Monday musings on Australian literature: A view from 1930

Today, another post in my occasional series of posts about Australian literature from the 1920s to the 1940s, this one featuring two critics of the time, HM Green (1881-1962) and Nettie Palmer (1885-1964).

To do this, I’m using, primarily, a 1930 review in The Adelaide Advertiser of HM Green’s book, An outline of Australian literature, and a 1930 article the The West Australian by Nettie Palmer on the sudden flowering of the Australian novel. Both articles offer a brief survey of the Australian novel to date, with Palmer’s providing an update on “now”.

Green

The Advertiser’s reviewer notes that Green’s work is “admirably done”, and “covers all noteworthy ‘creative literature’—verse, prose, fiction, plays, and essays—from the earliest date to two years ago”. S/he goes on to name the works Green admires (with, given the paper’s location, a special reference to South Australia). The reviewer identifies two South Australian-relevant writers. One is Mrs Aeneas Gun’s We of the Never Never, which, Green admits, is “void of plot as are the lives of most people” but which, our reviewer says, is “one of the most popular of Australian books, perhaps because the lives of most people have so much in common with those of its characters”. The other is new to me, William Hay. Green has criticisms, but he also allows The escape of Sir William Heans to be “one of the most notable novels Australia has produced”. Our reviewer believes the same praise could be applied to Hay’s “fine story of the convict days” Herridge of Reality Swamp

Tasma, Uncle Piper of Piper's Hill

After this, the only writers our reviewer mentions from Green’s book are women, starting with Rosa Praed, Tasma, and Ada Cambridge. S/he writes that “in spite of the pains [they] lavished on their work, they are probably to the present generation not much more than names”. Green apparently wrote that Cambridge was in “some respects, ahead of her time, and though many of her advanced opinions have now been accepted, we are not quite ready for all even yet.” Our reviewer continues that Cambridge’s ability to feel “so poignantly the wrongs of the world enabled her, as the author [Green] says, to pierce deeper into the heart of humanity than most Australian writers have done”.

Our reviewer concludes with a whole paragraph on Catherine Helen Spence who, s/he writes, “bears a name not so conspicuous as it ought to be in Australian literature”, primarily because of her political activity. However, s/he writes ‘so competent a literary judge as the late Chief Justice Way … paid her the compliment … of describing her writings on proportional representation as “real literature for their terseness, strength, and brilliancy”.’ Green also praises Spence’s work:

The first and best, Clara Morrison [sic], written in the fifties, has, like the rest, been out of print undeservedly, if its merits are as great as Mr. Green says. It does not always follow that an omnivorous reader is a master of the pen; but Miss Spence was one of the best read women of her day, and as a novelist learned her craft from the greatest writers of her own sex in the nineteenth century, and had intelligence enough to perceive their faults and steer clear of them.

Unfortunately, my understanding of Green’s view is rather limited, here, so please just treat this as a taster. I’ll return to him again one day, because his was an important voice at the time.

Palmer

Palmer argues in her article that until the early 1920s, “the novel in Australia was a matter for apology”, but that there had recently been unexpected advances – in “the right direction”. 

She then does a bit of a recap starting with the early novels, of which only a few were still in circulation, including:

obviously, Clarke’s Term of his natural life and Boldrewood’s Robbery under arms, less obviously, some novels by Mrs. Campbell Praed, ‘Tasma’ and Ada Cambridge.

She then makes the interesting comment that there were others “with considerable power and importance” but they “were hardly novels in form”, like Tom Collins’ “remarkable omnium gatherum of the Riverina in the ‘eighties, Such is life“, and “such of Lawson’s short stories as were lightly linked together by their theme”.

Then come more women, with, around 1900, Miles Franklin’s “vivid, sardonic yet girlish confession, My brilliant career“, Barbara Baynton’s “painful, remorseless Human toll“, and a bit later, Katharine Prichard’s Pioneers (my review), followed by her “much more serious and original book, Black opal in 1920″, which had, to the time of writing, “never been well distributed and recognised”. There was not much else “except for commercial novels that were without roots either in the soil of Australia or in that of art”. 

Palmer never pulled any punches! She continued, “looking round us we saw, on the whole, desert”. The causes were clear, a major one being authors depending on “English publishers who naturally preferred to please English readers by giving them no Australian books except those showing, Australia as another America, a wild-west in which an English hero (magazine type) would have monstrous, adventures showing the superior prowess of his race”. The results was that

authors who desired to write simply and truly, of life in Australia as they knew it were hampered, to the point of paralysis, by a sense of hostility. No one wanted their books in advance. No one wants any new art form, handling new subject matter, until it has come into existence — and often not then!

