To celebrate our 75th birthday, we’re presenting exceptional works from Meanjin’s past that have defined and challenged Australian literary culture. Nettie Palmer was an Australian writer and critic who was a passionate supporter and contributor to Meanjin, along with her husband Vance Palmer. The following memoir by Esther Levy describes her ongoing friendship with Palmer, mainly through an ongoing exchange of letters.
In the beginning there was ‘Kilenna’, an old house in a Melbourne suburb, Malvern, with a sun-dappled garden. One of the friends of my youth had offered, with a slightly esoteric air, to take me to visit Nettie Palmer. ‘She writes’, he added, in a voice that had something of the solemn hush of death about it.
It was an afternoon late in Summer. Two small Palmer daughters wandered quietly but observingly in and out of the sunlit room. Apart from Nettie’s warm friendliness, even then there were barely perceptible things that made it seem a day and an hour to be remembered. Something of her own enthusiasms must have fallen like magic dust on my inexperienced shoulders for, suddenly, we were talking the same language. A few days later her first letter reached me. With occasional breaks, due to outside pressures and illness on both sides, the correspondence continued through the years from Kew, Kalonuna, Caloimdra, Green Island, London and back again to Kew. It ended with a pencilled note, undated and unsigned, in the autumn of 1964: ‘Have you, as I gather, kept most of my letters? You used to feel they were worth while to you. Must go to sleep. It’s 2 a.m.’ Did she in those last shadowy months feel that those who wanted to know her in the round must look for her in her letters? Was it here that she had said what she had most wanted to say?
Years before, when asked if she some day intended her letters to be published, Nettie said she found the idea painful. She then added that she wrote one kind of truth to one correspondent and a different kind to another, and that she could not write to either if it were for publication. But for all that she agreed she did, perhaps, write at her best in her letters. The reason for this, she said, was that she was always in such good company when she wrote a letter.
In those early days it had seemed to Nettie that ‘It might be worth while putting down very plain things remembered while you have time to explore your memory’. Perhaps even then she was plotting out chapter and verse for Fourteen Years, though it was not to appear until something like twenty years later.
Her letters rarely arrived to celebrate a festive occasion. In a sense they, too, were ‘plain’. There is no magpie darting after a pretty piece of glass here, or a gorgeous bead there. Steady and whole she went to the heart of the matter. She was serious, but this in no way damped the spark of her words or meaning. Often her neatly pointed comments would light a candle of understanding in strange new rooms. ‘I think you’d like Proust. He’s an experience’. Stephen Crane was by way of being extravagantly praised. ‘Crane’s chief meaning, though, was small enough’, she wrote. ‘In an evil period his plainness was like genius’.
Whatever the hazards might be Nettie never failed to look on herself as expendable. A posthumous book of Dowell O’Reilly’s had just been published and she was doing articles on it. This was partly to help his wife but also because she felt the pressure of local conditions had affected him so keenly that he had never been able to reach complete fulfilment. In the days between the two world wars she was continually battling to make the work of significant writers both at home and overseas known to readers who were suspicious, to say the least, of authors with a local habitation and without an overseas name. Sometimes even an editor could be delicately prodded into acknowledging the existence of a homegrown book that had been bypassed by his regular reviewer. And then audiences must be found for lectures with any bearing on the cultural background, past, present and to be. ‘I suppose I do take a good deal out of myself, but then so does everyone, and I’ve got so much happiness to counterbalance, which most people have not as far as I can see… . It’s so extraordinary for me to be ill that I don’t know the technique’. Every word is completely in character. For her, technique was no simple hardy annual in an ordinary cottage garden. It was something that could spread its roots and grow and even blossom towards the stars. It was not enough to have the best words in the best order one could possibly manage. ‘The theme must be fused in the mind… and the article must never read as if it were a cut down lecture “telling all you know”.’
With undeniable relish she quoted an editor who had told her he liked her work because she wore her scholarship lightly. But more than this goes into her letters to give them their enduring quality. Compassion is there for all, both high and low, who have the capacity to feel deeply and yet have works unconsummated. There is warm but undemanding friendship, there is also a pointed wit that never wounds and can swiftly turn the coat of a commonplace: ‘When she has new frills she looks as if she grew them like feathers’.
In 1927 the Palmers were living at Caloundra, a litrie north of Brisbane. There were no frills at Caloundra, for all its beauty. The need to write was more than ever urgent, and it became even more pressing as the country lurched uneasily into the Depression. Melbourne was then a grim and inhospitable city for a freelance. Nettie was now doing articles for The Brisbane Courier and Sunday Mail and a weekly literary causerie in The Illustrated Tasmanian Mail—something no Melbourne editor could be induced to publish. The necessity not only to find channels for her own output but to keep them open was an occupation in itself. She had many correspondents who, as she herself put it, needed her letters because they had so little else. At Caloundra the days were well filled. There were the odd tourists and the occasional visitor. They were heartened by a growing daughter, ‘sprite and comedian by turns’, and by her older sister who was not yet ‘barnacled with exams’ but later was to need guarding against overworking and undersleeping. At Christmas one friend brought infinite joy to the camp by the ocean with two Heifetz records of Debussy. As she wrote, the limpid air of The Girl With the Flaxen Hair floated across the beach. Altogether, life at Caloundra was peaceful and sufficiently varied: ‘I could make it sound like triumph, joie-de-vivre, corroborees:—show it as a mere hole-and-corner struggle for existence without aim or success’.
