Jane Sullivan is best known to Melbourne literature-lovers as the scribe behind theSaturday Age’s weekly column, ‘Turning Pages’. Now, on the eve of the publication of her second novel, Little People (the first was White Star, in 2000), we’ll be thinking of her as a novelist first, journalist second. Little People was shortlisted for Scribe’s inaugural CAL/Scribe Fiction Prize for writers aged 35 and over. Patrick Allington, the Miles Franklin-longlisted author of Figurehead, spoke to Jane about Little People’s long journey from her imagination to the page, for Readings’ New Australian Writing feature series.
Don’t let the title of Jane Sullivan’s new novel fool you. Little People is crammed with big ideas and larger-than-life characters, several of whom are famous midgets. ‘I’d like people to have the sense that they’re watching a wonderful show and the curtain swings open and the characters come on and they perform, and have some of that exhilaration of a live performance,’ Sullivan says. ‘I hope it’s convincing ... but I don’t mind if it seems a bit over the top.’ In other words, even though real people and events inspired Little People, Sullivan doesn’t let history cramp her storytelling style.
More than a decade separates Little People and Sullivan’s debut novel, The White Star (2000). That’s partly because she wrote another novel in between: ‘It’s gone into the bottom drawer now,’ she says. It’s also because Little People ‘wasn’t easy to write. I haven’t found any novel easy to write.’ Sullivan is also a journalist – she writes a Saturday column, ‘Turning Pages’, in The Age — and she juggles the different demands of writing fiction and non-fiction by imagining she has ‘a little toggle switch’ in her head. ‘Sometimes when the fiction isn’t going well it’s a relief to get back to the journalism,’ she says, ‘because there usually I feel I know what I’m doing and it doesn’t take too long and I just need to find out x, y and z and then I write the thing and I get paid and I see it appear. And that’s nice, I feel like I’ve achieved something, whereas the fiction can drag on for years. I never quite know what I’m doing or whether I’m going to end up with a proper novel at the end. It’s very hard to tell.’
Although The White Star is set in contemporary Sydney, it shares some themes and preoccupations with Little People. In particular, both books deal with fame, public and private personas, the allure of seemingly illogical ideas and celebrity adoption. ‘To me they seem to be very different books,’ Sullivan says. ‘Of course, there are things going on when you’re writing that you’re not even conscious of. There are themes that pop up because you think about them consciously, and there are also themes that pop up without you even realising they are there, but they somehow make their way to the surface.’
In Little People, Sullivan takes two distinct stories – two different worlds, really – and merges them into one raucous, chaotic, tense and deliberately melodramatic tale. There’s Mary Ann, the principal narrator, who must confront the stark reality of being pregnant and unwed in 1870s Melbourne. And then there’s the spectacle of a troupe of P.T. Barnum’s little people, in Australia as part of a world tour. From this, Sullivan conjures a novel in which performance and life imitate each other in an energetic mix of dastardly deeds, secret alliances, professional jealousies, dubious science, and true and false love.
Mary Ann is, as Sullivan puts it, ‘the spine of the book’. She describes the little people and their entourage with the eye of an inquisitive outsider, except that, having performed an act of extreme bravery, she has become an insider of sorts. The troupe employs her, but they are mostly interested in her because she is pregnant – Charles and Lavinia Stratton, aka General Tom Thumb and The Queen of Beauty, seem to have a solution to the conundrum of what should become of Mary Ann’s unborn child. But Mary Ann (and readers too) cannot be sure of the Stratton’s motives. For one thing, when it comes to babies, they have form. For another, Charles has some rather original ideas about conception.
While Mary Ann anchors the story, the colourful and eccentric troupe shines brightest. ‘There’s something in me that’s strongly attracted to the quirky and the seemingly a bit crazy,’ Sullivan says. ‘I don’t mean in the sense of psychotic or anything like that, just really oddball … out of the mainstream. I think I’m attracted to those kinds of worlds and the people in them and what makes them tick.’
What’s most interesting about the midgets is not their size but their weird public lives. Sullivan humanises the Strattons, Lavinia’s sister Minnie and Commodore George Washington Nutt by allowing them to speak for themselves. They interrupt Mary Ann’s narration to offer up their own perspectives – as does Rodnia, Commodore Nutt’s less vertically challenged brother. These voices, labelled ‘sideshows’ in the book, so sparkle that they threaten to become the main event.
Charles Stratton is perhaps Little People’s most fascinating character. Sullivan pokes holes in Stratton’s puffed-up facade, imagining a rather sad but proud private man with a split personality. In a stand-out scene, a boy arrested in time reveals himself: My name is Charlie Stratton, and I am is thirty-two years and three months old; what the General used to be. The General he’s pulling himself together, he’s going onstage to astound the Antipodeans with his Napoleon. I’m four years old and I’m not going anywhere. I have been four for a long time. You can’t see me, can you? I’m hiding. I’m good at hiding. I’m like the boy in the picture puzzle. The boy in the fork of the tree, the boy-shaped space the branches make. It’s kind of lonely up here, but it’s the best place for me. As long as I keep still, you can’t see me.
‘I think he’s an extraordinary man,’ Sullivan says of the real-life Charles Stratton. ‘It’s hard when you’re reading about him to get a sense of what he was really like. What you’re reading about most of the time is the performer and he was obviously quite a talented performer, although from all accounts he was not as talented as Commodore Nutt … At this stage of his life, Charles Stratton was in his thirties, he had put on a lot of weight and he seemed a bit tired and stiff , and not very convincing. He’d been performing since he was four years old, which I just find utterly extraordinary. But growing up in that sort of totally artificial world and becoming this celebrity, I think it would have given him a strange sense of himself.’
Little People is greatly preoccupied with fame and celebrity. An example: when Lavinia first meets Mary Ann, she orders her to kneel. While Mary Ann understands that she should pin Lavinia’s hem, Lavinia later explains, ‘This is what one does before a queen, and I think I have been a queen for most of my life, long before Mr Barnum manufactured me.’ The famous P.T. Barnum hovers over the story like a God-like creator. He trained the real-life Charles Stratton when Stratton was a young boy, and as Sullivan says, ‘that kind of oddity and fame at a very early age can distort people. The obvious example these days would be Michael Jackson.’ Sullivan points out that Australians in 1870 ‘didn’t have television or YouTube […]. When somebody like General Tom Thumb came to Australia, people were absolutely thrilled to have a chance to see him. He was this huge celebrity and he’d come amongst us. No wonder they all rushed to the theatre and thronged into the streets to see him and his troupe. It was an amazing event.’
Perhaps this is why Little People is such thought-provoking entertainment. In going back 140 years to observe celebrities of another age, it invites readers to consider contemporary society’s fixation with cartoon-like characters such as Michael Jackson, Charlie Sheen or Lady Gaga. And while Mary Ann is an outsider, so too are the members of the troupe. They are Americans, sure of their prominent position in the world, some of them world famous, who are startled by Australia’s deserts and floods, its over-excited crowds and even its inadequate men: ‘All gape and guffaw,’ as Minnie puts it. Little People offers a fresh perspective on colonial Australia and its peripheral place in the world. In doing so, it also invites us to think afresh about modern Australia.
Patrick Allington is the author of Figurehead, which was longlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2010.