One Life


When my mother died in 2002, I found that she’d left behind many fragments of memoir. These were the starting point for One Life, the story of a woman whose life spanned a century of tumult and change. 

She was born in 1912 into the narrow world of the country working class. Her father was a shearer. But she trained as a pharmacist – one of six women in a class of eighty – married a solicitor who turned out to be a Trotskyite revolutionary, and twice started her own successful pharmacy businesses, while at the same time running a household and bringing up three children. 

In many ways Nance’s story is typical of many of our mothers and grandmothers, for whom the spectacular shifts of the twentieth century offered a path to new freedoms. In other ways her path through life was extraordinary. 

This is a story about the past, but women today are still steering a course around the same puzzles my mother had to solve: how to juggle motherhood and a career, how to make and break relationships, and how to find the balance between looking after others and looking after themselves.

I was very lucky in my choice of mothers. I only wish she were here to read the book.

One Life



After my mother died in 2002 it took me a few years to get out all the papers she’d left and look through them. I was afraid it would be a mournful thing to do, but the first exercise book I opened spoke to me as if she was beside me, the warmth and humour of her voice alive still: “I have often thought about writing a book – other people do it all the time – it can’t be that hard. Up till now I’ve never had the time or the right pencil but now that I have one foot in the grave it’s time to get on with it.” I opened another. There was her workmanlike handwriting saying: “There must be a way of writing a story – other people seem to do it without any trouble – I’m going to try this time to write it backwards.”

Mum’s many hopeful starts all petered out after a few pages. What she left was a mass of fragments. They often began with the stories about her forebears that she’d heard from her mother. Others were about her childhood. Most were about her adult life, up to her middle forties. They taper away after that, perhaps because by then she felt less need to look back and try to understand.

She often quoted Socrates’ famous words: “the unexamined life is not worth living”. That terse judgment stayed with her all her life, shaping her actions and consoling her when things seemed bleak. Her sense of the past and the great sweeps of change she’d seen made her want to record, and to do more than record – to work out how her own individual life was part of the wider world. That was the urge behind the rich patchwork of fragments I was reading.

My mother wasn’t the sort of person biographies are usually written about. She wasn’t famous, had no public life beyond one letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, did nothing that would ever make the history-books. But I think her story is worth telling. Not many voices like hers are heard. People of her social class – she was the daughter of a rural working-class couple who became pub-keepers – hardly ever left any record of what they felt and thought and did. They often believed their lives weren’t important enough to record, and in many cases they lacked the literacy and the leisure to write. As a result, our picture of the past is skewed towards the top lot. Their written records are the basis for our histories, the nice things they owned fill our museums, their sonnets and novels shape our imaginations. In my mother’s memoirs I had a first-hand account of a world largely left out of those histories and museums and about which no sonnets, as far as I know, have been written.

Yet her story represents that of a generation of people whose lives were unimaginably different from the lives of every generation of their families before them. When my mother was born, Australia and New Zealand were the only countries in the world where women had the vote. Free universal education stopped at primary school. Very few women worked outside the home. Only a handful of working-class children went on to university or had professional training, and of those only a tiny number were women. Even when they did work, women were paid half a man’s wage. There was no public assistance to supporting mothers. There was no organised child care. The only reliable form of contraception was abstinence.

By the time my mother’s children were growing up, all that had changed. Two world wars, an economic depression, and a series of social revolutions had changed the lives of hundreds of millions. Many families would know stories like my mother’s about their parents and grandparents. Her story is unusual in some ways, but its basic shape – the coming of a new world of choices and  self-determination – echoes the lives of countless others.

When Mum started talking about her life, she often started five generations before she was born. The point of her story was that it was part of a bigger one.

Solomon Wiseman, her great-great grandfather, arrived in Australia in 1806. He was an illiterate lighterman on the Thames, had been caught stealing timber, and was transported for the term of his natural life to New South Wales, along with his wife and young son. He quickly got his freedom and “took up land”, as the euphemism goes, on the Hawkesbury River. There’s nothing in the record about exactly how he “took up” that land from the Darug people, but the chances are that he was part of the wave of settler violence against the original Australians.

The stories that have come down about him are unflattering. He was brutal to his convict servants and was crooked in business. He’s supposed to have killed his first wife by pushing her over the balcony, and when one of his daughters became pregnant to the riding master he’s said to have thrown her and the baby out of the house to die. Although he became wealthy he refused to have his children educated, on the grounds that if he sent them to school they’d be humiliated because of the convict taint they carried.

His daughter Sarah Wiseman married an Irishman, John Martin Davis from Cork. Davis was a free settler, but  not a wealthy one. He acquired land in the Hunter Valley and the Liverpool Plains, lost most of it in the depression of the 1840s, and retreated with his wife and children to a small holding at Currabubula Creek, in northern New South Wales, where he started a pub. Paddy Davis’s Freemason’s Arms became a well-known landmark on the stock route to Queensland. The Davises prospered and as the village of Currabubula grew, they owned most of it.

