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Painted Clay by Capel Boake
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Painted Clay (1917)

by Capel Boake

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This is one of those books I spotted and, though I knew nothing of the author, though I could read nothing into the title, I picked it up because it was an original green Virago Modern Classics.

I learned that that Capel Boake was Australian, a poet and the author of four novels, and that this, her first novel, drew on her own experiences as a shop-girl and an officer-worker in Melbourne, in the years leading up to the Great War.

And I learned that the title was taken from a poem:

“Shall we weep for our idols of painted clay,
Salt dews of sorrow the sere blooms wetting?
Gods of the desert of dreadful day,
Give us the gift of a great forgetting.”
(Marie Pitt)

Helen Somerset had a lonely childhood, living with her troubled, embittered father, in a suburaban home that was just a little less well kept, just a little less well loved than the houses that stood around it. His actress wife had left him, he dismissed her as ‘painted clay’, he was determined that his daughter would not go the same way; and so he educated her at home, he kept her close, and he let her believe that her mother was dead.

When Helen learned that her mother was alive, that her father took her away from her mother, and did everything in his power to keep them apart, she was devastated. She lost all of the faith that she had in her father, she railed against him; she blamed him, and she blamed her mother for not trying hard enough to keep her. And she realised that she was alone, that she had to work toward getting a job, and becoming independent.

Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, Helen’s father died. She leant on the family next door, who she knew a little, and grew to love being in a warm family home for the first time. She chose to board with them rather than with her uncle who wanted her and his wife who clearly did not. They drew her into their world; she formed a close bond George, a cousin who was close to the family, she was treated as another sister by two daughters who were close to her in age, and she appreciated the care and concern that Mr and Mrs Hunter gave her.

She realised that her job as a shop-girl would not bring her the independence she craved, and that she and the Hunter girls faced the same limited choices, between marriage and restricted lives spent in shops, offices and boarding houses. But she believed that there was something out there for her. She found a better job in an office, and she moved into a boarding-house.

A new friend drew her into a Bohemian circle of aspiring artists. She was painted, and she was drawn into a relationship with the man who bought her portrait. Helen loved the freedom, the independence, the joy in living, that she found in her new world, but she had a nagging fear that she was becoming ‘painted clay’, just like the mother who had abandoned her.

This is a very readable story, told with wonderful clarity in straightforward sentences, and more than once I put the book down surprised at how much I had read. It walks the line between ‘ordinary’ and ‘interesting’ beautifully.

Helen was a rather prickly character, but I understood why, and I always understood what drove her and why she did the things she did. It was the same with the characters around her. The relationships were very well drawn, especially the relationships between Helen and the different members of all, and I think the finest writing in the book came as the relationship between Helen and the man who bought her picture became strained.

But it was the setting that brought the story to life, and they were so real, so naturally and effortlessly described. Time and place were beautifully realised. The themes, of isolation, of restricted lives, were threaded through the story just as naturally.

I was only disappointed that just as I was preparing to describe this book as ‘a simple, quiet story, very well told’ it stumbled into melodrama. Helen recognised her mother’s name on a theatre poster, and though their meeting and their subsequent, difficult relationship rang true, the telling was too fast too overwrought. And then the ending, with the coming of war, came much too quickly.

But I’d still say that this was a very good book, for the picture it paints of a particular place, a particular time, and a particular young woman, as she looks for her path in life and her place in the world. ( )
1 vote BeyondEdenRock | Nov 20, 2015 |
Set in Melbourne Australia in the years before the First World War Painted Clay is the story of a young girl growing to maturity and finding her way in the world in which she lives. It portrays brilliantly the bustle of city life, with its differing sections of society. The author – Capel Boake was the pseudonym for the little known author and poet Doris Boake Kerr(1899-1945).
Helen Somerset is just sixteen as the novel opens. She lives with her father in a nice suburb of Melbourne in a house that is rather less well cared for than the others in the street.
“At the end of the street stood a house of a slightly different appearance. It looked more careless and more haphazard, and the blinds and the window curtains showed no evidence, as the others did, of a careful housewife. Someone had evidently made an effort to make a garden, and then, tiring of it suddenly, left off. For the ground in front was half dug up and a few plants put in, and then left to grow carelessly among the thick, rank weeds that now overgrew all the plots. A few lilies bloomed spasmodically, and in the spring one side of the house was a riot of wisteria blossom and banksia roses.”
Her father is a hard and bitter man, and thus her life with him is an unhappy one. Helen’s beautiful mother is absent, she betrayed Helen’s father years earlier, this has soured his whole life since and he fears that he can see too much of her mother in Helen. Helen’s view of her father is changed dramatically when she learns that her mother is not dead as she had always believed, but that her father cruelly took her away from her mother as punishment. Just as Helen is starting to think she may like to get a job and become more independent of her father, he dies suddenly.
Helen’s world changes overnight, at first she stays with the neighbours she has recently struck up a friendship with, developing a particular friendship with George a good looking young office worker. His cousins and aunt take Helen to their hearts and Helen becomes deeply involved with their lives and loves. When George leaves to go away to work, Helen strikes up a correspondence with him, but soon begins to miss him less. Later after working in a shop, and then taking work in an office, Helen gets a taste of boarding house living and with her new friend Ann launches herself upon bohemian society and experiences the free love that many of her new friends practise. She is soon to find that this supposed freedom comes as a price in the society in which she is living.
“She looked up at him laughing, but under his steady gaze the laughter left her lips. She remembered her secret and a terror lest he should by some chance read it in her face, came over her. “I’m afraid of someone coming” she said hastily, glancing at the door”
I thoroughly enjoyed this lovely novel. It is not as literary perhaps as some other novels of this period; the prose is less flowery and more straightforward. The characters however are on the whole well developed and the character of Helen in particular explored with depth and insight. Much of the novel is apparently based largely on Doris Baoke Kerr’s own experiences. The reader watches Helen change from a self-doubting awkward young girl, to a spirited modern young woman.
“Other people might grow old and faded with monotonous life, but not she. In her heart she cherished a dream that the gods held something wonderful in store for her” ( )
  Heaven-Ali | Sep 13, 2012 |
First published in 1917. Set in Melbourne, which is lovingly described. After a sad and restrictive upbringing, Helen Somerset gains her independence. Women's lives were hard, their only choices marriage or menial, underpaid work. The story was entertaining, and I hoped that life would work out well for Helen, but the pictures of the city and the lives of working women were what held my interest. ( )
1 vote pamelad | Aug 3, 2009 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Capel Boakeprimary authorall editionscalculated
Downer, ChristineIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Proctor, TheaCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Years ago the suburb of Packington had been a stretch of green, hilly land, covered with gum trees, overlooking the Port Phillip Bay, and Melbourne.
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"Other people might grow old and faded with a monotonous life but not she. In her heart she cherished a dream that the gods held something wonderful in store for her."

Helen Somerset feels stifled by her loveless home with a repressive father who fears that, like her absent mother, she may be only "painted clay." She wants to know life beyond the confines of Packington, a Melbourne suburb overlooking Port Phillip Bay. And when she is sixteen her father dies, releasing Helen to seek the affection and independence she has been denied. With a clerical job and a room in a lodging house Helen launches herself into the excitement of Bohemian life and free love--only to discover that this liberation has a double edge.
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