As the old adage goes, you should never judge a book by its cover. Which is exactly what I did when I picked up Dulcie Deamer’s autobiography off a small book stall at last year’s Clunes’ Booktown. I couldn’t help myself, the title suggests excitement and adventure, and the accompanying image had me intrigued. A 1920’s sepia toned image of Deamer, arms spread to the heavens, draped in a leopard skin revealing legs, yes legs – I’d almost forgotten women of that era had legs with the usual sepia photos I’d seen. If the cover wasn’t enough for me then the blurb on the back had me convinced that I had to buy this book:
“In the wild parties that characterised Sydney’s writing and artisitic community in the Roaring Twenties, Dulcie Deamer was undisputed “Queen of Bohemia”. But there was more to her fascinating life than performing the splits in a leaopard skin.”
Dulcie Deamer’s autobiography explores her life as an artist. Beginning as a child in New Zealand and her early success with a writing completion and continues to the 1960s. The book looks at her writing, her acting career, her early marriage and the international travel that accompanied it, her divorce and then spends several chapters focusing on the 1920s in Kings Cross, Sydney.
Her writing career is admirable and it is enjoyable to read the perspective of a single woman who was able to scrape by with a career in writing. But her bohemian parties and her list of names that are almost catalogued like a who’s who of bohemia left me with questions – where are her 6 children and who is feeding them? Surely they can’t be living in the one room flat she rents. Why is she so reluctant to mention them? From a readers perspective the pages dedicated to her career only widened the chasm between myself and Deamer as I wondered how a woman of that era could function as a single mother with 6 children.
The 1998 publication of the autobiography comes with an introduction by Peter Kirkpatrick and an afterword by Deamer’s daughter Rosemary Goldie. I was thankful for the afterword which explained all of my questions. The children were taken care of by Deamer’s mother, who moved from New Zealand to Sydney to care for her grandchildren. Some of Deamer’s children did not survive childhood, and another died in the first world war. I wish these facts had of been included in the autobiography and not attached as an afterword, although perhaps it says something of the culture of 1920s bohemia. I can understand that her objective was to focus on her career in the autobiography, but I felt that I was investing so much time getting to know and like her friends, that I wanted more.
Her autobiography was a great insight into Sydney of the 1920s. The tone was jovial, making it accessible and an enjoyable read. But Deamer was such an interesting narrator that I couldn’t help but want to learn more about her, and was only satisfied by the afterword written by her daughter.
In all Deamer wrote 7 published novels, 4 plays, published 3 verse poems and had continual work with The Bulletin and the Women’s Mirror. She also left a substantial collection of manuscripts now housed with the Mitchell Library Sydney and the National Library of Australia.
Dulcie Deamer, Queen of Bohemia. University of Queensland Press, 1998.
This review forms part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.