Their daughter, another Sarah, married an illiterate Cockney, Thomas Maunder. As a seventeen-year-old he’d been brought out with his family to work on Goonoo Goonoo Station near Currabubula. Goonoo Goonoo was the biggest pastoral estate in the country, run by the Kings, who were descended from one of the early governors. In the family stories Mr King was a hard man to his underlings. Maunder was hardly off the boat, a boy from London who’d probably never seen a sheep, when King made him take three rams – notoriously hard to handle – from Goonoo Goonoo to Quirindi, by himself and without a sheepdog. When Maunder’s sister died, Mr King made him dig her grave. Worse than these were the humiliations. If Mr King had to speak to Maunder, he’d say, “Stand back, my man, at least ten yards. You harbour the flies so!”

But Thomas Maunder worked hard and made enough money to buy his own small farm near Currabubula. One of his brothers did even better, and made sure his children got the best education Tamworth could offer. Thomas didn’t send his children to school. He kept them home to work as shepherds – children were cheaper than fences. The exception was his youngest, Dolly, born in 1881. Just as she was coming up to school age, one of their neighbours was prosecuted under the new laws for failing to send his children to school, and Maunder didn’t wait to be next. He sent Dolly along to Currabubula Public School. Apart from her grandfather Davis, who probably had at least some education, Dolly was the first of her family to know how to read and write.

Currabubula Public School only went up to Grade Six, the end of primary school. Like all the other pupils, Dolly sat in Grade Six doing the same work over and over until she was the legal school leaving age, fourteen. High school was out of the question. There were only six government high schools in the whole state and the nearest was two hundred miles away.

When she left school at fourteen, Dolly wanted to become a schoolteacher. Maunder said no, he had enough money to support his daughters until they married. A daughter going to work would shame him. Over his dead body she’d be a teacher!

Dolly fell in love with a local boy, Jim Daly, and would have married him but he was Catholic and the Maunders were nominal C of E. For a Protestant to marry a Catholic was unthinkable. In any case, Dolly’s parents had their eye on someone else.

Albert Russell was born in Currabubula in 1882. He was the illegitimate son of a woman called Mary Russell, his father unknown. Like Dolly, he went to Currabubula Public School. When he left at fourteen he went to work for Dolly’s father. He was a big strong man who became a champion shearer. Dolly’s mother fancied him as a son-in-law because, she said, no-one could cure and slice the bacon the way she liked it except Bert.

Dolly put off marriage for years. Several times she went to Dorrigo to stay for months on end with a friend from school. But in 1910, when she was twenty-nine – nearly on the shelf – she had to give in. She and Bert married and set up house on a farm called “Rothsay” that Maunder owned near Gunnedah.  They worked it as share-croppers, mostly growing wheat. Bert continued to go away shearing for ready money. A year after they were married, Frank was born.

Frank was nine months old and Bert was away when Dolly found a locked trunk in the shed. She broke it open. Inside were child support payments that Bert had been making. She recognised the name of the recipient straight away – it was a girl who’d worked for her mother. While Dolly was off at Dorrigo, Bert had been busy with this girl. It was Dolly’s mother who’d organised the girl and the baby to go away. She’d arranged the payments and made Bert keep it a secret. For Dolly that was the worst part, that her mother had tricked her.

When Bert came back there was a tremendous row and he went off again, for good this time. But what could Dolly do, alone on a farm with a baby? She sent word for him to come back. Nine months later, in August 1912, my mother Nance was born.



The first memory was of crying too much and being put under her father’s arm like a log of wood. He took her outside into the night, the cold struck chill against her face, there was the horse-trough full of water glittering in small moonlight, and her father pushing her head under. The terror of it, the cold black water up her nose, in her throat, choking her. It was only the once, but it was never forgotten.

The house at “Rothsay” was a big kitchen with an enormous wooden table and the warm stove. Her father would leave his boots, heavy with black mud, at the door and padded into the house in his socks. He’d ruffle her hair with a big hard farmer’s hand, took her on his knee. Her mother seemed always scolding. Always her voice high and angry, a piece of wire cutting through the room. Her own name came to be an accusation. Nance! Nance!

Outside it was the paddocks, sky everywhere you looked and a lovely long flowing of days. Sheep in one paddock, cows in another, and the rest ploughed ground with wheat coming up green and tender. The river down the hill, the still pool with the trees hanging over the bank where a platypus rippled along the surface at dusk, the end of the pool where the water mumbled over the rocks.

