In defence of Vance and Nettie

Neglected, ignored, lost, disparaged, disregarded, limited, devalued: a literary reputation is a fragile thing in a country whose literature is in crisis and where, as Ivor Indyk argues, ‘most of our literary tradition is out of print, undertaught and largely unknown to the Australian public’. This is nowhere more so than in the case of the reputation and works of Vance and Nettie Palmer. Once the ‘twin deities’  of Australian literature, receiving accolade after accolade from most of  the major critics of the interwar period, and inspiring several generations of Australian writers, they have been diminished by decades of critical material, some positive, but mostly negative.  The New Left criticisms of scholars in the late 1970s were especially harsh as they formulated their own critical principles in opposition to the supposed failures of previous non-Marxist generations, and their wholesale dismissal has held sway over the longer view of mature scholars such as Jack Lindsay, Vivian Smith, Geoffrey Serle and Harry Heseltine. More recently, with the emergence of ecocriticism, with a richer dialectical materially orientated theory of literature and neo-colonialism, and with the field of Australian literature in such fragile state, we should be able to begin to recognise how significant Vance and Nettie Palmer were in inscribing the very legitimacy of Australian literature.

Yet the misrepresentations, mis-readings and myths surrounding Nettie and Vance Palmer continue. In a recent piece in the Australian Book Review on ‘Ettie and Nettie’ on the relationship between Henry Handel Richardson and Nettie Palmer, Brenda Niall starts dismantling these tales when she outlines the importance of Nettie’s literary criticism in the recognition of Richardson’s significance as a writer. But then she stalls – she represents Vance Palmer as the hopeless bete noire with his wife sacrificed on his altar. She writes of penniless journalists unable to marry, failed talents, mental problems, low sales figures, jealousies, unfulfilled friendships and the cause of Australian literature blighted. Yet nothing could be further from the truth in understanding the Palmers’ relationship with Richardson, and Richardson’s relationship to the Palmers.

When Vance Palmer met with the expatriate Richardson, he was pleasantly surprised. The first of the Palmers to do so (in London in 1930) Vance had expected to find Richardson a characterless ‘uniform’ personality, given so much of her time and energy went into her books: that is, the power of her imagination and the overwhelming revelations of herself:

HHR was particularly animated and friendly. She spoke well of Men Are Human [Vance’s latest novel]; perhaps that was part of the friendliness. But she talked extensively of other things in [HM] Green’s book [An Outline of Australian Literature, 1930], her work on the trilogy, Ballarat, and Bradman. She was very curious about Bradman! Underneath, she’s a good deal more patriotic than one would expect.

Also invited to afternoon tea was Kathleen Ussher, film critic and friend of Miles Franklin, who Vance found ‘attractive’, ‘intelligent’ and ‘fresh’ (and whom he arranged to meet again at the Writers’ Club). Vance was a ladies’ man, with five older sisters; he was a perceptive observer of the human female. Dorothy Green, one of Richardson’s most significant critics and biographers, certainly thought so. She quoted a much later remark of Vance’s about how Richardson was haunted by a fear of a breakdown similar to her father’s, framing in her critical study Ulysses Bound: Henry Handel Richardson and her Fiction the underlying thesis that Richardson set out not to escape from her fears but to resolve them in her art.

Dorothy Green would have appreciated the implications of Vance’s earlier observations. In July 1930, when he wrote to Nettie, he explained that Richardson had said:

I distrust anything I write in the evening. If your stuff can stand the after-breakfast morning light on it, it’s probably all right.

Nettie Palmer was one of the most significant non-academic critics writing on Australian literature in the interwar period (as I have argued elsewhere), so when she visited Richardson to stay with her in Sussex, Richardson might well have sought to keep Nettie at arm’s length, as Niall notes. But we could read the situation quite differently. The two women found common ground, despite some fundamental differences on core values. Nettie might well have sought to emphasise Richardson’s qualities as a writer – that is as a reclusive, elusive artist struggling with her genius – when she wrote the accounts of her 1935 visits, rather than stressing her human frailties for an ill-educated reading public. Niall can ask the questions that Dorothy Green did not, when she dismantles the stereotype of Nettie as some kind of custodian of Australian literature in its entirety, where Nettie has been set up as the expert and then criticised for overlooking or ‘missing’ certain books. (HM Green, who did write a comprehensive history of Australian literature, is the more worthy target here.) Nettie’s preoccupations as a young woman, a young student, or a young mother at the times when Richardson’s novels were published were, as Niall finds, quite different. Nettie was rarely in a position to maintain a comprehensive overview of Australian literary fiction (perhaps only during the days of her regular columns in the Illustrated Tasmanian Mail and All About Books) and she did not claim to do so. A careful reading of Modern Australian Literature suggests she was all too aware of the scattered nature of the literary field prior to the mid 1920s. But even the very title of Modern Australian Literature makes it clear that Nettie was not interested in colonial romances, or European naturalism but rather early modernism. She was primarily interested in developing different kinds of writing about European Australians who reconciled with Australia’s place in the cosmos out of the chaos of settler consciousness.

