There was always gossip and slander. Some said that Wheeler was wild before crowds. That she yelled profanities and blaspheme. That she belched and loudly passed wind and lifted her long skirt to scratch herself in intimate places. That she mimicked the behaviour of drunkards and lunatics and beasts. Some even said that she once got down on her haunches, before a gathering of her followers, and urinated in an empty mustard pot. Of course, Wheeler and her supporters
always claimed it was bunk. More than a century later, one can find no mention of such behaviour in the official literature produced. Wheeler’s own pamphlets and posters from the time are thoroughly banal. If Wheeler, in any of the weighty tomes she composed, made suggestion that such outlandish behaviour was part of her method, then she did so in language that was cryptographic and obscure.
It had not started out that way. In that decade before the Great War, there had been no crowds or dense tomes or vicious aspersions. Agnes Wheeler’s notion had, initially, been private and uncomplicated. She had been proud of its modest beginnings. With an enfilade of mirrors propped against each wall of her living room, she had given form and movement to her idea. Before the assemblage of looking glasses, she moved as though dancing. She turned herself one way. She then turned herself another. She marked out her motions in French chalk on the
floorboards. Agnes determined the ideal speed for each movement and had calculated the inherent meaning of each portion of the axis upon which she turned. She determined the purpose of turning away to the left, then established the purpose of turning away to the right. Agnes divided the movements into smaller divisions. Into degrees of intensity. Hierarchies of rotation. In notebooks numbered and labelled, Agnes Wheeler maintained detailed notes and tabulation
and neatly labelled diagrams.
Wheeler inducted her widowed mother. Turn away from me whenever I describe improper conduct, Agnes advised and instructed. She took her mother’s thick waist and helped the old woman understand the appropriate direction and speed at which she should turn. Similarly, when her younger brother became engaged to be married, Wheeler tutored him in the room full of mirrors. To obviate any discomfort that you might cause the girl, Agnes said. Then, at his wedding, Agnes provided those gathered with small squares of paper upon which were written
instructions to turn away at that mildly salacious moment when the bridal lips were to be kissed. Before the formalities, Agnes moved amongst those gathered. Between greetings and handshakes, Agnes preached; turn away to your right, she said. For the right is the hemisphere of embarrassment and unease.
Agnes Wheeler promoted her novel ‘turning’ method of optimising social decorum. In both The Argus and The Herald, she paid for short pieces to be published that described both technique and objective. She included an address and a schedule of fees for a six-week program of instruction. She had cards printed, which she dispensed at social gatherings and events. Miss A. Wheeler, Prudent Turning Method Instructor. Cards that she placed in envelopes. Envelopes that she mailed to men of science and to leaders of industry. Men who had their secretaries organise to send their sisters or their wives or their daughters to visit Miss Wheeler. Men who were convinced it was their womenfolk who were in most need of whatever system of etiquette training Miss Agnes Wheeler was providing.
On the count of three! Agnes loudly exclaimed to the assembled women. Then, in a softer voice he said, envisage unbecoming public displays of misbehaviour from which you must turn. Picture the drunkard or the lecher. The rouge or the larrikin. They, in turn, asked in unrest, an uncouth neighbour? A lascivious suitor? A churlish shopkeeper? To each, Agnes Wheeler answered, Yes! Yes! Yes! She presented detailed scenarios to which each woman might turn her back. She taught them how to turn. Too fast! she at times declared or, too slow! Ladies, please
beware; rotate at the wrong speed, you will become the spectacle you wish to rebuke. Agnes scheduled a strict regimen of exercises and rehearsal. She met with the women often and levied her dues. Not once did she squat before them above an empty mustard pot.
The women whom Agnes tutored soon found it unbelievable that they had ever considered responding to public impropriety in any other way than to turn away. As taught, they practised each about-face. They diligently turned to the right if from ill-ease and to the left if in reproach. In private, also, they spun about. Behind locked doors, in bedrooms and bathrooms, they rebuffed their husbands’ indulgent and gruff advances and left the disrobed men baffled. Yet, those
women were more concerned for their sons. Boys, who would be lost in the subsequent war, were pulled from football teams and cricket matches and brought before Miss Agnes Wheeler for a reduced fee. Turn away, boys, Agnes instructed.
Agnes Wheeler proclaimed that she was providing a communal good. That she was delivering a social balm. She asserted that she was resurrecting something ancient. At her first of many regional symposia Agnes asked, how many primitive societies practised evasion as a means of minimising conflict? Prompted by this, professors of anthropology wrote papers, peer-reviewed and published, which Agnes obtained and had bound. As marginalia and on typed sheets, her ideas evolved. She composed brief leaflets and neatly bound compendia. Wheeler developed a charter and pledge for members of a newly formed association she formed. She took the porcupine as a mascot. A creature that silently turns it back, she said, and offers no more than speechless quills of repudiation.
Within a year, the Wheeler Society for Prudent Turning had garnered a membership of almost three hundred. As the wives of politicians and businessmen paid their membership fee and dragged their sons beside them, Wheeler’s following expanded. She soon found the hired halls, in which she held each meeting, filled with the bookish and the introverted. Crowded with pacifists and students of theology and of philosophy. Men now joined her cause. When war then
bloodied Europe, those same boys that Wheeler had taught to turn away, ran towards death at Fromelles and Ypres. For those who, for whatever reason, did not serve, a cry rose to shame them in certain social circles in Agnes’ native city. A Wheeling Dandy, the insult went. The slur was not long-lived, however, and faded with the armistice. Regardless, Agnes’ advice to all who reported the provocation was simple: Turn away.