Frank was eighteen months older, like another self, but stronger, faster, cleverer. He made a cubby for them. The sounds were different when you were in there, the sun different when it came through the holes and lay along the dirt in bright bars. The peaceful feeling, in there with Frank, the two of you safe and quiet. Max appeared after a few years, a new brother, but he was just a bundle of clothes with a red-cheeked face, of no interest.

And always the weather like another person leaning over the household. Rain so thick you couldn’t see the shed from the house, and the river turning from a quiet thing lying between its banks to something dimpled and dangerous, rising over the paddocks, the new wheat under the water, trees up to their knees and the sheep crying together on a little island. Frightening, because the grown-ups were frightened. Was the house going to float away? Then the sun blazing again and the water drying up, the river shrinking into a chain of pools, and all the new wheat shrivelling.

Between the floods and the droughts, she was five before she saw wheat ready to harvest, each stalk swaying with the weight of the ear, the field rippling gold in the breeze. They woke to a day so hot and still the air was like something solid. All morning a cloud gathered on the horizon and by afternoon it filled the sky, dark with a dangerous green underbelly like a bruise. Then one great blast of wind, and the hail starting all at once, like someone spilling peas out of a colander. Nance saw the white things bouncing off the dirt, the ground writhing under them. Ran out to pick one up, felt them hitting her back, her head, a mean little pain like spite, but she picked up a gnarled piece of ice and ran back with it, put it in her mouth but it tasted of nothing but dirt. Her mother shouting, screaming, but for once not at her. Nance could hardly hear her, the roar of the hail on the roof too much even for her mother’s scream. Under it the rumble of her father’s voice with a note in it she hadn’t heard before. Nance looked where they were looking and saw the wheat paddock flinching under the hail, all the stems bowing down, the waving paddock flattened before her eyes into muddy straw.

She and Frank lay that night in their little room listening to their mother and father argue in the kitchen. Seven years!  their mother kept shouting. Seven bloody years and not a single bloody bag taken off! Rain or drought or the bloody grasshoppers! Now the bloody hail! Bert rumbling something, Dolly cutting over him. No, Bert, that’s it! We’re going!

Nance was a week short of her sixth birthday when she and Frank were roused out of bed in the dark. Bert sat her on the edge of the kitchen table putting on her shoes. Then lifted her into to the buggy, squashed in with bedding, the cooking pots rattling around in the back, and her mother shouting back towards the house, Goodbye Rothsay, I hope I never see you again!


“In One Life, Kate Grenville takes the story of her mother’s life and makes it quite mesmerising. Her mother left behind fragments of memoir, and Grenville uses her magic writerly skills to weave these together into a moving narrative, complete with rounded characters and momentum. What a difficult thing it must have been to write, but what a treasure she has given us. Her mother, Nance, lived through the 20th century’s dramatic changes, and this memoir documents Australia’s social history: our rural and farming culture, attitudes to Aborigines, life in Sydney during the Depression and war, the status and experience of women, politics and class—it’s all there. The settings—the thirsty paddocks, grim city streets and gloomy pharmacy—are brought vividly to life. The central thread, of course, is Nance, whose strength of character, likeability and common sense make a remarkable heroine. The hardships she faced, especially as a child, seem particularly tough, as does her decision to stay in an unhappy marriage. She becomes a qualified pharmacist in an era when women stayed at home, and her views on motherhood and her struggle to combine work and parenting remain particularly relevant. Evocative and fascinating, this brave and heartfelt tribute will appeal to anyone interested in their own family story, Australian history, or the lives of women.” 

Joanne Shiells, Australian Bookseller and Publisher 

“… a captivating family drama about a 20th-century heroine battling conventions … Losing your mother is a turning point in everyone’s life and for many it’s also the moment when you start to see the person behind the parent. It’s a strange feeling as you gaze down at the entirety of your mum’s life, not just the bit that was about you. Kate Grenville has translated that revelation into a totally mesmerising story which reads not like a memoir, but rather like a perfectly paced novel. It’s a moving journey impeccably written.”

The Australian Women’s Weekly “Great Read”  

“Grenville has done us a service: her mother’s story illuminates who we are and where we have come from in an era that is busy shedding its past … The descriptions are redolent of the era and framed with Grenville’s knack for showing what is exotic, and what is surprisingly familiar, about the past. When she describes her response to her mother’s life, with its startling later denouments, the pages are filled with a warmth, love and crackling immediacy.”

Miriam Cosic, The Australian 

“Kate Grenville already has a significant place in Australian literature, not least because her first novel, Lilian’s Story, is a masterpiece. Now she has written a life of her mother, Nance. The story she has to tell makes for a compelling read … Grenville’s recapitulation of her mother’s voice is in the end very moving.”