But, she argues, things were starting to change by 1924. The first volume of Henry Handel Richardson‘s “great trilogy” (Australia felix) had appeared in 1917, but the second, The way home, was published in 1925. However, it received little notice in Australia, as “the air was not kindly yet to a genuine work”. However, soon after, Katharine Prichard’s “Working Bullocks, radiant, with awareness of the timber country and its challenging beauty” came out. Its “artistic ‘seriousness'”, she said, “made it more possible for other serious books to be recognised in Australia; and this has actually come about”.

These new novels included Martin Mills’ The Montforts, Vance Palmer’s psychological study The Man Hamilton, and the third volume of Henry Handel Richardson’s trilogy, Ultima Thule, which she described as having “deep literary significance”. A “particularly responsible London critic” called it a masterpiece, and she praised it herself, as being “symphonic in form, with sustained, and developed themes”. The trilogy was received so well by “serious readers in England, the Continent and America”, she felt, that it raised the status of Australian literature.

Book cover

But there’s more! Richard Mahony typified “the misfit”, but types of characters were also appearing, such as “pioneers who could take what advantages there were in the new world about them”. M. Barnard. Eldershaw’s A house is built features such a character. She also praises Brent of Bin Bin’s Up the country and Ten Creeks Run, which contain complex, full lives. And she makes the point I quoted a couple of months ago, about the lack of exploration of “aboriginal life of Australia” and Prichard’s Coonardoo.

Conclusions

So, did Green and Palmer agree about Australian fiction to that point? To some degree – particularly regarding those turn of the century women writers – but I did only read a review of Green (not Green himself) as Bill (The Australian Legend has). Also, Green’s book is a more encyclopaedic one about Australian literature while Palmer’s article focuses specifically on the novel.

Touchstone in his review of Green’s Outline in Melbourne’s The Herald shares Green’s assessment of what’s characteristic of Australian versus overseas literature:

“an independence of spirit, a kind of humorous disillusion, a careless willingness to take a risk, a slightly sardonic good nature and a certain underlying hardness of texture,” but, “in all but the best of it there is a lack of intellectual content, as compared, with work of similar level overseas.” 

This last point is, I think, where Palmer was seeing change in the mid-1920s, which is about when Green’s work finishes. Palmer concluded, with some relief it seems, that “we begin to have books that we can send abroad as our contribution to the literary world in the important form of the novel, the development of character by narrative”.

Note: Bill, Lisa and others have reviewed many of the books listed here. Please check their blogs if you are interested.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Nettie Palmer on “Our Own Writers”

Today, I’m going to return to writing about early twentieth century Australian literature. Last year I wrote several Monday Musings on the topic, including two (Part 1 and Part 2) based on an article written by Nettie Palmer in 1927. Today’s post draws from an article Palmer wrote in 1935. It covers some similar ground, but from a different perspective. In that earlier article, Palmer shared the titles of novels that she believed were Australia’s best, commencing with the statement that only a small number of good novels had been published in Australia. In this article, written eight years later, she argues that the Australian novel has arrived.

I was intrigued by her confirmation of an observation I made last year that poetry had the ascendancy in Australian literature. She wrote in her typically direct way:

Furphy, Lawson, Barbara Baynton — a few names of story writers stood out like islands in an ocean of balladry.

Oh dear, but she’s right! (Interesting that she used last names for the male writers, and full name for the female.) She argues that there were a few reasons for this, one being that Australia didn’t have an established publishing industry. A poet, she explains, can get published in a journal and can then pretty much self-publish a collection of his/her works. “The publishing of poetry”, she writes, “can be an amateur matter”. Again I love her language:

It costs less to produce, in the usual small edition, the comparatively few words of a poet, stringing down the page like a small mob of cattle, than to publish the sixty, eighty or a hundred thousand words of a novel, and to put that novel into effective circulation.

Palmer was better known for her literary criticism than for her creative output, but she does have a lovely turn of phrase!

That is the main practical (or “external” as she puts it) reason. The other main reason relates to the form itself, and its development in Australia. She writes of Australia being in the “age of discovery”, novel-wise, the “age” that Russia was, perhaps, at the time of Gogol and Goncharov, and America at the time of Fenimore Cooper. She names some Australian novels (of which more anon), and argues that

Those of our novelists whose books are something more than imitative commercial products have had to write without models, and to descry their own patterns of life in this chaos; their work has indeed been

“All carved out of the carver’s brain.”

