My horizon has been widened in the last few months thanks to Jane Gleeson-White’s Australian Classics: 50 Great Writers and Their Celebrated Works (2011), which introduced me to the wealth of interesting Australian writers beyond the ones I’d been aware of (Stead, Patrick White, Miles Franklin). Easy the most intriguing book discussed by Gleeson-White is Eve Langley’s 1942 novel, The Pea Pickers, which she describes as “a raucous romp through the Victorian countryside in praise of Australia, and a voyage through the passions of a young woman with the soul of a poet determined to live by her own elusive law.” Novelist Georgia Blain proclaims it “a wonderful book, absurd, hilariously funny, messy, anarchic; the kind of book that so rarely gets published.”
Yet Gleeson-White’s biographical sketch of Eve Langley was even more intriguing. She wrote the novel while pregnant with her third child, entered it into a competition for unpublished works by Australian and New Zealand writers and won, but was committed to a psychiatric hospital before the book was published. Released seven years later, she took to wearing men’s clothes and had her name changed legally to Oscar Wilde. She spent her last years in conditions no better than a bag lady and was found dead in her shack in 1974. A little more digging turned up a 1989 biography, The Importance of Being Eve Langley, by Joy L. Thwaite. Drawn heavily from Langley’s own diaries and letters, it looked like an interesting read, and I sent off for a copy from a dealer in Australia.
In some ways, I found The Importance of Being Eve Langley even more remarkable than The Pea Pickers — even though the novel is utterly unlike any book written by a woman I’ve ever read. Langley seems never to have stopped writing, even when she was confined in the mental hospital. As Thwaite puts it, both of Langley’s two published books were taken from the “diaries, letters, poems, and jottings from her interminable stock of scribblings,” and this output flowed on to at least ten other unpublished books. Yet, as Thwaite observes early on, “It is never wise to trust absolutely in Langley’s voice.” Whether or not she was mentally ill, Langley was certainly prone to wild flights of imagination and appears to have had a relatively loose understanding of what other people would consider normal behavior.
Langley was born in at a cattle station in New South Wales in 1904. Her father was an itinerant farm worker who died when Eve was still a girl, and her mother raised Eve and her sister June while managing a small hotel in Crossover, a small town in Victoria. Although Eve’s education was incomplete, she was, as her biography Joy L. Thwaite, puts it, “a precocious and omniverous reader, a weaver of tales, a haunter of libraries.” By the time she was 20, one of her favorite amusements was to imagine herself the incarnation of some great writer she had been reading, such as John Keats or Francois Rabelais. Eve herself only half-jokingly referred to her reading as a medical treatment: “My early arnicas of Mathew Arnold, small balsams of Wide, Rabelaisian cauterizers, Shavian foments and Shakespearean liniments.”
She had also formed an extravagant passion for Gippsland, the rural area of Victoria where her mother had been raised, and in 1924, she convinced her sister June to head out with her for Gippsland in hopes of getting work picking peas. “Now that we’re going to Gippsland, we said, we must put off our feminine names for ever,” declares the narrator in The Pea Pickers. And, as in the book, Eve and June dressed up in men’s overalls and took to calling themselves “Steve” and “Blue.”
Over the next four years, Steve and Blue made annual trips to Gippsland during the growing season, traveling from farm to farm, living in tents and earning poverty wages hoeing and picking crops. For Langley, the experience seems to have been more like a personal transformation than a youthful adventure. “At some part of the journey, my hereditary Gippsland mind awoke. It was a totally different apparatus to my Dandenongian mind,” she would later write in The Pea Pickers (Dandenong being the fictional stand-in for Crossover).
Eve tried to make a go as a farmer herself, but was too likely to become diverted by her reading and writing to keep a successful crop going. In 1932, she moved to Auckland, New Zealand, where June and her mother had settled. She began getting poems published in literary magazines, but also had a disastrous affair with an Italian car salesman that resulted Eve becoming pregnant and giving the child up for adoption.
Several years later, she became infatuated with an artist named Hilary Clark. Clark was eleven years younger than her and more interested in men than women, but the two ended up marrying and Eve had three children by him over the next four years. (Their names were Bisi Arilev, Langley Rhaviley and Karl Marx.) They were separated and she was keeping the first two children in squalid conditions and pregnant with the third when she began writing The Pea Pickers. She typed it on cheap paper a friend had given her and couldn’t afford to buy a new ribbon when the text began to be illegible. Nevertheless, she finished the book and mailed it off to Sydney as an entry for the S. H. Prior Memorial Prize competition.
At Sydney publishers Angus and Robertson, a very large package containing a manuscript by “Gippsland Overlander” (the competition required all entries be submitted under pseudonyms) arrived in June 1940. As Jacqueline Kent writes in her biography of one of A&R’s most influential editors, Beatrice Davis: Backroom Girl of Modern Literature, “It was an editor’s nightmare — typed in single space on flimsy pink paper with a faded ribbon, words drifting off the edge of the page….”
