Monday musings on Australian literature: Introducing Charmian Clift

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.

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.