The Pea-Pickers is a classic Australian novel, in the sense that it remains in print seventy years after its release, but also in the sense that it is fascinating and timeless. It was written by Eve Langley in the late 1930s, but it is actually a work belonging to Oscar Wilde.
Most will associate the name “Oscar Wilde” with the famous Irish writer. This is understandable; he is the most famous person to ever have that name. But when I think of Oscar Wilde, I think of the Australian author Eve Langley, who legally adopted the name in 1954. Towards the end of her second novel White Topee, published in the same year, the author better known as Eve Langley describes her transformation into Oscar Wilde:
It came about in this way. There was nothing; I was not. Then there was a huge blackness far away off in the earth and sky, and in this far-away blackness, which was a certain length of time, part of me was like a star. I came to myself in a buggy, in Minildra [sic], in the Australian bush, sitting between a man and a woman. I was Oscar Wilde; or I had recently been him. A sad white veil of melancholy drifted about me like my lost soul.
Eve Langley, or Oscar Wilde, was born in 1904, in the Central West of New South Wales, in a town called Forbes. In her teens, she moved many hundreds of kilometres south to Victoria, with her mother Mira and sister June. She spent the late 1920s undertaking itinerant manual labour in the verdant Victorian Gippsland region with June. They both felt an affinity with that part of the world by dint of their mother’s family history.
I was Oscar Wilde; or I had recently been him.
In order to get work as labourers they masqueraded as men, but this was more a matter of roleplaying than necessity: reportedly no one was fooled. They flitted between farms, bunkered down in worker shacks, picked peas and other produce, made merry with strangers, fell hopelessly and complicatedly in love. This period spent homeless and working the land is what The Pea-Pickers is about, and based on overwhelming evidence it was the highlight of Langley’s life, against which every forthcoming misfortune would be measured.
• • •
The Pea-Pickers was written in the late 1930s in Auckland, New Zealand. By then, Langley was stuck in a miserable marriage with the artist Hilary Clark, by whom she had three children. She hadn’t wanted to live in New Zealand. She visited to spend time with her sister June, who had recently married there. She courted Clark for some time, during visits to his rented room inside a windmill at the outskirts of the city, before the much younger man gave in. Neither were suited to marriage, and both had grandiose dreams of free-wheeling bohemian lives.
Years into her marriage she submitted The Pea Pickers for the S. H. Prior Memorial Prize literary prize. At the time she was living in near destitution, in a shack with two infant children, with whom she would become mostly estranged in her late years. Clark lived separately from them for long stretches, but Langley couldn’t contain her creative impulses in the face of poverty and single motherhood. The novel won and was published to great acclaim in 1942, but this year also marked the beginning of a steeper decline for Langley. Clark had her admitted to the Auckland Psychiatric Hospital that August.
The only published source regarding the facts of Langley’s life is Joy L. Thwaite’s 1989 biography, The Importance of Being Eve Langley. It’s a thorough and weighty book, it’s also out of print. Thwaite speaks to most of the key people in Langley’s life (including her sister June, and Clark) and many peripheral people besides. It draws from ten of Langley’s rejected manuscripts and treats them as semi-reliable autobiographical texts. I can’t help but harbour reservations regarding the true autobiographical quality of these manuscripts, even though they apparently resembled journals. But they’ve been consecrated in the public imagination as true-to-life, and the broad strokes are mostly corroborated by eyewitnesses. All “facts” about Eve Langley in this article are drawn from this biography.
It seems true that by the standards of the 1940s, Langley was an eccentric woman. She dressed as a man and spoke in poetic riddles. The biography is vivid, but it’s hard to pin down Langley’s personality. She was extroverted at times, reclusive at others, and always had the air of theatre about her. Sometimes she’s reported as a quiet soul, at other times she’s reported as a flamboyant entertainer. She was a loving but flagrantly neglectful mother, but no more flagrantly neglectful than Clark.
She was extroverted at times, reclusive at others, and always had the air of theatre about her.
In 1942, so reports Thwaite, it was alarmingly easy to have someone—anyone—admitted involuntarily to a mental hospital in New Zealand. It was a fate over which she had no control, and at the hand of Clark she remained institutionalised until 1950. If there’s even a grain of truth to her needing rehabilitation, then this period only managed to achieve the opposite.
