Nadia Wheatley, Her Mother’s Daughter: A Memoir (Text 2018)
When Raimond Gaita wrote about his parents in Romulus My Father (1998), he brought his finely honed philosophical mind to the task. In Biff Ward’s long experience as a feminist activist permeates her exploration of her parents’ story, In My Mother’s Hands (Allen & Unwin 2014). The parts of Rozanna Lilley’s Do Oysters Get Bored? (UWA Publishing 2018) that deal with her famously tell-all parents can focus on her own experience, with their lives pretty much reduced to back story. Lee Whitmore, filmmaker, told the story of her grandmother in a sweeping visual drama, the comic Ada Louise: A life imagined (Susan Lane Studio 2016).
Nadia Wheatley is a historian: her The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (HarperCollins Australia 2002) has been described as ‘one of the greatest Australian biographies’. She is also a children’s writer: her collaboration with Donna Rawlins, My Place (Walker Books 1988) was an instant classic. Her Mother’s Daughter is a work of history, and some of its key moments are told from a child’s point of view.
Neen Wheatley, nee Watkin, died in October 1958, when her only daughter Nadia was nine years old. Nadia had clear memories of her as a loving mother who became unhappy and sick, caught for too long in a painful relationship with her husband John. Though Nadia loved her mother and feared her father, she grew up being told she was like her father, and was told once, when she took a political stand that her mother’s relatives disapproved of, that her mother would have hated her. The book, as its title suggests, is an act of reclaiming her allegiance to her mother, and her deep affinity with her.
It’s a work of history. At any given moment, the reader knows the source of the story that’s being told: Nadia’s own childhood memories of her parents; things that were said about them by their family members and the family Nadia lived with after her mother’s death; interviews with women who were Neen’s friends before she married (‘the Girls’); interviews with Neen’s family, including her much loved youngest brother, whom Nadia didn’t meet until he was 89; interviews with John’s surviving relatives; Neen’s wartime correspondence, and a detailed journal of her time working for the UNRRA after the war; official records of the displaced persons camps in Germany where John and Neen had positions of great responsibility, and where they met and fell in love; Neen’s medical records from her final years.
This historical discipline is at the service of a passionate quest to reclaim her mother from oblivion. When Wheatley discovers that Neen, whom she had been told was bitterly anti-Communist, used to go to shows at the left-wing New Theatre when young, her joy at the discovery is only partly that of a historian finding evidence of a counter-narrative; it’s also the joy of getting her mother back. Likewise, when she finds evidence that her father behaved unethically during his early years as a doctor in England, it comes as confirmation of what she knows of him from the domestic experience.
The book is in four sections with self-explanatory titles.: ‘Neen’, ‘Nina and John’, ‘Nina, John and Nadia’, and ‘Nadia’. Wheatley’s craft as a writer for children shines in the third part and in a brief prologue. In both of these the young Nadia has conversations with both her parents separately, and is used as a pawn in her father’s relentless undermining of her mother. The little girl’s passionate attachment to her mother, her helpless yielding to her father’s manipulations, her bewilderment at her mother’s death are all captured with great poignancy. The father’s repeated question when he is showing her hideous images of human suffering, ‘Do you understand, Nadia?’ is as horrific as any fairytale witch’s incantation.
I found this book deeply affecting. I learned a lot about the role Australians played in post-war Europe. I was reminded how resistant to evidence sexist assumptions can be – in this case in the medical profession. I remembered my own enjoyment of the Tintookies, a puppet show that I saw in North Queensland and Nadia in Sydney. I had my eyes opened to just how inexplicably vile adults can be to small children. I am in awe of the discipline that could wrangle such pain and loss and love into such an effective narrative.
Her Mother’s Daughter is the twenty-fifth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.