Fiona Wood on Robin Klein’s ‘Dresses of Red and Gold

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Reading Time is proud to publish the introduction to Robin Klein’s Dresses of Red and Gold written by the erudite Fiona Wood. Text Publishing is sending four Robin Klein’s books back out into the world with brand new covers, as part of their commitment to highlighting books from our past, and to celebrate the huge contribution Robin has made to Australian children and young adult writing community. Fiona Wood explores the ideas and themes of Dresses of Red and Gold with clarity and insight. It might be time to re-visit these books, and present them to young people in your life.

The copy is reproduced here, with permission.

IF you have ever been infuriated by a bossy, patronising older sister, or terrified wondering who or what is making that noise outside during a power blackout on a stormy night, or just so annoyed by the biggest show-off in your class, you will find, perhaps unexpectedly, that you have a whole lot in common with Robin Klein’s characters from the 1940s, the Melling sisters.

First published in 1992, Dresses of Red and Gold is the second volume of the Melling sisters trilogy. Each chapter is a complete episode, making for a book that can be happily dipped in and out of.

In Klein’s portrait of a working-class family, set in Australia in the years following the Second World War, Heather, Cathy and Vivienne continue small-town life in Wilgawa, following older sister Grace’s departure to work and live in the ‘beautiful, beautiful city’, and their father’s increasingly frequent stints away from home, looking for work. Their mother remains vague, capable, irritable and brusquely affectionate. The girls’ cousin, ‘that appalling Isobel’ is still ‘a skitey loudmouth’ and an outrageous liar.

Poverty and misfortune are favourite conditions in children’s fiction. It is satisfying seeing characters overcoming seemingly insurmountable difficulties. From fairy tales to books such as Eve Garnett’s The Family from One End Street and E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children, impoverished circumstances, or even a downturn in fortune for a family, always hooked me into a story as a young reader; I was prompted to ask what I would do, and how I would cope, if that happened to me.

The material poverty of the Melling family’s circumstances makes the modern-day life of an equivalent family look luxurious by comparison. Clothes, usually homemade, are passed along from sister to sister until they’re threadbare, toast is spread with pan drippings, not butter, dolls made from wooden pegs are treasured, and there is no money for non-essentials such as piano lessons or real coffee. Treats are infrequent special occasions. At home, children are slapped, threatened, bullied and insulted, without a thought to injured self-esteem or resilience.

Robin Klein manages to flavour even dire struggles with humour. In ‘An Act of Luminous Goodness’, Vivienne imagines being the single-handed saviour of the impoverished Gathin family (‘…there’s only one word to describe you, Vivienne Melling—you’re a saint!’). Klein offers us a very human and relatable Vivienne, as she wavers between altruism and selfishness, and concludes that saintliness is not ‘all it was cracked up to be’.

Living in a small community—‘the most boring little place in the whole world’, according to Grace— calls for constant resourcefulness and improvisation, never more so than in finding romance. In ‘A Gift from the Rajah’, Heather is inspired to participate in the parish Home Visiting Scheme by the thought of Mr Everett’s approval, imagining him holding her hand ‘a fraction longer than usual when she volunteered’. A fanciful story from the parishioner she visits prompts further romantic imaginings that see Heather travelling to India, ‘helping thousands of suffering people’ and, naturally, attracting the attention of a young rajah.

Klein shows us the gaps between what is wished for and what is actually on offer in a way that will be familiar to every teenage reader who longs to escape the confines of reality, believing that there must be something better out there.

Allowing children to be bored is a popular piece of parenting advice these days—an antidote to over-scheduled childhoods, a stimulant to imagination, something that is never lacking in the lives of the Melling sisters. The girls imagine vivid and improbable futures. Games are original and funny: ‘Isobel, Heather and Vivienne were posted around the paddock using Heather’s semaphore flags to send insulting messages of a personal nature to each other’. Even their plans for retribution are inventive: ‘I’m going to fill a bucket with chook poo and keep it up the tree for ammunition.’

The Melling sisters’ father is a mixed blessing in their lives. Klein uses the character to illuminate the girls’ varying stages of maturity. While Grace finds him unreliable and unacceptably vulgar, Cathy still trusts him sufficiently to ask his help in saving her pride following her lies about a lavish birthday party, in ‘Treasure Hunt’. He is shown to the reader as childlike himself in ‘Wolf on the Fold’ when he, no less than the girls, squirms under the scrutiny and housekeeping rigours of Aunt Ivy, who arrives uninvited when the girls’ mother is called away from home.

Perhaps my favourite aspect of the book is the portrayal of power play, sniping and jostling for advantage between the siblings and their cousin; it all rings very true. In ‘Bridesmaid’, Vivienne jealously longs for the glamorous title role. The honour has been given to an unappreciative Cathy, goddaughter of the bride. Vivienne is not even wanted by her mother as a lowly decorations assistant: ‘Stop breathing down my neck, it’s like standing next to a llama!’

When Vivienne tries the bridesmaid dress on— imagining herself as a chestnut-haired princess—she’s caught out, called a ‘wicked little hussy’ and smacked. Undaunted, she plays every advantage in her continued attempts to get her own way. It reminded me of a thousand small battles with my own siblings, and the importance of an occasional victory.

Klein does not hesitate to push her characters— and us—into moments of excruciating discomfort. One example of this is Vivienne’s confronting exposure to the Half-Man at the Easter Show at question time the ‘silence was gluey with embarrassment’, and afterwards Vivienne feels ‘diminished by private shame’. Another, in ‘Glamour Girl’, is Isobel’s desperate attempt to retain her role as class sophisticate in the face of stiff competition from new girl, Paulette Makepiece. Robin Klein has Isobel write herself a letter, read it silently in class—ensuring she is noticed—tear it up and eat it, knowing that it will be thought to be a love letter.

But even extreme measures such as this, and claiming Ginger Rogers as a cousin, are no longer sufficient with the arrival of a popular new girl, and we prickle with discomfort at Isobel’s growing desperation to regain her status.

The three books deal with ideas around growing up, growing in self-knowledge and growing away from the family. Klein gives her characters numerous revelations and insights to illustrate such growth. Heather realises that one reason their mother wants Grace to return home from the city is so that she can contribute board to the struggling household, and the final episode of Dresses of Red and Gold, ‘Moving On’, hints at further downturns in fortune and the unforgiving winter of the third volume of the trilogy, The Sky in Silver Lace, at the end of which an austere spring arrives.

The Melling sisters books are a delight, evoking with warmth and humour the post-war world of hope and possibility, expressed through the dreams and aspirations of four girls of slender means and big ideas.

The characters—resourceful, tough, funny and irreverent—embody a romantic notion of how childhood might have been experienced in a less regulated time. In this trilogy, Klein reminds her readers to value freedom and independence in childhood, and implicitly tells us that human worth does not depend on material circumstances, a particularly relevant message for readers at a time when our appetite for disposable manufactured goods continues to threaten our planet.

 

 

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