Written by Dymphna Cusack and Florence James for a Daily Telegraph novel competition in 1946, Come in Spinner so accurately portrayed the profiteering, black market trading and upper class hypocrisy that the Telegraph was wary of printing it even though it was the winning entry. Cusack and James retrieved their manuscript and an expurgated version was published in London in 1951 to great acclaim. Cusack herself had already left Australia two years previously to escape the growing atmosphere of anti-Communist prejudice, along with her de facto partner Norman Freehill, one-time editor of the Communist Party newspaper The Tribune.
Two women enjoying a drink, 1940-1950. Image: State Library of Queensland via Wikimedia Commons.
However it is not communism that Come in Spinner is concerned with, but the lives of a group of women on the Sydney ‘home front’ during a single week in 1943 (or thereabouts). Deb Forrest and her friends Claire and Guinea work in the beauty salon and massage parlour of the South Pacific hotel, based on the renowned Hotel Australia in Castlereagh St. The owner of the South Pacific made his money from a supermarket chain and is considered a self-made man with no class. The uncensored version runs to almost 700 pages, and the rambling but engrossing plot reveals that in the daily lives of a group of women, they encounter a host of feminist issues that are still relevant today:
1. All of the female characters are real women with relatable problems. Even though the novel is set during the Second World War, and some of the issues faced are no longer around, such as the Black Market* and the Manpower Directive, the themes of sexism in the workplace, double standards, single motherhood, sexual exploitation and the imbalance of power in relationships are the same issues that many women face today.
2. Because the female characters are human, flawed women, the novel doesn’t really have a heroine. While there’s nothing really wrong with superheroes or inspirational women who overcome great obstacles, Come in Spinner features women making mistakes and compromises, bending the rules, staying in unhealthy relationships and indulging in gossip. In other words, being normal.
3. It doesn’t idealise war or the traditional qualities of Australian masculinity. “The great Australian emblem [is] the boot and the bottle…it’s hard for coves to remember that what gets you a medal in the jungle will get you gaol at home,” says Kim Scott, a soldier home on leave.
4. It doesn’t shy away from the fact that many people in Australia took advantage of the war to make money, or that many women enjoyed getting presents from the rich American servicemen flooding the country. “Any girl who had real sheers (silk stockings) these days must have what it takes…” thinks salon worker Guinea to herself. Only wealthy women or those who had taken up with American soldiers were able to obtain things like silk stockings. Guinea’s colleague Deb is seeing a rich man, Angus McFarland, who sends her orchids and Chanel no. 5 perfume – in 1943! Deb’s husband Jack, meanwhile, is serving with the army in New Guinea.
5. Two of the female characters unashamedly love their work. Angus’ niece Helen works on the family’s grazing property and prefers it to socializing in the city. She says she would “rather be Dad’s right hand man at home than the belle of all the balls going.” Similarly, Deb’s friend Dallas McIntyre is a doctor – unfortunately a minor character but a very interesting one. In a conversation with Deb, Dallas explains that in her view, “the only salvation for women is work…when I see a happy woman, I generally find that she is good at something outside romantic love.”
6. Double standards abound, and the authors highlight the many ways in which their female characters are affected by sexist attitudes in society. “Men, as Claire said, were the devil. They wanted your company and anything else they could get, and they were damn clever at not being compromised themselves, but jealous of any suggestion that you might have other attachments.” Even one of the salon clients points this out: “Life’s very unfair to us women,” Mrs Dalgety spoke her thoughts aloud. “You’d think the prime of life was invented for men only. Once a woman’s forty they expect her to retire to the junk heap, while they start all over again on the young ones.”
7. The story doesn’t shy away from more serious social issues like prostitution. Guinea’s younger sister Monica falls in with the wrong crowd of friends and becomes tricked and then trapped into prostitution. For this she ends up being arrested, and only the intervention of a kind older woman saves her from being sent to the Parramatta Girls’ Home.
“’When the police found her, she was in bed with a man.’
‘A man!’ Aunt Annie gave a snort of contempt. ‘I hope they horsewhipped him.’
‘Oh, they don’t do anything to the men…the Vice Squad don’t arrest the men.’
‘Why not? There wouldn’t be any girls in brothels unless the men went there’”
8. Even consensual relationships result in inequality. When Deb tells Dallas about a woman she knows who is pregnant out of wedlock, Dallas replies, ‘[The man] hasn’t got to take the consequences…he’ll go on serenely to promotion while the girl gets a dishonourable discharge [from the Australian Women’s Army Service], and when the war’s over he’ll return to the bosom of his wife.’
9. The snobbishness and hypocrisy of upper class Australian society is laid right open. Guinea, who works in the hotel salon, gets into trouble from the manager when she attends a dance in the hotel’s ballroom because a high ranking American officer had invited her. The same manager thinks nothing of dodgy dealing to get around the liquor laws. Angus in particular is portrayed as the typical member of the ‘squattocracy’ – he owns an extensive farming property, but doesn’t actually work the land himself. He has family retainers, whom Deb fears will look down their noses at her, and his younger brother Ian doesn’t want Angus to marry Deb because she might have a son and so cut out Ian’s son from inheriting the property. Additionally, Angus is obviously indifferent to events in Europe and complains about “Jews buying up property all around the best suburbs.” Since the influx of Jewish immigrants in the 1930s was a direct result of persecution in Europe, this was a stunningly insensitive thing to say. It is also a clever use of dialogue employed by Cusack and James to highlight the entrenched racism in the attitudes of many Australians.
10. The story shows how women are tempted to make compromises in their own lives and even disregard their own sense of morality in order to give their children a good life. Deb’s father was so desperate for money during the Depression that he sold his bankbook for a measly twelve shillings in the pound (one pound = twenty shillings). During her early years of marriage to Jack, she and her husband chose to look on destitution as a Bohemian existence, living in tents and eating fish they caught themselves. When Angus comes along, Deb sees an opportunity to give her daughter a comfortable life and spare her from any worries about money. Indeed, she wants that comfortable life for herself, even if it means suppressing her own tastes and preferences, and bend over backwards emotionally to keep Angus happy. If Come in Spinner has no heroines, it doesn’t have villains either. Deb’s choice is neither lauded nor condemned, she is a complex character with conflicting desires and motivations.
*Well, actually the new black market is baby formula, but that’s another story.