Some years back your correspondent published a “Guest Blog” with a view to reissuing (if that is the right term) writings by skilled wordsmiths which seem to merit such rebirth. This current post is different in that the work published has so far (as far as can be established) not previously appeared anywhere. Why Kathryn Purnell? Simply because, apart from being your correspondent’s mother-in-law, she was a fine wordsmith, producing much poetry and prose. You can check out her current catalogue at The National Library of Australia which includes three recently published ebooks, available from Amazon or Kobo. These three novellas are varied in length and present stories set in London, Melbourne and Istanbul. Time poor? Read a novella.
A little background on Kathryn can be found on her Facebook page, but for ease of reference a short backgrounder follows:
“Kathryn Purnell embodied the soul and spirit of a creative writer. She maintained an intense interest in everything around her, the natural and spiritual worlds, the everyday and the eternal, diverse countries and their cultures as well as the human condition (of which she had an uncanny understanding). A gifted educator, she was an inspiration to many aspiring writers to whom she taught creative writing. She believed intensely in the need to encourage women writers, the constraints on whom she felt herself at a very personal level. Born in Vancouver, Canada in 1911 and baptised Catherine Isabell (Maxwell), she later morphed her personal names into Kathryn Isobel for reasons never clearly evident. Travelling by sea to Australia with her family as a young woman she met on board and later married scientist William (Bill) Purnell. In a marriage that lasted 72 years the partnership of two highly intelligent but very different personalities was not always smooth, but that notwithstanding the union delivered Kathryn a wealth of opportunity for international experiences rare for most living in those times. Bill Purnell’s work in the early years of UNESCO, as head of its Science Cooperation Division, took Kathryn to Paris to live in the early post war years, then to Cairo and later Jakarta. She travelled widely in Europe and later spent time in South Africa where her younger daughter lived for a time. When her husband’s ill health compelled the family to return permanently to Australia in the late nineteen fifties, Kathryn maintained her international links through involvement with the United Nations Association, and her work with women through the YWCA. It was particularly in this period of her life, with the common pressures of maintaining a family, supporting a husband in his professional life and finding time to create, that she felt most strongly the constraints and limitations placed on the female creative spirit by the societal practices and beliefs of the time. But create she did, both poetry and prose work. She also spent much of her time teaching aspiring writers, mostly women. Active in the Society of Women Writers, in 1998 she won The Alice Award, a biennial award for long term and distinguished contribution to literature by an Australian woman. Previous winners have included Eleanor Dark, Judith Wright, Mary Durack and Nancy Cato. After Kathryn’s death the Society of Women’s Writers Victoria set up the biennial Kathryn Purnell Poetry Prize in her memory. Other awards over the years included the State of Victoria Short Story Award and the Moomba Short Story Prize in 1966/67, The Society of Women Writers Poetry Prize in 1972, Maryborough Poetry Prize in 1975, an award in the Geelong Arts Festival 1976 and in 1979 she was the inaugural winner of the Charles Meeking Poetry Award for women. A resident of the suburb, in the early nineties Kathryn was appointed East Melbourne Writer in Residence. During this appointment she edited “The Beautiful Hill: An Anthology of Writing from East Melbourne”, a collection of short essays and poems written by local identities. In addition to her poetry, Kathryn left a fine legacy of prose writings, much of it unpublished. A current project will seek to redress this by e-publishing some of her novellas, short stories and her singular novel, the latter a fascinating story, with autobiographical undertones, covering the life of a young girl growing up in early twentieth century Vancouver, yet stretching to Cairo in the fifties.”
For lovers of French history the following epic poem reflects on personal elements in the life of Louis 14th of France, The Sun King. The style is very different to Kathryn’s later poetry, probably having been written in the immediate post war years when she lived in Paris. Your correspondent thinks it is a gem worthy of preservation.
THE KING WALKS IN THE ORANGERIE
Mine is a tired ghost well acquainted with questions
still unsolved; consciously dissatisfied; harried
by avoidable mistakes; dismissing other ethical torts
of my historic times. A strange garrulous phantom
even irreligious now considering the murders I sanctioned in that cause;
the sacred promises I broke like a pagan at midsummer. A pagan
which indeed I have become since I died, rising up and down
from the soil to haunt my garden and spook the decline
of my maligned menagerie. I rarely wander now inside
my palace so perfectly restored with gold from the new
world. Even I cannot approve the recent treaties irredeemably
forced by hate in my long ballroom.
This last is a disgusting century
considering the technical advances
man does not improve
or justify his promise.
I have decided to depart with the last
blossoming tree in this potted
For me the flowers, animals and birds have easily deposed
ambitious men. I was encircled by them.
Women are softer if mischievous even gardeners
desire them. I am at depth a gardener. This garden
unlocked me season following season in carefully
constructed promenade, spring blossom, summer fruit,
the red glow of autumn, winter resting white, the constant
parade of flowers, the trees I know as friends.
Women so seasonal in beauty wit and laughter
were my necessity like the oranges I removed with plans
from Fouquet who stole from my treasury. He was the collector
of artists, Le Vau, Le Brun, Le Nôtre, destined for Versailles.
I was the gardener. Historians
may say Le Nôtre
made the garden.
It was I, Louis Quatorze, son
of Anne, taught by Mazarin, I
the fourteenth monarch ageing
from agile gay to sullen melancholy
made it grow. I was the gardener.
The menagerie was also mine.
The inner lodge of the chateau was always my retreat
from vulnerable childhood. Secure inside these woods
I could not hear the wild street cries of Paris. True
the mob came here to seize my final heir and Antoinette:
the demons stripped the palace but not the stones and brick
and not for a hundred years when even my eminent ghost
walked on the inner stair advice ignored and wraith unseen
by the sixteenth and his Queen. She built a little farm
for her pretence. His neglect included the half mooned
circle of my menagerie. Versailles was my sanctuary;
around it rose my glory, the great façade. Three hundred
seventy five elongated windows for the fabled view
across one hundred steps to the thousand fountain jets.
