On the trail of Jessie Traill
It’s a little nerve-wracking talking with students that are studying one of your books.
I’ve been lucky that so many schools have picked up my novels as set texts. The feedback is always fascinating and listening to students discuss which characters they like most and which they like least is oddly thrilling. But I’m always aware that having to pick apart a book for English assignments risks taking away some of the pleasure of reading a novel.
Last week I spoke at two of Haileybury College’s campuses where the Year 8 girls are studying my novel ‘The Year it All Ended‘. The book seems to stand up to the challenge of being studied, perhaps because of the many layers of research that went into its creation, though I’m always aware that the students didn’t choose it. I’ve talked to thousands of Year 8-10 students about researching that book; my travels
in South Australia, France, Belgium and Germany and there’s never enough time to cover everything. For the first time last week, I discussed the inspiration that Jessie Traill provided in the writing of ‘The Year it All Ended’.Now I’m sorry I haven’t talked or written about her before now. Conjuring her to an audience brought her back to me, bright and vivid.
Jessie Traill was a prolific and talented 20th Century Melbourne artist.She was a contemporary and friend of my grandmother and my father took me to visit her studio in Berwick in the 1960s, not long before Jessie died. We sat on a picnic rug laid down on the long, overgrown yellow grass in her wild garden and ate stale, sugary biscuits. I remember being in awe of Jessie’s fierceness, her beautiful art and her eccentric attitude to small children. I never forgot her.
Jessie was one of several independent women painters that influenced the creation of the character ‘Big’ in my novel ‘The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie‘. She was never adequately recognised in her lifetime, though the National Gallery of Australia honoured her recently with a retrospective of her beautiful prints, some of which you can see here: Stars in the River
The State Library of Victoria holds a collection of Jessie Traill’s papers, photos and postcards and I drew on them when writing ‘The Year it All Ended’.
Jessie served as a VAD in WW1 and her descriptions of being in Rouen in Northern France in 1918 helped me imagine what it would have been like for my character, Tiney, to see those landscapes. The SLV have made a video using Jessie’s writings and images as part of their ‘Writing the War’ exhibition that illustrates the power of Jessie’s gift for capturing the world around her in both words and illustration. Watch it here: Writing the War
Jessie Traill lived a big life. She was generous, adventurous and creative. Although I knew her only fleetingly, her story is deeply threaded into mine, her life has fed into my novels, her influence has stretched across generations. Students often ask me where do I get ideas for stories and I try to explain that each and every one of us is surrounded by inspiring characters. Jessie Traill is only one of a legion of women who spent their lives loving, caring and making things of great beauty but whose stories haven’t been told often enough.