Peter Craven, The Age 

” ‘Who was my mother?’ is the belated question many people ask, and Grenville’s warmth and determination, qualities inherited from her mother, conjure Nance into being. Memoir and biography can slump into sentimentality, blame or mourning, but not in these deft hands. The writing glides, ego-less, through this one life that adapted to the massive changes of a century. I closed the book with regret, wanting more … “

Helen Elliott, The Monthly 

“Grenville has set herself a challenging task to write of someone so close – her own mother – without allowing her perspective as daughter to take precedence … Nance’s life was fascinating, and Grenville’s writing captures emotion in startlingly original ways.”

Eleanor Limprecht, Sunday Age 

“Grenville’s recounting of her mother’s life makes a beautifully muted counterpoint to the whimsical grandiosity of her 1988 novel Joan Makes History. Where Joan was everywoman and everywhere, Nance Russell’s life is limned with particularity and retraint. Drawing on her mother’s false starts at a memoir as well as her own novelistic skill, Grenville exquisitely depicts the pre-modern cast – integrative, not disintegrative – to Nance’s acceptance of disappointments, and to the consolations she found for herself … in the postscript Grenville’s own voice emerges, vivid and warm, to offer a loving outline of the fulfilment Nance found in her life’s second half.”

FL, The Saturday Paper 

“Grenville’s is an absorbing, finely crafted account; it flares into most vivid life in the relaxed postscript where she speaks of her mother with love and pride and in her own distinctive voice.”

Katherine England, Weekend Advertiser 

“With her customary elegance and warmth, Kate Grenville has lovingly documented her mother’s life, capturing the aura of the times.  I thoroughly enjoyed her engrossing story.”

Mary Ann Elliott, The Chronicle 

“Kate Grenville’s mother was an extraordinarily resourceful, resilient and interesting woman … Good memoirs narrate some aspect of a life that goes beyond one individual’s experience to resonate with more universal issues. Therein lies the double worth of this memoir. We come to understand and feel deeply for Nance. This gutsy woman overcomes the many hurdles placed in her way … The memoir is Grenville’s gift to her mother. It is also a gift to countless readers who will recognise their own experience, or their mother’s experience, in these pages.”

Bernadette Brennan, Australian Book Review 

“While this may be a memoir, Grenville still manages to treat the reader to some wonderfully evocative prose. Once again, she treats her readers to a brilliant read.”

Marianne Vincent, Australian Pharmacist 

“As a work of imaginative sympathy, it is as successful as it is audacious. Though not written in the first person, Nance Russell’s voice emerges from One Life clear, authentic and utterly engaging.”

Danuta Kean, The Independent (UK) 

“Grenville tells the story of her mother’s ‘ordinary’ life with calm precision. In amongst the supposed ordinariness of her life are the glints of gold, the details that make out something less usual. Her story is the story of millions of women, and Grenville relishes the universality of its apparent routineness. Grenville gives Nance both grace and dignity in her everyday struggles.”

Lesley McDowell, The Herald Scotland (UK) 

One Life is a work of filial devotion that unfolds almost as a novel, with stretches of lively dialogue and descriptive passages. The story absorbs from start to finish. Exquisitely written, this is a tender reconstruction of a woman’s exemplary life.”

Ian Thomson, The Sunday Independent (UK)

In November 2012 I was awarded a Doctor of Letters Honoris Causa from the University of Sydney, along with Cate Blanchett, Martin Rees, Robin Warren and Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu.  We were all asked to make a brief response, and this was mine. 

I may seem to be the only person standing at this lectern today, but I’m here with a huge crowd of others. They’re all the people who enabled me to do the things just mentioned and to be the person receiving this great honour.

Out of that crowd I’m just going to pick one for special mention: my mother. (If you can’t thank your mother on such an occasion, when can you?). She gave me the great gift of a free-form childhood. She knew that for creativity to flourish, a person has to know to trust some of the no-nos in our culture: daydreaming, wasting time, breaking the rules.

She believed that if a child didn’t get dirty when they played then they weren’t playing properly. ‘Good clean dirt’ was the sign of a proper childhood. She believed that because she knew that the work of creativity can be mucky. To get anything creative done, you have to not be stopped by the tyrannical idea of perfection.

The kindergarten teacher told me that I couldn’t play the drums because boys played the drums. Instead I was given that most vapid of all musical instruments, the triangle. At age four, I was getting the message: boys had all the fun. I went home and told Mum, and next day she saw the teacher. I couldn’t hear what they were saying and my mother certainly wasn’t shouting. But I could see the teacher tilting backwards from the force of Mum’s words. Yes, girls can play the drums. 

Above all my mother gave me the stories to fuel my imagination. Thanks to the family history she told me, I finally woke up to the reality of what it means to be a white Australian. Her example taught me not to turn away from the darkness in our national past. Her encouragement made me keep exploring it, and trying to present it in a way that would take readers on the same journey I’d embarked on.