Attempting what had not been touched before they had to be original or perish and they have not perished.

The author who most established the novel in Australia, she says, was Henry Handel Richardson, with her trilogy The fortunes of Richard Mahony. She, Palmer writes, managed to break free of “the ‘colonial’ attitude” and “the conventional formula of the happy ending” that had been rife in the 1890s with writers like Rolf Boldrewood. She says that

… the existence of the Mahony trilogy had made publishers less reluctant to handle Australian books of literary quality, and readers less automatic in their demand for a happy ending at all costs.

The happy ending, eh? It’s still with us to some degree isn’t it? Anyhow, she continues:

It used to be assumed, at least by publishers, that an Australian novel would give its characters plenty of “out-west”, but no complex adventures of the spirit. That we are just beginning to live that down is due largely to the world-wide respect for H.H. Richardson, who … though it worthwhile to give 15 years to the construction of a novel on Australia’s major historical problem — that of the immigrant in all his resistances, faced by this new country in all its early crudities.

Have we finished with this topic, I wonder? I don’t think so, but it has become more complex and just as worthy of novelistic exploration, from the settler (past and recent) and indigenous points of view.

Anyhow, now to the names of the writers she identifies as moving the Australian novel on. One is Katharine Susannah Prichard (whose The pioneers I have reviewed). Palmer describes Prichard’s “literary courage” and praises the quality of Prichard’s writing, in books like Working bullocks and Haxby’s circus. She argues that

to suggest as Professor Hancock did some time ago that Miss Prichard has merely covered our geography with descriptive writing is to miss her fathomless and unfailing human sympathy.

Having read two books by Prichard, I agree with Palmer. Is there a gender issue here I wonder in Hancock’s dismissal? (I don’t know Hancock so won’t take this further now, but you can’t help wondering.)

Other writers Palmer mentions are Frank Dalby Davison and his novel Man-shy (which I read in first year high school and which I’ve been keen in recent years to read again), the collaborative author M. Barnard Eldershaw and their novel A house is built, and an author I’m not familiar with, Leonard Mann, and his war novel Flesh in armour. This book she says “in itself would justify that we were now adult” for “his fearless adherence to invigorating fact and his few passages of lyrical ecstasy”. Wow, I think I need to check out Mann.

She concludes by arguing that she doesn’t think poetry should yield its territory to prose but that “the production of imaginative prose literature is necessary to any country today”. Fair enough – we need all the arts to be strong and healthy for us to be an “adult” nation.

Monday musings on Australian literature: The novel in Australia, 1927-style, Part 2

Today’s Monday Musings is Part 2 of my two post series discussing Nettie Palmer‘s article, “The novel in Australia”, that was published in The Brisbane Courier, 15 October 1927.

As I did in last week’s post, I’ll use her headings to share her view on Australia’s great novels.

A novelist abroad

Here she discusses Australian writers who wrote their novels while living overseas, Australians being, as we know, good travellers. It’s no surprise that her choice of the best known novel written while its writer was abroad is Henry Handel Richardson’sMaurice Guest (1909), which is a “brilliant story of music-student life in the Leipzig of the ‘nineties”. (This is another languisher on my TBR pile).

Palmer then tells us about Richardson’s Australian trilogy, The fortunes of Richard Mahoney, which she wrote mostly from her home in England though she “revisited Australia about 1912 to verify impressions”. Palmer’s article was written before the third book in the trilogy was published, but here she is on the first two:

The writer’s knowledge of the period – costumes, food, and customs – is immense but the “Fortunes” is never a mere costume novel: there is character all through. All Henry Handel Richardson’s novels, even those whose setting is wholly Australian, are better known in Europe than here, and are discussed at length in German and Scandinavian literary encyclopaedias and reviews. In America too, they have received deep attention. Victoria is fortunate to have found such a chronicler, more fortunate than it knows yet [my emphasis].

Cultural cringe, or because Richardson was based overseas? Whatever the reason, recognition of her work did increase through the century. The Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on Richardson, written in 1988, discusses her reputation briefly, and touches on the unevenness of her reputation – overseas and in Australia.

Contemporary novels

Palmer concludes her article by looking at contemporary (to the late 1920s, that is) novels, and names a few she deems significant.

Katharine Susannah Prichard

Prichard, 1927/8 (Courtesy: State Library of NSW, via Wikimedia Commons)

Katherine Susannah Prichard’s works, she says, “are the fruit of an intense devotion to her subject matter. Her gifts are mainly two: first, that of brilliant impressionism, then a rare power of writing group-scenes.” In Black Opal, for example, the opal miners are “standing about chaffing each other and discussing the universe, every man of them alive”. She says there are similarly vivid scenes of groups of timber-getters in Working Bullocks. “Such scenes”, she says, “are too difficult for most novelists, who shirk them: yet they enrich a book immensely and the reader feels that our everyday life is full of unsuspected charm”.

