Can a woman be a nurturing mother as well as a great artist? Or must she sacrifice all for her art, “lashing herself to the mast” and setting off in pursuit of her creative ideals? That is the question posed by Wendy James in her latest novel, The Steele Diaries.
The book tells the story of Zelda Steele, the only child of two famous but self-absorbed artists, who is adopted out to her parent’s patrons as a baby. Great things are expected of Zelda, but at twenty-seven she is dead, leaving behind two young children and a body of work that only hints at her promise. The novel begins years later, when Zelda's daughter Ruth returns home to find the diaries her mother is rumoured to have kept.
Author Wendy James is a research assistant and sometime English lecturer at UNE. Her first novel, Out of the Silence, won a prestigious Ned Kelly Award for first crime novel and was shortlisted for the Nita May Dobbie Award for women's writing. Described by the Sydney Morning Herald as a stunning debute, Out of the Silence was based on actual historical events surrounding a servant girl accused of murdering her baby in 19th century Australia. The Steele Diaries also takes its inspiration from Australian history, although Ms James said this time she “didn’t set out to do an exact historical presentation”.
“The idea came from Albert Tucker and Joy Hester, a pair of famous Australian artists who gave up their child in similar circumstances,” Ms James said. “The child, a boy, was brought up by John and Sunday Reed, who were instrumental in shaping the Melbourne art scene. I just thought it was a fascinating situation, and it raised a lot of tough, interesting questions: how a woman like this could justify not having brought up her own child, and what it means not to be loved by your parents.
“I changed the boy to a girl, and transposed the action to Sydney, where I grew up, and out around Western NSW, where my family is from. I wanted it to be about places I knew.”
With four children of her own, Ms James is certainly familiar with the challenges of balancing art and motherhood, although she believes the two can be reconciled – even nurture each other – a point she said she made in the novel.
“There’s this romantic ideal that to be an artist, you have to sacrifice everything else, to commit yourself completely to your art and give up any other kind of life.
“I wanted to challenge the idea that that is the only way great art can happen. It’s difficult sometimes to balance two great passions – your art and your family – but I truly believe it can be done.”
Ms James has already begun working on her next novel, which she said would be contemporary in setting, and collection of her short stories is due to be published by University of Western Australia Press early next year.
The Steele Diaries is in bookstores now.