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Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian literary couples

October 3, 2011
Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning (Unknown date and photographer, Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Are you fascinated, like I am, by literary couples? It seems so romantic to share one’s calling with another … even if the reality is not always as idyllic or as successful as it sounds. We’ve all heard of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, to name just a few famous couples. I’m guessing, though, that not many have heard of our Australian couples, but we do have them – and so this week I’m sharing five (from the past) with you.

Vance (1885-1959) and Nettie Palmer (1885-1964)

While Vance and Nettie Palmer are not particularly well-known now (at least to the best of my knowledge), they were extremely significant in their heyday, the 1920s-1950s, as writers, as proponents of Australian literature and as mentors for younger writers. Nettie in particular corresponded with and supported many women writers, including Marjorie Barnard (1897-1987) and Flora Eldershaw (1897-1956). They were literary critics and essayists. Vance was also a novelist (I read his The passage many moons ago) and dramatist, while Nettie was also a poet. They were political – egalitarian, anti-Fascist, and tarred, as were many back then, with the “Communist” brush! Their relationship seems to have been a productive and supportive one.

George Johnston (1912-1970) and Charmian Clift (1923-1969)

This is one of those troubled pairings, and it ended in the suicide of Charmian when she was not quite 46. They met in Australia, lived together in England and Greece (where they tried to live on their writing), before returning to Australia with their three children in 1964. Johnston wrote the highly successful My brother Jack, which some see as a contender for the Great Australian Novel and which is the first in a semi-autobiographical trilogy. Charmian wrote two successful autobiographies, Mermaid singing and Peel me a lotus. Both wrote much more across a wide spectrum: novels, essays and other journalistic pieces, short stories, and so on. Theirs was, in the end, one of the more self-destructive rather than mutually supportive relationships. Sad.

Ruth Park (1917-2010) and D’Arcy Niland (1917-1967)

Ruth Park (born in New Zealand) and D’Arcy Niland were more than a literary couple. They created a literary family, with two of their five children, twin daughters Deborah and Kilmeny, becoming successful children’s book writers and illustrators. I have written about Ruth Park before. She and D’Arcy worked as free-lance writers and shared a concern in their writings for the battlers in Australia. They worked hard to survive on their writing, turning their hands to a wide range of forms and genres, including novels, short stories, plays and journalistic pieces. They were, like the Palmers, a successful and happy couple until D’Arcy’s early death.

Rosemary Dobson (b. 1920) and Alec Bolton (1926-1996)

Rosemary and Alec were a little different from the other couples I’ve chosen to discuss here, but I’ve chosen them because they lived in my city, and I (ta-da) met and worked for a few years in the office next door to Alec. Rosemary Dobson is a significant Australian poet who associated with other major Australian poets like A. D. Hope and David Campbell. She has published around 14 volumes of poetry, edited anthologies, and translated poetry from French and Russian. Her husband was not so much a writer as a publisher. According to the AustLit* website he “was a creative force in Australian publishing for almost half a century. After his war service he worked as an editor for Angus & Robertson and Ure Smith before establishing the publishing program at the National Library of Australia”. He established one of those wonderful small presses, Brindabella Press, in 1972 while still working at the Library, and then continued working on it after his retirement. It was a labour of love, and among the authors he published was, of course, his wife!

Dorothy Porter (1954-2008) and Andrea Goldsmith (b. 1950)

Dorothy Porter, whose last book The bee hut I have reviewed here, is (was) another Australian poet. She lived with her partner, the novelist Andrea Goldsmith, for 17 years before she died through cancer in 2008. Goldsmith, whose latest novel The reunion I’ve also reviewed here, said in an interview after Porter’s death that “I’ve always loved Dot’s work – indeed I fell for the poetry before I fell for the poet”. Porter, who also wrote several verse novels, was more prolific than Goldsmith, but both produced well-regarded work during the course of their relationship. Another productive and successful pairing.

Some time ago I read an article about literary couples and the challenges they face: financial (supporting themselves from writing), space (finding room for each to write), and the big one, jealousy or competitiveness. I’m impressed that, despite such issues, four of the five couples I’ve described seem to have been remarkably successful – and this is beautifully exemplified by Ruth Park’s words at the end of her autobiography, Fence around the cuckoo:

We lived together for twenty-five years less five weeks. We had many fiery disagreements but no quarrels, a great deal of shared and companionable literary work, and much love and constancy. Most of all I like to remember the laughter.

After sharing five children and a rather insecure career, that’s pretty impressive.

I’d love to hear about other literary couples – Australian or otherwise, past or present – that you have come across.

* I have not provided a link to this site since most of its content is available by subscription only.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. October 4, 2011 3:22 am

    The literary just might well be the best kind of career for a couple to share… they can appreciate quiet time for themselves and be nurtured by each other’s views and insights. Your last quote is the vignette of the best case scenario. “We had many fiery disagreements but no quarrels…” What a perfect union! Thanks for this wonderful post, wg!

    • October 4, 2011 8:53 am

      Why thanks, Arti. I think you’re right if you can make it work … The challenge I expect is to find the right balance in nurturing, between being too critical to not critical at all (if, for example, your opinion is asked). I loved that quote too (obviously!)

  2. October 4, 2011 6:30 pm

    I wonder if literary couples find themselves competing with one another.

    One approach might be the crime writer Nicci French who is actually the couple Niccki Gerard and Sean French who’s interesting video about writing as a couple can be seen here http://www.niccifrench.co.uk/

    • October 5, 2011 5:05 pm

      I suspect some do compete … but they probably don’t last! I’ve heard of Nicci French. Do they also write works separately? Literary collaborations is another whole ballgame, isn’t it. I set up a category for them in WIkipedia when I was writing my articles on Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw, and the collaborative name, M. Barnard Eldershaw. They were friends, though, not a couple.

  3. October 4, 2011 9:34 pm

    I’m trying to think of a way to answer your question with “you and Dad”, but I’m struggling a bit when it comes to Dad. He does read computer manuals? Does that count? :P

    • October 4, 2011 9:43 pm

      Hmmm … I think it’s about more than reading actually! But very sweet of you to want to fit us into the mould.

  4. October 5, 2011 5:01 am

    If you admit you worked next door to a famous writer for several years you are then supposed to reveal some fascinating bit of gossip like he always came to work in his slippers or he would always take a lunch break at noon sharp and eat his baloney sandwich while looking out a window at the street ;)

    • October 5, 2011 9:35 am

      Ha Stefanie, my lips are sealed! He did wear a bow-tie to work though. Does that count?

      • October 6, 2011 12:48 am

        A bow tie is pretty good. Not many men wear bow ties these days so it does say something about his personality :)

        • October 6, 2011 9:00 am

          Phew … glad I gave you something! It certainly gave him a certain something … and he was a very nice man.

  5. October 5, 2011 2:10 pm

    Can’t think of any other couples to add here, But I do like two pairs you’ve mentioned – Clift and Johnson, and Park and Niland. Hanging on our wall we have a small painting by Kilmenny Niland, in the style of the work the girls did on illustrating ‘Mulga Bill’s Bicycle’. It’s of a fat little girl in green – friends call it my ‘ugly girl’ and I love her! Every time I go upstairs I’m reminded of that huge family creativity.

    • October 5, 2011 4:38 pm

      Oh, how lovely to have that painting … I imagine I’d love her too. Sounds like one to take to the nursing home (when the time comes that is!)

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