A Uniquely Australian Text
The Dressmaker is quintessentially Australian in nature. After all, Australia is this reviewer’s homeland. And yet at the same time it is a somewhat controversial novel. For The Dressmaker is in many regards a distasteful novel and not at all a fairytale to read. There is no happily-ever-after morality with regard to this story. It is a work designed to question and leave the reader considering what they understand and know about the nature and harms of ‘idle’ gossip. Moreover, it is a novel which challenges the very nature of life in a small country town.
The plot follows a young and talented dressmaker as she returns home to her small country town. It is written in the Gothic Australian style and follows those literary conventions. Conventions such characters who harbour dark secrets and are monstrous internally. Or eerie, brooding and malevolent landscapes – particularly countryside landscapes. Or conventions wherein the author examines the decrepit nature of society through the deterioration of a protagonist. One can see here, that unlike traditional Gothic such as Frankenstein or Dracula, Australian Gothic focuses on the internal horror of the individual. There are no jump scares, or vile monsters. Yet, darkly disturbed and psychologically shaken individuals, exist.
And The Dressmaker certainly follows these conventions – focusing on Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage as she arrives in her hometown of Dungatar. Dungatar is a town of gossip and false accusations. Rumours rule in Dungatar. When she returned here Tilly had become a celebrated and skilled dressmaker in the wider world. Regardless her ‘cursed’ childhood as the daughter of an unmarried mother led Tilly to be sent away. Returned to the backwater place of Dungatar, Tilly’s skills make her acceptable once again. For the ladies who desire to master their appearances cannot resist her flattering and sensual dresses. Once word of Tilly’s childhood rears, the town falls back into ignoring her usefulness. However tragedy strikes as regular society spurns Tilly.
The Dressmaker obsesses with the notion of tragedy. In particular, the idea of self-fulfilling prophecies. The town rejects Tilly as a ‘cursed child,’ which in turn leads to tragedy. This tragedy leads to a cycle of further rejection. A cycle which leads to a final and satisfyingly cathartic conclusion.
Equally, The Dressmaker focuses on human hypocrisy, and the prejudices and bigotry. Attitudes which foster certain behaviours and habits as more acceptable than others. Love and romance exist in The Dressmaker and spite these impoverished sensibilities.
Rosalie Ham portrays an impossible Australian town within her novel. This satirical lampooning is what creates such an Australian sentiment in the novel. It is part of Australian culture to be intentionally disrespectful towards government institutions and people in power, as part of highlighting strengths and weaknesses of the positions deserving respect. This larrikin nature of the Australian nation shines through within this text, adding to its charm.
This reviewer was privileged enough to hear Rosalie Ham speak on the novel’s success at a local town event. The author began by discussing her own personal history, and how this influenced her to write the novel. She grew up in a country town – Jerilderie – in which she personally witnessed the influence of local gossip. Nothing happened in this town without everyone knowing the intimate details. In the same way, there was only one bus in and out and whenever anyone arrived by bus it was a topic of great discussion. Regardless of these experiences, she has also pointed out that her experiences in Jerilderie were the opposite of Tilly’s in Dungatar.
The novel was a debut novel, and Rosalie Ham was fortunate enough to have written it as part of a writing course. The course pushed her to write step by step (first a 500 word summary, then 3,000, 10,000 and so on until the book was finished). She sent this book into several publishers and was lucky enough to have one publisher write back and ask to publish the novel.
Rosalie Ham discussed the changes to the film adaptation. The storyline stayed notably unchanged – with a focus on the horrible nature of the people in town. The few changes were to character depictions. And this was mainly due to the actors available for the roles. For example, Hugo Weaving did not initially fit with Ham’s view of the characters, but assisted in publicising the film.
The Dressmaker is not a happy-go-lucky narrative. It is, first and foremost, an ugly tragedy. And yet, it is a satisfying tragedy. Rosalie Ham goes to great lengths to set up Dungatar as a horrible place. A location which outwardly looks perfect, but is rotten to its core. Because of this length of description the conclusion of the novel provides satisfaction to the reader. Ultimately, The Dressmaker, may feature some clunky writing in minor places (in the way that most debut novels do). Yet, it is a narrative which in its fixation with tragedy and description, sets up moral lessons for all readers. And that is the hallmark of an excellent work of art.