The fifth sparrow : an autobiography

by Mollie Louisa Skinner

Other authorsMary Durack (Foreword)
Hardcover, 1972



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Sydney : Sydney University Press, 1972.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Michael_Godfrey
The Fifth Sparrow turns up from time to time in second hand bookshops. There is a sort of pathos to its lonely sojourn on dusty shelves. Mollie Skinner’s claim to fame is probably that she is forgotten – and was largely unknown even when she wasn’t. I’m reminded of a ghastly book I once read that described itself something akin to “the story of a romance invaded by C.S Lewis.” It had bugger all to do with C.S. Lewis. Skinner is the largely forgotten and much ignored co-writer of a the largely forgotten and much ignored novel usually (and partially incorrectly) attributed to D. H. Lawrence. The Boy in the Bush is from that execrable phase of Lawrence, between Women in Love and Lady Chatterley’s Lover when he was at best forgettable (though, Skinner is adamant, a really nice guy. Perhaps. Sort of).

To make matters worse, as in more complicated, The Fifth Sparrow was not published for a decade and a half after the author’s death. She had, during her lifetime, written a handful of largely forgotten works, never really fulfilling any potential she may have had. Though, in her autobiography, she never wallows in self pity (and there’s a valuable lesson) the Fates deal her a pretty rough deal, and what she calls the (divine) “Hand on my shoulder” doesn’t do a lot for her. Well, except from seeing her through a pretty rough deal more or less intact. And were it not for one or two individuals who realised that the fifth sparrow that had passed through their lives was in fact a genius, Mollie, like most of us, would have disappeared from human memory. And largely has.

But somebody (mainly Guy Howarth of Sydney University, Marjorie Rees of the Fellowship of Writers, and author Mary Durack, who saw this autobiography to publication) saw that Skinner was more than just either “a middle-aged Quaker [ inter alia! ] spinster of fairly Victorian standards” (ix) or an enigma dwelling in a shadowy backwater of D. H. Lawrence, but, as Durack puts it, one whose “unusual aspects of … personality endure far beyond her grave” (ix).

And so we have a largely forgotten autobiography of a largely forgotten woman whose public claim to fame was being the largely unnoticed, parenthetical associate of the novelist who, at least one academic friend of mine tells me, should be deleted from the canon of twentieth century literature.

Yet I could not put this down, and read it in close to a single sitting. As it happens I’m researching a handful of women writers, largely forgotten, from the 1930s and ’40s. Skinner pre-dates them, but the malaise was the same. Forgotten because woman.

The figure that emerges from this self-deprecatory autobiography, its writing all but set aside because the necessary effort was so great and the self-belief so small, is heroic. Privileged, sure, but heroic. The “not ugly” (12) daughter of a gobsmacking beautiful, “naughty and fun-loving” (3) minor socialite from a prestigious West Australian settler family, Mollie receives an awful lot of short straws. Somewhat disinterested parents, poor health, failing eyes (one can only thank the mysteries of the universe that the baby Austin she eventually owns and drives on page 164 was such a lamentably under-powered vehicle!) and a cleft lip (1) are not matters to be taken lightly. Like most girls of her era she receives woeful education, exacerbated by months – or perhaps years? – with her eyes bandaged (14-15). Somehow though she overcomes the disdain of others (especially men) to find a niche as a nurse, a district midwife, a nurse manager … her career path is nebulous and circuitous and stubborn.

Nursing, the transformation of the fifth sparrow into a “white-capped scrub wren” (168: though at one stage she becomes a mere gargoyle beneath a bird – 127) becomes the narrative that gives her life more meaning than writing, and so she is nearly forgotten. Yet it is the incognito life of nursing that makes the sparrow happy (162), and this paradox is at the heart of the autobiography and its biblical title. In loss of identity Skinner finds the meaning to her life that her wordsmithing, which skilfully and sometimes humorously produces the biography, does not supply. As it happens her first published monograph was Midwifery Made Easy, a nonfiction work that in itself reveals a plethora of dichotomies, a well-sold book that “makes easy” a matter of life and death that grew Skinner’s confidence to believe in the word-smithing that she eventually eschews.

Enigma. That’s it. The Fifth Sparrow is an enigma wrapped in nothing else. It could be a handbook for any who attempt to write a feminist history of Australian literature. Perhaps it is. It is a gem, at times funny; Mollie vomiting indecorously by a London lamp post (93) is a ludicrous scene and the autobiographer knows it. Queen Mary scoffing strawberries (141) no less so. These are gems, but so are the contrasts between West Australia, skilfully depicted, and Britain, which speak volumes of vastly different cultures as telling as any I know, or the quiet juxtapositions of the opportunities and talents open to men and those afforded women in the early twentieth century.

Reading, entertaining, humble: The Fifth Sparrow is an enigmatic true tale that should be snapped up from every dusty second hand book shop shelf and read with vigour and delight.
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0424064103 / 9780424064109

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