The University of Sydney, located some 30 minutes from my childhood home, is the oldest university in Australia. When I studied there, I imagined that the tourists who sometimes passed through the quad might hear of its historical significance, look at its sandstone gargoyles, gothic spires, and monastic columns, and deduce — not unreasonably — that it is at least a little bit medieval. They would, however, have been wrong. The quad was built in 1854. It is a 19th-century reimagining of Christ Church college at Oxford University, which really was built in the 1500s. These kinds of historical inversions and Anglo effigies are everywhere in Australia, and they are everywhere in A Dream Life, Claire Messud’s wonderful and haunting novella, originally written during a sojourn to Paris some years ago, and recently published by Tablo Tales.
The book—which is partially inspired by Messud’s own experience living in Sydney with her family as a child—centers around Alice Armstrong, a publishing assistant whose husband, a banker, has been offered a promotion that requires the couple and their two young daughters move from a “cramped two-bedroom apartment on New York’s Upper East Side” to “a British manor house in miniature” in a prestigious Sydney inner-city suburb. The house is complete with expansive grounds, a double-fronted garage (“designed to resemble stables”), a rose garden, a smattering of fruit trees (“coyly referred to as ‘the orchard’”), a vegetable garden, and an aviary. The family jokingly refers to the house as “Chateau Deeds,” a reference to the couple from whom they are renting the property.
In this first glimpse of Chateau Deeds, Messud gestures towards a dream life in the classical sense: A family transported from a poky apartment in the city to a glittering manor by the sea, free from the banalities and trials of everyday life in the city. But for Alice, it soon becomes a different, disorienting kind of dream, in which it becomes difficult to discern what is real and what is not. “What would make it real, this life?” she wonders. Almost anyone who has lived abroad has had a moment like this, when the noise of making arrangements, of packing, of farewelling friends, subsides, and they are left with the silence of being rootless in a strange place. This feeling is particularly acute for Alice, whose husband, she notes, will have his work, “long hours with men scrubbed and eager as himself, would be juggling numbers, flirting with secretaries, bolstered in emphatic normality by the conferences, the jugs of water, pots of coffee, neat rows of pens and paper, the enclosed hum of air conditioning and the artificial lights.” Her daughters, too, will have “teachers and playmates, schoolyard games of witches and fairies, and, in time, piano lessons at the elbow of the genteel teacher next door . . . But she, Alice Armstrong, would have only Chateau Deeds.”
Indeed, the house, which we don’t leave for the entirety of the novel, quickly becomes an all-consuming presence in Alice’s life. Sprawling and cavernous, its rooms, its grounds, and its staff require constant care and attention. There is a gardener, Davy, whose “continued employment was a clause of the lease,” and then, “on more intermittent visits, there were the window washers (once a month), the gutterers (twice a year), and the handyman, Davy’s nephew Nigel, when occasion demanded it.” Initially, Alice takes it upon herself to “wax the parquet and dust the shepherdesses, to water the ferns in the conservatory and polish the brass lion’s-head knockers on the double-fronted door,” along with “the everyday tasks of washing and ironing, of cleaning toilets and beating the rugs, of preparing the meals and mopping the linoleum in the cavernous kitchen.”
Finding this unsustainable, Alice begins her search for a housekeeper. The first hire, a nervous young girl with a baby, vanishes after one visit. A period of calm ensues when the family hires a West Indian woman named Africa, who dotes on Alice’s children, smooths relations with the territorial Davy, and in whom Alice feels she has found her “first Australian friend, although of course Africa was no more Australian than Alice herself.” The “five-month idyll” ends when Africa’s mother suffers a stroke and she is compelled to return to her home in St. Kitts.
Alice’s observation that Africa is not more Australian than she speaks to the slipperiness of Australian identity, which is so rarely explored in a meaningful way in literature, and which Messud so eloquently and subtly expresses. Alice’s daughters conclude that “real Australians” are people with swimming pools in the back garden. The Deeds themselves claim a depth of Australian identity by tracing their lineage back to convicts. Meanwhile, the Australian wives are “somehow older and stiffer” than Alice, wearing white lace gloves to tea and insisting on a decidedly British sense of propriety. Africa herself has two sisters, Asia and America, who also live in Australia, an eccentric detail that adds to the novel’s disorienting internationalism. There is no reference to Indigenous Australians, who lay the most claim to Australian identity, which is not a shortcoming of Messud’s but a reflection of the thinness of Australian identity in the popular imagination, one that has not expanded since the novel was written.
