Reviewed by Ruth Latta
by Rosalie Ham
2000, 2015, ISBN 978-0-14-312906-6
The Dressmaker is a clever satire about village life. Though the novel is set in 1950s rural Australia, it reminds readers of hypocritical, mean-spirited microcosms everywhere. In Ham’s novel, a prodigal daughter returns to the fictional visit of Dungatar, where she gives the residents a second chance to be kind, open-minded and outward-looking. The novel opens with Sergeant Farrat, the town policeman, noticing a chic woman of thirty standing on the station platform with a portable Singer sewing machine. He recognizes her as Myrtle Dunnage and immediately thinks, “No one else knows she’s here,” an observation that instantly piques readers’ interest. Farrat offers Tilly a ride home to her mother’s decrepit house on a hilltop overlooking the town.
Myrtle, who has renamed herself “Tilly”, finds her mother suffering from dementia and the house in a state of neglect. “Look what they’ve done to you!” Tilly exclaims, another remark that stirs readers’ curiosity. As Tilly cleans up the house and bathes and feeds her mother, we sense that she has returned home not only out of daughterly concern but also for other reasons.
The author introduces the denizens of Dungatar by capturing them at telling moments that reveal their eccentricities. For instance, when Sergeant Farrat buys some gingham at the general store, we are told that people are “used to his bachelor ways”, and that he often buys material for tablecloths and curtains. Soon we learn that he has bought the fabric for a skirt.
We meet the pharmacist, Mr. Almanac, going through the envelopes of photographs back from the developing lab, looking for dirt on his neighbours. He finds a sexy shot of Mrs. Faith O’Brien posed in a revealing way near an automobile that is not her husband’s, but the butcher’s. Faith has asked Mr. Almanac for a remedy to cure an itch “down there”, and Mr. Almanac mixed abrasive cleaning powder into the salve.
Dungatar residents are cross-dressing, enjoying same-sex relationships, cheating on spouses, and abusing their spouses, but the townsfolk turn a blind eye to such shenanigans. The one thing they will not condone is unwed motherhood and illegitimacy, though, and consequently Molly Dunnage and Tilly are town pariahs. Tilly has been called “bastard” numerous times.
Like Charles Dickens, Rosalie Ham has given her characters names that reflect their personal traits. “Pratt,” the surname of the family who owns the general store, means rear-end, as in “pratfall.” Tilly, officially “Myrtle”, has a first name with positive connotations; the myrtle is a rare, beautiful fragrant evergreen. “Dunnage” her last name, refers to the mats or other material put under cargo to prevent it getting wet; it means something useful but expendable. The Dimm sisters, who hold important positions in town, are dim; indeed, the one who is postmistress and bank manager makes a serious financial mistake that has profound repercussions upon the citizenry in the end. Beula Harradine is a harridan who spreads malicious gossip. Evan Pettyman, the head of the shire council, definitely displays petty behaviour but does far worse things. Author Ham introduces him by saying that he liked “ramming his thigh between women’s legs to move them around the dance floor”. His wife, Marigold (“marry gold”) was the daughter of the shire president when Evan moved to Dungatar: “Her father left her a lot of money so Evan swept her off her feet.” Marigold has had bad nerves since the death of their son Stewart twenty years earlier.
The McSwiney family lives in a collection of shacks, house trailers and old railway cars near the town garbage dump down the hill from Molly Dunnage’s house. Their name suggests “swine”, pigs who live in mud, and indeed, Ed McSwiney, the father, drives the town’s sewage collection wagon. This large family enjoy each other’s company and are kind people; in fact, Mrs. McSwiney has been taking food to Tilly’s mother. They are looked down upon by other Dungatarians. Teddy McSwiney, the eldest son, has won local respect of Dungatar residents because he is charming, involved sports, and organizes dances and games, but he is still dismissed as “a McSwiney.”
