When Ruth Wilson enrolled at the University of Sydney in 1949, she was 16 and fresh from her home town of Griffith in regional New South Wales. Stepping onto the University campus, she says, was like opening up a whole new world. She would experience much the same feeling seven decades later, at age 88, completing her PhD here.
“Being at the University was a continuation of an intellectual awakening that had started with reading books in high school,” says Wilson. “But at university, I was hearing from people, from lecturers and friends, who just blew my mind open with ideas that took me someplace else, somewhere I’d never been before.”
Wilson is now 90 and has just released her first book, The Jane Austen Remedy, which developed out of her PhD thesis. A literary memoir, it examines the importance of Jane Austen’s work on Wilson’s own life, and the enormous curve it took in her sixties, when she was diagnosed with Ménière’s syndrome, which includes symptoms that mimic depression. After fifty years of marriage, Wilson had inherited some money unexpectedly and used it to purchase a home in the Southern Highlands. She began to spend weekends there, commuting to Sydney to be with her husband. Eventually, Wilson realised she wanted to be at her bolthole full time, and so began what she calls a “marriage vacation”. Rereading her favourite girlhood books, including Austen’s, Wilson began to reframe her own life through the mores and struggles of Austen’s characters, and realised her own life needed a touch more editing.
“Growing up, I think we were all given this sense that things would simply work out if you let them be,” says Wilson. “But there came a point where I desperately wanted to be alone, to have my own space, and to rediscover myself or to discover myself for the first time.”
Gender politics during Wilson’s time at university were fraught, to say the least. On the fringes of the Sydney Push (a group from the University known for its progressive and libertarian notions, which included members Clive James, Paddy McGuinness and Wilson’s short-term friend Lillian Roxon), Wilson saw a group that purported to push boundaries but, when it came to the sexes, was still deeply entrenched in normative ideals.
“I was invited to their parties a few times and I did deliberate whether to go … in the end I would have been too timid,” she says now. “Although seeing them around the campus, I had this feeling that the girls, despite their apparent sophistication and their banter, seemed to me to be hanging on the boys, like groupies. They weren’t any more independent in their thinking than I was, and I was a shrinking violet. In fact, I felt perhaps I was more confident than them because being part of that group was actually not important for me.”
It is just one of a series of experiences that Wilson describes as Austenian. “I was a bit like a Jane Austen observer,” she says. “I was really watching what was happening, seeing how those relationships played out, but I wasn’t interested in being part of it all myself.”
“I joined the Jane Austen Society, I joined Friends of the Library. And it all made me start thinking more seriously about what reading is, and what it can offer us. I had this lightbulb moment of, ‘Why not do a PhD? Why not do some really serious research?’”
For a woman who had been married at 21, says Wilson, living on her own terms later in life allowed her to claim her independence at last, and she immersed herself in the world of reading. A lifelong lover of books (and Austen: she discovered the author after watching a film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice), Wilson says she began to take a more academic perspective on reading.
“I joined the Jane Austen Society, I joined Friends of the Library. And it all made me start thinking more seriously about what reading is, and what it can offer us. I had this lightbulb moment of, ‘Why not do a PhD? Why not do some really serious research?’” Wilson wasn’t a stranger to postgraduate life; in 1979 she had earned a master’s degree from the University of Tel Aviv, and in 1981 she’d returned to the University of Sydney for her Diploma of Education. However, it was her PhD into the role of reading, and how it shifts and changes, that has defined Wilson’s life’s work, and has made her “an accidental writer”.
That definition did not come easily. When Wilson began her PhD, it was in the School of Education. “Three years into it, I was writing a very different thesis,” says Wilson. “And my supervisor and I agreed it was not working. The thrust of my argument was to make reading at school pleasurable and practical. And so I felt my writing needed to connect – it needed to be personal and relatable, not pedagogical. An uncomfortable moment ensued, before my auxiliary supervisor connected me with someone else in the English department and then I went full steam ahead.”
The new supervisor encouraged Wilson to study memoirs, using these as potential frameworks for her own narrative. “And soon enough my supervisor was saying to me, ‘This is not a thesis, this is your life, this is your memoir.’ So it became a way to show how my life had been shaped from all of my reading experiences.”
Wilson says that her time at Sydney, studying for her PhD, were the best years of her life. “Writing my own story felt so liberating,” she says. “I really discovered so much about myself that was always there, just under the surface. I’m 90, so I don’t have long left, but I do hope there is time to find out more.”
Returning to campus was a similarly eye-opening experience for Wilson as it was when she first arrived in 1949, when two friends “took me under their wing and explained all the jokes I didn’t understand at the University Revue”. This time, though, the world had changed markedly – and Wilson was ready for it.
“It was the most thrilling return,” she says. “I had all these wonderful memories, but there was so much that was different. The atmosphere was different. The faces on campus were different. There were unisex toilets. You know, we used to sit around waiting for a boy to invite us into the Union dining room – no girls allowed. When I went back, there was this whole new sense of openness and independence, and women were absolutely everywhere. It was extraordinary.”
As for Wilson’s “marriage vacation”, it is over. She lives with her husband in Sydney and says that writing her memoir has taught her that she needed to experience life differently – as she did when she returned to university seventy years after receiving her first degree.
“When I was first married, there were lots of things that I didn’t understand – things that were never talked about. I was naive. I needed to grow into that life, that role – and then I needed to understand, for myself, that it was time for something differently. But I’ve never regretted the life I had. I wouldn’t have had the same wonderful children. I wouldn’t have had the lovely relationships I have with them, with my grandchildren, and even now with my great-grandchildren.” They are all, she says, “fantastic readers”.
Written by Lauren Sams for Sydney Alumni Magazine. Photography by Louise M Cooper.
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