Canonical Australian writers with ties to Ireland

A speech to launch Brenda Niall’s latest work, Friends and Rivals (2020) by Frances Devlin-Glass.

Brenda Niall: Friends and Rivals: Four Great Australian Writers,Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2020
RRP: $34.99 (also available as an etext)

I count myself lucky that among those who taught me Australian Literature were two very impressive women. Judith Wright taught a course on Australian poetry at the University of Queensland in 1968 to ten of us, all the more valuable because she had not long finished writing Preoccupations in Australian Poetry. Those were the glory days when ten constituted a viable class! The second was Dorothy Green, my PhD supervisor. Both were fiercely conscious of their gender but manifested it in different ways. One of Dorothy’s pungent observations (she routinely made magisterial pronouncements) in the early 1970s long before second-wave feminism changed us all, was that the interwar period was miraculous for women writers because of the numbers of male writers lost to the war. I’ve often mentally returned to that observation in reading Brenda Niall’s latest book.

Certainly, there was a wonderful crop of women writers in the ’20s and especially the ’30s. At least three of the four whose biographies feature in this work belong to that period. What we see, even before the war, however, are female novelists creating in fiction the rise of the New Australian girl. She was different – feisty, independent, wilful, confident, refusing her gender. This began much earlier, around the turn of the century and a bit later, with Ethel Turner and Miles Franklin (and Joseph Furphy also weighed in). Where did that impulse come from? You’ll find out reading this book.

Oversimplifying, it had a bit to do with failed marriages and single mums and self-sacrificing men. This book sketches a wide canvas, much broader than just the war, in accounting for a highly significant shift in women’s literary culture – Australian literary culture more generally – between about 1900 and 1960.

This new book, Friends and Rivals, by the prodigiously energetic Brenda Niall (acclaimed biographer of Mannix, Georgiana McCrae, Martin Boyd and Father Hackett), is beautifully constructed. It is a bit like a Celtic knot: each particular biographical strand dealt with earlier in the chronology, reappears unexpectedly later in another woman’s story. And occasionally other women, not central to the core group of four, such as the unlikeable Louise Mack and Olga Roncoroni crop up in more than one biography. Maybe my Celtic knot metaphor has even more resonance than is at first obvious, in that three of the four have strong family connections with Ireland and its nascent literary revival, which does from time to time, feature in this narrative as a parallel nationalist construction of a new literature. What’s more, Brenda Niall’s own Irish credentials are impeccable: all eight great grandparents are Irish, the Nialls coming from Killaloe in Co Clare.

Henry Handel Richardson, pseudonym of Ethel Robertson née Richardson, and Nettie Palmer had Irish fathers. Walter Lindesay Richardson was an Irish-born medico, trained in Edinburgh, who made a significant contribution to medical science in the area of public health. John Higgins was a draper in Bendigo, and the brother of the eminent Justice Henry Bourne Higgins, Victoria’s delegate to the Australasian Federal Convention of 1897-8. Justice Higgins effectively became a second father to Nettie, and was, like Walter Lindesay, religiously heterodox, so Nettie grew up exposed both to conventional Wesleyanism, and her uncle’s scepticism. He was, moreover, a supporter of Home Rule in Ireland. Both of these families were animated by a strong commitment to social service, an orientation taken on in literary ways by their writerly offspring.

The Irish claims of Barbara Baynton, one of the four women in the book, are convoluted and elaborate inventions. She ‘vehemently’ denied her working-class origins in bush Australia, as marriages, always socially upward, dictated: she embellished the story ‘to match her sense of self’. In the imagined autobiographical narrative, she was the youngest of seven and the only legitimate progeny of a love-match between her mother Penelope and ‘Captain Robert Kilpatrick’, an aristocratic Anglo-Irish soldier in the Bengal Lancers, and lived in a family that enjoyed books and fine china. In fact, John and Elizabeth Lawrence, her actual parents, were unmarried when they left Dublin and the union was regularised much later in Australia when it became a problem: and there were no books or china. Baynton’s elaborate fiction was probably designed to hide her illegitimacy.

Richardson’s father came out at the time of the gold rush and would become the central character in her monumental and classic trilogy, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony). Brenda Niall reports (personal communication) that Ettie Richardson was fond of her Irish relatives (who are represented very differently in the novel) and that friends spoke of the ‘ Irish charm’ with which she made her peace after having behaved in an infuriating way.

Clockwise from top right: Nettie Palmer, Barbara Baynton, Ethel Turner, H.H. Richardson.

