticism. When hiking in the mountains she observed “the blue gum-covered hillside” with “sphinx-red” earth. They fascinated me, those Greek curls on the ranges. The sense of dry red flesh underneath and the curled, fleecy beard above, and home like an arrow to my Grecian heart and almost stifled me with ecstasy…. I worshiped at the home of my first gods, the Greeks.
Gippsland held a special appeal for Steve because it was the land where her mother had been raised, but had left when she married. Steve and her sister owned no land and envied those who did. “Ah, Gippsland, I cried inwardly, we, too, own a share in you, by right of birth and power of desire; but it is denied us. We have nothing to call our own.” Steve and her sister were only “pea pickers” working the land, “Painfully, with aching backs, we knelt to serve her; Gippsland, the lordliest Her we had ever known.”
In addition to describing the land in detail, Steve writes about the people around her. They are an interesting mix, one I never expected in an Australian novel. Many of the farm laborers are immigrants from India, Afghanistan, China, and Italy. While enjoying the other workers, Steve clearly shares the racism of her time and believes herself superior to them. The Italians are some of her favorites although she speaks out against intermarriage with such a different “race.” . Her sense of superiority also extends to other Australians, both the Indigenous workers and those of European descent. At the same time, she praises the man she loves and a few others for being pure Gippslanders.
I recommend this book to all who want to broaden their view of Australia and Australian literature. And to those who want to be reminded of youthful living, perhaps in a time more dream than reality.