Cranky Ladies of History Month – Lores Bonney 1897-1994

This post is written as part of the Women’s History Month Cranky Ladies of History blog tour. If you would like to read more about cranky ladies from the past, you might like to support the FableCroft Publishing Pozible campaign, crowd-funding an anthology of short stories about Cranky Ladies of History from all over the world.

I’m not sure that my pick for this month is really a ‘cranky lady’. She was too much of a lady ever to show crankiness. But she was, shall we say, determined, and I idolised her.

In 1987, in company with Karen Miller, I travelled to Queensland to interview Lores Bonney (pronounced ‘Lorry’) for the Powerhouse Museum. She became a personal hero for me. A bright, funny, intelligent, incredibly brave woman who accomplished enough for three lifetimes.

Never heard of her, right?

But I’ll bet you’ve heard of Amelia Earheart, or Amy Johnson? Lores Bonney was a better pilot than either of them, and flew further and faster. And she was her own mechanic.

Lores Bonney

Her birth name was ‘Maude’ – Maude Rose Rubens. She was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and left there when she was five, first for England and later for Australia. This was when she changed her name. Her best friend in South Africa was ‘Dolores’, whom everyone called ‘Lores’ (pronounced Laurie). Mourning her lost friend, Lores insisted on being called by the same name. It was a good indication of her strength of will that everyone complied.

Her father was a furniture manufacturer in Melbourne. He just missed overlapping with my great-grandfather, who was also a furniture manufacturer in Melbourne, but who moved to New Zealand at about the same time.

Lores’ father had no great opinion of women, and when the handsome and rather dashing Harry Bonney wanted to marry her, Mr Rubens insisted that Harry first swear that he would never allow her to drive a car. Deeply in love, Harry agreed – but he never promised anything about a plane, so after their marriage, when Lores wanted to learn to fly, he not only paid for lessons, he bought her a Gypsy Moth and had his workshop make her a set of leather flying clothes.

She shouldn’t have got her licence, because she was deaf in one ear from a perforated eardrum. But the doctor doing the test was a friend, she told me, and spoke in the regulation whisper while testing her good ear, but spoke QUITE LOUDLY when testing her bad one.

And she flew – oh, how she flew. Egged on by her husband’s cousin, Bert Hinkler, she set the long distance flying record in Australia (never been broken). She flew from Australia to England in 1933 – and that’s the hard direction, fighting the winds all the way. Even so, if she hadn’t been caught in a thunderstorm on Bang Biang Island and forced to crash land, she would have broken Amy Johnson’s record (Johnson came the easy way, from London to Sydney). After the crash, Lores supervised the repairs, and nonchalantly got back in her battered little De Havilland (nicknamed ‘My Little Ship’) and completed the trip. Why do it the hard way? ‘Because everyone was going the other way.’

And then, just for something to do, she flew from Australia to South Africa. On her own. In a Klemm 32 monoplance. The first person – not the first woman – to do so.

No one else has ever done this. I don’t mean in a Klemm, I mean that no other lone pilot has ever flown from Australia to South Africa. Since 1937.

Not only did she do all this, she did it with grace and flare. Since this was still the days of the Empire, wherever she went she was invited to dinner at Government House, or the District Commissioner’s house, or similar. So she had a special dress made, calf length, with a wide V neck. Then she had a matching floor-length petticoat. If she was invited to afternoon tea, she wore just the dress. If she was invited to dinner, she wore the dress with the petticoat underneath, and it looked like a dinner dress. She washed out her ‘smalls’ in the evening and strung them up on a line in the back of the cockpit to dry as she flew.

And then the war came, and private pilots couldn’t get fuel. Her darling plane was burnt in a fire in the hangar – she always believed it was arson, set by the man who shared the hangar with her, because he couldn’t use his plane but no-one would buy it because of the fuel restrictions. She never piloted a plane again.

Lores told me that she believed that if she ever flew again, she’d crash. She said she’d had a clear message from ‘The Co-Pilot’ (God). But that didn’t stop her having adventures.

After her husband died, she decided she was interested in learning how to make bonsai, so she took herself off to Japan and became the first Westerner to become an accredited bonsai ‘master’.

When she was in her 70s, she went down the Amazon in a canoe.

By the time I met her, she was starting to feel frail. She had decided to donate her memorabilia to the PowerHouse Museum (where I worked) and the interview I taped that day became part of an exhibition about her there.

If you look for the name ‘Lores Bonney’ in the record books, you won’t find it. It will read ‘Mrs Harry Bonney’. There were a lot of women (at the time, and since) who thought she should have used her own name, so I asked her why she hadn’t.

‘This is for posterity, I suppose,’ she said.

‘Yes,’ I said, and waited.

She nodded, and hesitated, and then nodded again. She told me – with some difficulty – that she had been unable to give Harry children, and that this was the only way she could make his name live on.

