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Daisy in Exile: The Diary of an Australian School Girl in France 1887-1889
Margaret Isabel White
Translated by Marc Serge Rivière and introduced by Judith White
Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2003.
AUD$29.95, 188 Pages, ISBN 0642107645.

Susan Ballyn
Universitat de Barcelona


Daisy in Exile: The Diary of an Australian Schoolgirl in France forms part of the now large corpus of published journals, memoirs and letters by colonial women written within Australia or from abroad. Introduced and annotated by Marc Serge Rivière, this particular publication offers an unusual slant on colonial women's autobiographical writings, letters and journals, in that the Diary, which runs from 1887 to 1889, records the time Margaret Isabel (Daisy) White, and her sister Dorothy spent at a school, "Les Ruches," in Fontainebleau, France. Daisy White, a second cousin to Patrick White, came from a large pastoral family in New South Wales, but it is the family properties "Woodlands" and "Glenalvon" which figure largely in Daisy's nostalgic musing about home in her journal, together with New South Wales itself. Europe and especially Paris were part of the exciting European tour that many Australians made at this time. For Daisy it was seen, rather unjustly on her part, as a quasi exile, a place with which, as her Diary reveals, she was to have a love-hate relationship. Years later in Flaws in the Glass, Patrick white referred to his stay in England with Daisy's sister Dorothy after she had been widowed in 1924. He seems to confirm the sense of exile into which the two girls were sent referring to Dorothy's "unhappy childhood with a stepmother who disliked her and shipped her off to a finishing school at Fontainebleau" [23]. Daisy White's Diary does offer a picture of the two sisters often feeling isolated in Fontainebleau, particularly so during the long winters, but it is evidently Dorothy who suffered more than her sister given her frequent illnesses. The narrative in fact traces the emotional ups and downs of both girls, though there is no doubt that Daisy holds the readers attention at the centre of the work.

Daisy was sixteen on her arrival in France and Dorothy two years her junior. Both were at a vulnerable age, but also an age when sensitivities to new environments and culture may be at their most receptive, as was Daisy's case. Although Daisy felt that she and Dorothy had been sent into "exile" by her stepmother, which almost certainly was not the case, we watch her moving between two quite disparate cultures: the pastoral, colonial life of her beloved New South Wales and the culturally exciting and stimulating Fontainebleau and Paris. Both are revealed in Daisy's Diary to be, in part, imaginative constructs for the young woman: home idealised as the space occupied by her "Darling Old Daddy" [21] and her siblings, including her step-brothers and sisters, and Fontainebleau as the place where introspection and self-discovery were made possible. Indeed, in this crossing of cultural barriers, Daisy becomes a paradigm of the postmodern condition and the Diary follows her internal journey and development of a new identity, as Rivière points out.

In her Diary, Daisy comes across as a self-willed, resilient young woman who, like many adolescents, swings emotionally from moments of quasi ecstasy to others bordering on desperation and depression. While capable, on occasions, of intense dislike towards others, one strong and constant characteristic which permeates her character and narration is her deeply warm and caring nature. Feeling abandoned in France by her stepmother and father, it is not surprising that Daisy develops a strong infatuation for a young member of staff: Mlle Rollet. Mlle Rollet remains the focal point of her affections even after this lady has left the staff in what seems, to Daisy, to be rather odd circumstances. Infatuations with members of staff are part and parcel of many (boarding) school experiences. In his "Introduction," the editor refers to a similar infatuation experienced by Dorothy Bussy, Lytton Strachey's sister, who was at the school a year before Daisy, and who became infatuated with one of the head teachers. Years later, Bussy was to fictionalise this relationship in her novel Olivia. Typical of Daisy's infatuation and of teething teenage emotional swings is the entry for "Monday 12th" of February 1888:

Upon my word, I shall go wild here soon, I can't stand much more of it: I feel mad tonight; I hate everybody in the house and connected with it; I feel more alone and awful than I have felt since Mlle Rollet went. Oh, if only I could go to her! And I know it is an utter impossibility, yet I dream of it day and night, and the thought of my happiness so very, very near, and yet so far away, nearly drives me crazy. [88]

This entry contrasts sharply with one a few weeks earlier on "December 31st" 1887. Again Mlle Rollet figures in the narrative but the tone is much more mature, or apparently so:

When we came here for a good while I was too home-sick to do anything but be miserable. Then I found Mademoiselle Rollet, and was perfectly happy and began working well for a little while; but after she went I was worse than ever, and have wasted five months in being more wretched than I ever thought I was capable of. Now I feel I am beginning to wake up, and change back to something like what I was before, only graver, and sterner and firmer. I think my character is a good deal older and more formed than it was a while ago: let's hope so. I shall need all the courage and stoic patience that ever were in a year or two. I have been here for more than eight months now. In four more months winter will be over, and we shall have leaves on the trees once more. [78]

The Diary, as illustrated above, offers access to the emotional and intellectual development of a young woman's already keen sensibility and intelligence in prose which moves between the naive and sophisticated and is marbled by the influence of the authors she is reading at school. The text also becomes a revealing narrative of life in a young ladies' finishing school at the end of the nineteenth century. Daisy's growing familiarity with French, both received and colloquial, constantly punctuate the text with increasing frequency towards the end of her time at the school, as she moves back and forth across the cultural barriers of Australia and France. The last entry in Daisy's Diary is on Thursday, August 1st, 1889. From that point on little is known of her life until her untimely death four years later in 1903.

Marc Serge Rivière has been scrupulous in keeping the text as it is in the original, including the misspellings both in English and French, as well as Daisy White's at times odd punctuation, which allows the narrative a genuine spontaneity that the constant presence of "[sic]," or corrections would detract from. The accompanying footnotes, as well as his extensive "Introduction," which contextualises both Daisy White's background and that of the school, affords the reader abundant and vital information. As a reader, however, I found myself often wishing that some of the other correspondence between Daisy and her family, or between other relatives themselves, had actually been reproduced more fully. It would have enabled the reader to gain a more multifaceted reading of this young woman's character and responses to her. Nonetheless, Rivière has rescued Daisy White's Diary from oblivion, thus adding another important text to this genre in Australian literature.


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