Inside Story

Her mother’s secrets

Books | Nadia Wheatley discovers her mother’s two great loves

Susan Lever 13 July 2018 1596 words

Neen Watkins with “the Girls” at the Donkey Races, Palestine, 1941. From left: Rene Forrester, Paula Mary Clarke, Neen and Nan Ellworth. Nadia Wheatley

Her Mother’s Daughter: A Memoir
By Nadia Wheatley | Text Publishing | $34.99 | 336 pages

All unhappy families may be unhappy in their own way, but the evidence is accumulating that unhappy middle-class families in twentieth-century Australia were often unhappy because clever wives were kept from developing careers, and husbands were restless and inclined to domestic tyranny. In the period immediately after the second world war these tensions were sharpened when women who had tasted freedom during the war were expected to return to domestic submission.

In the past few years, Shaun Carney and Jim Davidson have published memoirs of twentieth-century Australian family life dominated by the egos or fecklessness of fathers. Kate Grenville’s One Life: My Mother’s Story of 2015 and now Nadia Wheatley’s Her Mother’s Daughter offer counterbalancing daughters’ perspectives on resourceful and independent mothers. While Grenville’s memoir is reticent about her own childhood experiences, Wheatley writes from fragmentary memories of her mother, often using photographs as aide-mémoires before searching out documents to piece together her parents’ lives.

Like Davidson’s parents, Wheatley’s were born before the first decade of the twentieth century. She was the child of the late marriage of a woman in her forties who expected to remain childless and a man who took his right to control women for granted. Like Grenville’s mother, Nina Watkins was exceptional in carving out a professional career for herself at a time when few women could expect more from life than marriage and motherhood, or dutiful drudgery caring for their parents.

Growing up motherless herself, Neen Watkins fought opposition from her father to train as a nurse at the Coast Hospital south of Sydney in the 1930s. When the war suddenly offered access to a world beyond Sydney, she joined the Australian army, working in hospitals in the Middle East. She was in Athens when the German bombardment began, managing to escape with her comrades just as the city fell. In Palestine, she ministered to the casualties from the Syrian campaign before following the troops home in 1943. In this way, she served behind the lines of El Alamein and Tobruk, tending to the wounded as they returned from battles that have become legendary. She also had the chance to explore the ancient cities of Alexandria, Athens and Jerusalem.

Back in Australia, Neen spent the rest of the war at the army base in the Atherton Tablelands, coping with conditions as difficult as those behind the front in the Middle East. By the time she moved to the Concord Military Hospital in 1945 she was suffering physical and mental exhaustion, but she loved the camaraderie of her nursing friends, “the Girls,” and devoted her energies to the care of her “boys.” When the family expected her to return to home duties at the end of the war, she applied to work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, or UNRRA, helping the hordes of displaced people across Europe. She remembered the suffering of the people of Athens and wanted to help.

Much of this part of Wheatley’s account is based on her mother’s letters home and the journal she kept. Once Neen became part of the UNRRA, official records provide remarkably detailed complementary information. Where Ian Buruma’s wide-ranging Year Zero: A History of 1945 (2013) gives an international overview of the dangerous conditions at the end of the war — when millions of people died from disease and the effects of their war experiences — Wheatley’s book fills in the detail from the perspective of medical staff on the ground in Europe.

Neen was assigned to Germany, where more than a million people from Eastern Europe had been forced into work camps, many of them now suffering from tuberculosis. Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Latvians were crammed together in makeshift hospitals where the only reliable staff were the hated Germans. Neen threw her energies into providing them with comfort and hope, and rejoiced in every sign of reconciliation with the German medical staff, whom she grew to respect. By the time the UNRRA was replaced by the International Refugee Organization, she was the supervisory nursing officer responsible for seven displaced persons assembly centres and three German civilian hospitals.

