Painted Clay (1917) is centred on Helen Somerset, an Australian girl coming of age in Melbourne, in the years before WWI.
As the story opens, she is sixteen and lonely, living in a dilapidated house with her reclusive, embittered father. Helen, who had always been led to believe that her mother was dead, finds out that she was alive and had betrayed and left her father – who, in turn, dismissed her as “painted clay”, and might or might not have been responsible for separating mother and daughter.
We follow Helen, as she becomes infatuated with her female teacher (only to be severely rebuked for her lack of religious belief); befriends two girls who live next door (and is later taken in by their mother); starts to work in a shop; takes evening classes in typing; and then gets a better job in an office. She moves to a boarding house, befriends some Bohemian artists, and falls for an older man. The story ends on the eve of WWI, and we get a sense that something is about to be lost.
The book is overwrought, verges on the melodramatic, relies heavily on bald coincidences, and paints the characters in a simplistic light that leaves little space for shades of grey. And yet – it shows an underlying sharpness that is difficult to dismiss lightly.
You seem to be parading a long list of (not so) subtle forms of male abuse a woman was likely to suffer at the time: the way Helen’s father responded to his wife’s alleged betrayal and, later, judged her as ‘painted clay’ for her choice of pursuing a career as an actress; the way Helen is accosted and blackmailed by her neighbour’s boyfriend; the hint that he might become an abusive husband; the limited choices Helen has in life, trapped between marriage and the few menial jobs considered ‘proper’ for women at the time; the scene where she is propositioned by a brothel owner (and stared at by a passer-by); the way she is treated by her boss in the office; and the scene where George judges her for the fact that she was no longer a virgin.
The title of the book was taken from a poem by Australian writer Marie Pitt, as we read in the epigraph: “Shall we weep for our idols of painted clay,/ Salt dews of sorrow the sere blooms wetting?/ Gods of the desert of dreadful day,/ Give us the gift of a great forgetting.” The book seems to be structured around this image, as Helen is constantly plagued by the nagging fear of having become her father’s image of her mother: ‘painted clay’, something fake and cheap. “Compare us,” she said. “Every feature is alike, and as she was only painted clay, perhaps I am also.”
As the novel progresses, however, we get a sense that you are turning the mirror around to your readers: the false idols are not the independent women labelled by such a negative image of ‘painted clay’, but rather the values behind the image itself. “Well, well, missie,” sighed the old man. “That’s life for you. It’s all mixed up, the good and the bad, and you don’t know where you are.” You peel off their superficial layer of ink, and hands us a raw mass of clay – something yet to be moulded anew. “‘When half-gods go, the gods arrive.’ They might teach us to recognize the half-gods when we see them, don’t you think?”
“I did not know what I wanted, except that I was seeking happiness. That seemed the greatest thing in the world. Then the rainbow bubble came along and I grasped it. It burst, and I knew there was nothing in it. But I had followed it such a long way, George, and it had looked so beautiful in the distance, that at first I would not let myself believe I had grasped nothing.” – Capel Boake, Painted Clay
“Helen looked round with a frown. She found that everyone in the room was staring at them. She looked at them with bitter scorn. She hated them for their smug complacency. She felt neither love, liking, or even pity for the girl she was with, but she preferred her to the smug suburban women with their intolerable air of conscious virtue. (…) We all sell ourselves for something, only you are more honest about it.” – Capel Boake, Painted Clay
“Did she regret it? Search her heart as deeply and honestly as she could she was unable to find the answer. Traditions of her grandmothers that still lived in her, the atmosphere of the world she lived in, told her that she should regret. She knew, according to their standards, she had suffered an irreparable harm. Yet she could not feel the sense of harm and loss that she should have felt. If she herself could not feel that she had been wronged, then was she? That was the question. If she were only harmed in the minds of other people, then how could that affect her? It was only the knowledge of her transgression, not the actual fact of it, that would damn her. As it was people liked her and sought her society. If it were known it would not be the fact of the sin, but the knowledge of it, that would affect their attitude towards her.” – Capel Boake, Painted Clay