A Remarkable Woman by Jules Van Mil

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

This story by Jules Van Mil epitomises many of the migrants to Australia after the World Wars who leave behind their homeland to travel to the other side of the world in the hope of a better life. In 1950, Avril Montdidier, a young French woman, did just this. She had lost the man she was to marry and a young son. Although she had employment with Dior, France at this time was battling to recover after its occupation by the Germans. Everything was in short supply. She, like many others, was determined to make a success in this strange land, a long way from home, and did.

The prologue of the book takes the reader to France and a very dramatic situation. Immediately, the reader’s interest is engaged. The rest of the chapters tell the story of Avril’s journey to achieve her goals in Australia. On arriving in Melbourne after her boat journey where she meets others who will become lifelong friends, she is met by an aunt and uncle. Although they help her settle into her new environment, in the time that follows she soon realises that this is not a safe place to be.

A chance encounter with a grazier from the Darling Downs enables her to move away so she takes up the role of governess on his cattle property. Later, she will move back to Melbourne and use her skills to set up her own empire in the fashion industry. Using these two environments, the author provides the reader with detailed descriptions of life as it was and the flora and fauna of Australia post World War 2.  Like most immigrants to Australia, when asked what she’d noticed when first arriving in Australia the answer usually included ‘I couldn’t stop looking at the sky, the trees…And the light. I’d never known the sun could shine so brightly’ (31). There was also a detailed description of the actions involved in trying to protect the grazier’s property from an out-of-control bush fire.

This was a time in history when the fashion industry was beginning to change dramatically; a time when millinery was a vital part of any outfit. Avril, with her skills, business acumen, and determination to provide an independent life for herself, is at the fore, although she has the male dominated business world to contend with. Her first company, AY Holdings gave her the anonymity she needed from the prevailing attitude of a woman’s place is in the home not in the boardroom (248).

The author has blessed her protagonist, Avril, with a beautiful personality and people are drawn to her. She is very astute and can converse expansively on many topics as well as being very practical and accomplished in many skills. Yet her life is not an easy one. She has had her share of sorrow and even as her business world begins to grow, she still must face personal grief. She is always very conscious of those around her and sets out to address some of the injustices she becomes aware of.

Her expanding business, often based on her ingenious ideas, allows her to share her successes with others. Every prediction she makes about consumer demand for affordable, yet stylish fashion, is realised. The author takes the reader on Avril’s journey through these changes providing a history of the Australian fashion industry. She had set out to make clothing for women in every aspect of life. She produced simple designs, fresh and modern at a price every salesgirl and secretary could afford.

Just as I had finished reading this delightful book, I watched a movie about the life of another remarkable woman, Olivia Newton John, and I was struck by the similarity of these two women from different centuries. They had similar personalities; they used their particular skills to help others and were not afraid to embrace new ideas. For me, this made Van Mil’s story even more enjoyable, and her protagonist more real as I was beginning to think that Avril Montdidier was just a little too perfect. A particular phrase occurred throughout the storyline of this novel – Timing is everything– which was the grazier’s family motto. It took on great significance throughout this story affecting relationships as well as business acquisitions. This story has it all for the female reader – believable characters, diverse personalities, interesting history, the Australian landscape, romantic relationships, and those with less than pleasing personalities and actions. I whole-heartedly recommend this book.

A Remarkable Woman


By Jules Van Mil

Pan Macmillan Australia


$34.99; 352pp


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