Madness, cruelty and sexuality permeate the house where she grew up, but Lilian's sights are set on education, love and - finally - her own transcendent forms of independence. Lilian Singer, who starts life at the beginning of the twentieth century as the daughter of a prosperous middle-class Australian family and ends it as a cheerfully eccentric bag-lady living on the streets, quoting Shakespeare for a living.
For forty years, Lilian Singer has been locked up in a mental hospital by her father. Her release is eventually secured and she walks out to a world unfamiliar to her in every way, seeking the love and affection she never got. Her story is told through a series of three flashbacks that reveal a beautiful and spirited young woman who was anything but insane. Old Lilian comes to terms with her life, quoting Shakespeare, stalking sexy bank tellers, buddying with prostitutes, and ultimately meeting her long-lost love.
Unit Suitable For
AC: Year 10 (NSW Stage 5)
desire, identity, independence, mental illness, post-Federation, sexuality, societal constraints
Critical and creative thinking, Ethical understanding, Intercultural understanding, Literacy
'In 1985, when Kate Grenville’s novel about a fat, unlovely bag lady appeared on the Australian literary landscape, Lilian’s Story was celebrated as a feminist and postcolonial text. By locating Lilian as ex-centric to the nation, to inhabit the abjected zones of the colony—the bush, the asylum, the streets of post-Federation Sydney—Grenville is commonly read as a feminist writer intervening into the gender politics that shaped Australia. Feminists celebrate the ways in which she carves out discursive spaces for women who have existed largely in the interstices between public memory and official history. Postcolonial critical interpretations of Lilian being ‘colonised’ by her father, provoked by the rape narrative, have tended to reproduce the postcolonial trope of Australia’s shift from a colonial relationship to a national structure. Such readings largely neglect the colonial violence of Australian patriarchy, and the skewed gender norms that result when a host culture is transplanted to an imperial outpost. Taking up the colonial metaphor structuring the relationship between Lilian and her father, I read Lilian’s ‘madness’ as a response to discourses of ‘race’ and gender that circulate in the colonial Imaginary to position women as the site for racial anxiety about colonial ‘dirt’, contamination and disorder. While Lilian approaches the rebellious female grotesque celebrated in postcolonial feminist theorising, her obese body also signifies the devouring nature of colonialism. This paper engages with the white politics of women’s ‘belonging’ inscribed in Lilian’s Story to disinter the schizoid nature of white women’s relationship to colonial patriarchy.' (Publication abstract)
'Kate Grenville’s Lilian’s Story is one of the great Australian novels of the last thirty years. When it was first published in 1985, it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece. The original cover carried a recommendation by Patrick White, Nobel laureate and the greatest writer of any kind Australia has produced. White said that in Lilian’s Story Kate Grenville had ‘transformed an Australian myth into a dazzling fiction of universal appeal’, and hailed her as a true novelist.' (Introduction)
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