Palmer then writes something rather strange (to me anyhow). She comments that each of Prichard’s books is located in a different place – the tall-timbers of South-east Victoria (presumably The pioneers, which I’ve reviewed), the opal fields of Western New South Wales, and the saw-milling country in the south of Western Australia. She says:

(Reading over this list of regions I can only feel how wretchedly inconvenient our Australian names are: a mere mention of latitude and longitude! Are we too big to think about? It will take many years for many of our names to become easy and vivid.)

What does she mean? Those names are purely geographical descriptions. The pioneers is, yes, set in south-east Victoria but this region does have a name – Gippsland – which it has had since the nineteenth century. I don’t think I’m on Palmer’s wavelength here at all.

Anyhow she concludes this section with the statement that there’s “little space left for some recent Queensland books” (because, of course, The Brisbane Courier is a Queensland newspaper). She names Zora Cross, whose books “put on record the changing years of a South Queensland [ha!] district” and M. Forrest, whose novels “have that special quality which readers of her verse would expect – a power of painting in words the rich details of Queensland’s unexplored landscapes”.

Conclusion

As I read this article I pondered what criteria Palmer was using to define quality novels. Good characterisation, meaningful realism (if that makes sense), and a capturing of Australian identity seem to be what she was looking for. Fortunately, she has a go at answering this question herself in her last two paragraphs.

Firstly, she says that:

the most satisfactory definition of a good novel seems “the revelation of character through narrative,” but the character need not be only human. There is also the character of a country.

She then suggests that good novels break new ground, with the author “giving part of himself away, revealing his personal vision of ‘men, coming and going on the earth'”. On this point of innovation, she quotes Randolph Bedford, who appeared in Part 1 and who, she says, satirised the idea that “the average publisher loves words written to a formula, to please a reading public which dislikes anything new”. Bedford apparently said of this public:

It loves to read some old friend it recognises, so it can say, “How original it must be, because I know it so well”.

Oh dear. Have things changed do you think?

Palmer then presents her own definition of “a more genuine kind of originality” – and it’s to do with the difficulty of making “Australian life and character their theme”. She concludes:

Some day, when a novel about life in Indooroopilly seems as natural as one about Piccadilly, we shall thank those who turned the first sods so fruitfully.

So there it is really. The cultural cringe. This I think has changed.

* Wikipedia tells us she was Iris Murdoch’s second cousin twice removed. A remote relation, perhaps, but interesting nonetheless!

Monday musings on Australian literature: The novel in Australia, 1927-style, Part 1

Nettie Palmer was one of Australia’s leading literary critics, not to mention essayist and poet, through the 1920s to 1940s. I have mentioned her several times in this blog, including in my post on Australia’s literary couples. She also mentored younger women writers such as Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw. However, what I want to discuss today – and next week – is the article she wrote in 1927, about “The novel in Australia”. It was published in The Brisbane Courier, 15 October 1927.

She starts by commenting that the number of “good novels written in Australia has been small”. There are reasons for this she says but discussing those is not her aim in this article. Rather, her plan is to reduce her list of “good” Australian novels to just the best. The result “is a nugget of surprisingly high quality”. And now my plan is to share with you those nuggets that she defined for her readers back in 1927. It makes for interesting and sometimes surprising reading. Here goes, using the headings she did.

Some early nuggets

She names two.

Thomas Alexander Browne (aka Rolf Boldrewood) (Public Domain from the National library of Australia, via Wikipedia)

Thomas Alexander Browne (aka Rolf Boldrewood), by Henry Walter Barnett (Public Domain from the NLA, via Wikipedia)

Henry Kingsley’s Geoffrey Hamlyn (1859), which is a book I have in my TBR and would love to find time to read. I’m not sure I had heard of it until a few years ago but it keeps popping up in unusual places which has piqued my interest. It has, Palmer says, without elaborating, “a very colonial outlook”.

Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery under arms (1882), which I defy any self-respecting Australian to say they haven’t heard of (though I suspect many of us haven’t read it!). She does elaborate over one and a half paragraphs on this one! She writes that, despite its “truculent title”:

It is one of those rare books that can please on several different counts – as an adventure story, as a sketched historical background, and as a sons psychological novel.