• • •
Reading The Pea-Pickers, you wouldn’t guess Langley’s dire living conditions. It’s a novel based on her life in and around Gippsland during the 1920s, living hand to mouth and taking itinerant labour jobs. The novel traces the adventures of Steve (Eve) and Blue (June), the ins and outs of their love affairs, the places they go and the colourful people they meet. The verve of her sentences is miraculous, given the mood in which they were committed.
I love this gorgeous and blustering novel. Langley’s evocations bloom in crisp time-lapse, her tone flickers between lovestruck jouissance and despair without foreshadow. The abruptness with which she switches between extremes is initially funny, eventually endearing, and then occasionally alarming. It was a novel written at speed, bashed out to a literary award deadline under great duress, and with this in mind it makes perfect sense, because its events are just the rote connective tissue between elucidations of a certain cherished mood belonging to Langley’s youth. This period travelling with her sister, moving between picturesque worksites with no urgent care for what might await in the future, was a period when complexities were still to be savoured and experimented with, deliberately juiced for their profundity. It’s a novel about a twenty-something with wildly varying ideas of what they want and who they must be, blundering into each available extreme in order to test what fits best.
Read with the benefit of hindsight, the novel provides an early glimpse into one of Langley’s fatal existential problems. At one pole is Steve’s (Eve’s) passionate but confused love of her fellow labourer Mac, a charmingly bland fellow who she reportedly missed late into her life. At the other pole is her desire to give herself entirely to her work. Langley wanted to be a writer of significance. This was a role that no mere woman could adopt, so she believed, and which the times were no doubt wont to enforce. The most substantial throughline in the novel is Steve’s grappling with this conundrum: whether to surrender to her love of Mac, or to pursue her art.
The Pea-Pickers is a novel rife with meandering diversions and interminable dialogue, and its stubborn interiority may prove too disorderly for readers expecting a pastoral adventure (that’s how it’s still marketed). I would suggest that it’s a novel to forage, rather than sink into, and like all cherished books I’ve come to see it as a companion. One can flick to a random page and chance upon something stirring.
She was a poet of crossroads, I think. At its richest, Langley’s writing is rife with anxiety and portent, she sensates into pasts and futures. She doesn’t brush coyly against them, she doesn’t insinuate them. She makes it possible to behold their dimensions:
I climbed the rocky hill in front of me and came to a large stone house lying well back among the trees, the trees of my dream. I walked in. Beyond the cold darkness engendered by the leaves, the sun shone strong, and the mossy joints of the stone veranda steamed. Then I heard the bees, and their voices were like the sun singing aloud down through many flutes; long, low and banked by the fires of work were their murmurs, as they streamed out of an empty room in which they had their hives. This old house was a mingling of wet mossy stone and dry wood; little cell-like rooms lay along its passages; blue glass doors locked the halls, and over all lay the silence of distillation. Everything that could have been taken from those who lived there once had been taken and now was breathed out again. The human life in that house was still active. Yes, from old books that I saw scattered around, from old rags and bits of crockery, an oblique sort of family was formed by the house in its loneliness.
The interminable march of time, the melancholy of elapsed experience and event, all lost to grainy memory . . . these are common conjurations in fiction. Langley can sometimes take a sledgehammer approach when it comes to wistfulness, but just as often she seizes upon the ineffable in-between, so that her waning youth and her dread for what ensues become powerfully ours. For anyone ever taken by the conviction that life will never serve up anything better than the feeling of youth—not the events of youth, not the experiences, but the feeling of it, the receptiveness and potential—this novel is both salve and agitator.
What Langley captures most potently, when she gets around to it, is the feeling of teetering at the threshold of the climax of this receptiveness and wonder. In the real world, divorced strictly from the novel, Langley had properly crossed that threshold when The Pea-Pickers was written. Her life was in tatters and the world was at war. Her existential problems could no longer be dismissed as youthful flightiness: she had been cornered into an extreme—into motherhood—and it didn’t prove one that suited her. She longed to return to her crossroad.
• • •
Whether Langley, or Wilde, was a man or a woman or neither is an answer that seems impossible to arrive at. The answer eludes her biographer. Her writing resonates with me for reasons that I feel more comfortable contending with.
