“Who Does She Think She Is?” A Quest for Understanding in Tirra Lirra by the River.
by Cathy Cupitt

It has been suggested that “Tirra Lirra by the River can be regarded as a novel which aims eventually at a better understanding”2. In my opinion understanding is achieved at two levels in the novel. The first type of understanding is personal and introspective, and is discovered by the central character. The other is societal, achieved through allegory and symbolism, and aimed at the reader.

Jessica Anderson aims to develop this dual understanding through the exploration of two main themes: the quest for self-knowledge, and the consequences of gendered societal repression. In this essay I will explore these themes, and how much Nora and the audience respectively finally understand in relation to them.

The Quest for Self-Knowledge

Nora Porteous, the main character of Tirra Lirra by the River, embarks on a voyage ofself discovery as an elderly lady – mostly while in bed recovering from pneumonia. As physical exertion, which the reader later discovers has been her usual response to periods of ‘waiting’, is denied her, she begins to explore her inner world of imagination and memory. Her most important discovery is that she has lived under the curse of an imbalance between imagination and reality all her life. This imbalance is signified by Nora’s many correlations to Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallot”, and by the chasm between her physical appearance and actions and her inner character.

One of the most obvious traits shared by the Lady and Nora, is their desire for the perfect social world of Camelot. Nora’s ‘Camelot’ is a “region of [her] mind, where infinite expansion was possible” and is more real than “the discomfort of knees imprinted by the cane of a chair” (p. 9) or any other physical intrusion. Living in this ‘half-real’ world – in the gap between Camelot and the real cities she inhabits – has not made Nora’s life a happy one. She is trapped in a world of ‘shadows’ and ‘reflections’, like the Lady. Reality has never quite lived up to expectation, and the very fact that Nora dares to expect something special from life draws the “ominous growled out question … ‘Who does she think she is?'” (p. 13.).

It is only while convalescing in bed that Nora begins to “separate her real self from her imagined self”3. It is through her ability to resolve the conflict between her dream world and reality that she escapes the curse of living in a shadow world – a curse shared with her symbolic counterpart the Lady of Shallot. “Like the Lady of Shallot, she looks on reality, but unlike her, Nora wins her life as she begins to integrate the contrasting elements of her being.”4 This is Nora’s triumph, and Anderson’s significant departure from the story told in Tennyson’s poem.

The reason Nora finds it so hard to reach self-knowledge is also due to her pre-occupation with surfaces and superficial reflections of herself.

Throughout the novel, Nora struggles to … present the image of the woman she assumes she is supposed to be – even to the extent of … a surgical reconstruction of her face.5

The real Nora has never been the ‘face’ or any of the personalities she displays to the world. But she has found it easier to capitulate to expectation than try to explain herself, telling us that “the thicket of misunderstanding … [seemed] so old and dense … that it was less exhausting to simply be as reckless, cynical and frivolous” (p. 70.) as expected of her, rather than try to be herself.

The real Nora is the person contained in the globe of memory within her mind. However, it takes her a whole lifetime, and a brush with death, to understand this about herself. A whole lifetime to realise that it is possible to exist without masks, and without the banality that lying to her audience produced in her letters. Once she realises this, she rejects the restrictions of playing these games, even to a “sympathetic audience” (p. 140.).

The globe of memory suspended within her head is the key to Nora’s eventual understanding of herself. Here is where all the contradictions of her life are hidden. A place where imagination and reality are so closely linked that “imagination is only memory at one, or two, or twenty, removes” (p. 140.) Nora’s quest is to backtrack through these removes and explore all her memories, not just those that have been carefully reconstructed for public consumption.

When she dares to turn her globe of memory towards its dark side, it “doesn’t crack; the ideal and real worlds are reconciled – through honesty, intelligence, and a total lack of self-pity”6. She explores until there is no longer a ‘dark’ side of the globe containing shadows to be “half sick of”7. Nora becomes increasingly free of fear of her memories, exploring further and further into the dark places of her mind, until the globe is in free spin.

There will, of course, always be unanswerable mysteries about just how much she has reconstructed the memories the globe contains. Particularly those of her ex-husband Colin Porteous, who has become “overlaid by the discussion, speculation, and humour” (p. 98.) of conversations held with her coterie at ‘number six’.

Once Nora has reconciled the memories of her own ‘wasted’ past, she almost effortlessly manages to balance the forces of imagination and reality. Resolution comes when she finally sees a ‘real’ river, rather than the hyper-real imaginary one of her Romantic youth, “because it represents an imaginative capacity, anchored in the material world yet transcending it”8. This resolution is deepened when she finally finds Grace, both in reconciliation with the memory of her sister, and through self-knowledge. And it is only at this point that Nora is finally able to exorcise her most haunting chimera. The “step of a horse, the nod of a plume” (p. 140.) are revealed as part of her father’s funeral, and the deceptive fantasy of Lancelot is finally allowed to fade away.

“Nora has finally reached an individual, if characteristically muted, resolution of her personal odyssey” 9. With the end of her journey of self discovery, it is revealed that her real artistic achievement is not in her tapestries or sewing, but the narrative of her life.