(You can see the Mrs Harry ‘Lores’ Bonney collection at the Powerhouse Museum.)

Bonney's gear

Here is a picture of some of her gear. But it doesn’t show the most useful thing she took with her – a hot water bottle, to use as a flying toilet. ‘The boys can use a bottle,’ she said, laughing. ‘But a hot water bottle is a woman’s best friend in the air.’

After telling me all this, she patted my hand kindly and told me her words to live by: ‘Don’t ever let them tell you you can’t do it.’ Sounds like a Cranky Ladies of History motto to me.



Showing and telling: Masterclass with Mary Stewart

We hear a lot about showing and not telling, but lately I’ve been thinking about it in a new way.

I’ve been taking a masterclass with Mary Stewart – not, unfortunately, in person, as she is 97 and not gadding about much anymore (isn’t it great to know she’s still alive?). No, I have been re-reading her books. Specifically, her romantic suspense novels.

I first read these books as a teenager. Loved them then, love them now. Later, I found her Arthurian (Merlinian) series, which begins with the magnificent The Crystal Cave, and which strongly influenced my own approach to fantasy writing. Nowadays, she is best known for these books.

But for most of her writing career, her suspense novels were her mainstay. She wrote 15 of them, starting with Madam, Will You Talk? in 1954 and ending with Rose Cottage in 1997. Along the way she also wrote children’s novels and poetry.

Two things stand out for me about Mary Stewart’s suspense novels. The first is the description. She has an extraordinary, detailed knowledge of plants and ecosystems. There is never a casual reference to ‘flowers blooming’. No, she tells you exactly what flowers are blooming (in an Alpine pasture):

The grass was thick with familiar meadow flowers – harebells, thyme, eyebright, and, where the scythe had not yet passed, the foaming white and yellow of parsley and buttercups.

Or, on a Greek island:

After the dappled dimness of the wood, it took some moments before one could do more than blink at the dazzle of colour. Straight ahead of me an arras of wisteria hung fully fifteen feet, and below it there were roses. Somewhere to one side was a thicket of purple judas-trees, and apple-blossom glinted with the wings of working bees.

Her books are often set in ‘exotic’ locations: Provence, Damascus, Greece (both mainland and islands), Austria, the Scilly Isles. And I could easily be persuaded that she went to these places to study the plants and wrote the novels merely to finance the trips. Her locations are alive with plants, animals, sounds, smells and tastes, and the characters emerge out of them inevitably, or stand out in sharp contrast with the rural or exotic setting. It was part of her appeal to her early reading public: it was rare, in those days, for people to be familiar with the foreign; there was no David Attenborough to lead you through the multi-coloured world with a whisper as your guide. Even television was in black and white, so Stewart’s colourful descriptions were really necessary as well as evocative; her readers were being introduced to a truly new place.

(I must admit, I have wondered if she became so interested in colour because her maiden name was Mary Rainbow. Seriously.)

The other element which astonishes me in Stewart’s work is the sheer craft in her storytelling. In particular, the way she withholds information from the reader without the reader noticing.

She shows so much, and so compellingly, that we are blinded, unaware that we have not been told a crucial piece of information: what the character is thinking.

Let me give you a perfect example. Vanessa March has come to Austria in search of her husband, whom she has seen on a newsreel in a small Austrian town, instead of being in Stockholm on business as she believes. She and a young companion, Tim, identify the town and go there.

A man had just turned in from the street under the dappled shade of the chestnut trees. He paused there, looking towards our table. I believe I was already half out of my chair, regardless of what Annalisa might think. I heard Timothy say something, some question. And then the newcomer moved forward from the patch of shadow into the sunlight, and I met, full on, his indifferent, unrecognizing eyes and slight look of surprise.

I think I said, ‘No, no, it’s not,’ to Timothy as I sank back into my chair.

We then have introductions between Vanessa, Tim and Lee Eliot, the newcomer. There is small talk.

I managed to pull myself out of the turmoil into which the appearance of the “other Englishman” had plunged me, and answered him civilly, if slightly at random. ‘Oh, I can believe that…’

And the scene goes on. Later, Vanessa admits to Tim that she had been mistaken. That Lee Elliot looks remarkably like her husband, but is not him. That she has come on a wild goose chase, a ‘dreadful mistake’.

And then, later that night, when Vanessa is in bed in the Gasthof… (a full chapter and a half later, during which quite a lot happens)…

Then the hand parted the curtains. He didn’t make a sound, just slid between them like a ghost. As I sat up in bed, pulling the puff round me, he was already turning to draw the long windows shut. They latched with a tiny click. He stood there just inside the shadows, listening.

‘All right, Mr Elliot,’ I said. ‘I’m awake.’