The Society spread. It opened chapters in inland cities and coastal towns. In chilled rooms above a Ballarat haberdashery shop members met, and they gathered in the dry and dusty rooms of a farmhouse near Horsham. Gatherings spawned meetings in each next town and district. It crept along railways and highways. North to Mildura where the Sunraysia membership, in choreographed unison, pivoted in the hot and heavy air of a hired Scout Hall. There, itinerant workers furrowed in concentration their sun-kissed brows and learned to turn, and turn, and turn. The Society crossed riverways and mountain ranges. It skipped over state borders. Small bands of membership gathered to meet in rooms in cities along the Pacific coast and in towns as far as the Gulf of Carpentaria. At one point, Cooktown could claim the Society’s most northernly chapter, where membership badges glinted in the light of a tropical sun, while two-thousand miles south apple growers met in shed aside the Huon River as the Society most southernly outpost.
Each group vied for Wheeler’s attention. To hear Agnes talk, to raise her voice and to exclaim to those gathered volte-face! was the lodestone. The larger and wealthier chapters of the Society paid for her to travel first class across the continent to lecture before crowds. Celebratory conferences. Complimentary tea and shortbread. Raffles and awards. The Society sponsored charities and signed photographs of Agnes Wheeler were sold at events for one pound. Upon
stages, Agnes projected images and short films. At certain points she would cry out, turn around! volte-face! and would walk along the rows of those gathered and exclaim, too fast! or, too slow! Thus, Wheeler’s face and voice became well-known in Bondi, Medindie, and Brighton, but less so in Birdsville. Although, the small membership there received hand-written annual reports from Wheeler. These were placed in ornate frames of mulga wood and hung on the walls behind
the hotel bar.
There were controversies. Between the wars a factory in Alexandria began producing ‘Wheeler Dolls’. Crude and androgynous toys with painted faces. A string at their back could be pulled and a small device within would variously cry Turn-about! and Volte-face! and Mustard-pot! Tabloid news reporters lampoon the dolls, but also questioned Wheeler’s spinsterhood and childlessness. Then, when Agnes proposed that a prudent turning among the verdancy of Eden could have avoided the fall of man, she earned the church’s censure. Evangelists denounced her ideas as the very work of the devil.
The schism was predictable. While rumours of graft and mustard pots and even of sorcery had always harassed Agnes Wheeler, the split within the Society opened about her like a maw. A second war had been and gone and attitudes had changed. Some members claimed a timid turn of one’s back to the coarse and unpleasant was a simple form of appeasement. No more! No more! they cried in disruption at various Society meetings. They took to standing and commanding turn around! and making the disruption as loud as possible. The defectors declared that the act of turning must be seen and heard. That it must be a public denouncement of social
impropriety. That it must be a show of protest. They upturned chairs as they spun. They disregarded speed or the degree to which they pivoted. They rattled coins in their pockets, and they gasped audibly.
Miss Agnes Wheeler, reaching her sixth decade, remained bold. She spoke on radio and had published lengthy letters to the editor in major newspapers in each of the state capitals. Vulgar spinners are all they will ever be, Agnes stated firmly. At age seventy, Wheeler was appearing on evening television programs and performing her legendary technique. She spoke of old struggles and the movement’s origins in a room full of mirrors. A true Wheeler, she would always
say. As Agnes saw her final years, and as monochromatic broadcasts gave way to colour television, annual extravaganzas and variety shows wooed her aging celebrity. Volte-face! Volte-face! the studio audience was prompted to chant on cue. Then, cruelly, the show’s host would typically ask the octogenarian to stand and to twirl again and again, and again. Agnes obliged,to great applause. To laughter, also.
The Society for Prudent Turning disbanded not long after Agnes Wheeler’s death. Its
membership, by then, was aged and overwhelmed by variable social norms that seemed to be in an endless cycle of revolt and reinvention. They boxed their membership badges. They discarded torn and foxed leaflets and pamphlets. Yet, all was not lost. Framed ephemera still hung behind the bar in the Birdsville Hotel for several years, and there remained faint and circular abrasions on the floorboards of a first-floor room above what had once been a Ballarat haberdasher’s shop.
As for legacy, from coast to coast, Wheeler’s notion persists.
If one believes in ghosts, then it might be said that Agnes Wheeler endures. Not in any phantasmal form. Not as a graveyard spectre on in the halls about the old meeting rooms within the Society’s former headquarters. More than one hundred years since Wheeler arranged a room of mirrors to perfect her technique, people still turn away from behaviour that is coarse. They turn their backs to public displays of indecency. On street corners and in crowded train carriages, they turn around. They pin their attention to a book or a magazine or any other item they have at hand. If one were to watch carefully, one will see people turning to the right if from ill-ease, to the left if in reproach. One will see back, turning in defence. At times strung with backpacks. An open umbrella. An upturned collar. A bristling of porcupine quills.