Teddy and Tilly meet when he comes to her aid as she is salvaging a wheelchair from the garbage dump for her mother. They bond because of their shared outsider status. Their friendship is part of the rise in Tilly’s fortunes in the second or “Shantung” section of the novel. When shipments of fabric and sewing supplies begin arriving for her at the post office, local curiosity mounts. When Tilly appears with Teddy at a football club dance, wearing a striking, fitted green gown she made from fabric purchased at the Pratt store, people realize that she is an expert dressmaker. After she designs a spectacular, flattering bridal gown for the large awkward Pratt daughter, women start coming to her to ask to have sewing done.
An elegant stranger who comes to town and stays at the hotel for two days is amazed to see that “the women of Dungatar dressed astonishingly well…in luxurious frocks, showing flair in pant suits… sun frocks with asymmetrical necklines common to European couture. She went downstairs to the Ladies’ Lounge and found a group chatting at a table, drinking lemon squash and wearing Balenciaga copies with astrakhan trim.” The visitor locates Tilly and offers her a job in Melbourne, but Tilly says she can’t move anywhere because the townsfolk haven’t paid her for her work.
Tilly has transformed the lives of the Dungatar ladies. They are well-dressed in beautiful fabrics, and feel attractive and in tune with European fashion trends. Yet they do not appreciate the gift Tilly has given them; they fail to pay her or to acknowledge her work, and while their exteriors are more attractive, their hearts and minds are still competitive and snobbish. At a local dance, Beula calls Tilly a “bastard murderer” and Evan Pettyman spits on the floor near her skirt.
Though happy to be busy designing, Tilly has flashbacks to her girlhood, when Stewart Pettyman was the ringleader in bullying her. One day when they were ten he pinned her against the library wall, felt her up, then forbade her to move or he would kill her and her mother. Then he backed up and ran at her with his head lowered, intending to butt her in the belly. Tilly moved aside and he ran into the brick wall head first and was killed.
The town blamed Tilly, who was taken from her mother and sent to school in Melbourne. Later she found work in a garment factory, and subsequently, travelled to the fashion capitals of Europe where she learned to be a couturiere.
Tilly is troubled by something more than local disrespect and childhood memories. When Teddy invites her to his family Christmas party near the rubbish pit, mentioning the fun with the little kids around the tree, Tilly declines, saying, “That would break my heart,” without explaining why. Despite Tilly’s growing closeness to Teddy and her success at her craft, one senses that no conventional happy ending is in store. When another death occurs, the villagers blame her for it because she was on the scene.
In the third section, “Felt”, Tilly’s life deteriorates. Though blameless in Stewart’s death and in this recent second one, she feels under a curse – in hell. Imagery of burning furthers the impression. The McSwineys pack up and leave town, setting fire to their encampment. Then the town starts burning garbage in the rubbish pit, sending acrid smoke wafting up to Tilly’s home. A competitor in her field comes to town and sets up shop. Finally, readers learn Tilly’s secret sorrow, her mother’s earlier troubles, and the identity of Tilly’s father. When Molly dies, she vows to her mother: “Pain will no longer be our curse, Molly. It will be our revenge and our reason.” Instead of taking the Melbourne job right away, she decides to get revenge upon Dungatar. In the final section of the novel, “Brocade”, the nasty-natured Dungatar residents are the authors of their own misfortune; all Tilly does is make costumes.
Readers enjoy seeing the triumph of an underdog, particularly one who has been good to her persecutors and has given them a second chance to treat her decently. Rosalie Ham’s witty writing and clever structure make this novel exceptional. The division of the book into four sections: Gingham, Shantung, Felt and Brocade, is not just a cute way of furthering the sewing motif; rather, the names are symbolic. Gingham, a simple versatile cotton, conveys the idea of a variety of ordinary people that we meet in the first section. Shantung, a rich textured fabric woven from irregular wild silk, sums up the second section, in which Tilly’s creativity, which stems from her irregular past, makes the local women look rich and stylish. Felt, a sturdy fabric made by boiling wool fibres, fits the third section when matters come to a boiling point and Tilly has to be tough and retain her inner fibre. Opulent brocade is applicable to the last section in which Tilly crafts baroque costumes and perpetrates an elaborately textured revenge.
The Dressmaker is a delight to read. I can hardly wait to see the film.