In a media-soaked world obsessed with lifestyles of the rich and famous, we are in danger of forgetting that the most intriguing stories are those of so-called “ordinary” people.
I believe that every life is extraordinary, but it takes a real story teller to write it down in a way that is exciting, yet which readers can identify with.
This is what Kate Llewellyn does in her autobiography The Dressmaker’s Daughter: a memoir (Pymble: Fourth Estate). From the beginning, I could hardly put this book down. And yet, I’ve had it since it was published in 2008, sitting in the bookcase, waiting for me. I bought it at a writer’s festival where Llewellyn was speaking, and I was so fascinated by her that I bought her book of memoirs. Then I forgot to read it.
In 2008, I didn’t have an ereader, but I’m glad I have the hard copy. For a start, it has a lovely tactile cover, like a piece of lace festooned with a maroon ribbon and dressmaker’s pins holding up old photographs on front and back.
On the back cover is an enticing quotation: “The feel of the cold steel of her scissors clipping around my armpits felt dangerous and lovely. The cloth fell in slivers around my socks”.
Llewellyn was born in 1936 at Tumby Bay, on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. She started her adult life as a nurse, then married and went into the art gallery business with her husband, Richard Llewellyn. That sounds interesting enough, but add to that the fact that her husband had been paralysed by polio as a young man and was in a wheelchair, and you know their life together must have had extraordinary challenges.
Intriguingly though, in her matter-of-fact style, Llewellyn shows that at its essence, it is the story of two people and the path of their relationship, regardless of whether they are disabled or able-bodied. First is romance, then disapproval from many around her who think she is making a mistake in her choice of partner. They marry anyway, then there are children and the trials of making a living, Llewellyn’s mental illness and recovery, and, ultimately, the sad breakdown of the marriage. It’s not what you might expect: Llewellyn’s husband fell in love with someone else and ended it.
That is not the end of the story, though. After they divorced in 1972, Llewellyn went to university, graduating in 1978 at the age of 42 with a BA. While still a student, she became a poet and went on to write about 20 books, including non-fiction works on gardening and travel. Her path to becoming a writer is inspiring and shows we don’t know how good we might be at something until we try it.
One of my favourite parts of the book comes at the beginning, and is the evocative description of a hot summer at Tumby Bay in 1941, when “day after day it was forty degrees”:
“There were no angles except where the jetties joined the beach. Everything was curved and everything was bright. The light went on all day and the sun bore down, peeling our noses, bleaching our hair and, when we played in the sea in our bathers, turning the tops of our shoulders red. My brothers seldom wore shoes and everybody learnt to swim without being taught. One day, we could dog-paddle and the next we could swim.” (Llewellym 2008: 4).
This book is 427 pages, but when it ended, I wished it were twice as long. I think it’s because Llewellyn never gets bogged down in details. It is, rather, scenes from a life both ordinary and extraordinary, told in a simple, honest style. Llewellyn doesn’t big-note herself, but nor does she put on a self-deprecating or insincerely humble manner.
I highly recommend this book, particularly to those who are trying to write their own memoirs.