The Babe is Wise.
Article Type: Literary essay
Subject: Feminist literature (Works)
Feminist literature (Criticism and interpretation)
Australian painting (Works)
Australian painting (Criticism and interpretation)
Australian fiction (Works)
Australian fiction (Criticism and interpretation)
Author: Cerne, Helen
Pub Date: 05/01/2010
Publication: Name: Hecate Publisher: Hecate Press Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Women's issues/gender studies Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Hecate Press ISSN: 0311-4198
Issue: Date: May-Nov, 2010 Source Volume: 36 Source Issue: 1-2
Topic: NamedWork: The Babe Is Wise (Novel); The Babe Is Wise (Novel); The Babe Is Wise (Painting); The Babe Is Wise (Painting)
Persons: Named Person: Campbell, Jean (Australian writer); Campbell, Jean (Australian writer); Campbell, Jean (Australian writer); Bryans, Lina; Bryans, Lina; Bryans, Lina
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Australia Geographic Code: 8AUST Australia
Accession Number: 246529818
Full Text: The babe is wise that weepeth being born.

(Edwin Arnold)

Way back in 1939 I wrote a novel called The Babe is Wise. It was a story about a young Russian emigree trying to settle in Australia. Written just before the war, it was one of the first pieces of fiction in this country to explore the migration experience. I was interested in writing about people from different cultural backgrounds trying to fit into Anglo-Australia. No-one remembers my books now--well, a few feminist footnote ferrets refer to me in obscure academic papers but who else? I'm forever linked with the artist Lina Bryans and her portrait of me.

By the way, I'm Jean Campbell. Lina and I were great friends but then who wasn't with her? She had a knack for friendship. In 1940 she completed my now well-known portrait and titled it after my book, The Babe is Wise. It caused quite a stir. Not the word 'babe' of course; then it was seen as an affectionate term between lovers or a compliment to a pretty woman who was attractive especially when used by the ubiquitous Yanks. After Pearl Harbour they invaded the Pacific and our lives. I was a looker as they used to say, not quite a knock out like Rita Hayworth in Gilda but I had a fine pair of pins. Yes, a babe, but never a doll, or a cupcake, let alone someone's sweetie pie, too clever and free for that. Nor a bombshell neither but I was a bit of a dish. Nowadays such terms are called sexist and offensive. No, the stir then (or should I say 'slur') was the usual palaver by male art critics saying the painting was, and I quote verbatim: 'a reversion to kindergarten principles interesting but dangerous in practice' (1)--and here's another: 'the portrait of Jean Campbell worked the crowd into a rabid discussion.' (2)

I ask you ... dangerous? Rabid frenzy? Of course, Lina laughed it all off. She knew when a painting worked and her portrait of me sure did. She said she captured my sauciness, my willingness to look anyone straight in the eye and catch a few eyes at the same time. Yes, I could call a spade a spade or, in some cases, a bloke a proper bastard. However, there were some astute reviewers who liked the portrait, including the very influential art critic Basil Burdett who wrote: 'One of the rare modems in the show is a swift bit of characterisation.' (3)

Look, don't get me wrong, I liked becoming an icon, an early feminist portrait, a classic image of the twentieth century independent woman. Well, I was a free woman, that I must say. A babe? You bet I was. Wise? Up to others to judge that. Lina thought so. She always read my work with interest.

And what do I think of my portrait? Loved it. Still do. She gave it to me as a gift. Straight away I wrote back to her: 'I needed no reward for sitting for you in the first place. I enjoyed doing it so very much. I consider it an honour to be known as your model.' (4) It's been reproduced on everything, posters, stamps, book covers. The Babe is Wise now hangs in the National Gallery of Victoria as a gift from me to the people of Victoria, right near Jock Frater's The Red Hat, a portrait of Lina. (5) There we are on the wall together still enjoying each other's company. The public and critics now enthuse about my portrait. It's very modern in its simplicity of line but there's a boldness of gestural colour.

