Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian literary couples

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.

Andrea Goldsmith, Reunion

Andrea Goldsmith, Reunion bookcover

Reunion bookcover (Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia)

I wanted to love Andrea Goldsmith’s Reunion. And I expected to, as I remember enjoying the last book of hers that I read. But, somehow, I found it a bit of chore to read, though it did pick up towards the end. I think I understand why it was not listed for the 2010 Miles Franklin Award.

Friendships become swaddled in invisible protective layers and nothing short of a cataclysmic blow can break through to the inevitable stress points beneath.

The plot is fairly straightforward. Four university friends (three students, borderline baby-boomers and now in their mid-40s, and a lecturer, now around 60) find themselves all living in Melbourne again after some 2o years apart. All four had met in Melbourne, had moved together to England to continue studies and work, but had then gone their separate ways. At the beginning of the novel Jack, an academic and Islamic expert, is single and still in love with Ava; Ava, a novelist, is married to the unpopular Harry; Helen, a scientist, is a single parent; and Connie/Conrad, a philosophy lecturer, is on his third marriage but still philandering. Harry, who met them in England, is on the outer, but it is he who has engineered the reunion under the auspices of an organisation he has created, NOGA (Network of Global Australians).

The novel, then, is about this time of reunion: it explores who they are now, and the state of their relationships with each other. Sounds like the sort of thing that would interest me – Melbourne setting, characters with whom I would expect some level of identification, themes exploring love and friendship, and a writer whom I’ve enjoyed before. None of these, I should add, are essential for my reading enjoyment – I also like books set in exotic places and about very different characters – but familiarity often appeals too (doesn’t it?).

And yet, for me the book fell a little flat. It just didn’t feel quite original enough – in either ideas or language. It felt a little same-old-same-old. That said*, I found the characters interesting and convincing, although only one, Jack, changed in any significant way as the novel progressed. The narrative mode is multiple 3rd person subjective, with Jack’s perspective starting and ending it. It is told, chronologically, but with flashbacks to fill in the past. All this is well controlled and keeps the story moving nicely.

Goldsmith ranges across a lot of themes – love and friendship (of course); truth and fiction; secrets and memory; passion and obsession; modern communications; revenge and forgiveness; and science, ethics and politics. It is probably here that the novel palled most for me because many of these themes seem to go nowhere. Take the truth and fiction one. Those of you who read my blog know that I enjoy seeing this issue explored, but in this novel it’s raised, often with a nice level of irony, but is not really developed. For Ava, the novel writer, “there was no better vehicle for truth” than fiction, whereas for the scientist, Helen, “Ava’s work is only fiction – none of it is true”. Well, I thought, Goldsmith will unpack the ironies contained in these, but she doesn’t really. Perhaps that’s OK, perhaps it’s enough for us to notice them, but I wanted more.

At other times, the themes seem more like the author’s soapbox than ideas fully integrated into the story, albeit that the characters are her mouthpieces. Here, for example, is Jack expressing a rather stereotyped view of modern communication:

Whenever Jack looked back to his university experience and compared it with today’s university student life, so much seemed to have changed – even friendship itself. Without computers and mobile phones, face-to-face communication ruled the day.

The implication is that modern friendships are somehow less meaningful, but what does he really know and, further, what does the novel show us about it? Nothing really. Similarly, Helen rages about political interference in science, but the issue, while valid enough, seems a little fabricated in the context of the novel.

There are some funny set pieces, such as the young television make-up artist trying to hide Connie’s aging neck. Goldsmith does irony well – something I, as a Jane Austen aficionado, rather enjoy – and she peppers the novel with a lot of effective literary allusions – to Waugh, Wharton, James, and others. Moreover, there are some lovely descriptions, such as this one on Ava’s discomfort during her first weeks in England: “It was like being stranded on a sheet of clear glass with nothing but blackness underneath”. I’m not sure why I like this, but I do.

I’ve struggled to write this review, really, because there are things to like about this book. I decided to do a quick review of reviews out there and what I mostly found were positive reviews that each had some little reservation: “despite that minor misgiving”, “a rich and at times frustrating novel”, “despite a few stylistic glitches”, and “the novel was marred but not spoiled for me by …”. None though explored these reservations in any depth.

And so, rather than labour any more, I will close with the words of Helen’s teenage son, Luke. He says, in that simple, direct way that the young can do:

The truth can hurt. But that doesn’t make it less right.

The final irony is that Harry is hurt by a truth – but the truth he is hurt by and the real truth of the matter are two quite different things. And that, in the end, made the novel an interesting if not totally engaging read.

For a more positive perspective on this novel, check out Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers.

Andrea Goldsmith
London: Fourth Estate, 2009
ISBN: 9780732287832

*See my previous post on words to avoid!