This slippery view of Australian culture makes A Dream Life all the more fascinating. Had Messud moved her characters from New York to London, or indeed anywhere in Europe, the novel might have taken a decidedly Jamesian shape, in which modern American values chafe against the rigid class structure of European life. Faced with a society that is a strange facsimile of British manners, things become less predictable. Ariel Boote-Smith, one of the wives Alice befriends, tells her to employ a live-in maid. “You can’t do your job unless you have someone proper to do that job. No two ways around it. You need a live-in,” Ariel insists. Of course, Ariel herself doesn’t have a live-in maid. “We’d have one ourselves if Jack hadn’t insisted on the house being completely open-plan, totally unsuited to live-in help,” she explains, inadvertently pointing out that Sydney in the 1970s was quite literally not designed for households with maids. Indeed, it appears that nobody other than Alice lives a life that quite so closely resembles that of a British dowager.
Being far from home and consumed by Chateau Deeds, Alice trusts her advisors implicitly—ill-informed as they may be—and hires Simone Funk to be the family’s live-in housekeeper. Mrs. Funk’s appointment is based mostly on Alice’s gut feeling. After trialing a French housekeeper, who cleaned more quickly and effectively than Mrs. Funk, Alice’s feeling that “there was something salty” about the older, slightly less impressive housekeeper, compels Alice to hire her. Still, all of this “help,” in the end, does not appear to free up any time for Alice. Instead of becoming preoccupied with the upkeep of the house, her attention is instead turned towards her newly acquired staff, and she fails to notice the tumult of her daughters’ lives. As in a dream, Alice knows that there is something amiss, but she struggles to see beyond it. Like Alice, the reader senses the strangeness of the social world that Alice inhabits, a distorted version of British society embodied by Ariel Boote-Smith and the other wives, alongside the equally rigid and foreign social codes embodied by Davy the groundskeeper and the mysterious Mrs. Funk, but it is difficult to gain any real perspective. It is not until the depth of Mrs. Funk’s deceptions are made clear that she wakes.
The result is a portrait of domestic life so vivid that it is easy to become as myopic as Alice eventually does. Indeed, there are moments, reading the novella, when it is easy to forget entirely about Alice’s husband and children, or the world outside Chateau Deeds, so intense is the focus on the dynamics of the house’s staff. The placement of a marquee tent at a party or the tension between the caterer and a housekeeper take on outsized importance. Like the best novels of manners, A Dream Life takes the domestic realm seriously, turning an empathetic eye to the ways in which wives who are deposited in disorienting spaces can lose themselves.
I am about to return to Sydney for a visit. It is my first time going back after spending two years in New York. It is the longest time I have ever spent away from Australia. I, like Alice Armstrong, will leave a small apartment in Manhattan and arrive at a glittering home by the harbor (though regrettably one without an aviary, or an orchard). I have wondered if my return will feel like a dream, or if it will feel like a return to my real life, and it is New York that will feel like a hazy memory, sparkling and temporary.
At the beginning of the novel, Alice considers her new surroundings and “understood where she was: in a dream life, where nothing could matter and nothing would last, a hiatus from reality which, precisely like time travel, would deposit her back on her own shores, in her own time, at some unforeseeable but anticipated moment. All this would be revealed to be a mirage.” I felt something similar when I left for New York in 2019. Although I thought that I would stay for some time, I imagined that I would be home at regular intervals and that my life in Sydney would remain in as sharp of a focus as my life in New York. I underestimated the ease with which these careful calculations can be disrupted when one travels. There is, after all, no such thing as a dream life, no way to avoid things mattering.
Such is the case for the Armstrong family. Alice’s daughters’ “vowels were already broadening into an Australian twang,” and they are, one imagines, affected in one way or another by a series of vaguely troubling encounters with their various carers. Alice observes that Chateau Deeds “makes us into people we aren’t . . . Into people I don’t want to be.” While the smaller home that the family moves to might relieve Alice of the person she didn’t want to be, it seems unlikely that she will leave the experience behind altogether. Can any of us?