By Kate Grenville

Text Publishing 2023

ISBN: 9781922790330

RRP: $45 (HB)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson



Dolly Maunder’s mistake, according to her grand daughter and literary creator Kate Grenville, was to be born in 1880 and as a woman who was clever and a bit ambitious. As such, she would face frustration and a life of injustice.

In Restless Dolly Maunder, Kate Grenville takes on the challenge of reimagining how and why her grandmother Dolly had been a scary and cranky woman. Using scraps of memorabilia left by her own mother Nance – from which she created One Life – My Mother’s Story – along with immersing herself in the times and settings as Dolly and her family moved across New South Wales and into Queensland and back, through war and depression, good times and bad, the life of one woman becomes a record of a century of change.

They are the ordinary folk in the years that saw Australia develop into a modern global nation over decades that offered opportunity, but also risks, with women gaining new freedoms against the tide. Restless Dolly Maunder is a work that grabs the reader emotionally and intellectually. As well, Grenville passes the Atticus Finch test – Grenville does indeed walk in Dolly’s skin, speaks with Dolly’s voice and foists her into a small part in the history of a nation.

It is Kate Grenville’s strength as a writer to present ambience, character and context in pared down and acute descriptions that capture a host of observations in moments:

They were six miles out of Currabubula, three dusty streets and a pub. She was five before she saw a town. Tamworth was twenty miles away and the Maunders didn’t have much call to go there.

Dolly Maunder was born to a struggling rural family where women were expected to marry a reliable man, who would provide a living, and mother the children that followed. In spite of her father’s frugal investments in land, over time, and an expansion of his prospects, Dolly would be pressured into marriage, even as she protested her wish to be a school teacher. That marriage saw Dolly take up life as the wife of a share cropper farmer on a property offered to them by her father. It is only as a wife and new mother that Dolly begins to plan a way forward – a way that inevitably hardened her to life as she found it, but sharpened her ambitions.

There is enormous energy in Dolly – energy that is inspired by her need to be distracted from a routine life by tackling new projects. But it is also an energy that comes from discovering that she has power over her husband – a reversal of roles in many ways – with her instinct for a good investment and, potentially, profitable small businesses. Through her skills and hard work, she leads her husband Bert way further than he might have gone alone. They prosper for some years with Dolly’s ability to convince Bert to take a risk.

In Restless Dolly Maunder, Kate Grenville has created a pair to her earlier work in One Life – My Mother’s Story. In the first book, Dolly’s daughter Nance is the heroine, although the story is not told in Nance’s voice. Dolly appears in that story as part of a love hate relationship with Nance and the reader learns of the effects on Nance of the family’s moves through various live-in businesses, disruptions to her schooling and friendships, along with a mother who did very little mothering.

Nance resents her mother’s bossy dominance but, ironically, it is through inherited traits from Dolly – a toughness of spirit and desire not to be conquered – that sees Nance find an independence late in life. Grenville’s stories of Dolly and Nance attest to a twentieth century that offered opportunities to women who, even as they followed the traditional roles of wife and mother, could find their individuality, even freedom, eventually.

Grenville offers an explanation for her choosing to reimagine the story of Dolly Maunder. It is not because her grandmother was “unique or extraordinary”. But because she wasn’t. As Grenville writes:

I think her story is worth telling. It would have been repeated hundreds, even thousands of times: women doing their best, against every obstacle, to give their daughters a better chance at happiness than they’d had, and to find a corner of an unfriendly world where a woman could make a life for herself.

The grit in Dolly Maunder was planted early – in tough beginnings and lost opportunities with early love lost due to sectarian and class divides. She settled on marriage to Bert Russell in her late twenties under pressure from her mother. But as life on the land took its toll, Dolly found her voice, taking Bert with her to a life of shop keeping, boarding house managing and running pubs, eventually owning one. Dolly was in charge – she had long since realised Bert would be content to stay in one place enjoying his routines.

It wasn’t that he was lazy, though she got cranky and accused him of that. The real reason was that he didn’t like change. He plodded along, working hard, his horizon small, his ambitions modest, sticking to the familiar, not taking any risks.

The Russells’ Dolly-inspired risk taking and moving brought financial gain and early retirement for a time for Dolly and Bert. But risk was Molly’s plus as well as minus and their last gamble on the Caledonian Hotel in Tamworth eventually coincided with the depression of the 1930s.

Dolly is the story of a generation. More than that, as Bert and Dolly moved through numerous acquisitions – leases and ownership – Dolly realised that, for all her initiative and lead. her name was never on the legal documents: “She might persuade and coax and shout, but it was his name on the licence and his name on the mortgage.” In so many ways, for women, equal rights, equal opportunity, equal recognition was still a long way off. It would take another half century for women to have their names on the deeds and leases.

But Dolly’s generation also endured war and depression while witnessing leaps forward in global communication. New ideas permeated Western communities, pushed up from those who asserted their capacities against the status quo – from colonial indigenous to workers to women. For every prominent spokesperson for such equal rights, there were tens of thousands (and more) of Dollys doing it in small but significant moves.

A life of hard work tied to a morning-to-night/seven days a week business leaves little room for emotional indulgence. It was not part of Dolly’s nature to wonder at the impact on her children’s sensitivities of removing them from schools abruptly, sending them to family carers who neglected them or pushing them to life choices they resented. In her mind, the struggle to improve the family’s financial circumstances was her way of making a better life for her brood than she had had.

In time, Dolly would crave the affection of her grown children, even grandchildren, but it was her loss to then recognise that the roots had withered and the distance of time too great for change. The bonds of family ties were loyalty not true love. Her letter to Frank as the war ends is heart breaking to read. Likewise, when she farewells Nance as her daughter leaves for a pharmacy apprentice into a profession Nance has been forced to follow. There are thoughts in Dolly’s head that she cannot convey emotionally:

They all went to the station to see her off. Look after yourself, Nance, Dolly said, trying to catch her eye. The words were silly, feeble, a thin pale little phrase trying to stand in for other words she couldn’t find. … Look after yourself: what that really meant was You are such as to me, but the depth of her feeling was made shallow by the glib phrase.

Over her life, Dolly had grabbed at opportunity in the way her male contemporaries did, taking the way out of domestic entrapment the only way she could imagine – in professional moves. She would live a life where working for a living meant abandoning a mothering role. It took from her any maternal softness such as Nance had cherished in her time with Dolly’s bucolic older sister Rose with her motherly big breasts and contentment in her home and children.

The cranky old woman her grand daughter Kate saw in the Dolly she could not love is in fact a complex woman. Her life story as told by Grenville teases out not just the light and shade of that character but the story of much of Australia over almost a century – the struggle to get on top of challenges, the tragedies out of their control that ordinary folk faced and the endless hunger to move ahead while ignoring the sacrifices that needed to be made along the way.

Over the decades of the twentieth century, women like Dolly found freedom. In doing this, they also eventually had to come to terms with what they had lost, a balance between home life and work life that future generations would endeavour to establish. Dolly, as Grenville presents her, was in fact – alongside many in her time – something of an influencer.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director hard of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.