I also think there's a Moscow/Russian influence there too. You see Lina was great friends with Danila Vassilieff, (6) the Russian painter who then lived in Fitzroy. She told me she was influenced by his use of colour, his simplified drawing in the style of Byzantine or Russian peasant art, and of course he being an untrained intuitive artist like herself they got on famously. Of course Frater didn't like Lina's interest in Vassilieff. The old green-eyed monster I reckon ... but Lina took no notice and continued extolling the Russian's methods and friendship.

God, Melbourne's conservatism needed a good shake up. In 1939 the influential Herald exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art toured the country, and for the first time Australians could see what had been happening overseas for almost a generation. The show delighted us but outraged many of the public and critics who labelled the great artists 'degenerate and perverts.' (7) When the Ballet Russe, De Basil's Russian ballet performed here in the same year we all rushed off to see it, dazzled by the marvellous avant-garde sets designed by such great modernists as Derain, Miro, Rouault, and of course great Russian designers--Potunin, Larionov, and that influential woman, Natalie Gontcharova. We had all been smitten with Russian ideas of avant garde creativity, social justice, class and sexual equality. That's why I used the Russian theme in my novel. Many Melbourne painters and writers joined the Communist Party, and most of us were fellow travellers at heart; we wanted change, we were all mad about what communism had achieved, rather idealistic and naive perhaps, interested in socialist, artistic ideals. No wonder Lina decided to title my portrait The Babe is Wise. Of course we didn't know then about Stalin and his purges or the gulags of Siberia. But it took another three decades before male critics got the point of the portrait. This is what Brian Finemore wrote about it thirty years after it was painted:

I like that; wouldn't you? Wary, probing, sardonic, good adjectives for a writer, don't you think? And I like the fact that he privileges me as a novelist not just a smart-looking woman, 'a babe.' You know people have forgotten that I was a good, popular writer, and prolific, especially in the thirties; I wrote Brass and Cymbals, Greek Key Pattern, Lest We Lose Our Edens, The Redsweet Wine and, of course, The Babe book. No-one remembers them now. I'm only mentioned when discussing Lina's portrait. Yes, yes, I'm in a few literary references but always dismissed as 'a writer of light novels' (9) or bundled together like the caboose on a train of 'second rank novelists' with Jean Devanny, Henrietta Drake-Brockman, Velia Ercole, Helen Simpson. (10) One lit guide did acknowledge my large output of novels and added: 'the first few of which are set in and offer detailed views of Melbourne in the late 19th and early 20th century.' (11) The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature mentions me briefly but damns my work with this final derogatory line: 'Most of Campbell's novels have tangled personal relationships.' (12) Now, I ask you ... you could also say that about every writer I know, and what about the so-called great male novelists' oeuvres--Tolstoy, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Lawrence: they always wrote about tangled--no, let's say mangled, fraught personal relationships, but when I did, I was dismissed, overlooked, a gap in the records. Silenced. As I said no-one reads me now except radical feminist researchers or postgrads chasing PhDs using socio-economic, post-structuralist, polysyllabic discourse about post-colonial absences, semiotic slippages, patriarchal binaries. I've joined the ranks of the forgotten women of Australian literature.

What people forget about Lina Bryans is that she was also a great reader with a discerning eye. She read everything, got on brilliantly with writers. You know, she was friends with people like Nettie and Vance Palmer, Nina and Clem Christesen of Meanjin fame, Alan Marshall. Well-informed, she read everyone's work, supported and knew them well too--Xavier Herbert, Judah Waten, Bruce Dawe, the list goes on and on. And the latest Europeans as well.

After she completed my portrait, Lina and I remained close friends. I visited Darebin often and took part in her fabulous dinner parties charged with heady conversation and liberal feasting. We were part of a great group of kindred spirits all interested in the arts, in various cultural arty organizations together. In 1955 the International PEN club, of which I was an active member, arranged the very first Moomba Book Fair, precursor of so many writers festivals later. Guess who was invited to be the first artistic director? Lina Bryans of course. Arts and letters, her twin passions. She was marvellous at galvanising engaged participation; everyone was inspired by her enthusiasm and interest. Her artistic planning group created 'A Garden of Reading' in the lower Melbourne Town hall by building a huge white tree with spreading branches with paged leaves to welcome guests. (13) A stunning success with several more stimulating annual book fairs to follow. In 1959, as the literary convenor I dedicated a poem to Lina, my inspiring friend, who was queen of the book fair. Want to hear it? Here goes...