At the level of lived lives, the intertwinings are fascinating: who would have imagined that the imperious Barbara Baynton, with her pretensions to class and even nobility, would have made a friend of the bourgeois Mosman matron and successful children’s writer, Ethel Turner? And what’s more, enjoyed shopping for diamonds with her? Or that Baynton, a social climber extraordinaire, would deploy John Longstaff, an Australian specialist in painting royalty, to paint her portrait because he was ‘good with jewels and decorations’? Or that both Turner and her sister had to engage in elaborate stratagems to hide their illegitimacy? Or that both Turner and Baynton would become passionate defenders of unmarried girls keeping their babies? Or that the regally aloof Henry Handel Richardson, who delighted in concealing her identity as a woman on paper, could be so tremulous and pathetically dependent on her husband that his late arrival home would have her scouring the university colleges for him? And who, moreover, smoked cigarettes? Or that Turner and Baynton and the socialist Nettie Palmer might have voted in favour of conscription? The proliferation of such quirky biographical detail in these narratives is delicious. It is a penetrating and nuanced study of the ways in which the life of a writing woman could take weirdly varied forms.

The women of this era were flying blind in the face of a culture that didn’t really expect them to be successful as writers, indeed, to be anything more than ‘dreamy’ girls, ‘brooding on squatters’ verandahs, or mooning in selectors’ huts’, as A G Stephens of the Bulletin dismissively styled Baynton and Turner. Far from it, they were inventing their own modus vivendi – there were no templates – living in cities, and in Ethel’s case, riding a bicycle and surfing, both markers of the New Woman. But, despite ‘doing feminism’, Turner was not invested in it – she was not a suffragist.

Ethel Turner, Richardson And her sister Lilian all began compulsively writing as schoolgirls. Ferociously hyperactive and hardworking in pursuit of their art, they were not always satisfied in the niches they created for themselves. Brenda Niall paints an Ethel Turner who churned out a book a year from 1894 until 1920 for the young adult Christmas market, and wrote newspaper columns for children, because she needed to generate the lucre while her barrister husband slowly – more than 25 years later – came into his own. Given her druthers, she would much have preferred to have been writing for adults: the annual grind was the price of success.

Both Turner and Henry Handel Richardson yearned to have a freer hand than their British publishers allowed. Because the beating heart of the publishing world was not Sydney or Melbourne but London, many of these writers were subjected to imperial censorship. All of them were bucking the system in some way or other: Ethel Turner’s comments on Aboriginal dispossession were censored; Baynton in despising Lawson’s sentimentality subverted a homegrown but nonetheless prestigious bush nationalist tradition; HHR was constructing the dark side of the gold boom and ‘Marvellous Melbourne’; and Nettie Palmer refused the metropolitan centre of imperial and literary politics, London, and is responsible for Australian Literature eventually becoming a canon in its own right, and taught around the world as well as in Australia.

The first three biographies make a powerful case for the need for a Nettie Palmer, the subject of the fourth biography. Alongside Vance her husband, Nettie was a critic and advocate, rather than a fiction writer, and she did much to fashion Australian Literature as an institution and to challenge the prejudices of a London-centric publishing industry. Nettie’s indefatigable work in print and on the radio was crucial in building a sense of Australia as having a culture. Speaking as an Argonaut of the 1950s who adored home-grown radio plays on the ABC and who chose a career in Australian Literature against the best advice, I can testify to Palmers’ foundational work. She needed Vance but was to become a power in her own right.

Not that all the artists featured in this book were unequivocally supportive of Nettie’s advocacy of their work: HHR envisaged herself as in the European tradition of Flaubert and Dostoevsky rather than bush nationalism, claiming loftily and ingenuously to Norman Lindsay, who saw her as a literary Streeton, that she ‘merely wanted to write a book about Australia that had no bushrangers in it’. She was quite resistant to the kind of literary nationalism of the type the Palmers were constructing, but, of course, was by then a key figure in that tradition. Despite this, she was not above colluding with Nettie to be advanced for a Nobel prize that never eventuated. It’s fascinating to find Nettie being unimpressed by the first two books of the trilogy, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, and subsequently publicly and radically revising her opinion in the light of the third.

This work is ambitious and unique in its conception. It’s a collective biography which is humane in the way it documents the day-to-day realities of writing women, their rivalries and their unexpected friendships; it is also scholarly, carefully and judiciously sifting the evidence and quietly challenging accepted readings; it is also literary, reading the works of these four writers for insight into their orientations, and as well reading them in terms of the conditions of production and reception. And it is supremely lucid, a delight to read. It’s a book that will appeal, I suggest, to readers of biography as well as readers of literature, and it may send a new generation back to some of the iconic works of a tradition that took a long time to stand proudly and owes so much to its self-effacing women practitioners.

For readers of Tinteán, there’s an additional reason to read and take pride: that so many of these writers have a strong thread of connection to their parents’ origins in Ireland.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances continues to work academically as an Honorary Associate Professor at Deakin University in both Australian and Irish literatures, and is especially interested in literary feminism. This speech was scheduled to be launched on 7 April and was a casualty of The Virus.

2 thoughts on “Canonical Australian writers with ties to Ireland

  1. An informative and enjoyable piece, Frances. I’m glad it was able to surface despite the Virus.

    • Thanks, Chris Watson. A very good read, even for non-literary types because of Brenda Niall’s limpid prose.

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