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Monday musings on Australian literature: Introducing Charmian Clift

August 12, 2019

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).

Nadia Wheatley, The life and myth of Charmian Clift, book coverIntriguing, 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)

Potted bio

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.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. August 12, 2019 11:55 pm

    How beautifully you have summarised her life. I was very interested in her writing and that of George, too – during the early to mid-1980s – and read most of their published writing. In 1988 my wife and I took a day trip out of Athens/Piraeus south to three islands including Hydra – where I did a quick climb up from the little harbour and port-side cafes – to the little square and the house where they lived – having just that day completed Gary KINNANE’s biography of George Johnston.

    • August 13, 2019 8:31 am

      Thanks Jim. That trip would have been lovely. The only Greek sland I’ve been to is Crete, which is a bit different! I haven’t read Kinnane either.

  2. August 13, 2019 12:04 am

    And further: The writing of Charmian CLIFT and George JOHNSTON – both from their time on Kalymnos – and their far longer time on Hydra – interested me from the early 1980s as I read Australian writers and the Greek connection – including Nance Donkin and Morris Lurie – writing from Angelo Loukakis. In 1988 my wife and I took a three island day cruise out of Piraeus – the final island being Hydra – where having just finished Gary KINNANE’s biography of George Johnston I leapt ashore (literally) and raced up the fill from the little Harbourside cafes and taverns to find the square and the house where George & Charmian and children had lived. You have written generously of a writer I have long respected – and I have read much of her writing as well as that of her husband – of Suzanne CHICK and Nadia WHEATLEY, too. Thanks.

    • August 13, 2019 8:39 am

      Interesting Jim. I read Australian writers with a Greek connection back then too, more late 80s, but mostly women who had married Greeks, like Beverley Farmer and Gillian Bouras.

  3. August 13, 2019 5:53 am

    “sometimes it looks very like cashing-in on private experience”: isn’t this what all writers do ?

    Gosh, ST, I do enjoy reading your reviews – of all kinds.

    • August 13, 2019 8:42 am

      Good point M-R, and it’s what gives life to writing often, I sent it? I think it depends on HOW you do it? I think columnists often get charged with this, more than other writers? I suspect they work to a fine line so etimes?

  4. August 13, 2019 10:17 am

    ‘Popularity despite an irritating style’, eh?
    For me, Clift was a writer I’d heard about somehow, but never read. I’m guessing this is because newspapers weren’t syndicated back then and she was published in Sydney papers not Melbourne ones. But equally it might have been because I didn’t read the ‘women’s pages’ except for Pamela Bone, (who makes Clift look like a lightweight).
    Anyway, when I read Clift’s collected column pieces in Trouble in Lotus Land, with its excellent into by Nadia Wheatley, I found them to be a mixed bag, understandable perhaps due to the pressure of having to deliver a regular column, ready or not. My review FWIW is here:
    https://anzlitlovers.com/2010/11/20/trouble-in-lotus-land-essays-1964-1967-by-charmian-clift/

    • August 13, 2019 10:43 am

      Yes, and I think, Lisa, we were probably not really reading those sorts of columns when she died, being still in our teens? I lived in Sydney and knew of her, and I’d read parts of the SMH, but mostly I was reading novels and textbooks!

      As I said in my post, I don’t thing it’s unusual for communists/newspaper feature writers to be a bit of a mixed bag because, as you say, the pressure of having to write a regular column. A bit like Monday Musings! Sometimes I just do more or less a list – of novels of some type, or of awards, or festivals. Not that I’m likening myself to Clift in any way (if only) but to the challenge of doing something so regular and the mixed bag result!!

      • August 13, 2019 11:35 am

        Well, all friendships aside, I don’t think you’re as uneven as she was…
        I did read the paper as a girl, though not always on the day it arrived in our house. The rule was that my mother got to read it first, i.e. pristine, which meant that didn’t happen until after dinner by which time we were expected to have adjourned to our bedrooms though not necessarily in bed. This was frustrating because I was keenly interested in current affairs, e.g. following the hanging of Robert Ryan through to the end. And I loved Pamela Bone because she seemed to be the only one who cared about The Rest of the World.
        I always had to rescue that paper before it was recycled for cleaning the shoes or wrapping up rubbish!