The Pea-Pickers is set during 1920s peacetime, with neither war nor depression looming. It is not in Langley’s temperament to mention or even cryptically allude to the greater workings of the world in her published fiction, at least not at great length, and never as a framing device. But The Pea-Pickers was started in 1938, published in 1942, and can be read as a brave-faced mourning for a time that swayed in her favour. Langley was awash in fear and regret when she wrote this novel about a burgeoning life at the crossroads of an unknowable horizon. How many novels, being written at this very moment, are being written awash in fear and regret, at the crossroads of an unknowable horizon? It was with this in mind, for better or worse, that I first read The Pea-Pickers.
How many novels, being written at this very moment, are being written awash in fear and regret, at the crossroads of an unknowable horizon?
Langley dealt in discrete ambiances. Hers are the kinds of ambiances that blossom for the benefit or tragedy of hindsight, and both of her published novels are like this: they are tonally kaleidoscopic expressions of loss and longing, ranging ecstatic through dismayed. But even when her prose is at its most cheerful, such as when she’s describing her bumpkin lover Mac, or when she’s remembering her allusive banter with sister June, it’s hard to forget that she wrote her greatest published work at the start of her descent into poverty and loneliness, during a time when she feared that New Zealand (of all places) was soon to be bombed into oblivion.
• • •
I first read Langley after moving to Katoomba, New South Wales, in 2016. Though it rejected her manuscripts, her publisher charitably purchased her a home here in the 1960s. She desperately needed it. Her time spent institutionalised had completely sapped her spirit, and she wasn’t getting any writing work no matter how she tried: her work had reportedly come undone.
She lived for fourteen years in her increasingly rundown shack, on an unsealed road at the forested northern reaches of town. It’s an hour walk to Katoomba town centre from her block on Clydebank Road, and she’d make the walk almost daily, for essentials (she kept a very poor diet) and to submit her manuscripts. She’d take the long, hilly walk to town dressed as Oscar Wilde, with heavy coat and stick, often with a thematically inappropriate white topee. The final days of her life are dramatized in Mark Flynn’s 2016 novel The Last Day of Ava Langdon, and many of the details are corroborated by Thwaite’s biography. To the people of Katoomba, she would have resembled nothing more than a vagrant. She died in 1974 at the height of winter, her body was found weeks after she departed, gnawed by rats.
Katoomba is near the apex of the Blue Mountains. During the winter, vicious winds whistle loudly through Eucalyptus forest, it’s a powerful harassing drone. The site of Langley’s shack, which she named Ionus Lympus, is surrounded by rugged fire-prone gum. At one point, following a nasty home invasion, she wrapped the entire thing up in barbed wire (she thankfully wasn’t present during the invasion—she was lost in Greece, but that’s another story).
I’ve visited her former plot of land on Clydebank Road many times. It’s part of a gridded network of rugged dirt roads that lead towards the highway on one side, and into thick forest on the other. These roads course endlessly forward into brambled triangular blur. Her block is nowadays cordoned off by the council, and once through it’s easy to see why: shards of asbestos fibro lay strewn across an old cracked cement block, laden with rusted old corrugated iron sheets, splintered with tetanus. All that remains of Langley’s house is its old brick chimney and fireplace, though nearby there is evidence of where her OlymBus used to sit hoisted and tire-less on stilts, so named because it was a bus, and because she loved Greece (again, and much like whole swathes of Langley’s life, a story for another time).
I’ve seen blurry black-and-white photos of Ionus Lympus during the years Langley first moved there: its yard was clear and fenced, her house tiny but homely. These photos, which you can see on the Blue Mountains Gazette news site, also show the ceremonial hoisting of the OlymBus. Nowadays there’s no remaining evidence of the fence and her old yard is overgrown, the forest is swallowing it back up. Local efforts have been made to create a memorial for her, and these are ongoing, but it would be a bittersweet memorial. Any loving tribute to Langley would be better off in Gippsland.
Langley’s writing is overpowering. If you take a liking to it, you may find it hard to resist wanting to have known her. Her work is alive with cheer and the chill of portent, both in roughly equal measure. She’s doomed but ever so alive. She’s buried in Katoomba cemetery, but I can’t find her headstone, even though I look for it all the time.
Shaun Prescott is a writer based in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. He has self-released several small books of fiction, including Erica from Sales and The End of Trolleys, and has been the editor of Crawlspace Magazine. His writing has appeared in The Lifted Brow, The Guardian, and Meanjin, among other venues. His novel The Town is out in February of 2020.