Dorothy Green earlier raised the spectre of the sacrificial aspects of Nettie’srelationship with her husband, Vance Palmer, something echoed again by Niall. Dorothy Green was writing out of the 1950s. We have here one of the most persistent stereotypes of any intellectual Australian white woman, repeated endlessly – the myth of their domestication and doormat status. Sacrificial? Because Nettie was economically independent of her husband, must we suppose she sacrificed her artistic talents to support him? Fifteen years age difference was vital in Richardson’s and Nettie’s relationship to the first wave of the women’s movement, just as there were differences between women of the 1950s and the 1970s, between those who accepted marriage, the sexual division of labour, and economic dependence, and those who sought to change it. Nettie was part of a female cohort, a generation of radical women, who sought professional and economic independence (and all the challenges that it entailed); all of her women friends had their own careers and paid their way: Christian Jollie Smith as Victoria’s first solicitor; Hilda Bull initially as an actor, later in the health profession; Katharine Susannah Prichard as a writer; and others. As is still common, Nettie never managed to earn more across a year than her husband, who was anyway the main bread winner of their family.

Niall makes numerous speculations about Nettie and Vance Palmer that don’t stand the after-breakfast morning light. Their union was warmly supported by both their families. Rather than being penniless in London before the Great War, Vance was financially well established as a foreign affairs expert for the New Statesman and a frequently-published author. Their late marriage came about for other reasons, partly so Nettie could work in her chosen profession. It was a German woman who befriended Nettie who had mental health difficulties, not Nettie. According to Niall, Nettie sacrificed her ambitions as a poet in the ‘hope’ that Vance could write the Great Australian Novel! Such a concept of the Great Australian novel does not fit with the Palmers’ literary views – that is, with their focus on the embedded imagination, the materiality of human existence, and the powerful strand of regionalism in their fiction and criticism. They wrote directly about how the concept of the great Australian novel was a nonsense: ‘The Great Australian Novel’ is a most futile phrase.’ Niall’s figures for Vance’s book sales averaging 2000 copies are extraordinarily flimsy. Even David Walker much earlier has shown that for the period 1959–1974 alone The Passage had sold almost 53,000 copies and The Rainbow-Bird and Other Stories sold more. Many of Vance’s novels were invariably serialised in daily mass circulation newspapers, here and in England, making the calculation of accurate readership numbers impossible. In any case, Vance’s bestselling works – that is, National Portraits and A Legend of the Nineties, which sold to the tune of high tens of 1000s – were rather in the genre of history and biography. Niall should well understand the perils of biography – that, when privileging the central subject other figures are diminished – but she appears to have forgotten this in her dismissal of Vance Palmer. With a climate-changed future, a new generation needs to revisit his great Australian trilogy, his analysis of mining and Queensland politics in Golconda, Seedtime and The Big Fellow, written long after Richardson was dead.

What if Nettie and Richardson had become intimate friends, as Niall seems to assume they should, rather than colleagues? What if Nettie had been given access to private papers and letters for her study Henry Handel Richardson? I believe it would not have made much difference.  Conventions of disclosure and boundaries between public and private have changed, and Nettie’s Richardson is revealed through her fictional universe, not in the details of her private life. In the constrained era in which Nettie was writing (the late 1940s), pre-footnotes, and in the context of the kind of radical modernism and feminism which she espoused, much of her interpretation is based on Richardson’s intellectual and artistic achievements through the readings of the books themselves, rather than an intimate narrative Niall seems to think appropriate. It will be fascinating to see what Sylvia Martin makes of the overlooked, but extended, Aileen Palmer-Richardson correspondence in the National Library in her forthcoming biography of Aileen.


Deborah Jordan

Dr Deborah Jordan is working on an edition of the Palmers' love letters. Her biography of Nettie Palmer was published in 1999.

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  1. I agree strongly with Dr Jordan’s analysis. The Palmers were a new intellectual force on the Australian cultural scene. They understood political contexts and post-colonial value shifts. As a culture, as Dymphna Cusack re-iterated, “How can we know where we are going if we don’t know where we have been?” The vital forces of biography and social history infuse the best fiction and non-fictions. Marilla North

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