Vance Palmer had Separate Lives published in London in 1931, and a second edition followed. The question of writing of his work ‘with or without delicacy’ was always a thorny problem for Nettie. All the stories had been re-written and among them ‘Jettisoned’, she believed, ‘was as good as he could make it’. She always regretted that ‘The Married Woman’s Silence Act’ prevented her from criticising Vance’s work in her articles as she would have done had he been any other contemporary writer of the same standing. It was a pity the reading public could not know what the most perceptive critic in the country thought of his books for he was a great fore-runner in several fields. In the meantime her ‘Old Ulysses’ had returned from London. All cares for the time being slid away and there was rapture in reunion. ‘It was as if we had just met’, she wrote to a friend.
By 1932 the Palmers were at Green Island, a coral cay off Cairns, both working on books and reading Montaigne with gusto. Life there could be lyrical at times, but though it afforded some security it was no feather bed, for above the sound of the sea the ground-base of the hungry ‘thirties could always be heard.
Three novels were published by Vance in quick succession, and Nettie’s collection of essays, Talking It Over. A visit to Europe became a possibility and in February 1936 there was a letter from the less glamorous end of Bloomsbury. In it is a quick impression of the success and personal charm of Rebecca West and a glimpse of Jack Lindsay down in Devon preparing a significant anthology of Australian verse.
The Palmers had been lent a very old Tudor farmhouse cleverly equipped with all the amenities, by a friend of Vance’s earlier London days. It was in Sussex. Nettie found it very easy to write there but felt it was no place to settle into for a lifetime. ‘It would be like living in perfumed cotton-wool’, she wrote, and so they went back to London, under threat of war, and then home to Kew, Melbourne.
During the war years few of us had time for casual letter-writing. Besides, paper and envelopes were not always easy to come by. In August 1942 comes a letter from Brisbane where she was giving Commonwealth Literary Fund lectures: ‘The kernel of the University is in a really beautiful ex-Government House erected about 1860 but looking Georgian, with lovely inner courtyards (where they did a Morality Play lately), and a wide entrance hall like a hall for minstrels and music off. It was all incredibly romantic on a flowery spring day’. From Kew there is news of teaching at the Kindergarten Training College, another weekly class of English, this time for European refugees, a little lecturing in the country and an occasional radio talk. All the warmth of her approach to the art of merely living gives light to the letters she wrote in the midst of mounting outside pressures. Besides, there is a husband who must be specially taken care of after a bad bout of ‘flu; there is a relative whom she wishes could manage to be a little more ‘contemporary’; and then there is the matter of making over a frock for a special occasion—something about a ‘swishing’ skirt and a black velvet top—could I help?
In December 1943 came the breakdown which was followed by twenty years of battling with failing health and weariness, though her letters often speak with amazing vitality. ‘The problem of life for me’, she wrote, ‘has always boiled down to the problem of leisure to do what you really believe in and to put that first. I’ve never solved it at all’. Some months later she found herself appointed literary executor to Alice Henry. It may have been that at this time she had some kind of dim forewarning: ‘The truth is that I’m much too interested in people and my head begins sending out simultaneous express trains on their behalf.
Since her return from London Nettie had kept in close touch with Henry Handel Richardson, who with disaster on all sides, from her home in ‘Bomb Alley’, in Kent, was watching the sands run out. Nettie was preparing two Commonwealth Literary Fund lectures on HHR. They were difficult to plan because of the abundance of material. It was important that nothing should be left out, and yet there must not be too much plenty. When the time came for her to deliver the lectures she looked on them as a memorial to HHR. In a letter written in June 1946 she mentions the importance of such things to HHR’s executors, and ‘not only because Mahony was being filmed’. No more is said about how far this Mahony film progressed. Why was it scrapped, and had it ever reached the stage of naming director and cast? Unhappily, there is no further reference to it in the letters that follow.
For some time Nettie had been very much occupied in compiling Fourteen Years (The Meanjin Press, 1948), a book based on her journal from 1925 to 1939: ‘A sort of record of encounters and criticism: “Persons and Places” was the name, pro tem, but can you please think of a better one, and I’m doing that study on HHR after many interruptions and lately in conditions of acute anxiety’.
During this time of stress Nettie awoke one morning to find she could no longer use her right arm. This was in September 1948. She made some measure of recovery, though letter-writing, from now on, must have been something of a burden. But there was no retreat. Notes came from time to time, more and more difficult to decipher, suggesting meetings. ‘We’ve so much to talk over, left over from the past and crowding in on us from the future … . We’ve had some rather dickey years, lately, including Vance’s bad illness’.
Looking back through the years, I think it was in her letters that Nettie Palmer unlocked her heart. You find in them her passion for justice and all the integrity of an artist in the written word. Through them all runs a bright silken thread of humour, wit that never wounds, joy in seeing old simple things in a new way, and a rare capacity for finding enduring happiness in small things. It is she, herself, who tempts us to take for granted the amazing quality of her wide learning and her wisdom in so many widely scattered fields.
There must be more of these spendthrift letters with their many shapes of truths carefully put away in other people’s desks and treasure boxes. Surely they should be gathered together and shared before it is too late, so that those who come after will know the mettle of one of the most humane and sensitively perceptive writers of our time. After all, what wretched waste if these generous, gay and valiant letters of hers should be kept for the deep but exclusive delight of one reader…
Meanjin Volume 24 Issue 3 1965
The full Meanjin archive can be accessed at www.informit.com.au/meanjinbackfiles