In December 2021 my great friend, Walter Mason and I featured in the Sydney Morning Herald’s, ‘The Two of Us’ segment in The Good Weekend magazine written by Amanda Hooton and photographed by Edwina Pickles. You can read this article on the Sydney Morning Herald’s website here.
‘I had a vision of this terrifying woman’ – and then the literature lovers met.
Susannah Fullerton, 61, is president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia and an atheist. Walter Mason, 51, is president of the NSW Dickens Society and a Buddhist. The pair met a decade ago and bonded over books.
Susannah: The thing I remember about meeting Walter is his lovely smile: he’s got the most calm, happy face. I gave a talk that only about five people attended, and he came up afterwards. He told me later he was terrified of me! But we had so much in common.
We’ve become wonderful friends. Walter’s the only other person I know who does what I do for a living: giving talks on famous authors, writing books and leading literary tours. But we’ve never been competitive.
I can go to him for advice; I can talk to him about anything. When things are terrible, we can chat about [author] E. F. Benson and [characters] Mapp and Lucia for a few minutes and both feel better.
I admire Walter hugely: he’s a truly good human being, and those are rare. He’s generous, he’s kind, he thinks the best of people. I can be a little bit more Emma Woodhouse-like: I can say something and slightly regret it afterwards. But everybody loves him. I go to his talks and everybody says, “Isn’t Walter wonderful? We just love Walter!” And I say, “Yes, I love Walter, too!”
I am the president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia (JASA), and last year Walter became the Dickens Society president. I do love Dickens – I think Bleak House is a masterpiece – but he doesn’t get my heart racing the way Jane Austen does. He could have done with some editing. But I don’t think you could change a single word of Austen.
I think Walter is fascinated by Dickens’ humanity, because that’s the sort of person Walter is: he likes that Dickens tried to raise awareness about the plight of poor children and those who were different or didn’t fit in. I suspect he feels a connection to the religious beliefs of the Victorian period: spirituality is important to him. Walter is a Buddhist and I am an atheist – there’s no meeting of minds there! We just agree that we’re different. As Austen says, “One half of the world doesn’t understand the pleasures of the other.”
We quite often have lunch together, or he’ll come to my house for coffee. We talk about food: Walter’s partner, Thang, is Vietnamese, and Walter is very knowledgeable about Vietnamese food and culture as well as books.
I think Emma is the world’s greatest novel, whereas Walter rolls his eyes and says, “Oh, Susannah. You and Emma!” He prefers Mansfield Park. I find Fanny to be, well, less fun than other heroines. I always feel she needs a good dose of iron tablets! But Walter admires her quiet strength.
Speaking of heroines, secretly I always think Walter has a lot of Anne Elliot in him. She’s calm, kind, polite, considerate – just as Walter is. In recent years, he’s had some health anxieties, migraines and things, which worry me, but he never shows it. He’s always happy, he’s always got that smile. He always says “Hu-llo, Susannah!” and I get wrapped in this great big hug. He’s just a lovely, lovely person.
Walter: I’d heard about Susannah for years: Jane Austen expert, wonderful speaker, president of JASA, lived in Sydney’s Paddington. I had a vision of this terrifying woman – a real grand dame. Then I went to her talk at Strathfield library – Strathfield, not Ashfield, where she is a queen – and it was a flop. I was the only person there when I arrived, so we started talking, and she was just so humble, so friendly. And an incredible speaker! By the end of her talk I was completely in love with her. I bought all her books – I read them all – then joined JASA, then the Dickens Society, then the Australian Brontë Association.
The friendship developed through me going to her events: I’d get there early or stay late, and we’d just chat away. I’d always take a little gift for her, and that guaranteed I’d get an in. Not that I needed one – she was always very open. True book-lovers recognise each other.
She was instrumental in setting up the Dickens Society in Sydney: she was teaching a course at the WEA, and the whole class had so enjoyed the Dickens week she suggested they should start a society. I first read Dickens at 12 or 13 – David Copperfield – and I noticed that my father and my grandfather were immensely proud of what I was doing, so I just kept doing it. I found it difficult for the first few chapters, but I also found it fantastic: I was gripped.
“As a society, we’re only half the size of JASA. Their meetings are incredible. The first time I went I was expecting half a dozen elderly ladies in a room, but there were more than 100 people, a shop, a library and afternoon tea. All due to Susannah.”
It’s important to me that people continue to read him: the most popular writer of the Victorian era; one of the most famous men in the world in his time. But I’m quite terrified about being president. I’m a great ideas man – “wouldn’t it be fabulous!” – and four years later it’s still not done. It’s procrastination, disorganisation and laziness. All traits foreign to Susannah. She just does things, constantly.
As a society, we’re only half the size of JASA. Their meetings are incredible. The first time I went I was expecting half a dozen elderly ladies in a room, but there were more than 100 people, a shop, a library and afternoon tea. All due to Susannah. She’s so charismatic: people want to join, they want to listen to her; they want to do stuff for her. My partner first saw her at a Dickens meeting [where Susannah is a member] giving a slightly bossy talk about something, and he said afterwards, “She’s absolutely magnetic.”
She has an OAM (Medal of the Order of Australia) for services to literature, but she’s not precious: some friends went to this little garden club meeting ages ago and there she was, sitting through the minutes and apologies to give a talk about Austen and gardens.
I suffer from terrible headaches, but Susannah seems supernaturally healthy. I’m very interested in spirituality – and Susannah’s not, really. I’ve never detected in her that quality I’ve sometimes felt in other atheists, of a sublimated love or desire for God. I think she gets that nourishment from literature.
We’ve talked a lot in the past year – as both our careers collapsed! – and she’s been incredible: she’s done all the things I said I would do and didn’t. She’s recorded talks and sold them; she’s done digital things on subscription; she’s taken tours in Australia rather than overseas. When the restrictions were really bad, she did a NSW Southern Highlands tour! I’m just in awe.
Who does she remind me of in Dickens? It’s tricky. He is so famously difficult with women characters: they are all consumptive young girls of great purity or stupid, pox-ridden old hags. I’m going to say Biddy from Great Expectations – clever, quick-witted, kind – and when she wants something, completely determined.
This article, written by Amanda Hooten and photographed by Edwina Pickles is from the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘The Two of Us’ segment of the Good Weekend Magazine which can be seen here: https://www.smh.com.au/national/i-had-a-vision-of-this-terrifying-woman-and-then-the-literature-lovers-met-20211109-p597fc.html
You are welcome to leave a comment.