Florence Taylor’s Hats by Robert Freestone and Bronwyn Hanna

Two pieces of advice: this is a serious academic work, not a light by-the-bed biography. The publishers kindly sent me a review copy upon request.

Most history work consists of revision, reassessment of what’s already there. But occasionally the historian has the opportunity to get their hands dirty, digging into the past in order to find clues, sources (not resources), unprocessed data in the field, which then has to be assembled (not reassembled) into a story. In short, one gets to drop all the ‘re’s. It becomes a task of vision and assessment. After history happens, then it is made, as if by an artist moulding clay or organising colours on a palette. The formidable list of sources reflect the work that’s gone into this book.

It’s all rather exciting and it’s onerous, not least because of the responsibility involved. Getting the interviews right because the chance might never offer itself again. Diaries, letters and the like must be found, guarded and interpreted to take their place in the story. The decisions as to what the world will see and how it will see it are yours. How heartbreaking it must have been to discover that a relative had dumped a lot of Taylor’s own collection of her past.

On top of these general concerns, is one that must have been deeply frustrating and disappointing for the authors. It transpires that the output of the architect is largely ephemeral. I hadn’t really thought about this until recently, reading about the work of Yamasaki. Imagine building the Pruitt–Igoe housing project in St. Louis only to see them demolished not so long after, followed by the demise of the Twin Towers in NY. In the case of Taylor, the authors have almost nothing to show for their attempts to seek out extant examples of her work. Adding to this issue is the practice of the work of underlings being appropriated by their seniors, common in so many fields.

Nonetheless, Taylor was prolific in so many ways that there is much referenced in this book. In her life’s work as publisher in the building industry she has left many publications behind which, surprisingly, have turned out to be less transient than bricks and mortar. She weighed into politics, administration, planning, and behind all her activities is the steady beat of her most consistent belief, that of bettering the situation of women. Even her rightwing politics don’t seem as important as her constant fight for equality of women in the work place and at home. She wanted houses designed for women in surrounds which worked for women, which permitted their lives to be easier, and paid work to be possible. Bravo Taylor!

At the time she pulled out of architecture in 1907, after constant battles against the hostile attitudes of the men who made it theirs, she got married and the start of the publishing empire was the combined effort of Florence and her husband. After he died early, that left decades where Florence did it on her own. They’d had no children because of his epilepsy. In fact, I can’t help wondering if the marriage was unconsummated – not something discussed in the book, but surely the authors must have had their questions about this too. In correspondence, interviews etc, they talk of each other as ‘mates’ in a way that seems curiously asexual and they seem close in a decidedly unromantic way, even though poems are written….

When writing such a book, how to organise it is always a dilemma. In this case the authors have chosen a number of themes. This permits the reader to be rather cursory if they please. In my case, although I was looking forward to the chapter dealing with her ideas about town planning, in fact it became evident that if you didn’t know Sydney and weren’t interested in or knowledgable about its planning, the chapter is heavy going. It is, however, important for it to be there. This is a reference book on many levels, not merely a biography. To have a record of what people were talking about, advocating for, at this level of a city’s development, the ideas which were raised, but not taken up, is imperative for a full understanding of that city. And the point should be made that although she was largely ignored at the level of decision making in Sydney, nonetheless some of her big ideas have come to pass.

Like all powerful people, Taylor was difficult and the authors don’t shirk from this. They regularly quote from the unpublished biography Kerwin Maegraith wrote in collaboration, if not collusion, with Taylor late in her life. It’s a disastrous shmaltzy piece of spin – Maegraith’s fame is as a cartoonist, so this may not be a surprise. Freestone and Hanna have put together, in contrast, a warts and all account of a woman who could feud forever – her vitriolic stand agains the Griffins was really something, the more so as they began as friends – or charm the King and Queen of England, as she did upon meeting them.

Taylor is also hard to write about because she’s all over the place. Her ideas change, her loyalties change, little is constant other than her will which she imposes over all she can. She’s indefatiguable, never says die, simply never stops until her body packs up on her completely and she spends the last years of her life more or less solitary. All this, though, from beginnings which did not augur well for her. She was a self-made person if ever there was one and it’s impossible not to respect her incredible rise in fortune.

This is a real labour of love by Freestone and Hanna, one which thoroughly deserves a place in the history of Australia. Could they have made something which was slightly more accessible whilst still being the highly useful work it is? I’d like to think so. The stars I have awarded it are for the content, not the style.

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