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Review: Bobbin Up, by Dorothy Hewett

Pages: 204
Original date of publication: 1959
My edition: 1987 (Virago)
Why I decided to read: All Virago/All August
How I acquired my copy: Philadelphia Book Trader, August 2010

Set in Sydney, Australia, in the late 1950s, Bobbin Up is actually a collection of vignettes about the young women who work in the Jumbuck spinning mills. They are, as the cliché goes, overworked and underpaid, and each “chapter” focuses on the story of a different girl, among them a pregnant teenager and a Communist idealist. The title’s double entendre is cunning—the bobbins of spinning, as well as the idealistic acting of “bobbing up” out of one’s own circumstances, to do something about an unfavorable situation (hence the title of the pamphlet that’s passed around at the mill).

There is a kind of idealism to the tone of the book, as well as an interest in the “human condition.” The author wrote the preface for the Virago edition of the book, in which she is a little bit embarrassed by her naiveté at the time of writing. Dorothy Hewett was an unmarried woman much like some of the women in the book, but like many she was laid off from work for being married (she was the sole financial support for her children and their father).

She explores the irony of her situation through detailing the tribulations of the girls in this book and the political implications of their actions. Hewett went and asked for a job in “the worst mill in Sydney” and began working for the Communist party. Later on, while researching material for the novel, she took walks through some of Sydney’s worst neighborhoods—the kinds of places in which Shirl, Nell, Patty, Beryl, Beth, and the others would have lived. The detailed stories of the girls’ everyday lives seem unrelated at first, but they are related to a much larger social and political construct.

The novel is littered with pop references; Sputnik is on the horizon; the text is sprinkled with the lyrics from popular songs of the late 1950s. Even the neighborhoods the characters live in are time-specific. It shows that not only do the events of the characters’ beliefs but that they’re also a product of the time period. But sometimes things don’t change. Compare this novel with the likes of The Roaring Nineties, another Australian novel that focuses on the working class. They take place 60 years apart, and in different parts of the country, but they still deal with the same topics and concerns.


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