I was lucky with a whole string of teachers. I thank them all. Mrs Linney of North Sydney Demonstration School, for appreciating my first efforts at creative writing.  A koala stamp for ‘Trapped by the Tide’!  A gold star for ‘My Life as a Penny’! Mrs Armstrong of Cremorne Girls’ High School, who didn’t just turn a blind eye to me reading under the desk in English lessons, but gave me suggestions as to what I should be reading under there. Don Anderson of this university for not laughing when I told him that what I wanted to be when I grew up was a writer. Ron Sukenick of the University of Colorado at Boulder, for putting the poetry back into prose and the play back into the work of writing. Glenda Adams at UTS for asking all the right questions about a not-especially-promising doctoral thesis that, with her help, finally became The Secret River.

I owe a great debt of thanks to this welcoming place of learning. For the last decade I’ve had the privilege of being an Honorary Associate of the Department of English, and when I desperately needed a room out of the house in which to work, that department – although tight on space – gave me the use of one. It was a sanity-saver, and I thank you. 

That crowd of people and many more is with me here today. I share this great honour with them. On behalf of those others as well as myself, I thank the University for honouring and acknowledging all of us.


This book started as many fragments of memoir recorded by my mother over some twenty years. Some were written, others were spoken in to a tape recorder. She told many of the stories several times, with more or less detail. Some of the fragments are only a few lines, the longest are a dozen pages. She started with the stories she’d heard from her own mother, about earlier generations of the family. She wanted to be sure those family stories would be transmitted to another generation. Wisely, she knew that I was unlikely to remember them properly, so she committed them to paper and tape. 

“Je vais a la recherche de temps perdu, but not as Proust did for himself and his novel, but because my daughter has a sense of family and time. Nothing I am writing will be creative, but it won’t all be true either because sometimes I’ll have to say what I think happened. On the whole it is simply the history of a family living continuously in Australia for six generations. I am of the 5th generation and am getting on: like Proust, I must hurry.

Solomon Wiseman (born 16.4.1777, died 28.11.1838) was born in Essex & worked on the docks – we know he married and for some offence we don’t know of, he was transported to Sydney in 1806 on the Alexander. His wife came with him which suggests money and soon after they arrived he was not only freed, but given a grant of land at what is now Wiseman’s Ferry. He started the ferry, made money enough to build the hotel which is still there. The 2 lions at the entrance were brought especially from England. His first wife died and there have always been strong rumours that he killed her by throwing her down the stairs. 

Solomon Wiseman was an extremely cruel man. He had a number of assigned servants as convicts were called who were given to landowners. No doubt they did the building he required. The land around Wiseman’s Ferry is very good for crops. He was hated & feared, but when he died he had the usual flowery obituary notice. Sol had a number of children by his second wife and by this time was well off – sufficiently so to give his daughters a riding master. My Auntie Rose & I think my mother too, told the story of one of these girls being seduced by the riding master. When she became pregnant she was thrown out of the house. Mum & Auntie Rose thought the girl and her baby died and you can hardly wonder at it. What would a girl do? Just to get enough food to keep alive would be hard, & then to get sick would mean the end. It reminds me of Hatter’s Castle an early Cronin story which horrified me when I was young.

When we stayed there one night on the way to Sydney from Tamworth we were shown the “haunted” room & the stairs where she was supposed to have been killed. He soon married a local girl & had a number of children one of whom was called Sarah Catherine. She was my great grandmother. 

She married John Martin Davis & had a number of children one of whom was my grandmother who was also called Sarah Catherine. They had the hotel in Currabubula & when I lived there with Auntie Rose, a Davis was still in the hotel. I think when the Davis family finally left they had been there continuously for 100 years & strangely a Davis bought the hotel.

My grandmother married Thomas Henry Maunder who had come out with his sister from England, I presume as some kind of migrants. As a boy of 17 he was working on Goonoo Goonoo station with his sister and there are 2 stories that have come down: 1, his sister died there and this awful man King made him dig her grave. 2, he was ordered to take 3 sheep from one end of the station to the other without a dog. The station was huge stretching from just outside Tamworth to Quirindi. Grandfather Maunder was a famous shearer in his day & held the record at one time for shearing the greatest number of sheep in a day – with the blades, very hard work.”

Then she recorded stories from her own younger days. This is about the Caledonian, a hotel in Tamworth that her parents bought when she was a teenager:

“They put everything into it and for the first three years everything went well. The Caledonian was the leading hotel in Tamworth and everyone of any importance stayed there. Visiting artists like Florence Austral and Isadore Goodman were guests, overseas as well as local tennis players like J.O. Anderson and Jack Crawford. When I was getting J.O. Anderson’s autograph he said make sure you get Jack Crawford’s he’s the coming player and of course he was. He died not long ago. When Polo was on the place was full of people from all over the north and north west and money flowed like water. Just feeding and looking after the ponies cost a fortune. Mum’s cousin George Wiseman had a son we called Possum and he kept his father poor with his polo.

