Loaded Words: The Yarra Valley Writers Festival

When my nephew Harry was in Prep, a kid in his class roughed him up from time to time, and destroyed his things, including a craft project he’d spent considerable time on.

My sister eventually went to see the school principal, who listened to an account of what had happened, then said, ‘In this school, we believe in fostering resilience.’

There was an odd gap here, which should have been filled with something like, ‘I’m sorry that happened to Harry. I hope he’s OK. We’ll do what we can to stop this from happening again.’

Resilience is a handy cover: it seems that when people ask others to be resilient, they often mean that they want them to put up with circumstances they wouldn’t themselves enjoy.

The word has become slippery—it’s a shapeshifter, not to be trusted.

So at first I was dismayed to see that Resilience was the theme of my local writers festival this year. Had an arts festival embraced resilience as an uncomplicated good and a virtue to which we should all aspire?

No, thank goodness.

‘When we were coming out of last year and into this year, internationally and locally there were people just bandying the word “Resilience” around in a way that worried me,’ festival founder Brook Powell told me. ‘“We’ve all got to be more resilient. If we’ve all got something out of this experience it’s finding our resilience.”’

‘To me it’s been so much to so many different people,’ she said. ‘It’s not just about those great big stories that make movies. For some people resilience is being able to get up every day.’

Brook knows a bit about hanging in there when times get challenging: last year the inaugural festival had to switch from live events to digital delivery with only a few weeks’ notice when Melbourne’s lockdown was announced in late March.

The writers were very supportive and the festival proceeded with most of the original participants, including Helen Garner, Christos Tsiolkas and David Williamson.

‘People were really fragile in that first lockdown’, Brook said. ‘There was a lot of fear. I just felt that if we were in a position to allay some of that, then we should.’

I should have known that a person who founded a writers festival would have nuanced ideas about loaded words.

Through lockdown last year, and through the latest lockdown this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about Anne Elliott, the protagonist of Jane Austen’s last completed novel, Persuasion.

Anne stands apart from most other Austen heroines because of her solitude. She lives with her vain and self-regarding father and her chilly elder sister, Elizabeth. Her fretful and hypochondriacal younger sister, Mary, is married and lives nearby. Anne is a favourite with Mary’s in-laws, the boisterous Musgroves, whose whole world inheres in their local patch. They are not particularly sympathetic companions to sensitive, intelligent Anne.

Years ago Anne had broken off her engagement to young naval officer Frederick Wentworth on the advice of her well-meaning neighbour, Lady Russell, a friend of her late mother’s. Even though Anne and Wentworth were ‘deeply in love’, Lady Russell persuaded Anne that the engagement was ‘a wrong thing’—that it was wrong to allow a man as young as Wentworth then was, ‘with only himself to recommend him’ (i.e. who had no money), to take on the responsibility of supporting a wife.

Hurt and incredulous, Wentworth left the neighbourhood and went away to sea.

The novel opens eight years after this rupture. Anne’s feckless father has to let his house and move somewhere cheaper so that he can reduce his debts. His tenants are Admiral Croft and his wife, Sophy, who is Captain Wentworth’s sister. This brings Wentworth back into Anne’s orbit. He becomes friendly with Mary’s husband, Charles Musgrove, and his sisters, Louisa and Henrietta.

Soon enough they hit on the idea of travelling to Lyme Regis together to visit Wentworth’s navy friends. When the visitors arrive, they are warmly welcomed. It is plain that Wentworth’s friends are delighted to see him.

Seeing their relaxed and happy reunion, Anne is stricken with a realisation:

These would have been all my friends’, was her thought; and she had to struggle against a great tendency to lowness.

Jane Austen

Anne’s struggle here is acute. How different the past eight years would have been for her, with not only a loving husband but also sympathetic and cheerful friends.

The struggle against lowness is one that most of us have had to engage in during the past eighteen months. It is very hard to keep your spirits up and just keep going when things are uncertain for a long, long time.

But it’s also been an opportunity to realise that for some people this is no aberration, but the norm. People on low, precarious incomes, those who are held in immigration detention and those who live with ill health dwell in a shadow land where the circumstances are very difficult and no end to their distress is in sight.

Brook hopes the festival discussions will proceed from this understanding.

‘Last year many people explored parts of themselves that they possibly wouldn’t have had to before’, she said. ‘[The festival theme came] out of an instinct of protection for those who have always had to be in that space of “finding their resilience” and “digging deep” and all of those clichés that were coming out.’

‘Don’t forget the people who have been living like this forever.’

The Yarra Valley Writers Festival, with guests including Aunty Joy Wandin, Helen Garner, Meg Mason, Tony Birch, Alice Pung, Louise Milligan and Arena’s Guy Rundle, will be held in Warburton from 16 to 18 July. Digital access to events is also available.

The podcast I Didn’t Plan It That Way, a collaboration between the festival and The First Time podcast, is available now. Hosted by Kate Mildenhall, author of The Mother Fault and cohost of The First Time, and with guests including Sally Hepworth and Rick Morton, the series explores writing projects that didn’t turn out as hoped.

Against Resilience

Paul James, Sep 2020

In our topsy-turvy world…the ‘abnormal’ has become ‘normal’, to be resilient is now to be relatively comfortable with unsustainable degrees of madness and change.

About the author

Sarah Bailey

Sarah Bailey is a writer and IPEd-accredited editor from Melbourne. She holds degrees in law and English from Monash University and has worked in publishing for nearly 20 years. She is Assisting Editor to Arena’s various publications.

More articles by Sarah Bailey

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