If this was the high point of Neen’s career, it was also the moment when Dr J.N. Wheatley reached the pinnacle of his profession. A general practitioner in England before the war, he became Hull’s civil defence medical officer during the German bombing raids on the city, and signed on for the UNRRA in 1944, following Montgomery’s troops into Germany after the victory. He was assigned to the displaced persons assembly centre at Belsen, quickly becoming chief medical superintendent. By 1947 he was a regional medical officer for a massive area of Germany, reorganising dozens of assembly centres there.

Nadia’s parents met each other at a time when they were both mature professionals confident in their work, and respected and admired by others. They thought they could continue together, travelling the world with their shared interest in foreign places and people. They married and, to their surprise and John’s horror, found themselves parents. Neen returned to the family home in Lindfield, northern Sydney, to have her baby.

Nadia Wheatley, born in 1949 on the crest of the baby boom, acknowledges her unwitting part in her mother’s tragedy. With a new baby, Neen felt the prison walls of domesticity encroaching as she struggled with her resentful family. When John Wheatley joined her, she found he would rather gamble with investments than return to a medical career. After losing most of their savings, he moved the family from their comfortable house in North Shore Gordon to the unsewered outer suburb of Revesby to set up again in his late fifties as a general practitioner.

From this point, Nadia’s own memory provides more evidence, as she remembers sometimes throwing tantrums, sometimes dutifully trotting after her father on his rounds. She found herself part of the drama of control played out between her parents, with an awareness that her father on the other side of the surgery door was likely to appear at any time to keep her mother in line. With a doctor’s authority he could ascribe any resistance to mental illness, and Wheatley finds evidence that the medical profession supported him when her mother collapsed in “imagined” pain.

In the wonderful photographs of Neen’s time at war she appears among her friends with a wide smile, her army hat slightly cocked and a cigarette in hand. We now know the effects of that comradely smoking but even the Repatriation Board was reluctant to help the ex-army nurse in her hour of need — her two loves, the medical profession and the army, both let her down. She spent her last months trying to ensure that Nadia would escape her father.

If the account of Neen’s life as a wartime nurse reminds me of some of Elizabeth Jolley’s autobiographical writings, her life as a suburban wife recalls nothing so much as Elizabeth Harrower’s grim novel of male dominance, The Watch Tower (1966). There is enough material in Her Mother’s Daughter for five or six novels: the story of a motherless girl in the 1920s, the adventurous career of a wonderfully competent nurse in wartime, the international romance with a doctor, and the suburban hell of her marriage. John Norman Wheatley’s strange other life as a gambler and womaniser might make another. Nadia Wheatley’s own story of a nine-year-old girl consigned to the family of one of her schoolfriends after her mother’s death could comprise yet another dark narrative. But Wheatley is determined to make this book an act of retrieval of her mother’s life that celebrates her intelligence and her kindness.

She is, of course, an accomplished biographer and novelist, revered by young readers for My Place and Five Times Dizzy. Here her skill as a researcher is in evidence, as she gathers a mass of material from family and the official records; but she handles this complex material with a novelist’s assurance. The book shifts through layers of time with ease, bringing its various episodes back to the author’s task of piecing the story together. Though Nadia, author and abandoned child, occasionally expresses her disgust with her father’s behaviour, she manages to control any sense of grievance (though she has much cause for it). She also resists any temptation to sentimentality about her mother.

Many readers of Wheatley’s generation will recognise the misguided practice of protecting children by keeping them away from important knowledge. Nadia is not told of her mother’s death until after the funeral, and it is decades before aunts and uncles disclose the existence of Neen’s letters. Her mother clearly was party to this, mimicking normality as she sent Nadia away to her schoolfriend’s place in the days before her death. Despite frequent requests, she refused even to tell her daughter where her first name came from — what was the fate of the displaced person called Nadia?

This memoir is full of material about aspects of Australian life that rarely receive close attention — both the public experience of war and its aftermath, and the private life of families. Every part of it complicates received simplicities about our history. It is an important addition to the history of Australian social life, and a vivid insight into how individual people can be controlled by repressive social attitudes. Wheatley reminds us of the difference between how family life is supposed to be, and how it is actually experienced. ●