                  The Caledonian was started by Mrs Trimm about 1870, you may remember we had a few old spoons with Trimm on them. A lot of the furniture was made from Northern Rivers cedar but there were some other lovely pieces from England. There were beautiful glass fronted bookcases with cupboards underneath, elegant chaises-longues and armchairs, fireplaces everywhere of course with wonderful fire dogs that people kept wanting to buy.

                  The laundry was an amazing place, a world in itself. The laundry staff was on the go every day, because nothing was sent out. You can imagine the sheets to be boiled, the tablecloths and table napkins to be starched and ironed, everything was white in those days. There were mangles, wringers, rubs, coppers, huge tables for ironing and folding and of course everything done by hand. There is a Degas painting that I saw in Paris “les Laveuses” which when I first saw reminded me of that laundry and the women working there so hard.

                  Part of the huge backyard was given over to “sample rooms”. These were like small halls were the commercial travellers set out their samples to entice the business men of Tamworth to buy. C.T.A. members stayed at the Cally at a reduced rate. 

There was one room I remember particularly it was called the Bridal Suite, a beautiful room with two sets of French doors leading to the widest verandah I’ve ever seen, a method of air that works very well. There was a magnificent eiderdown on the bed which had been bought at the Empire Exhibition held in London about 1923. It was made of gold taffeta, but of a quality I had ever seen and certainly have not seen since. Across the width of the eiderdown was a black crane and of course it was so light. On the way home from London these people stopped off in Monte Carlo for the clay pigeon shooting and there were pictures of Monaco everywhere. I wish I had appreciated them more. Most sins are those of omission.

                  As I said, the first three years went well, Mum was very lucky to have a wonderful man who ran the dining room perfectly. He was there I realise now because he was homosexual and he and his partner Con were able to live there quietly with no worries. Arthur was a clever man who could have done anything given the early opportunity. Full many a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air.

                  I remember once I tore my school tunic and was very upset because I didn’t want to have to show Mum. He took it away mended it and truthfully you could not see where he had done it. I realised now he liked me and wanted to help.”

There were parts of her life she was reluctant to write about, and these were among the shortest fragments.

“I must start on my life in Sydney. Reluctantly. I will have to think about so many things I would rather had never happened.

I did badly in the Leaving Certificate & my mother was angry & blamed it on some boy she thought I was keen on. The plain fact is I did no work because I didn’t know how to – also I had no proper place to work, I was expected to help clean the bar everything morning with Olga my cousin who worked as a barmaid for us & we used to get up about 6, the yard man would come in & wash & polish the floor while we washed all the glasses – took all the bottles off the shelves, wiped & dried them, wiped the shelves, filled up the ice chest with soft drinks – the cook would be up & we’d get a lovely cup of tea & usually bread & butter about 7 – I loved that I remember.”

Her feeling for the importance of stories not being lost extended to other peoples’ stories too. People mattered, even people who had been forgotten by everyone except her.

“I’ve often thought about writing a book – other people do it all the time; it can’t be all that hard. Up till now I’ve never had the time or the right pencil but now that I have one foot in the grave so to speak it’s time to get on with it. I’m not going to write about myself though naturally I will have to come into it but I once had a lovely friend and her story should not be altogether lost.

                  We met at a student hostel when we were eighteen with what she called ‘the magical future’ all ahead of us.

                  She was born in Broken Hill and though I too was born in the country there was almost no similarity in our backgrounds.  She was four when her father died & her mother, a trained teacher, went back to work & her aunt came to live with them. They were poor and money was always a problem but their life was rich I believe: they had a piano & Meg learned to play the piano very well. I think she must have enjoyed her childhood because she was good at everything, loved school, rode a bike – encouragement & help from home and teachers meant she loved work & won an exhibition to Sydney University a tremendous thing in those days since only 100 were given in the whole state. The exhibition carried without it as well as fees paid & books bought the inestimable bounty of free board at the Women’s College. 

                  Remember I didn’t know her at this stage but I can imagine how she revelled in the life: dedicated intelligent women to help her – custom & order everywhere – gowns for dinner at night, formal parties where everyone was expected to behave as ladies & gentlemen – in a word a world now lost.

                  The exams came & she failed – the price was expulsion from paradise – the University and the Women’s College – descent into the hell of Teachers’ College and a hostel – it is only as I write that I feel those moments fully since I too have had my pride humbled and my life completely upset.

                  I too as I’ve said was born in the country but when I was 5 my parents began a roving unsettled life in and out of pubs – buying & selling to accumulate money but with no thought of settling anywhere for the sake of their children – there were 3 of us and because we were farmed out to relatives or sent to boarding schools we were strangers almost to one another. I personally went to 14 different schools some it is true for only a day or a week but in the desert of waste amidst the busy craze to make money I had 18 months at a magnificent school – a well run High School such as is never seen nowadays. St George Girls’ High School – I don’t suppose now it is any better than the others but in those days – ah me, if only I’d been left there to do all my High School work! For the first time in my life I met real excellence, every teacher was a graduate and I remember them better than people who were supposed to be closer to me.