I love that she praises it for its “fine and unexaggerated vernacular, without dropped aitches or other irritating apostrophes to spot its pages”. She sees it as a model for good novels in Australia.

Some successors

Palmer then says that it was a “long time before the simplicity and naturalness of that book was again reached”, but eventually some more nuggets appear.

Marcus Clarke’s For the term of his natural life (1870), but she does not elaborate.

Mrs Campbell Praed’s (or Rosa Praed as I know and have read her) “easy flowing books now almost forgotten” (1890s). Books being forgotten is, clearly, an age-old problem! Anyhow, she names one, which I haven’t read, Longleat of Koralbyn.Wikipedia tells us that it  was first published in 1881 under the exciting (my description!) title of Policy and passion! No wonder it was republished under a different title. I have read Praed’s rather raw The bonds of wedlock (1887). I laughed at Palmer’s comment that Praed’s books are set in Queensland but “the writer shirks the whole problem of making her Queensland live in the readers’ sight”. That could mean a number of things – but the important thing, I suppose, is that she likes Praed’s writing!

Then, though her subject is novels, she mentions short story writers, naming Louis Becke, Price Warung (whose stories I’ve reviewed), Henry Lawson and Albert Dorrington.

She concludes this section with the following:

For many years it has seemed that only short stories would ever be published again (and those only in fugitive form): any novels that appear have had every sort of circumstantial opposition to overcome.

Fugitive form? Does she mean in magazines (like The Bulletin, established in 1880) and newspapers rather than something more permanent like books? I suspect her comment about the difficulty of getting novels published is not totally incomprehensible to writers today?

Novels after 1900

Her choice of novels from the early twentieth century includes a couple of authors I don’t know. Regular readers here will recognise which ones they are by not having seen them mentioned here!

First up, of course, is Miles Franklin’s My brilliant career which she describes as a “bit of ironic auto-biography, set in an up-country township of the drearier sort”. Palmer, from the point of view of 1927, hopes that “some day she [Franklin] will be able to repeat her early success, looking through the opposite end of life’s telescope”. Franklin did achieve fictional success again, in the late 1930s, with All that swagger.

She then names Randolph Bedford’s – quick quiz question: have you heard him mentioned here? – two novels. True eyes and the whirlwind (1903) and The snare of strength (1905). (Don’t you love these titles?) Palmer describes the first as “a novel of the picaresque style, a useful type for expressing the nomadic youth spent by many Australians before they find their life’s work”. Interesting. I hadn’t quite realised just how far back the idea of Australians as travellers extends, but it reminded me that Patrick White spent time jackarooing in Australia, in the 1920s, and travelling overseas as he sought a place for himself in the world. Overall, she says, Bedford’s work “is never without a fine gusto”. Sounds worth checking out.

I’m pleased to see that she also includes in her list, Barbara Baynton and her novel The human toll (1907) which, she says “had a strong, if acrid life of its own … full of bush tragedy”. That’s our Baynton!

And finally, in this group, she names Louis Stone’s Jonah, “a Sydney story of young larrikins, done with sincerity”.

Palmer ends this section with a cry that is surely universal:

Out-of-print, out-of-print – that is what one has to lament about all these books! Many novels deserve to die in their year of birth, but what of those that have permanent quality? We can only beg for new editions.

I will conclude my discussion of her article in next week’s Monday Musings.

Nettie Palmer on short stories

In a recent Monday Musings I mentioned Nettie Palmer who was part of one of Australia’s famous literary couples. Her husband, Vance Palmer, wrote, in the late 1930s to early 1940s, a regular column for the ABC Weekly published by the then Australian Broadcasting Commission. Nettie Palmer also contributed to this paper, albeit less regularly. One of these contributions is a discussion, in 1943, of Australian and Russian short stories. In it she made a simple but clear statement on what she believes is essential to a good story:

What is a story without the power to see what matters to people, to detect the character’s most revealing moment? A sense of life is something more than mere narrative, or a knack for inventing a scene.

This appeals to me because of her focus on meaning and character rather than on plot … and I like the way she hones in on “the character’s most revealing moment”. When I think about it, the best short stories do tend to centre on just that, a moment (an action, a decision, an event) in which the character’s self is revealed to us. I think of Guy de Maupassant‘s “The necklace”, Kate Chopin‘s “Désireé’s baby” and Henry Lawson’s “The drover’s wife”. In these stories, the main characters are confronted by a challenge to their sense of being … and how each responds tells us much about who they are, and we, in contemplating their reactions, learn a bit more, perhaps, about who we are.

Does this definition of a good story hold for longer fiction too?

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.