Yet the readers quickly recognized that this was a novel of unique energy, language, and imagery. Langley’s descriptions of the Gippsland countryside, the sunrises and sunsets, the smells on the breeze were of exceptional intensity. At the same time, the headstrong personalities of Steve and Blue, never quite blending with those of the other farm workers, made for some wonderful absurd human comedy — as in this scene, when Steve and Macca, the man for whom she’s formed an overwhelming passion, go to bed for the first time.
We tiptoed into the hut and lay decorously on the bed. Excited by the events of the night, I tossed beside him and could not sleep. I wished to talk of verse and cry out passages of the Aeneid all night. He began to breathe with a monotonous regularity, slowly and evenly, opposing my short passionate breath. His calm animal sound maddened me, at last. I could not bear it. I appeared to be breathing my life away, two to his one. Then he snored faintly. Enough! I struck him sharply.
“Go home! I cannot sleep. If you won’t talk to me of the Aeneid, go home!”
Sitting up on the straw mattress, his figure black against the wirenetting window and the bilious clayey light of the moon, he said cruelly, “Steve, you’re a little cow!”
“Then, O, to be in India where they worship them,” said I. “There I could eat milk tins in the very streets, and wear a hat on my horns and who would dare to cry me nay?”
“I’m going home. It must be nearly daybreak.”
Not all the judges were as impressed, however, and in the end, the prize for 1940 was split three ways between The Pea Pickers, Kylie Tennant’s novel, The Battlers, and a biography of an early governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie: His Life, Adventures and Times, by M. H. Ellis. Angus and Robertson took the rights to publish Langley’s novel, but a great deal of editing was required to get the material into publishable shape. They also sold the U. S. rights to by Dutton, which didn’t publish it until 1945, as Not Yet the Moon.
Before the book was released in Australia, however, Angus and Robertson received a letter from the Public Trustee Office in Auckland, stating that Eve Langley, a “married woman, a mentally defective person” had been committed to the Auckland Mental Hospital by her husband. Both Langley and her husband appear to have had extreme paranoid reactions to the possibility of Japanese attack on New Zealand and took their children out on a small sailboat they owned, looking for places their might hide. During one stormy night, Langley spilled boiling water on at least one of the children and all three were taken into custody by a nurse who knew the family. Her husband became concerned about her stability, particularly because he was expected to be called up for service, and he arranged for her to be committed for observation. Langley would spend the next seven years in the hospital, and during that time, A&R heard nothing from her.
Then, in 1950, June 1950, she was released in custody of her sister June, who secured her a position in the book binding shop of the Auckland Public Library. A&R editor Davis wrote expressing her happiness at receiving the news and inquired if Langley had been able to do any writing during her confinement. A year later, Langley replied that her new book, White Topee, was progressing well, and she sent it to the publisher in 1953.
In her report on the book, A&R editor Nan McDonald wrote, “This novel, pruned and condensed, would certainly be worth publishing. It is written with Eve Langley’s characteristic brilliance and originality and no one else could have written it. But I am afraid that no amount of editing will be able to make it as good as The Pea Pickers.” White Topee (I link here to AddAll.com, since the only copy currently on Amazon goes for over $3,500!) was eventually published in 1954.
It did not repeat the success of The Pea Pickers. Reviews were few and unenthusiastic: “Not so much a novel as a marvelous oddity,” wrote one reviewer. Like The Pea Pickers, it drew heavily on the Gippsland experience and on all the materials Langley had written about it over the years. Even before White Topee was published, however, Langley sent A&R another manuscript, Wild Australia.
This time, the A&R editors found it hard to be be charitable. One called the book “dazzlingly irrational.” “Many pages were devoted to Eve’s account, as Oscar Wilde, of a trip she and her lover Lord Alfred Douglas made to Cairo so that Eve/Oscar could be operated on to become female.” When Nan McDonald wrote to say that A&R would be returning the manuscript, Eve wrote back in panic, “Nan McDonald, DEAR Nan McDonald I AM OSCAR WILDE AND YOU’RE KILLING ME… And I hate being Oscar Wilde because NO ONE WANTS OSCAR WILDE… Dear Nan, please reconsider your most awful decision and don’t send that book. O I know what death is now….”