  5. August 13, 2019 1:08 pm

    Thanks for another very interesting post, Sue. As a side note to the Charmian Clift–George Johnston renaissance, they feature in Nick Broomfield’s documentary Marianne and Leonard, which screened at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. It’s a brief mention, but clearly from his perspective they were the hub of the gathering of artists and Bohemian on Hydra back in the day.

    • August 13, 2019 4:52 pm

      Thanks Jonathan. I’ll watch out for that documentary.

      Many years ago, I wrote briefly about the meeting between Cohen and Clift/Johnston on Hydra:

      “Cohen (25 at the time) met Johnston (48) and his writer wife, Charmian Clift, in Greece. Johnston and Clift let Cohen stay in their spare room. Cohen says “They drank more than other people, they wrote more … they helped a great deal. They were an inspiration”.

  6. Jim KABLE permalink
    August 13, 2019 4:40 pm

    You probably wondered why two similar postings? The first one did not pop up and I assumed it was a further case of my postings wandering off into the dark void. Then both appeared in order! I’m happy to note that you have read both Beverley Farmer and Gillian Bouras. The latter writes regular essays for the Jesuit social justice online journal Eureka Street – with warmth and humanity her trademark – I do recommend it. I found an article in a Women’s Weekly of 1983 in a pile at my mother-in-law’s place while idly leafing through for pieces I might use with my adult immigrant community classes in 1984! It was so beautifully and literarily constructed – the way in which a rural Greek village revolves around the seasons – and the life of its writer and family – from Melbourne – that it became a focus – indeed one of my elderly Greek learners – retired from a life of work took it upon herself to translate it into Greek – while imagining it as the opposite to her own immigrant life in Australia. I wrote to Gillian. We have been friends – not only penfriends – for 35 years now. I chose her memoir book – A Foreign Wife – for reading with one of my NSW HSC classes in the early 1990s and was able to persuade Gillian to visit my class. A huge impact on my students. She lives in Kalamata – of olives fame. A place where my step-father and fellow Aussie troops were taken off from as the German military raced down to that part of the Peloponnese in the back-and-forth dance of WWII.

    • August 13, 2019 5:01 pm

      Yes, I did wonder Jim, and guessed that maybe something like that had happened.

      How interesting about Gillian Bouras. As I recollect I read both A foreign wife, and A stranger here. I find these sorts of stories fascinating.

  7. Sara Dowse permalink
    August 15, 2019 8:38 am

    My understanding, though I don’t know where it came from – there’s so much material – is that Clift discovered she had cancer and that’s essentially why she took her life.

    • August 15, 2019 10:02 am

      That’s interesting Sara. I hadn’t heard that, but I haven’t read a lot in detail. Is it in Nadia Wheatley’s biography I wonder?

  8. August 24, 2019 6:20 pm

    So many comments…..about a great post!
    Catching up with your Monday Musings…on a lazy Saturday morning!
    I will look into Nadia Wheatley’s biography of CC.
    I’m gathering some book titles to read in 2020….once I finish
    the current TBR 2018… status: 3/63
    I’ve a long way to go!

    • August 25, 2019 10:10 am

      But you are doing it Nancy – and that’s impressive. I read about 3 TBR books a year, though I define TBR books as those I’ve owned more than twelve months (just to make a distinction between current reading and reading from the past.)

      • August 25, 2019 4:58 pm

        The only trouble is the ‘mood’ I was in when I bought the book I have to read on TBR 2018…is long gone. Sometimes I ask myself “why did I buy this?”
        But on the upside…I do discover some long forgotten jewels! 🙂

        • August 25, 2019 7:12 pm

          You’ll have to make a little pencil note in the book explaining why you bought it!

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