Nationality: Australian. Born: Olga Leo in Pambula, New South Wales, 28 May 1919. Education: Schools in New South Wales. Family: Married Charles Masters in 1941; seven children. Career: Part-time journalist, Northern Star Lismore, New South Wales, 1959-64; journalist, St. George and Sutherland Shire Leader, New South Wales, 1966-69; journalist, Land Newspaper, New South Wales, 1969-71; journalist, Many Daily, 1971-83; gave readings and writing workshops for National Book Council of Australia, 1984-85; exchange writer of Australia Council Literature Board in the U.S.S.R., 1985. Awards: National Book Council Award, for The Home Girls, 1983; Australian Council Literature Board grants, 1983, 1984, 1985, senior fellowship, 1986. Member: National Book Council of Australia; Association for the Study of Australian Literature; Australian Studies Association. Died: 1986.
The Home Girls. 1982.
The Rose Fancier. 1988.
Collected Stories. 1996.
Loving Daughters. 1984.
A Long Time Dying. 1985.
Amy's Children. 1987.
A Working Man's Castle. n.d.* * *
Olga Masters's career as a writer was as brief as it was remarkable. She began writing fiction only in her late fifties, owing, she claimed several times, to the demands of bringing up a large family. Her first book was published when she was in her early 60s. She died of cancer four years later, but including work posthumously published, she managed in all to complete several works of fiction, all of them highly acclaimed. Her Collected Stories, published in 1996, includes all the stories from her first two collections, as well as the eight finished stories from the posthumous volume The Rose Fancier; the others existed only in draft form.
The title of her first collection, The Home Girls, refers not only to the opening story but to the theme of the collection as a whole. Most of her stories are about home life, about families, in some form or another. The mostly rural families are usually poor and very often large. Many of the stories, especially those in A Long Time Dying, are set in the past, during the Depression when Masters was growing up, and nearly all are set in the rural communities some distance south of Sydney that the author knew so well.
Masters shows herself to be deft and accomplished in her prose, characteristically working by extreme economy and understatement, in the best tradition of short fiction. Details are used with subtle suggestiveness. In "A Good Marriage," for example, the father tramps carelessly on the toe of the young girl-narrator (many of the stories are related by observant female adolescents) on his way out of the kitchen. Later on, when he asks her what she thinks of the new woman who has arrived in Berrigo and the girl replies simply, "She's beautiful," the father's own feelings about the woman are tactfully suggested: "When he stomped past me sitting on the step he kept quite clear to avoid stepping on me."
Masters's stories deal evenhandedly with males and females, with the young and the old, from the two girls in "The Home Girls" who see through the false attempts of a foster mother to convey warmth and totally reject her, to the old woman in "You'll Like It There," who in response to her son's suggestion that she enter a home, replies with simple contempt, "Well, bugger me if I care." Generally speaking, though, Masters is keenly aware of the way in which the scales are loaded against the women in their communities. The father in "The Snake and Bad Tom" is clearly a patriarchal figure, before whom all the others quail. He beats the children, especially his young son Tom, regularly. It's a horrifying story about how children (and wives) can be conditioned to say anything. More often the men are merely weak, but even so the stories constantly demonstrate how the women must learn to appease them.
One of Masters's finest stories, and one of the great Australian short stories, is "The Rages of Mrs. Torrens, which demonstrates Masters's fine talent for displaying tenderness without ever descending into mawkishness. The setting is Tantello, a sawmill town with a population of 200, typical Masters territory. Mrs. Torrens and her rages are the talk of the tiny town, a constant object of amusement and diversion. When her husband loses the fingers of his right hand in a mill accident, Mrs. Torrens flies into the mother of all rages. She goes to the mill, walks along the top of the fence, and calls, "What have you done to my mannikin?…My beautiful, beautiful mannikin," before smashing the furniture in the room where the men have gathered and returning home to her stunned family. "All of us will be Dadda's right hand now!" she calls. "Dadda will have six right hands!" A note of intense, subterranean anger, unusual in Masters's work, runs through the story, emerging especially when none of the townspeople attempt to stop the family from leaving, for fear of losing their own jobs. Almost as fine is "A Good Marriage," in which sympathy for the wife and the straying husband is dispensed with evenhanded subtlety.
The small country town of Berrigo features in many of the stories in The Home Girls and sometimes the same characters appear, often in peripheral roles. "Leaving Home" and "Passenger to Berrigo" are companion pieces, dealing with the before and after of young Sylvia McMahon's brave attempts to escape the poverty and isolation of the town for Sydney, where despite all her masquerade of sophistication when she returns home for a visit, it turns out that she is only working as a maid. This time it is the father who is understanding. The mother's reaction is less generous: "Only a maid, she thought. A housemaid. No better than me after all."
A Long Time Dying is centered around the town of Cobargo, but the world it describes is very much the same. The families are large and the work roles clearly defined. The men often work outdoors, if they work at all, on farms that are usually too small to supply a decent living. When it comes time for meals to be prepared, they do not lift a finger. A pregnancy always results in marriage, and class and even financial barriers are rarely crossed. The opening sentence of "Scones Every Day" announces the setting in time and place: "Cobargo was a terribly dull place in 1935." Like Berrigo, Cobargo is set somewhere in the southeast of New South Wales. Sydney is far away (the newspapers arrive a day late) and remains a place many of the characters dream of escaping to.
Cobargo is again a town of great poverty, with few exceptions: "In Cobargo if you did not own a shop or work in one, or the post office or the bank; if you did not sharefarm or own a farm, were not a nun at the convent or a teacher at the public school, there were few opportunities for employment." For others, the poverty can be so intense that in the story "The Sea on a Sunday," Mrs. Went flinches when her husband uses a match instead of drawing a light from the stove. Masters speaks more directly than usual in this story of "the terrible struggle for the Wents to exist from week to week." As she often does, she shows the wife pandering to the husband, pretending an interest she doesn't feel for the sake of domestic harmony. The story ends on a comic note, but it is a kind of comedy, reminiscent of the Australian writer Steele Rudd, that does not conceal the deprivation underneath. It is a town in which there are many large families and in which there are traditionally divisive tensions between the Catholics and the Protestants, who address each other derisively as "public pimps" and "convent whackers."
The stories are framed by the almost idyllic romance between young Mary Jussep and Stan Rossmore, both Catholics but the latter from one of the most affluent families in the district. In between we are given a generous cross section of the townspeople. There is, for instance, Bert Rossmore's cousin, Fred, a wealthy shopkeeper who likes little girls, who stares "down on their young knees coming out from tunic hems while he talk[s] to them," and who drives two of them home to their grateful and unsuspecting father. There is the blind and widowed Hector Grant, who traps his eldest daughter into a lifetime of caring for him. There is the daughter of the Faigens, Lillian, who returns to the town after many years at the age of 38 and inevitably stirs up trouble. And there is Les Boyle and his many children: "The Cobargo opinion of Les was that he was a useless bastard, but you couldn't help liking him." In the very funny and intelligent story "In Cobargo Now," Les is reduced to what is for him the ignominy of sponging a lift from an Aboriginal and performing the most menial tasks at the local sports day. And there are the similarly impoverished Churchers, in the story of that title, for whom the arrival of a Christmas parcel is a major event.
But more than anything else in all of Masters's work, more than the incessant gossip of a provincial community, the fanatical concern with cleanliness and appearance, the furtive sexual alliances, legal and otherwise, that are dimly sensed by sensitive adolescents, it is poverty that is the overwhelming fact of life, and she writes about it with a total lack of sentimentality.