Stravinsky's Lunch

I have read Drusilla's Modjeska's Stravinsky's Lunch before, but not for many years. I wrote above (below, actually!) about the anecdote which sparked her thinking around this subject, at a dinner with Helen Garner and other friends, mostly writers. Stravinsky's Lunch is a biography of two Australian women artists, but it is also a mediation on the clashes between the demands of any creative practice, love, family and the world that women artists experience particularly acutely. (Rachel Power's The Divided Heart is another excellent book on this topic.)

Naturally this is a subject close to my own heart, as I try daily to juggle writing with the multiple needs of family, domestic responsibilities and self-care. The two artists Modjeska writes about, Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington Smith, took very different approaches to the compromises and conflicts they both endured for their art. Bowen left Australia to pursue her artistic studies, but ended up sacrificing her own work for many years after falling in love with the much older writer, Ford Madox Ford, who was supportive of her work (up to a point) but took it for granted that his writing should come first, barely conscious that a quiet house, regular food, and the pleasures of domestic comfort (including children) require work by someone (not him). Eventually they separated and she enjoyed late success as a war artist, but she died relatively young and under-appreciated.

Grace Cossington Smith never married, and in fact, never left her parents' home. Her middle class family supported her financially through the ups and down of artistic recognition, though again she didn't receive the accolades she deserved until late in her long life. Cossington Smith doggedly followed her instincts, painting mostly in isolation and suffering the derision of male critics, and eventually amassed an incredible body of work. But again, her independence was bought at a cost -- in this case, her sister Madge, who kept house and cared for their ageing parents, and then for Grace herself. Modjeska is careful to acknowledge Madge's presence and sacrifice which made Grace's achievements possible.

Annabel Crabb's The Wife Drought makes the same point -- any individual who wants to combine a demanding career (in any field) and a fulfilling personal life (family, children, love) needs a WIFE to do the endless, tedious, draining, time-devouring work behind the scenes. Or a Madge, or a faithful servant, or a partner who is willing to sacrifice a bit of their own time or success or leisure to share the load. Only some us are lucky enough to score one of those.


  1. Hi Kate,

    What a varied and prolific reader you are. Are you in a book club? I am not, partly because I like to read like it seems that you do, following my nose down different book-ish paths, getting obsessed with certain authors/series/topics at different times.

    I too have been reading Drusilla Modjeska lately (Timepieces, now Poppy) and might read Stravinsky's Lunch next. Have also been thinking a lot about the 'wife drought' concept you mention, all those hours of behind-the-scenes work to keep domestic life ticking along while art is created. There are always sacrifices.

    I have a toddler and my partner is currently in quarantine in NSW for 2 weeks, so I'm seeing just how much easier it is with two parents around! Though we divide work, domestic tasks and childcare relatively equally, that isn't reflected in our parents' generation. Always find it enlightening (and a little sad) to see just how much his grandmothers on both sides do for him (food, nappies, playing etc), compared to his grandfathers. I feel things are changing in this realm, but slowly...

    When my son was a baby, an older man, a friend of my parents, asked me if I was still singing in a choir. 'Not just now,' I said, 'I don't have time.' 'Having one child's no excuse!' he scoffed. 'Bach had 20 children!' I actually felt my blood boiling - can't imagine Bach was doing a huge amount of the breast feeding/cooking/cleaning for those 20 kids.

    The Mountain is such a wonderful book set in PNG - do love Drusilla Modjeska. And I'll look forward to reading Stravinsky's Lunch - thanks for the review! x

  2. Thanks for your wonderful comment, Isabel. I just watched 'Mrs America' and also noticed how Phyllis Schlafly, the housewife's champion, was so dependent on housekeepers and family members to keep her own household running smoothly while she was off lobbying and giving speeches (of course it was fictionalised, but I suspect with more than a grain of truth).
    I am in a book club, but a loose one where we share what we've read independently. I was in a YA/children's book group for about ten years, which I did love, but I left because I wanted to be able to read more at my own whim.
    The Mountain is wonderful -- it was particularly meaningful to me as I grew up in PNG in the 1970s. Drusilla Modjeska is a fantastic writer and so thoughtful, I love her work too.