Nora’s own narrative, with all its hard won wisdom and unsparing honesty, its muted triumph over pain and waste, replaces the inane emptiness of Lancelot’s song of the title.10

Nora achieves, if not total understanding of herself, a measure of serenity in understanding the process of redefinition of the self in relation to others and over time. Her route to this understanding is long and hard, and I think it is implied by Anderson that many women take the same wrong turns when searching for self-identity. Many are caught up in the same idea that physical appearance and actions somehow define inner character, and also share the experience of a chasm between the world of their imagination and the real world. The cries of Nora’s London customers “But is it me?” implies a wider phenomenon
of the inability of women to “express their conception of themselves” (p. 111). Why do these women seek, and fail to find, meaningful methods of self expression?

The Consequences of Gendered Societal Repression

The Lady of Shallot can be seen as a symbol of repressed womanhood. She suffers from the “curse”, with all of the gender specific connotations that the phrase entails, which traps and isolates her from reality. She lives in an era when the only respectable escape from the parental home for well born women was marriage. And she is an artist of the almost exclusively female practice of tapestry weaving, constrained into taking her inspiration from reflections of reality, rather than reality itself. In Tirra Lirra by the River, Anderson constantly uses echoes and refrains from Tennyson’s poem to underline her own themes – even to the extent of taking the title of the book from this source. These references have the effect of symbolically linking Nora and the Lady of Shallot. Knowledge of the Lady’s constrained and constricted life, makes the reader particularly aware of the presence of similar pressures in Nora’s life.

Having established the link between Nora and the Lady, Anderson introduces us to two female characters who contrast with Nora. Thus offering the reader some insight in to the broader consequences of the societal pressures that echo throughout Nora’s quest for self identity. Although Nora’s story is central, we have the counterpoints of Dorothy Rainbow, and Olive Partridge. How these two women respond to the “almost compulsive conformity … which determines … behaviour and punishes relentlessly any deviation from the permitted pattern”11, highlights the power lying behind the constant refrain: ‘who does she think she is?’.

This taunt suggests not only a widespread and unquestioning belief in the value of the ‘norm’, but perhaps an insecurity in the definition of the norm. We can see that for women in Nora’s home town the norm is parochial, alienating, and narrowly defined, yet never explicitly stated. But we do see how this idea of the ‘norm’ works. It is not considered, for example, a stultifying waste of talent for Nora to work in a shop, but rather a pinnacle of artistic achievement. “I always knew Nora would end up doing something artistic” (p. 17.) women of the town say to Nora’s mother. Rather like the Lady of Shallot’s ‘curse’, the ‘norm’ as it is represented in Tirra Lirra by the River is unknowable, yet intractable.

Nora, Olive and Dorothy are all painted as outsiders – women who are “groping [their] way toward an unclear freedom, tearing at the nets of family, sex, convention and geography.”12. It is only by truly escaping to the ‘outside’ that freedom from the ‘norm’ can be achieved, and the self destruction of the ‘curse’ can be avoided. Nora manages a late and partial freedom. Olive not only escapes but transforms her constrained beginnings into beauty. But Dorothy, who stays behind, is consumed by destructive madness.

When compared to Dorothy, Nora’s life seems a narrow escape from a dreadful fate. Olive, however, is an even more interesting figure. Her successful self expression through her novels, from an early age, raises the question: how much of Nora’s failure was societal, and how much individual? Dorothy’s and the Lady’s fate informs us that at least some of this waste of life was externally caused.

Of these three women Nora is not only the central voice, but the middle ground. She represents all of those women who ask: “but is it me?”. It is because Nora is so accessible that the price of her repression becomes so apparent to the reader.

Such submissive conformity to a social role exacts its price; anger is its bitter underside. Beneath the banalities, the euphemisms and the evasions of Nora’s everyday discourse and her carefully learned responses, there is a “sour rebellion” (p. 52) that can find no voice.13

This pressure to conform is felt by Nora not just in her social roles, but through her physical beauty. Her face becomes another weapon in the war against the emergence of her own identity. She is Lillian Gish (p. 34.), Bette Davis (p. 60.), or invisible (p. 104.) depending on how men describe her face. She not only feels the need to have “assumed an acquiescent social mask as a survival technique,”14 but to assume the actual ‘mask’ of skin tightened by a facelift when her beauty fades. This is not just a revelation of Nora’s vanity. The power of the male gaze is being used to define Nora from the outside. This is made clear to the reader through Nora’s link with the Lady of Shallot, who undergoes the same redefinition through Lancelot:

No matter that she had been imprisoned in an isolated tower … that she was an artist … that she risked all for life and reality, that she dies as a sacrificial victim to the chivalric values that sustained Camelot: “she has a lovely face” is her sole epitaph.15

Nora could well have shared a similar epitaph if her suicide attempt had been successful. Instead, she manages to escape the power of these external pressures. She “swims free of all the nets, then returns to her starting point, clarifying and integrating all her experiences, coming [close] … to answering the question ‘Who am I?'”16

She finds her own voice, and a powerful one it is. This becomes obvious to us as we read her narrative. The narrative tapestry of her life is cleverly woven – a masterpiece of self-expression. Through it Nora redeems the wasted time, and the lack of dreams achieved, the lies and banality. It is a triumph. And yet, the phantom of Olive’s success mutes the triumph.

