Hate Couture

March 5, 2001

Rosalie Ham, The Dressmaker, Sydney: Duffy & Snellgrove: 2000

Reviewed by Neralie Hoadley

DressmakerThe Dressmaker is subtitled: “an Australian gothic novel of love, hate, and haute-couture” which does in fact capture its mixture of genres. The novel is set in a small town in Victoria in the 1950s (judging by the fashions described). It is gothic in the sense of being extreme in its depictions of events in the overstated manner associated with tragedy. Love is central to the intensity of feeling that drives the main narrative line, though only covered with the utmost brevity and obliqueness. Hate is essential in any good tragedy, and as this novel deals with the base motivation of revenge, hate is present in abundance. Haute couture provides Rosalie Ham with a satirical voice to lampoon rural sensibilities.

The first half of the book is intriguing: the crafting appears to avoid the development of plot.  Rather, Ham offers us a ‘peeping Tom’ perspective on small town life, moving from tableau to tableau. During this lengthy setting of scene Ham demonstrates her skills in observation of detail. She takes great care with period and place, recording brand names, merchandise, sewing patterns, styles of decor and contents of cupboards. There is nothing on the blurb to indicate whether Ham is old enough to remember these details of a now defunct life-style or whether she is reconstructing. Either way, it makes interesting reading from a social history perspective.

Ham is exploring the possible consequences for the small wheat-belt town of her imagining of the return of a glamorous outcast. As a child Tilly left Dungatar in lonely disgrace, after a death in which she was somehow implicated. She has returned with skills gained in the international fashion world. The dressmaker of the title, Tilly is a couturier who shocks the locals out of their seersuckers and ginghams into exotic styles and sumptuous fabrics. Whether this transformation is plausible or not, Ham’s premise gives her scope for evoking comic imagery based on the incongruity of all this glamour in the bucolic Shire.

Tilly has returned from Europe to Dungatar to look after her mother, ‘Mad Molly’ who is near death through the self-neglect associated with mental illness. The gloom, squalor and despair of Molly’s condition are described in Dickensian detail – the ramshackle hovel on the outskirts of town, tilting, slipping, down the hill towards the municipal tip. Molly’s status in the small community has evidently been one of clinging to the fringes. Having decided recently to stop clinging, she is nothing: human refuse. The brooding question of what could have brought Molly to this state is ever-present. We wonder why she is there, what has happened to her and what the role is of the closed-minded, hypocritical town.

Tilly’s strength of will draws her mother back from death’s brink to an engagement with life strong enough for Molly to eat, drink, decorate her wheel-chair and curse. Ham convincingly portrays Molly as ungrateful for her daughter’s ministrations. Molly responds with a foul tongue, her toxic thoughts fuelled by paranoia. Ham uses caricature as her main device for comedy and character, but with Molly, the cantankerous quirks of a real old battle-axe ring true. Ham plausibly depicts Molly’s twisted malice and grief except for a strange brief scene of conciliatory lucidity just before Molly dies.

Ham is not really interested in subtle characterisation. It is part of the gothic feel of her novel that most of the characters are caricatures for whom we feel little sympathy. Events are mysteriously ghastly, atmosphere is ominous, and there is villainy behind the door. Only the few outsiders to Dungatar are shown to have redeeming human qualities. For example, Sergeant Farrat, who shares Tilly’s passion for needlework and women’s clothing, is able to see the townsfolk with a just eye. Also, Teddy McSwinney from the poor and overpopulated family of the night cart man, is heroic, a gallant sportsman and damsel rescuer.

Presumably love motivates Tilly’s strength of purpose in caring for her mother, though there is little warmth evident in their interactions. It is certainly loss of love that triggers Tilly’s drive for revenge. The man who has just become her lover is killed by his own act of bravado. Tilly’s outrage and grief after the death propel her along the same path as her mother, the path of rancour and paucity of spirit.  But in Tilly, whilst the bitterness festers, it is disciplined by an iron will into a maintenance of apparent sanity.

Terrible things happen in this sleepy country town. Relationships are cruel and exploitative. People are narrow and hypocritical. There are in-groups and outcasts. The colour and cut of haute couture substitute for the warmth and texture of human connection. Ham plays up these aspects of Dungatar life for comic effect. Some of the story’s most tragic scenes are written in a slapstick style which leaves the reader somewhat torn. Ham also injects comic imagery into the moments of poignancy. Thus, the cross-dressing Police Sergeant ruins his frock in the rain at Molly’s funeral. And there are many comic moments in the ultimately tragic performance of ‘Macbeth’ by the townsfolk.

This is no accident. It appears that Ham is not content to write an Australian ‘Under Milk Wood’. She chooses to liven things up by dropping in a glamorous and aggrieved Lady Macbeth.

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