I died in 1984 and she in 2000. We were women who got on with it, did not weep or moan much--well, maybe when being born as old Edwin Arnold would have it in his long, ranting nineteenth century spiritual poem about suffering. We lived lives rich with artistic ideas, cultural pursuits, and yes, complex 'tangled' adult relationships. Who would want anything else? Three years after my death, in 1987, a collection of contemporary stories by women was published entitled The Babe is Wise, with my portrait again on the cover. (15) It was a celebration rather than a declaration of the many new women writers who emerged after 1970. The back-cover blurb said: 'The Babe has always been wise but now she gets listened to!' I ask you what were we doing in the thirties and forties? Miming? People just forget. Yes, I know, I'm remembered but only because of that painting--no longer through my writing. All my books now out of print, some perhaps available on Amazon or some such electronic internet site for some ridiculous price from antique book sellers; suppose I'm in an odd library here and there.

I bet Lina read that short story collection with her painting on the front. I reckon she would have loved the strong female voices, that new generation of Baby Boomer women speaking in The Babe is Wise. Mind you, you'd never call Lina, a 'babe' or a cutie pie, let alone a kewpie doll. She was far too classy for that; glamorous, elegant, witty, winsome certainly, with such an engaging, passionate voice adored by both men and women. But do you know why we got on so well? Yes, we had so much in common, saw the world in the same way, we could chat away for hours. But it was more than that ... we both knew how and when to listen. And in my book that's what I call wise.


(1) Unidentified newspaper review, Lina Bryans Papers, State Library of Victoria.

(2) Bulletin, 23 October 1940, LBP Box 3.

(3) Basil Burdett, Herald, 19 November 1940.

(4) Jean Campbell to Lina Bryans, 1 Dec 1940, LBP, Box 1.

(5) Frater's The Red Hat is now in NGV storage but I have often seen them displayed together.

(6) Danila Ivanovich Vassilieff (1897-1958) was an untrained Russian painter recently arrived in Melbourne whose art had the flat outlines of Russian icons. 'Bryans saw him as a kindred spirit, the true intuitive artist.' Gillian Forwood, Lina Bryans: Rare Modern, Carlton: Miegunyah Press, MUP, 52.

(7) Eileen Chanin and Steven Miller with Judith Pugh, Degenerates and Perverts: the 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art, Carlton: Miegunyah Press, MUP, 2005.

(8) Brian Finemore, Freedom from Prejudice, An Introduction to the Australian Collection in NGV, selected by Jennifer Phipps, NGV Melbourne, 1977, 81-2.

(9) William Wilde, Joy Hooton and Barry Andrews, The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, second edition, 1994, 145.

(10) Drusilla Modjeska, Exiles at Home, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1981, 4.

(11) Debra Adelaide, Australian Women Writers: A Bibliographic Guide, Sydney: Pandora, 1988, 28.

(12) Wilde et al., 145.

(13) Forwood, 128.

(14) Forwood, 128.

(15) Bruce Pascoe, Lyn Harwood and Paula White eds., The Babe is Wise, Apollo Bay: Pascoe Publishing, 1987.
The insouciant chic of the hat reflects the sophistication of Miss
   Campbell's writing and her awareness and involvement in all
   of its fashion and art. The colour scene and freedom of brush work
   emphasise the wary and probing eye of the novelist's somewhat
   sardonic philosophy in regard to the life in the metropolitan
   cities. (8)

Yes! Lina Bryans!
   Without her vision and fire
   Where would we be?
   Deep in the mire.
   Yes! Twas her driving force
   Which the impossible achieved
   of course!
   So of this rigmarole
   The Moral!
   To Lina Bryans
   The Crown of Laurels! (14)
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