Review | 'Nan Chauncy: A Writer's Life', by Berenice Eastman

A few days after the launch of this biography, a 'meet the author' barbecue and bushwalk was held at Chauncy Vale with John Marsden, who was touring to promote the latest addition to his extraordinarily popular children's series. Marsden has said that his own writing was inspired by Nan Chauncy's novels – especially They Found a Cave – but that he had never visited the valley which provided its setting. A soaking rain was falling as I followed my 12-year-old son up the steep gorge towards the sandstone caves that pitted its side above us. My son was following John Marsden who was following Heather Chauncy. I was re-entering a private adventure I had had long ago in that novel. It was back to the future. All was right with the world. Every now and again Marsden, a woollen beanie pulled down over his ears, would turn to the boy and make a remark – they laughed easily together. He said he wouldn't write another in the series because, 'Well... you've got to stop somewhere.'

This is Nan Chauncy's important legacy, and it is two-fold: her mastery of novels for children whose appeal lay in their blend of realism and fantasy, and her considerable foresight as a conservationist. In these respects she was influential and much ahead of her time.

Nan Chauncy won the Children's Book of the Year Award three times and was commended for another three books. All but her last two novels were published in the USA and she achieved recognition both here and in Europe. Her twelve published novels were translated into 14 languages and Braille. The publication by Oxford University Press of They Found a Cave, her first novel, has been called 'the most important event in a decade' 1 for Australian children's literature. And the subsequent film of the novel was the first Australian children's film to be made in colour.

At Collegiate school, whose 'smug religiosity she detested', Nan Chauncy 'chafed under the xenophobic nicknames of "Chinky" or "Queen Hayseed Pommy" and she did present a stereotypically middle-class English exterior, in her later years wearing "English tweeds, a soft velour hat and sensible shoes"'. Yet, like the child characters she created, she was positive, resourceful and resilient. She lived simply, without electricity and running water. She readily adopted the Tasmanian bush and was a knowledgeable bushwalker. She visited Port Davey by fishing boat, trekked in the south-west wilderness and made research trips to the Tasman Island and Matsuyker lighthouses when she was past sixty.

There was a strongly fanciful element in Chauncy's childhood – she was, to begin with, born one of twins Nancen and Janson, known as Nan and Jan. Her early years were filled with family readings from children's classics, story-spinning and nicknaming in the upper-middle class Edwardian English tradition into which she was born. The Masterman children's upbringing was regimented by nurses and governesses, but they frequently escaped, spending long hours engrossed in garden adventures they called 'wheezes'.

Charles Masterman, a Quaker and civil engineer, migrated with his family of six children to take up a job with the Hobart City Council to alter the course of the Hobart Rivulet. When he lost this job a few years later he bought land on which to establish an orchard at Bagdad. The Masterman children threw themselves into the pioneering life, helping to clear land and build a cottage on the property. Nan was a keen Girl Guide leader, becoming eventually a Commissioner of Guides, and this fed her enthusiasnm for bushcraft, comfirmed in her a belief in teamwork and gave her 'that essential sense of audience which was later to become the nucleus of her success as a children's writer.' Nevertheless she felt unfulfilled – probably because of her resistance to becoming a secretary companion, as would have been expected – until she embarked on her writing career. Although she remained positive and warm-hearted, she saw herself as different and battled against feelings of alienation. Nan Chauncy seems to have come to writing because she couldn't think of anything else to do with her life, but Berenice Eastman shows how, given her background, it was not at all surprising that she did.

Eastman has been working on this biography for a number of years, an early draft winning the Walter Stone award for biography in 1984. It is eminently readable, as all biographies should be, in an unobtrusive narrative with which she often subtly foreshadows events, as in this example: 'Against advice, he bought from the Bisdee family the property we know today as Chauncy Vale... He intended to establish an orchard there, as the Bagdad area was then successfully producing apples. The land on the flats of Brown's Caves Creek was favourable, but Charles ignored its rapid escalation into stony heights.'

The final chapter, 'The Writer at Day Dawn' offers an informed evaluation of Nan Chauncy's body of work and laments the fact that all the books are now out of print. Eastman surmises that they have fallen out of favour chiefly because key features are now dated: to our ears, the idiom is discordant and the treatment of teenage sexuality is unacceptably restricted. Finally, 'although her courage in choosing to write on the Tasmanian Aboriginal genocide placed her well ahead of time, [Chauncy was] convinced...of an Aboriginal extinction, whereas the whole discourse of contemporary aboriginality gives no credence to any writing which does not acknowledge the presence of Aborigines in the community today.'

Berenice Eastman has written a biography that, in the pre-postmodern tradition, uses the omniscient observer (with only scant reference to diaries, letters or the commentary of others). Despite this choice, it is unassuming. The prose is slender, modest, elegant but compressed. Apart from this, Lynda Warner's design is exquisite, making the book a very attractive object, especially the 'forged' handwriting in fountain pen – apparently a credible facsimile.

It is a sensitive, if overly diplomatic account. By her own admission she was careful not to offend relatives. This means, of course, that there are tantalising omissions. What was there in this life that might have offended? More about her later relationships – with her husband and daughter – would have been welcome. Chauncy married a man who came to Tasmania to escape Nazi Germany. The war-time German immigrant's experience is only hinted at. What kind of prejudice did he suffer? He did, after all, abandon his name Rosenfeld. Eastman skirts even references to their love affair and subsequent marriage, except to comment briefly that the marriage was a happy one. Moreover, there is virtually nothing on her daughter Heather's childhood. I was left wondering about Nan Chauncy's loves, dreams and fears.

This is a book that can be read with pleasure at one sitting. As a biography it is slight – a mere 76 pages – and for this reason it is perhaps better thought of as a biographical sketch. I did wish for more. But after all, as John Marsden said, you have to stop somewhere.

1 Dunkle, Margaret in Giordano, M,. and D. Norman, Tasmanian Literary Landmarks. Shearwater Press p. 144.