There’s no way I can do justice in a short post to such this complex woman about whom so much has been written, but I’d like to add Charmian Clift to Monday Musings posts featuring Aussie authors, not only because she and her husband, author George Johnston, were one of our significant literary couples, but also because, according to academics Tanya Dalziell and Paul Genoni writing The Conversation, she is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance.
This renaissance includes that:
- in 2018 she and Johnston were inducted into the Australian Media Hall of Fame (see my post); and that
- she is the subject of two recent/upcoming novels, Tamar Hodes’ The water and the wine (2018), English writer Polly Samson’s A theatre of dreamers (coming in 2020).
Intriguing, because there was also flurry of interest in her back in the 1990s-2000s, with:
- Suzanne Chick’s Searching for Charmian: The daughter Charmian Clift gave away discovers the mother she never knew (1994): autobiography/memoir
- Susan Johnson’s The broken book (2004): novel
- Nadia Wheatley’s The life and myth of Charmian Clift (2001): biography
There’s clearly something about Charmian! (I have read Chick and Johnson, but before blogging)
Clift was born in the gorgeous NSW south coast town of Kiama in 1923, and served in the Australian Women’s Army Service in World War II as an anti-aircraft gunner. After the war, she worked as a journalist on Melbourne’s Argus, and married journalist George Johnston in 1947. They had two children, before moving to London in 1950 for his job as European editor for Sydney’s Sun. In 1954, they went to Greece to live writers’ lives, where they lived, mostly on Hydra, for 9 years, before returning to Australia in 1963. Clift then worked, primarily, as a freelance journalist, until she died tragically, by suicide, in 1969.
Clift (see Wikipedia) wrote novels, three in collaboration with Johnston, two autobiographies/memoirs, short stories, and many essays/columns (collections of which were published after her death.) She was working on an autobiographical novel, The end of the morning, before her death.
The Charmian renaissance
Dalziell and Genoni (D&G) say that “the revival of interest in Clift is more than a collective nostalgia or feminist correction of the historical record, although both are relevant”. It’s also due, they say, to increasing interest in their Hydra years, where they met other writers and artists including Leonard Cohen, and where they were visited by people like Sidney Nolan and family. D&G refer to two events in Melbourne in 2015: an exhibition called Homage to Hydra, which included paintings of them, and a show, Hydra: Songs and tales of Bohemia, by musicians Chris Fatouros and Spiros Falieros in which they use Cohen’s songs to tell about Clift and Johnston’s time on Hydra.
Ah, and then it comes out! In 2018, D&G themselves published a book, Half the perfect world: Writers, dreams and drifters on Hydra, 1955-1964, in which they tell of the “fabled decade of Clift’s life as a bohemian expatriate”. But there’s more, they share: Sue Smith has written a play called Hydra, which casts “Clift in ways that resonate sympathetically with the concerns of contemporary audiences”. Smith describes Clift as “a woman ahead of her time”, in both her life choices and her writing. Queensland Theatre’s webpage on Hydra provides some useful background, including references to Johnson’s novel.
D&G, then, are particularly interested in Clift’s personality, and in how Johnston’s and her dream of “a cheap and sun-soaked creative island life slowly soured”. They reference Wheatley’s well-regarded biography. They suggest that Clift’s “first person narratives of a life lived with great passion and a sceptical eye to the consequences garnered a large readership” and that “these readers responded to an incisive intellect with a vision of a culturally enriched Australia” [my emph]. They see her as “one of the most important female voices” of her post-war time when a social revolution was on the horizon. Oh, and they argue that Clift was modern in her capacity for “self-creation”!
Searching for Charmian … in Trove
Of course, I had to check Trove to see what contemporary writings I could find, by or about her, but there’s not much, as I expected, because the post-1950s is still tied up in copyright. However, I did find a poem, “Kiama’s Blowhole”, written by her when she was 8 years old and published in The Kiama Independent, and Shoalhaven Advertiser (14 January 1933).
I also found a review by Sylvia Lawson in The Canberra Times (5 March 1966) of a collection of her newspaper columns/essays that was published in her lifetime, Images in aspic (1966). Lawson’s reaction is mixed. Indeed the review is headed “Popularity despite an irritating style”! She praises Clift’s style saying:
She does indeed write well (often better here, in fact, than in her two novels), but it’s what the style does that counts. The long, weaving, daydreaming sentences, the short brisk ones, and the way of letting reflections drift off in rows of dots combine to give readers the sense that her moods and responses have been fully handed over to them, transcribed as exactly and honestly as possible.
Lawson says this of the collection – and I love this – “Writing with humour and enquiry about mods, post-mods, squares and oldies, she does something (since they all read her) to make it one world after all”. However, she doesn’t like it all, saying that “Sometimes the nostalgia goes right over the edge into whimsy; sometimes it looks very like cashing-in on private experience”. This variety, this unevenness, though, is not surprising in this sort of collection I think.
I found an excerpt from Images in aspic in the Macquarie anthology of Australian literature. It’s about the parlous state of the Australian film industry. She writes that no-one has “exploited cinematically our stupendous beaches, or sought to portray the neo paganism of the surf-cult, which is utterly contemporary, utterly Australian …” Nor, she says, “has anybody touched upon the particularly contemporary problem of the integration of hundreds of thousands of Europeans into our communities. There is yeast enough there to ferment a dozen films without formula or cliché”. How much has changed? She writes:
Ever since I have been back here I have been conscious that Australians, caught in international cross-currents of ideas and manners and fashions, twisted about by reassessments of their own old myths, bewildered by elusive and changing standards, are desperate to be redefined.
This is interesting. Clift, the returned expat, seems to be somewhat positive about the state of Australia, and its capacity to grow, at a time when those famous intellectuals, Clive James (1962), Germaine Greer (1964) and Robert Hughes (1964), left for Europe, seeking something less stultifying!
I did find one article in Trove written by Clift, “Home from the Aegean” (Australian Women’s Weekly, 26 February 1964). It’s about the family’s decision to return to Australia, and concludes with:
“You must be out of your minds to leave this!” the latest batch of young Australians said with conviction.
But I don’t think so. In fact, I think that this last journey, which completes the circle of my journeyings, might turn out to be the most exciting one of all.
How sad that five years later she took her own life.