At the end of the novel the reader is left with several questions about the nature of Nora’s triumph, and the part individuals play in the effect of societal repression and self repression. These questions remain unanswered. Anderson is, after all, fictionalising her themes, not writing a didactic monologue. She:

… dramatises many of the issues that contemporary feminists are talking about: women’s disempowerment within patriarchal social structures, their confinement within expected social roles, their self-suppression.17

It is through the dramatising of these issues that we gain some understanding of the complexity of the consequences of gendered repression.

Nora’s narrative “traces the progress [she] makes from alienation to oneness, from fragmentation toward wholeness, from self-absorption to self-awareness”18 Through this quest she reaches an understanding of her own life, character, and talent – including both the wastages, and the successes. However, there remains one significant unanswered question – how has her reconstruction of memory affected this newly formed understanding?

The reader, through Nora’s narrative, becomes aware of the social forces affecting the course of her life. An understanding of both the positive and negative effects of gendered societal repression is achieved. However, we are also left with questions about the nature and effect of repression. What is it exactly, and where does it really come from? Is it always external, or can we be our own worst enemy?

Through Anderson’s subtle development of these themes, I believe that Tirra Lirra by the River can, indeed, be regarded as a novel which aims eventually at a better understanding. However, it is an understanding of processes rather than of absolutes. For despite the gaining of some understanding, on the parts of both Nora and the reader, there remains an enigma. By the end of Tirra Lirra by the River we feel we know Nora intimately, and yet we still don’t know the answer to her driving question.

Who does she think she is?


Anderson, Jessica.
Tirra Lirra by the River. Victoria: Penguin Books, 1978 (reprinted 1989).
Barry, Elaine.
Fabricating the Self: The Fictions of Jessica Anderson. Queensland: UQP, 1992.
Barry, Elaine.
“The Expatriate Vision of Jessica Anderson.” Meridian, 3 (1)(1984), 3-11.
Gallagher, Donat.
“Tirra Lirra by the Brisbane River.” LiNQ, 10 (1) (1981), 101-110.
Gilbert, Pam.
Coming Out From Under: Contemporary Australian Women Writers. London: Pandora, 1988.
Haynes, Roslynn.
“Art as Reflection in Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River.” Australian Literary Studies, 12 (3) (1986), 316-323.
Tennyson, Alfred.
“The Lady of Shallot.” In Barry, Elaine. Fabricating the Self: The Fictions of Jessica Anderson: Appendix 2. Queensland: UQP, 1992.
Willbanks, Ray.
“The Strength to Be Me: The Protagonist in the Fiction of Jessica Anderson.” SPAN, 27 (1988), 58-63.

Secondary Sources

Bird, Delys.
“Jessica Anderson: Tirra Lirra by the River.” Westerly, 25 (4) (1980), 78-80.
Blair, Ruth.
“Jessica Anderson’s Mysteries.” Island Magazine, 31 (1987), 10-15.
Ferrier, Elizabeth.
“Mapping the Local in the Unreal City.” Island Magazine, 41 (1989), 65-69.
Sykes, Alrene.
“Jessica Anderson: Arrivals and Places.” Southerly, 46 (1) (1986), 57-71.

End Notes

  1. Jessica Anderson, Tirra Lirra by the River (Victoria: Penguin Books, 1978 [reprinted 1989]). All references to this text are from this edition, page numbers given in text. This quote from p. 13.
  2. Handout 6/243/343/96.
  3. Ray Willbanks, “The Strength to Be Me: The Protagonist in the Fiction of Jessica Anderson,” SPAN 27 (1988), 58-63. This from p. 61.
  4. Willbanks, p. 62.
  5. Pam Gilbert, Coming Out From Under: Contemporary Australian Women Writers (London: Pandora, 1988) p. 140.
  6. Elaine Barry, “The Expatriate Vision of Jessica Anderson,” Meridian 1 (3) (1984), 3-11. This from p. 8.
  7. Alfred Tennyson, “The Lady of Shallot,” In Elaine Barry, Fabricating the Self: The Fictions of Jessica Anderson (Queensland: UQP, 1992), Appendix 2.
  8. Elaine Barry, Fabricating the Self: The Fictions of Jessica Anderson (Queensland: UQP, 1992), p. 89.
  9. Barry, Meridian, p. 9.
  10. Barry, Fabricating, p. 83.
  11. Roslynn Haynes, “Art as Reflection in Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River,” Australian Literary Studies 3 (12) (1986), 316-323. This from p. 318.
  12. Willbanks, p. 60.
  13. Barry, Fabricating, p. 73.
  14. Barry, Meridian, p. 7.
  15. Barry, Fabricating, p. 74.
  16. Willbanks, p. 60.
  17. Barry, Fabricating, p. 71.
  18. Willbanks, p. 62.

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