Meg & I were both 18 when we met at the hostel, but very unhappy, lonely, isolated & ashamed of being all those things. I hated being apprenticed & tied down in 4 walls not only for the day but well into the night – pharmacies stayed open often until 8 o’clock as well as Sat & Sun nights – it was absolute slavery but when I dared to voice a very mild & nervous complaint I was quickly reminded how lucky I was.

                  It seems incredible now that things like that were accepted, but I was one of the lucky ones. I had a job & some money every week. That’s why I now understand why the unions have gone too far the other way – they remember those hard days & want a kind of revenge – I often think we will end with a dictatorship of some kind pray not as bad as Hitler. Why is it so hard to learn from past mistakes?” 

I think she knew that her own story was typical in many ways of a woman’s in the time and place and circumstances into which she’d been born. For her, that was a good reason for recording it – it was “ordinary” and the “ordinary” is so often overlooked. She knew that in fact there’s no such thing as an “ordinary” life – everyone’s life, no matter how undramatic in the eyes of the world, is full of dramas. There are the dramas of griefs and joys, of difficulties overcome or succumbed to, and most of all the drama of choice. What’s significant about a life is not so much what happened, as what you did with the choices that you had.

[KG question: What made you do pharmacy?] Oh Mum, of course. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. We had the Caledonian of course and the pharmacy man down the road used to come and drink at the hotel. He and Mum used to have long conversations. He put the idea of pharmacy into Mum’s head. And then nothing would change that. 

When I said I didn’t know what I wanted to do she said oh yes, that’s because you’re mad about that boy. There was some boy, Ray Brawne, he was in my class at school. We were friends and everything but it was nothing like that. 60 or 70 years ago, you know, you just talked to boys, that was about it. If they kissed you, that was going really a long way.

Then we had to find someone who’d take me – who’d apprentice a girl. I thought Oh, I’ll be right. I knew I didn’t want to do it, but I didn’t know how to beat my mother, I thought, Oh it’ll be okay, something’ll turn up that I won’t do it.

Then I realised how hard it was to get an apprenticeship. Dad had been down to Sydney and he had gone to Washington Soul’s and he saw Dr Pattinson and he said oh no, they didn’t take any girl apprentices. Only boys. He said, but you might get in with a small chemist – a chemist with just a small business. He might take a girl. That encouraged me. I thought, Oh I won’t be able to do this. I’ll be right.

I wanted to go to the Armidale Teachers’ College. But she said over my dead body you’ll be a teacher. I don’t know why. She was she was not a woman of rational mind at all. She used to get into these fearful rages. I think she was always a little bit funny. There was supposed to be a streak in the Wisemans. Dad always said that. She had us all bluffed.

Anyway Frank and I came down to Sydney and we were having this holiday staying in a boarding house at Bondi. Suddenly out of the blue, Mum rang. She’d met some man, just by chance – this shows you how your life is changed – a commercial traveller, but you know, silver-tongued – and he got round Mum, and  she told him all about this daughter who was going to be a chemist and how difficult it was to get apprenticed. And he knew a man. And that was it. That’s how it started. I could have said I’m just not going to do it, but I didn’t have that much go in me, to say I won’t do it.

I really hated pharmacy. I can’t tell you how much I hated it. The trams were in those days, and I used to – when I see some of these poor little kids that are out in the street, taking drugs, I think, They’re probably desperate in a much bigger, stronger way than I was. But I used to wish a tram would run me over.

I couldn’t tell anybody, because Mrs Glendon wasn’t a woman that you’d tell things to. I told Peg, but she said you’ve got to keep on doing it, you can’t stop now. Everywhere I turned, it was that feeling that everyone accepted what was going on and you had to accept it yourself. 

Dad of course did everything that Mum wanted. I suppose for a quiet life. I was weak. I was weak as water. But I don’t quite know how I could have done it. I would have had to stand up like these girls do now and say well, I’m just not going to do it. I didn’t have that kind of courage. And there was no one I could go to and say, because everyone else thought it was so wonderful.”

Behind everything she wrote and recorded lie puzzles in her life that she never solved, and which she came back to again and again in an attempt to understand. The biggest was about her parents: why had they not loved her? Why had they sent her away, again and again, to live with strangers? The need to understand that most primal of questions was with her until she died. She wrote about those puzzles because she knew the power of words. Her understanding had been enriched by the great poetry she admired and I think she felt that things could perhaps go in the other direction too: reading was one way to understanding the human condition, including her own, but writing might be another way to do it.

