#BookReview: ‘ Whisper My Secret: A Memoir’ by JB Rowley

JB Rowley
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Australian memoir by JB Rowley recounts the story of Mrytle Webb, a young naïve lady who falls pregnant out of wedlock and is forced to marry Henry Bishop, older than her by 10 years, who impregnates her. She has two more children with him, through a cold and rough marriage, with a controlling mother-in-law in the picture, only to have him divorce her for a lover and have her children taken away from her on the ground that she is an unfit mother. She pulls through depression and finds love again in George Rowley, whom she tells the story of her earlier marriage. She goes on to have 7 more children, who only find out about her first 3 children after her death.

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A theme that reads throughout the book is the double standard that set against women, as opposed to men in the 1930s. Apparently, once a woman is married and starts having children, she is not allowed to go out and have fun with her friends, and she is generally judged more harshly than her male counterparts and is expected to worry about how others perceive her constantly. But this does not apply to the male, in this case, Henry, who spends his evenings at the club and gets drunk without any social falling out.
I however think this is contrasted with the character of Henry’s mother as a domineering one, who is able to get Henry to do her bidding most times and also subdue her husband into obedience.

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It really is not clear to me why Henry Bishop and His mother, Agnes decide to separate Myrtle from her children if they are not going to keep them. In the concluding volume of this memoir, Bertie, Audrey and Noel go through foster care and are eventually separated from one another. It seems to me like Henry and Agnes want it to seem like the children never existed in the first place.

I guess this book also tackles how arranged marriages can be cold and unhappy, and marriages built on love can blossom and bear fruit. It also touches on the class system and how marriages below one’s class could affect the way a spouse is perceived by her in-laws and the public in general.

It was quite ironical that Henry was borne out of wedlock and was possibly not the biological child of his father, and his mother gave Myrtle such a hard time.

Myrtle’s married life is set during the war against Hitler, so the book examines a bit, the culture of men marrying as soldiers and how they come into town to find wives, and how nobly soldiers are perceived. After switching jobs a couple of times, Henry Bishop becomes a soldier and goes to war, and this is when Noel is born. George Fowler is also a soldier, but gets an honourary discharge to be with Myrtle.
I find it quite amazing that Mrytle is able to pick herself up and find love again with a handsome gentleman soldier and have 7 more children. I guess it helps she finds out she was also adopted.

I found the Minnie Ha Ha character hilarious. She is a member of Albury town, who is less than lady like. She is gilted by her fiance, then publicly assaults him to the displeasure of the ladies in town, and mocks him by moving to a house beside he and his new wife, greeting them with false congeniality and deriding them when they fail to conceive.

This book was really touching and eye opening, but actually held my attention, up to the point when it became clear Myrtle wasn’t going to get her children back. So I basically skimmed through the rest of the chapters.

Still, I can’t wait to read the second volume, Mother of Ten

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