Kristel Thornell’s Night Street is a fictitious imagining of the life of tonalist painter Clarice Beckett. Released this year after winning the 2009 Australian/Vogel award the novel is commonly viewed as being more biographical than fictional. Clarice Beckett was a young tonalist artist who studied under Frederick McCubbin then under Max Meldrum. Beckett’s works are now widely lauded and can be seen in collections in the National Gallery, various state galleries, and regional galleries such as Castlemaine and Ballarat. However Thornell is clear to point out in the Author’s note in the conclusion of the novel, “The Clarice who appears in this work is not Clarice Beckett (1887-1935) but my imagining of her. While the historical figure’s art and life inspired me, I took many creative liberties with these.”
I was eager to read this novel for a few reasons. I am a fan of Beckett’s work, after learning about the tonalist movement via the family history of my partner, who is related to Percy Leason, tonalist and political satirist. Another reason I was interested in reading this novel was because I am working on a novel where the protagonist is a female artist, albeit 70 years earlier, based in Melbourne.
The novel depicts a theme that I have been working on, the sense of the parallel in the life of a female artist. I find this an interesting theme for a few reasons. Female characters are typically not associated with a parallel narrative. Male characters often seem to lead a double life more frequently than female characters. Women are usually open books, too busy with children and housekeeping to be involved with multiple concerns of a dramatic nature. The scene for women characters is often domestic, while male characters inhibit a work domain, a social domain, as well as a domestic domain. In Night Street this sense of parallel is conveyed onto Clarice. She inhibits the suburban home begrudgingly, only through duty, to take care of aging parents. It is clear that she would rather be outdoors painting than attending to a pre-determined domestic routine. She can’t cook and struggles to generate conversation which interests her, or partake in enjoyable activities while she is at home. She remains unmarried, but conducts two relationships with married men over the course of the book. Like her creativity, her passion in sexual and non sexual manners stem from the outdoors. She meets with lovers outdoors, has sex outdoors, and paints outdoors. Her moments of forced domesticity fail. An example of this is the date arranged by her mother and sister. The whole family and the potential suitor sit around the table and;
“in their tension, she thought they resembled hopefuls assembled for an audition on which a lot is riding. She pitied them; she pitied herself. They drank their tea with frequent small sips from the special china, a blue and white fantasy of pastoral England wrapping itself around the cups, spreading over the saucers, like an extravagant rash.”
She is unable to combine the two forces; her creative life cannot be reconciled against the prospect of domesticity or even marriage. This is clear during her meeting with the suitor when he points out that;
‘There is a lot to be said for having something creative to do in your spare time.’
A nervy clack of china against china; she had lowered her cup more forcefully than intended. ‘I don’t paint in my spare time. When I am not painting, that is my spare time.’
‘Oh, I see.’
‘I make time to paint,’ she added quickly. ‘It’s my most important activity.’
In the early stages she toys with a relationship with a man who lives in her building. This sours when she realises that he has followed her down to the beach at dawn to watch her paint. He has entered her outdoor, creative world. Later, when she takes lovers she takes on the role of mistress. Removed from the domestic, living on the outskirts, these relationships occur primarily outside, or within tents or bathing boxes. With her first lover she has sex outdoors on every occasion, the first time falling asleep and becoming badly sunburned making, ‘their tanned hides…a kind of scarlet letter’.
The commencement of her relationship with her first lover, Arthur, is heralded by a migraine. She is attending a house party of a wealthy female benefactor. Early in the party he spends some time alone with Arthur’s wife where they discuss Clarice’s life as an artist. Bella, Arthur’s wife says:
‘Well, it takes nerve,’ Bella persevered, ‘spunk might be the word, to be outside the main current… it wouldn’t be easy…I am very happy to be a mother…that’s not easy either…I suppose nothing worthwhile is easy.’
This discussion pushed Clarice’s initial malaise and tension about the party further, causing her a migraine which eventually leads to the time alone she spends kissing Bella’s husband. The juxtaposition of domestic, maternal, with the life of Clarice is clear here, perhaps the point where she realises she can only happily inhabit one world.
The juxtaposition of external/internal, domestic/artistic continues through minor characters as well as major. Her one true friend, Herb, with whom she can be honest is a gypsy, who lives in a caravan by the sea. She can confide in him clearer than her sister, who once married becomes the embodiment of the domesticity Clarice herself avoids. The suburban home spells the death of both creativity and beauty. Tokens of her mother’s pre-married life, two framed watercolours on the wall, are telling of this. Her mother’s artistic tokens remain as a reminder of her earlier life, and she projects the dream of artistry onto her children.
In this novel Clarice has no qualms about the tearing of domesticity that she creates by her affairs. She does not reflect on her role as a private mistress, or as a public spinster, instead focusing her thoughts on her paintings. This sense of the parallel, outside/inside, domestic/creative, mistress/ spinster, student/teacher, woman/child, play throughout the plot. The novel ends with Clarice’s pre-mature death at the age of 49. She caught double pneumonia while painting on the beach during a storm, after meeting her lover. It is the outside, mistress sense of her personality that lead to her death, but what a life it created.