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lip lit: Unnatural Habits

Assume the rules do not apply to you and they don’t – Phryne Fisher in Unnatural Habits

Phryne Fisher is an art-deco nymph, a lady detective and a rich socialite who gallivants around late 1920s Melbourne in illustrious dresses. She keeps a pearl-handled pistol tucked in her garter, can fly a Tiger Moth, drove an ambulance in the war, seduces handsome men – but she also knows to kick them where it hurts. No, the rules don’t apply to her.

The Phryne Fisher Mystery novels paint a world of social structures and expectations which restrict women. But not Phryne. Adopting behaviour typical of men (she fights like a man, lusts like a man, refuses to have a delicate sensibility and takes authority in every situation), author Kerry Greenwood has said that she wrote her ‘as free as a male hero, like James Bond’. Despite this, Phryne manages to maintain a lascivious femininity.

The latest release, Unnatural Habits, begins when Phryne and her sapphic pal Dr MacMillan have a classy night interrupted by thugs beating a young woman. Phryne’s bodyguards, appointed by her married Chinese lover, rescue the young journalist Polly Kettle who leads Phryne to a white slavery ring, unholy nuns, a pregnant sweatshop and a whole lot of slut shaming. Sound conventional? Or realistic? I think not. And here you have the magic of a Phryne Fisher mystery.

Along with the help of her ‘minions’ (a devoted maid, two adopted daughters, a teenager named Tinker) and loyal contacts at the wharf and police station, Phryne once again delves into Melbourne’s dark society of greed, selfish moralism and poverty.

Headed, of course, by the church. Almost all of Greenwood’s stewards of Christ are corrupt and malicious; the cold halls of a nunnery and the arrogant power of the local Bishop make it clear that the stalwarts of religion are evil. When our leading lady questions the Bishop about a priest who fathered a child, he sneers incredulously at the young mother’s accusation: ‘The word of a fallen woman!’

A fallen woman indeed. According to the characters in this novel, ladies who have sex beyond wedlock deserve to be forcefully married, imprisoned with a diet of gruel, working as a slave in a laundry with no pay or rights, even sold to a neighbour for beer and cigarettes:

‘No one cares about bad girls!’ Polly burst out indignantly. ‘They make one mistake and they are shut up in the laundry doing hard work. Their babies are adopted out. They are ruined. We ought to have got beyond that. What use is freedom – they told us that we fought that war for freedom – when the women are still punished and the men go on to seduce another girl?’

And not just bad girls – Phryne’s subscription to a socialism magazine reports:

If she is not the slave of the boss (who exploits her at half the wage paid to men for the same work), she is the slave of the so-called home…unemployment, starvation, the burden of rearing and educating children etc., all this is the lot of the working-class woman.

We cannot ignore the terrible plight women faced back in those days – and Greenwood simultaneously points toward the inequalities that we continue to tolerate today.  At the end of the novel, Phryne muses on the restrictions women face. ‘Thinking about slavery…all sorts of it. Marriage, whoredom, servitude,’ causing readers to question how cultural ideas similarly shape their own behaviour.

Our hedonistic heroine doesn’t apologise for her actions, relishes her independence, and is repulsed by marriage and a family life. She shows us a new way of living, free from societal expectations because she doesn’t let the rules apply to her.

The Phryne Fisher Mystery novels are fantastical escapism at best, and Unnatural Habits does not disappoint. Greenwood’s classic idiosyncrasies are charming, such as luscious descriptions of the protagonist’s outfits and her penchant for uniting characters around delicious food (Phryne hosts a lavish luncheon at Hotel Windsor once the mysteries are solved). Additionally, every problem is resolved which provides a wonderful escape from the disappointing real world.

Unnatural Habits is a pleasure to read, perhaps splayed on a chaise lounge with a cocktail mixed by an expert butler.


Unnatural Habits is published by Allen and Unwin.

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