We need to remind ourselves that there was once a time when there were no Keynesian socialist bureaucracies determining ‘cultural policy’ on a national and state basis. For nearly 60 years, bodies such as the Australia Council have been busy framing policy and allocating taxpayer funds ‘at arm’s length’. From whom, you might ask: at arm’s length from the democratically elected government of the day? There is an irritating belief that nothing happened culturally in this country until Whitlam created the Australia Council. Wrong on two counts: the Whitlam Government didn’t establish the Australia Council, it was the Gorton Government, and a great deal happened culturally before then. All of which was brought to mind by a new Australian book: Girls at the Piano by Virginia Lloyd, whose first novel was The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement.
This delightful new book is in part a memoir about how learning the piano shaped the lives of two women, worlds and generations apart. The women are the author and her Scottish-born grandmother. The book explores the relationship between those women and the piano, but also that of many piano-playing heroines of countless novels over two centuries. Virginia Lloyd was intrigued initially by Sybella, the pianist heroine of Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career. She references piano-playing heroines created by Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte,Virginia Woolf, Chekhov and Hardy among others. Lloyd reminds us of a time when individuals, not governments, shaped their own cultural lives.