Housewife Superstar – The Very Best of Marjorie Bligh
1950s domestic goddess, much admired by Dame Edna Everage
By Kerry Scambler
Barry Humphries says 'I don’t think Edna has ever admired anybody as much as she admires Marjorie Bligh.' And he should know , after all he’s bought all Marjorie’s books for he and Dame Edna to consult. So who is this woman and where is she from?
In the 1950s, long before Nigella Lawson adopted the mantle, Marjorie began her life as a domestic goddess. She successfully managed a family, community work and a career as a expert household advisor, author, poet and pioneer recycler. She is in fact a Tasmanian icon and Australian treasure.
In Housewife Superstar – The Very Best of Marjorie Bligh, Danielle Wood tells the story of her super busy life and intersperses it with snippets of Marjorie’s own sage advice, household tips and even poetry.
This book is part biography, compiling the highlights of Marjorie’s illustrious life, part celebration of another era of household life with its tips and recipes, and part mystery with the ever present question, was Marjorie the inspiration for Dame Edna Everage?
Thankfully for the author, her subject was and still is a prolific writer and bower bird. Marjorie has written a number of books (see list below) and numerous articles and has documented her life with discipline and much enthusiasm through diaries and correspondence. She has also collected all her sentimental letters along with interesting paper and magazine clippings in scrapbooks. Whilst Marjorie donated 191 of these to the Tasmanian State Archives, she still has the same number in her possession – a wonderful window on the last 60-70 years.
Now 94, she has been married three times, divorced once and widowed twice – clearly and as Barry Humphries so adroitly puts it, 'Marjorie was no slouch in the matrimonial department'. Indeed she actually compares all three husbands in a short piece which talks about their physical, religious and loving aspects, and even their deodorant use!
Through all life's dramas, she managed to produce her recipe and advisory books, including her signature household manual, revised with each new married name. They have featured forewords by former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke and the Hon. Dame Enid Lyons (the first woman to be elected to the Australian House of Representatives) and many sets have been received by the top residents of The Lodge, the White House and even Buckingham Palace.
Some parts of her life remain vague, for example why she was banned from the cooking competitions at the agricultural shows, and there are occasionally some contradictory aspects but for the most part she is very open about her family life and marriages with all their ups and downs.
Her tips are wide ranging – from washing: 'one aspirin crushed and soaked with ‘perspiry’ articles will take out all the odour and stains as well' to advice for (agricultural) show cooks and even how to knit coat hanger pads from plastic shopping bags and the many uses for old panty hose. How’s this for common sense? ‘If you don’t have an outside bell for the phone, put the phone into an empty biscuit tin and you’ll be sure to hear it then!’ And these are just a tiny sample of her gems.
Her advice on retirement, a happy marriage and ‘what is a wife’ may at first glance seem very old school but read it carefully and you’ll soon find some guidance that’s still very relevant, and perhaps should be more widely spread.
For example, in retirement: ‘do things you never had time for. Beware of the rocking chair.’ and ‘Do not live in the past, you have not retired from the world.’
On the 'ABC of marriage': ‘Be kind to each other.’ ; ‘meet trouble together with courage and loyalty’ and, perhaps surprisingly for this generation ‘sexual compatibility is essential to a happy union’. Like thinking of one’s parents, it may perhaps be little uncomfortable to look at the lovely image of the senior Marjorie on the top of this review whilst reading the last suggestion!
My personal recommendation is to read her story first, missing out the recipes, tips etc to get a feel for Marjorie’s life and philosophies, then go back and read it again with all the extras to get the full benefit and overall picture of this domestic superstar and woman who believed first and foremost that being a housewife was a job with a purpose.
The final chapter is relates to the much asked question about whether Dame Edna Everage was based on Marjorie. After all, the similarities in their advice and books is quite marked, even down to the beauty advice about those old ‘age-pointers’ – a lady’s elbows. According to first Marjorie and then Dame Edna, these are best looked after by applying lemon juice regularly. (Edna of course being the later publisher updated her ingredient with the modern requirement of ‘organic’ lemon juice).
But back to That Question. To find the truth, Danielle finally asks the only person who can answer it and it’s an interesting result which won’t be revealed in this review. The book must be read in its entirety, not a demanding task in fact, one which is very enjoyable.
Even if you're not familiar with Marjorie (Pearsall, Blackwell, Cooper or Bligh), Housewife Superstar will ensure this changes. As Kaz Cooke says 'Prepare to become obsessed with Marjorie Bligh. She's a human fascinator – one she made herself'.
And if you’re travelling from along the Midlands Highway in Tasmania, as you pass through Campbelltown, keep an eye out for Climar, the house she built with her first husband and romantically named after them – Cliff and Marjorie. It’s a an iconic 1950s style with wedding cake curves and complete with the musical railing along the fenceline. See if you can pick the love song!
Along with Victoria’s Heywood’s Possum Pie, Beetroot Beer and Lamingtons book, Housewife Superstar should take pride of place in the library for anyone interested in culinary and household cultural history. It’s also a highly entertaining read, especially for Tasmanians, most of who say 'oh yes, I remember her, she's the woman who knits the plastic bags'. But she's so much more and Danielle has done an excellent job of bringing all the various Marjories into one very entertaining read.
Housewife Superstar - The Very Best of Marjorie Bilgh by Danielle Woods is published by The Text Publishing Company (SC RRP A$29.95). It is available through www.tasfoodbooks.com at discount pricing.
Books by Marjorie Bligh:
- Marjorie Blackwell at Home (1965)
- At Home with Marjorie Cooper (second edition 1973)
- At Home with Marjorie Bligh (third edition 1982, fourth edition 1998)
- Marjorie Bligh’s Homely Hints on Everything (1981; second edition 1988, third edition 1993)
- A-Z of Gardening (1982, second edition 1993)
- Life is for Living: The Heartbreaks and Happiness of Marjorie Bligh: With Snippets of Travel, Wisdom and History (1986)
- Tasmania and Beyond (1988)
- Crafts: Old – New – Recycled (1995)
Books by Dame Edna Everage:
- My Gorgeous Life (1989)
- Dame Edna’s Coffee Table Book: A Guide to Gracious Living and the Finer Things in Life by One of The First Ladies of World Theatre (1976)
- Dame Edna’s Bedside Companion (1982)
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