Each year on Australia Day, an Australian of the Year is chosen from amongst our highest achievers. The United Kingdom also chooses its own Australian of the Year, and we seem to send them so many people that there are plenty to choose from.
This year the winner was Barry Humphries, who, at the age of 77, accepted his award with the words, “It’s about time, really”.
Barry Humphries has created many comedy characters: vulgar Sir Les Patterson; gentle Sandy Stone; underground film-maker Martin Agrippa; sleazy trade unionist Lance Boyle; and failed tycoon Owen Steele, amongst others. But the most famous and successful is Dame Edna Everage.
Edna began in the 1950s as the average Melbourne housewife, and if she had stayed that way, would soon have become as quaint and irrelevant as a comic char or a music hall “turn”. The genius of Dame Edna is that she has continued to re-invent and update herself, whilst never losing the integrity of the character or even the back-story which accompanies her.
From her humble beginnings, she has evolved into a glamorous Gigastar, icon and diva in an ever-more extravagant wardrobe , while retaining the trademark wisteria-coloured hair, cats-eye spectacles, bunches of gladioli and cheery “Hello, possums!” greeting.
I feel her evolution owes a certain debt to Lady Thatcher at the the height of the powers – in particular the almost limitless self-confidence and meaningless charm, combined with an iron determination to remain “nice”.
Edna is a vehicle for Humphries to utilise his powers of satire against the cult of celebrity and modern vapidity, but also to make sly jests at the expense of his friends, and take gentle stabs at his enemies; sometimes, perhaps, even to slip in his real opinions on issues that he only dares to offer in the guise of Edna. As a result, you are never quite sure what Edna will say, and this glittering unpredictability is part of her fascination. It goes without saying that many of her sharpest barbs are aimed accurately at Australia.
Barry Humphries called his creation Edna after his childhood nanny, and Everage of course is the word average said in an Australian accent (or at least an Australian accent of the 1950s). Edna peaked in the 1910s in Australia, so in the 1950s she was supposed to be middle-aged, although by now the name sounds elderly – in fact, Edna must be nearing a century by now.
Edna is the name of several women in the Biblical apocrypha, including the wife of Methusaleh. It’s a Hebrew name translated as “pleasure”, and some believe the name for Eden comes from the same source, as if it was one of the “pleasure gardens” of the ancient Middle East.
However, in Ireland it has been used to Anglicise the name Edana; St Edana is an obscure saint from the west of Ireland. She may be linked to or named after a goddess called Eadaoin (AY-deen), and although it’s not at all certain, this name may be a feminine linguistic relative of Aidan.
In Australia, the Edana connection is far more likely as a source for Edna, as obscure Irish names are more common here than obscure Biblical ones.
Call me crazy, but I think if it wasn’t for La Grand Dame, Edna could be coming into vogue now, as others from her era have. It’s not too different from Edith, Edie and Eden, which are getting quite fashionable, it may be related to popular Aidan, and could ride on the back of Ed- male names, such as Edward and Eddie.
I won’t try to suggest Edna, but could I interest anyone in an Edana?