A review of The Steele Diaries by Wendy James

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Steele Diaries
By Wendy James
Vintage Books (Random House)
361 pp, Paperback, ISBN: 9781740513845, RRP: $32.95, May 2008

There’s something powerful about the diary as a narrative form. Perhaps it’s that sense that we’re peering into something forbidden – a secret world created by, and only for, the self. In The Steele Diaries Wendy James makes that clear, right from the start. As soon as we begin reading Zelda Steele’s diary, we are told that this is “top secret”, and that we must stop reading “NOW”. We are (hyper)aware of course that we are not actually meant to stop reading, so our mandated trespass begins the novel with a hint of subversion. In addition to the tension created by the diary form, the narrative also moves the diary which is set between the 1950s to the 1970s, and the present day, present tense of Ruth, Zelda’s daughter. Ruth is a busy doctor who has just lost her father. Ruth’s ambivalence towards these diaries, which have just been found; her ambivalence towards her mother; and the tension as she comes to term with the mysteries they reveal, are felt by the reader, who is placed in the same position of slow discovery as Ruth. The narrative structure is not particularly complex – it’s clear when we are with Zelda and when we are with Ruth, but in the hands of a lessor author, the transition between timeframes, narrative structures, and voices might have seemed clumsy. James handles it beautifully. It is the tension between these characters that drives the book forward.

Zelda Steele, whose diaries we are privy to as she moves from age 14 to age 25, is the daughter of two famous artists, Annie Swift and Ed Steele. Although this clearly isn’t the Arkey Whiteley story, it’s hard not to think of Brett and Wendy Whiteley and the Sydney art scene of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Both artists are modernists, and Ed Steele, the “Wild Colonial Boy” is one of Australia’s most famous modernists. Zelda’s parents have allowed her to be brought up by their patrons, Jules and Paul, who load her with expectations, their own desires and frustrations, and struggle to provide the kind of nurturing and parenting she needs.

The novel is easy to read and moves quickly, effortlessly creating that fictive dream that makes for a pleasurable reading experience, but this is anything but a lighthearted read. The complexities of parenting, the shifting trends of the art world, the struggle to balance self-actualisation and artistic fulfilment with responsibility and love, the way we create and define ourselves, and the relationship between the interior world and the exterior one are all covered with great subtlety and depth. Both Zelda and Ruth are well developed characters who move around one another in a double helix of love and tension. Although we don’t see them together at any moment in the narrative, there is a thread that ties them strongly – the mother/daughter bond that underpins this novel and begins a palpable transformation in Ruth as she discovers her suppressed maternal line. Ruth, in effect, “comes of age” – that is, she moves into mid-life at the same time as her mother comes into adulthood in the diaries:

It is as if I am resisting something, as if my urge to know my mother isn’t strong enough to dispel my unconscious fear of being sucked into some netherworld, abducted like Persephone – or that gazing back, I will be turned into a pillar of sale like Edith, Lot’s wife. (159)

There are other relationships flowing between the narrative structure. There is Ruth’s relationship with her father, Zelda’s relationships with her parents, with Douglas, the handsome art teacher and her mother’s biographer, who ties the generations together in a strange, detached way, and there is Zelda’s connection with her patrons. The mingling of their generosity and clumsy hunger also provides narrative tension and she continually feels her inability to please her patron Jules. Although it is the powerful characterisation that forms the focal point of this novel, the setting is also rich and well researched. James weaves the settings of Ed’s hometown in Boolah NSW, Helicon, Zelda’s boarding school, Sydney in the 1960s, Ruth’s present day, and Annie’s artworld of the 1930s together very well. Zelda’s awakening comes amidst the reverse prejudice against romanticism that she encounters amongst her patrons and parents, against the muse inspired “Universal Principals of Art” that she learns at Helicon. Throughout the novel, the tension between desire and obligation, between doing the ‘right thing’, and doing the exciting thing plays out in various guises. It’s a theme that James explores in each of her female characters, as their different responses to the issues play against the character development.

The men tend to take a back role in this novel, although they too provide a kind of antistrophe to the female voices, and a foil against which to build or stifle a career. But there are no absolutes in The Steele Diaries. There are multiple secrets to uncover, and perspectives to change. The characters are both more and less than we think they are, and it is the uncovering of facets of Ruth, Zelda, Annie, and to a lesser extent, Douglas, Ed, and Richard that makes this such a charming read.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup.