Australian Mena Calthorpe wrote just three novels in her lifetime; The Dyehouse was her first novel, and I’ll tag it a ‘social conscience’ novel. But while the novel centres on working life in a Sydney textile factory, it’s also about the trials of the people who work there: their poverty, loves, and struggles. So while we see the structure of the factory with its workers, and how humanity is sacrificed for profit, we also see the private lives of those workers beyond the dyehouse.
It’s 1956, and a very calm, prim Miss Merton arrives at the Southern Textiles Dye Works to apply for a job. The factory is run by Mr Renshaw, and when the novel opens, the biggest dilemmas facing the factory are the drop in production and the sudden popularity of nylon. Behind Mr Renshaw is the Chairman of Directors, the General Manager, and the Company Secretary who each approach the factory differently. Through the plot we see the layers of management, upper, middle and all the way down to the workers who struggle with various problems, personal and professional.
One of Miss Merton’s tasks is to process the necessary forms in order to give the employees sick pay. The term “personal illness” has to be redefined
“Cuthbert says that personal illness could be the personal illness of wife or child. Sick-pay applies only to the personal illness of the employee.”
“I suppose he means Barney Monahan.” said Miss Merton.
“Oh, well,” said Renshaw, “we’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Some of these blokes know a thing or two.”
“Yes.” Miss Merton pressed her lips together.
“Don’t need to take it to heart,” said Renshaw. “Just watch them for that ‘my personal illness ‘ angle, and the rest is up to them.”
Miss Merton sat tapping her pen on her desk.
“It seems heartless,” she said. “Wife sick. Everything at odds. And this form waiting for ‘due to my personal illness.’ There’s not much margin for the joys and tragedies in people’s lives, is there?”
Working at the dyehouse isn’t morally easy for Miss Merton, and Renshaw can tell that she disapproves of policies. To him she’s a “sentimentalist,” and if that means she sees that workers as part of a factory ‘family,’ then she’s guilty as charged. Miss Merton also observes Renshaw’s predatory behaviour towards the female factory workers. Patty, Renshaw’s flavour of the week, is foolish enough to believe Renshaw’s tin promises that he’ll marry her. Everyone else in the factory knows that Patty is being used, but she’s the last one to get it. My favorite character is Oliver, a man who sees the bigger picture.
Author Mena Calthorpe was a communist and worked in a textile factory, so both her beliefs and her experiences are engaged here. Over the course of a year, we see how the factory runs and the lives of a handful of characters: Hughie Marshall “Leading Hand on the vats.” Hughie is a stellar worker but lacks credentials, and Renshaw intends to replace him in spite of the devotion he’s shown to the company. Then there’s Patty who lives with her invalid mother, a young woman who doesn’t need the trouble that a relationship with Renshaw will bring. We also follow the story of Barney, whose youthful enthusiasm is lost in the “treadmill” of work. It’s easy to tell the author’s politics here, but she doesn’t sacrifice characterization for message, and that’s what makes The Dyehouse an engaging read.
For some reason, Australia in the 50s holds a special fascination.