Nevertheless, she proceeded to send yet another manuscript, Bancroft House, to A&R and a year later, another titled Somewhere East of Suez. She continued to believe that her work was something the publisher would be thrilled to receive. It was clear from her correspondence, however, that Eve was spiraling out of control:
I am just going to pack up the latest book “Last, Loneliest, Loveliest,” and send it over to you. It’s all about my life over on the North Shore in Auckland and full of rich warm glowing material from a journal kept in those days of marriage to an artist husband and a batch of children as well…. you will get “The Land of the Long White Cloud” soon. Then comes “Demeter of Dublin Street”, followed by “The Colossus of Rhodes Street”, then “The Old Mill”…. then after this one comes “Remote, Apart” to be followed by “Portrait of the Artist at Chelsea” and then “The Saunterers” and “Beautiful Isles of the Sea” and lastly “Apollyon Regius”…. Two books come in between, introducing to you “The Land of the Long White Cloud” and these are “The Nimrod Type” and “The Australian” … so that’s eight to come, no nine with “Golden Wattle Warriors”, no eleven with “The Nimrod Type” and “The Australian”.
“This is IMPOSSIBLE,” one A&R reader wrote. Nan McDonald quipped in one report that “seven full-length works are too much Eve Langley for anyone to take in a few months without indigestion.” Beatrice Davis tried, however, to let Langley down gently, writing, “Heaven knows when we shall be able to publish all these so attractively titled novels.”
In 1960, Eve moved back to Australia. She bought a house — barely more than a shack — near Katoomba, a town in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Langley referred to it as “Iona Lympus,” and began planning a trip to Greece, where she hoped to commune with the spirits of Homer and other ancient Greeks. By now, she had taken to wearing men’s clothes all the time. One of her closest acquaintances and most loyal supporters during this time, Hal Porter describes a typical Langley outfit:
… dressed in a navy-blue chalk-stripe double=breasted suit a la [Australian prime minister Robert] Menzies, and what I call a publican’s cardigan, one of those maroon and fawn things, and a tie with stripes across it. She had quite small feet in boots, they must have been schoolboy’s shoes she bought. Over this she had flung a very long fur coat, ankle-sweeping, quite an opulent one, made of black cat or some strange material. And topping all this, a white topee.
Davis helped Eve apply for a pension as an invalid, which provided pretty much the only income she had. She had a few poems published, but, as Thwaite puts it, “was living for the most part on fish and chips, cakes, muscatel and Penfolds wine.” In September 1965, Angus and Robertson received a letter from the Australian ambassador to Greece reporting that Langley had been found penniless in Athens and inquiring if she had any means of support. Eve had convinced herself that she could work picking grapes for a Greek winery and somehow managed to pay for a berth on a freighter to Athens. She enjoyed the trip tremendously, but was also, based on her journals from the time, hallucinating wildly, seeing a various times Nazi warships and ancient Greek and Egyptian vessels out in the sea around her. She lost most of her luggage after disembarking in Piraeus, and within a few weeks was surviving by scavenging food from back alleys.
Davis and other friends managed to collect and send her several hundred pounds, but the embassy put her on a plane back to Sydney in December. Back home, she continued to decline into fantasies. She thought she could transform her shack into a Greek temple. She was convinced that German soldiers were moving through the woods around her. She treated her colds and aches with home-made remedies involving treacle, kerosene and eucalyptus bark. Yet she managed to arrange a trip to New Zealand to visit her daughter in 1968, although her eccentricities soon pushed filial piety past the breaking point. An old friend who saw her during the visit recalled her “as someone living quite outside reality.”
When Eve returned to her house in Katoomba, it had been ransacked, though little of value had been taken. Eve was convinced an elderly neighbor was the culprit, however, and she smashed the woman’s door with a golf club. She began to carry on conversations with an imaginary companion named “Albi.” She collected little dolls, dressed them up, and sent photographs of them to her daughter. And the whole time she continued to record everything meticulously in her diary — which is how we know so much about her last years.
In 1974, a social worker was sent to check on Langley after a neighbor noticed that her mailbox was filling up. She found Langley’s body on the floor of her shack, beginning to decompose, her face partly gnawed by rats. The coroner estimated her time of death as a month earlier. Among her papers was found a notebook whose last entry was dated a few months before her death:
Dear god of the planet Mars, how
how you are!
Your dear girl weeps
but I feel sleepy and
soon will sleep.
Steve Langley, Igh, Infelia Dido, of thought
The Importance of Being Eve Langley came out fifteen years after Eve’s death, but it seems to have been a little ahead of its time and has never been reissued. However, as acceptance of cross-dressing, transgender, and “fluidly gendered” people has grown, interest in Eve’s life and work has begun to grown. The Pea Pickers is now well-established as an Australian classic, even making it to #5 on a list of candidates for the Great Australian Novel. And several plays have been written to celebrate her unique life and character. Margi Brown Ash, an Australian therapist and actress, has performed a one-woman show, “Eve,” in several countries. Ash refers to Eve as “the character I keep returning to again and again … for she is the voice of the invisible female artist of the Australian landscape.”