Because, of course, Lee Elliot is her husband after all, and he has given her the ‘high sign to say nothing’ when they met, so she has pretended that he is a stranger instead of her husband, Lewis. Lewis, she now discovers, is an English ‘agent’. A more domestic version of James Bond.

So let’s look at how she did it. How does she make us not notice when she leaves something this important out of a first person narrative? She slides from inside Vanessa’s thoughts to Vanessa’s experiences and feelings, that’s how. We are told exactly what happens: Lewis looks at her with unrecognizing eyes. At that moment we have the switch: now we are told what she does, but in such a way that we think we understand what she is feeling. Look at the subtlety of ‘I think I said, ‘No, no, it’s not’.

It implies confusion. It implies a reaction. And she is, indeed, both confused and reacting, but not to what we are led to believe. Later, when Vanessa lies to Tim, she lies to the reader as well, and she does it by simply omitting her real thoughts.

Stewart’s ability to pull off this trick is even more impressive because she writes in first person. She uses our assumption, inherent in most first person narratives, that we are ‘listening in’ on our main character’s thoughts; even though we are clearly being ‘told’ the story. She uses our assumption that the narrator is reliable, in fact, and she gets away with it because Stewart only does this kind of sleight of hand with the romance.

She never plays these tricks with the suspense part of the plot. Where action, reaction and exposition are concerned, she plays it straight down the line. We are told everything we need to know and we are told it in all the necessary detail. And those descriptions I talked about earlier play their part, too. We are given such a wealth of physical detail about the narrator’s world that it’s easy to miss the fact her thoughts are being withheld.

So we trust our narrator. And then there are these slips, these withholdings, which are presented, I sometimes think, as a kind of English reticence, that not-putting-your-feelings-on-display ethic which seems to outsiders (and perhaps to British people too?) to be so much a part of the traditional English middle-to-upper-classes.

Here’s another example, from This Rough Magic. The heroine, Lucy, and the hero, Max, have just saved a beached dolphin (a wonderful, intense scene in the middle of a plot about smuggling and murder) on the Greek island of Corfu, during which endeavour they kiss. They are going up to Max’s place to dry off.

‘… What’s more, these blasted boots are full of water.’ (Max)
‘You might have drowned.’ (Lucy)
‘So I might. And how much would that have been to Apollo’s account?’
‘You know how much,’ I said, not lightly at all, but not for him to hear.

Now the point is that, up until this scene, Lucy has apparently distrusted Max and been not all that attracted to him. When you read back, however, you see that Stewart describes him minutely, but leaves out all of Lucy’s physical or emotional reactions to him. The kiss comes, as it were, out of the blue, and although we may have suspected that Lucy liked Max, there was never any confession of her feelings, to us as readers, or to Max. The kisses are passionate, but not romantic, and are told through dialogue and physical description.

So this ‘You know how much’ is the reader’s first insight into how Lucy might actually feel about him. Stewart ends the chapter on that note. We are given no further insight into Lucy’s feelings. The two go up to the house, plot ensues, and then, later, Max asks Lucy whether she meant the thing he was not supposed to hear. At first annoyed ‘at his obtuseness in asking this’, Lucy looks at him and decides,

I was the one who was stupid. If one asks a question, it is because one wants to know the answer. Why should he have to wait and wrap it up some other way when the ‘moment’ suited me?

I said it quite easily after all. ‘If you’d asked me a thing like that three hours ago, I think I’d have said I didn’t even like you, and I…I think I’d have believed it…I think… And now there you sit looking at me, and all you do is look – like that- and my damned bones turn to water, and it isn’t fair, it’s never happened to me before, and I’d do anything in the world for you, and you know it, or if you don’t you ought to- No, look, I-I didn’t mean…you asked me…’

It was a better kiss this time, no less breathless, but at least we were dry and warm, and had known each other nearly two hours longer…

I could write another 500 words about the cleverness of this speech and the sentences which surround it. Look at that ‘quite easily after all’. That tells us what we want to know.

Lucy is wholehearted, holding nothing back, like all Stewart’s heroines. If we had been in her mind all along, through the inevitable ‘does he like me?’ and ‘how attractive he is’, then her speech would seem, not wholehearted, but over the top – not full, but fulsome. By exercising restraint in the narration, Stewart can write not about romance but about love, and make us believe it. Her lovers rarely go through the classic periods of misunderstanding we associate with romance writing – they are united, once any initial problems are sorted through, against a common enemy, and they commit to each other with extraordinary ease, compared to most romance stories.

‘It’s ridiculous,’ one of her heroines says about this sudden love. ‘Yes,’ replies the hero, ‘but there it is.’ This prosaic acceptance allows us to accept it, too. And then they get on with the story.

This, I think, is what I’m learning from Stewart in my masterclass. Less is more. Elegant, not overblown. It’s okay not to wallow in the emotions of your main character, even if those emotions are love and desire and need.

Of course, knowing how she did it and being able to do it myself are two entirely different things…