Nance died in 2002, and in about 2006 I got out the papers and recordings and typed them all up. My thought was to collate them into a chronological sequence and make five copies, one for each of Nance’s grandchildren.

What she’d left behind was a rare thing: the record of the life of an “ordinary” woman. By the time I’d typed everything up I was starting to feel there was something here that should be read by more than five grandchildren, but I didn’t know just what it was, or why I felt that. My brother read an early assembly and immediately likened it to A.B.Facey’s A Fortunate Life – the life story of a man from the rural poor of the late nineteenth century, told in his own words. My brother’s insight and encouragement let me see a reason to go on trying to tell our mother’s story.

However, unlike A Fortunate Life, the memoirs Mum had left didn’t make a narrative. Many important events were passed over in a sentence or two, many things were obscure without some background information, and she didn’t dwell on how she felt about them. If this was going to be a story, rather than a collection of vignettes, I was going to have to add to what she’d left. But I found that, as soon as I added my own narrative voice to her fragments, something went badly wrong. 

There were several problems. One was the cautious biographical voice of the early drafts: writing full of things like “she probably thought” and “she must have felt”. In the absence of definite knowledge, a biographer is stuck with that caution, but it saps the energy of the writing and the vividness of the moments. Another problem was that in these drafts, two voices were competing to tell the story: Mum’s voice, quoted verbatim, and my own, filling in the gaps. No matter whether I made my own voice lifelessly neutral or jauntily entertaining, somehow the life was sucked out of Mum’s fragments by being put in a matrix of another voice. I even tried to mimic the voice of Mum’s fragments and invent the material I needed to make a narrative, but it felt phoney and it sounded phoney.

Everyone I showed sections to said the same thing: “turn it into fiction”. I could see all the reasons why they were right, but I couldn’t do it. The whole point of this story was that it was real. To turn it into fiction would be a betrayal not just of my mother but the whole idea of conveying the power of a piece of real life.

The book that’s now between covers is my attempt to find a path between all these obstacles. My mother’s voice appears both nowhere and everywhere: the verbatim voice has gone but phrases and often whole sentences from her memoirs appear on every page, almost in every paragraph. Where it enriches the texture of her story, I’ve added material that I found in research. Sometimes this is material she would have known so well she didn’t bother to explain it, for example the facts about conscription in the Second World War and how this affected her husband. Sometime it’s material she might or might not have known: she might well have read the issue of the Sydney Morning Herald where the “Grave Shortage of Rubber” is mentioned, and if she did, it might have made her think about her brother Frank, a PoW in Thailand. Occasionally it’s something she definitely didn’t know, for example details about her forbear Solomon Wiseman. In many other cases I’ve constructed a scene that’s grown out of my knowledge of my parents and their times. My father left a memoir of his young days that filled in some detail, my brother and other family members were generous in sharing their memories with me, and in some cases I was able to meet people who’d lived through the same events. Out of these sources (and Dr Google and Professor Trove) I’ve constructed scenes which are plausible, but not necessarily factual. The scene in which my mother’s husband-to-be invites her home to meet the family is one. Her reasons for not throwing herself under the Enmore tram is another.

This book, then, isn’t a biography or a memoir. It isn’t history, nor is it fiction. It has elements of all of these without being any of them. Like most of the tales we tell ourselves and  each other, it’s that compendious and loose-limbed thing: a story.

Nance Russell lived through nearly a century of dramatic events: revolutions, two world wars, a global depression. When she was born, it was nearly impossible for a woman to have the choices that come from being able to make a living and control her fertility. By the time Nance died, women in Australia could take birth control and paid work for granted.

She was born into a world of “small government” in which tax was low and services to citizens correspondingly low: a world where proper education and good health care were only for those with the money to afford them, and a world in which apart from the Old Age pension, only the charity of churches stood between the poor and disaster. There was no unemployment benefit, no widows’ pension, no supporting mother’s benefit, no workers’ compensation, and little regulation of workers’ conditions. By the time she died ninety years later, the role of the state had shifted, so that it now provided free education up to university level, free health care, and a safety net for workers, widows, the unemployed and the disabled. She died just as the current of political philosophy was changing, so that people who don’t realise what it’s like to live in a world of “small government” are recommending we return to it.

She was very aware that her own life intersected with these enormous changes. She was no political theorist, but she’d thought about how her life had been shaped not just by the specifics of her particular circumstances, but by the big sweeps of social change she’d lived through. She often quoted Edmund Burke: “Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it.” She knew that her small individual story mattered because it provided a way of thinking about big issues and coming to understand them. It was what she’d done herself: she’d examined the events of her own life in order to see the pattern they were part of. She hoped that others, reading her story, might be helped to do the same.

Of course, this isn’t the book she’d have written. But I hope it does something of the work she wanted to do when she wrote down all those irreplaceable fragments of a life.