Sunday, August 26, 2007

Marian Roscoe Sussex (1916-2007)


By Lucy Sussex

My mother Marian Roscoe Sussex died on 13 July 2007. She was an artist and lifelong feminist, mother, unconventional Christian, charity worker, wife and writer—in no particular order. Like many older women, she was gifted at anecdote, and told stories of her life. And from her words I draw a portrait; as she drew me.

Everybody is a product of their nature and nurture, time and place. From the hindsight of the 21st century, we think those born 90 years ago lived in interesting times, in the Chinese sense of a curse: 2 world wars, the depression, then the cold war. Yet Marian was part of an extraordinary generation, who were interesting, tough, adaptive people precisely because of those times.

James Tiptree Jr (Alice Sheldon) was her contemporary, and there were similarities and also differences in their lives. They both came late to their true careers, both suffered greatly from depression and prescription medicine, and also from the roles that society had mapped out for them. Intelligent, gifted girls had a tough deal in the early 20th century, both in the US and my mother’s Australia.

Marian Roscoe Wilson, b. 1916 in Melbourne, Australia to a father, Alfred, who would be a major force in Melbourne Anglican (in the US Episcopalian) Church, ending as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, and a mother, Florence Hearn, from a large country family, a woman of determined character. Marian was the 2nd daughter, which was very important. As a small child, overhearing her mother lamenting her lack of sons had a profound effect on her. At the very least it radicalized her in terms of gender politics: she would use the term ‘second-class citizen’. Thus she couldn’t, because of her sex, follow in her father’s footsteps. Had she been male, she might have made a somewhat heretical Vicar. [At this point the Vicar conducting the funeral service smiled in agreement--the Rev. Janet Turpie-Johnstone is not only female but of Australian aboriginal descent]. Gender also meant that she didn’t, as was the case with young men of her generation, fight in World War II, from which so many came home scarred or not at all.

Vignette 1: a young Australian woman finds herself in Salisbury, and from there walks to Stonehenge, in high heels. She has the monument entirely to herself. Because, on that day, World War II is declared.

That’s very novelistic, but it’s real life, true.

She knew before then that she wanted to be an artist. But the life of art is never easy, and certainly no way to earn a living in the midst of the Great Depression. Vicar’s daughters do not have independent incomes. One of her art tutors told her, decades later: ‘You could have been a Grace Cossington-Smith’—a major Australian stylist, now highly collectable. It was not something about which she was bitter. She appreciated her children, and the art she belatedly did.

Instead of following her natural inclination, she excelled academically, winning a scholarship to Melbourne University. She might have been a Don—or she might have been a Vicar’s wife, like her mother, for she got engaged to a Divinity student. The two occupations were probably not compatible. In any case they ceased to be options in her final degree year. Broken engagements do not make for high marks.

Vignette 2: a young woman, who is desperately unhappy, visits a Fortune teller—who tells her she will marry at 25 and never have to worry about money. Which turns out to be a perfectly accurate prediction. More novelistic but true stuff.

Back in Melbourne, she meets Ronald Sussex at a dance and they marry. She becomes an academic wife, a hard-working and supportive sector of womanhood. It means: going anywhere the jobs are, entertaining the vice-chancellor to tea, and in the days of year-long sabbatical leave, managing a household with children, overseas and on the road in foreign countries. I don’t know how she did it.

She had children, which she approached in a similar supportive but also creative spirit. She wanted to make something special for her first-born, my brother Roland, but it was wartime and fabric was rationed. The only fine woolen fabric she could get was khaki. So my brother ended up resplendent in khaki smocked in bright yellow and red—showing her sense of colour. Whatever we wanted to do, vocation-wise, she was there for us. Not many mothers would let a sixteen-year-old girl, my sister Polly, go to Prague to study cello. With me she corrected my grammar when I started writing, and told me my sentences were too staccato. None of this: that’s nice dear, if it plainly wasn’t. She knew when to criticize, and when to hold back.

It wasn’t until we moved to the tropics that she got what Virginia Woolf described as essential for a creative woman: a room of her own. It was a studio for her, where she worked first alone, then with a tutor, David Rainford. He told her when her art was too pretty-pretty, and encouraged her to draw with strength. Only when my father retired did she achieve her ambition of going to art school. Not many people do that at 60. She graduated, and became a printmaker, exhibiting locally and overseas.

She also did what many people think is very easy but is in fact very hard: wrote and illustrated a children’s book for her eldest granddaughter, Nicola, which was of professional standard and got published: The Magic Billy.

The unpleasant irony is that after 8 years printmaking chemicals gave her cancer of the throat. But though she gave up her printmaking, she made something positive of it. She always did that. She turned to using pastels, instead.

Last vignette. A woman artist in her 70s is invited to a church celebration, where her first love, an Anglican cleric, will be officiating. Also present is a famous former parishioner, later one of Australia’s best poets: Gwen Harwood. They are quite remarkably alike, these two women, and the cleric tells the poet’s biographer, who is present: ‘I loved them both!’ It is the first and only time the three corners of this old love triangle meet.

Again, another moment that is almost too novelistic to be true.

Novels are hard to end, and so are lives. Another Tiptree comparison—they both, at the end of their lives, found themselves caring for older husband with dementia, and in different ways it killed them. Ten months after my father died, my mother followed, worn out and suffering the belated effects of her cancer treatment. ‘Death is the price we pay for life and for all life,’ Ursula Le Guin wrote in a book my mother loved, THE FARTHEST SHORE. She paid it peacefully.

The mind replays memories, sometimes in creative ways. As a writer, I don’t like ghostly visitations in dreams as a plot device. Dreams are more inevitably more about the dreamer than what they dream about. Nonetheless several nights ago I dreamt I saw Marian. She stood in a half-open doorway, an interior scene. What was in the room behind her was uncertain. She looked out from behind her big glasses, then slowly closed the door. I woke at that point, so retained the dream, and mulled over it. “In my father’s house are many mansions?”—to be Biblical. ‘A room of one’s own?’—to be feminist. In either case, an artist’s studio.

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