While I endured the levy my children played on the double stairway,
danced above the Orangerie, giggled at the gondoliers
imported from Italy to sing of Venetian love in a French lullaby.
How I wanted those children to be happy. Modern children
play but not so often die except in war. I sired seventeen;
have trouble now remembering the wisps beyond the seven
who survived and they took full life pride from the wombs
of several women. While princely young I loved Louise.
Her beauty produced a beautiful daughter. In my next phase
the wit of Montespan presented me with two. I recall three
adorable girls brought up by Maintenon who guarded my progeny
until her earthly end within the bigotry of her religious creed,
remember with an acute compassion the children who lived
to be my heirs. Madame the Queen bedded year by year
to leave my only son, raised by my brother Monsieur
for the safety of the crown until the Dauphin was grown
mature enough to produce a son of his own, my beloved grandson,
hope of my middle years, pleasing for the succession
protecting for the perpetuation the divine dynastic
right of kings, who loved my little one, the petite Bourgogne.
My favourite Marie Adelaide
whom they brought from Savoy,
delightful imperious child
of eleven betrothed to my heir
young Burgundy. It was she who
fell in love with my menagerie
which I gave her gladly.
How we adored her.
In her embroideries
she smelled sweeter than Le Nôtre’s
roses. She was a passion like my flowers.
Her youth like mine cherished the menagerie. Mine
the power of a young king even then older than Adelaide
the year she died. When she arrived thirty reigning
years had spent enthusiasm; filched me away
from that first fascination, recaptured in her face.
I remembered that the King of Portugal had sent the elephant;
that I studied biology in the beginning, paid out
a hundred thousand gold Louis, made my menagerie
richer in fur and feathers than any other.
Secure and proud had opened the doors to public view,
a mistake of twenty years duration. Once an offer
is made it is difficult to cancel. It was the people broke
my spirit, hooted, bellowed and roared derision, trampled
the flowers, drunk with wine abused exotic elegance,
fouled the way in their hollering heard in constant din
above the roar of the lion.
I was over sixty when
she watched the menagerie with me,
my little Marie Adelaide come
to be married at twelve.
She adored the peacock strut, Quagga that rare zebra
now extinct; like me she stared fancifully
into the amber eyes of cats. The keepers loved her.
She had the tempers to make men laugh and yet obey,
a royal trait too shrewd for thoughtless edicts. She
cajoled Colbert and me to finance the menagerie
when costs grew inordinately heavy. Only they who
have fed a zoo can know the cost. She and I
would walk together at the sunset hour, an ageing King
bitter with memory, hand in hand with a vain humble child
preparing to be a Queen despite a disposition too loving.
She talked to me, cajoled the boy who was her husband,
spoke to the gardeners, the keepers, her favourite
fowls and animals in the menagerie, trying to please
them all. I see her still standing by idly absorbed
with hens and cabbages while I argued with Le Nôtre
who raised legumes instead of blooms in my greenhouses.
So it was not for me her small
white form returns. I hurry to speak
but she is gone like quicksilver.
Strange I should remember best
the love without desire.
It is not for me she searches.
She died of measles, a scourge
like the pox and faster,
a night and she was gone
still a young woman.
He who was my grandson followed
her soon after refusing to recover.
Outlive my heirs! It broke my
heart for as I lived I buried
every one except the wide eyed child
of five they brought to me
for blessing before I died.
He was a good king,
often we walked together here
where he was born and died. He
was always at home within my presence.
He shared my humours, grateful
I haunted the Regent when he
was young. As well his Queen
Marie Leczinska breathed her blood
into these roots with ten offspring
to place above the glory of mistresses
who were beautiful women. In that
he was more fortunate than I, yet
finally I had rather the menagerie
I made and the garden of Versailles.
My tulips, my daffodils, my stocks and jasmine.
Useless, Le Nôtre said agreeing with La Quintinie
smiling among the variety of vegetables raised for my table
arguing amiably while watching my face. Vegetables
with berries are beautiful food for birds and love as equally
are lilliums. Who in my day could say what was useless, not Le Nôtre
or Le Brun or Le Vau or even my clever exploiter Colbert
who played his part in this garden.
I did what I could for his sons.
He was a snob my brilliant financier
One never felt him satisfied.
How could he be?
Money was his forte. To me money
meant the satisfaction of my Orangerie:
Chinese they told me when I was first entranced.
When the oranges die I will go through their roots to the tomb
of Apollo, three hundred metres down the stairs
under the green carpet where the steps are mossy now and the border
trees velvet with golden lichen. At night now
only the satyrs stare at my apparition. The gates are locked. Moderns
may expect me there for by day I scare nobody. I am not
an unsightly spectre. My shade is friendly, haunting the Orangerie.
The worst I am called is vain. An artist leaves a painting,
a poet a poem. Musicians can be performed continually.
Only recently a performance of a petite suite in A
composed by me was mechanically recorded in the conservatoire.
Any peasant can leave his seed, the woman makes the child.
Knossos, Persopolis, Chambord, from roses and fleur-de-lis
monarchs build palaces. I the Sun King Louis,
out of everything I saw and knew, from moulding,
beading, panelling, gilding, water and symmetry,
using stone and ornamentation with inlay,
ormolu, enamel and clay, from leadlight,
parquetry, archeries and fountains I made Versailles,
fashioned gardens with waterways and my menagerie.
Depart a tired ghost
with the last tree in my Orangerie
I, Louis Quatorze who made Versailles.
Kathryn Purnell (1911-2006)