In 1961 a woman who would soon be described condescendingly as a Hobart housewife and mother of four punctured one of Australia’s most monstrous egos. Her two acrostic sonnets, written under one of the male pseudonyms that she used because of her sense of how poetry by women was undervalued in Australia, was published in the Bulletin. To the petulant rage of its editor, Donald Horne, the pair of poems by ‘Walter Lehmann’, ‘Abelard to Eloise’ and ‘Eloise to Abelard’, had a contemporary satirical point for which the doomed medieval lovers had been enlisted. Read vertically, the initial letters of each line spelled out ‘so long Bulletin’ ‘fuck all editors’. Harwood’s first book of poetry, published by Angus & Robertson after unconscionable delays, did not appear until 1964. The Bulletin scandal is what she is perhaps still best remembered for, but her later achievements would lead Clive James at least, and gallantly, to proclaim Harwood as Australia’s finest twentieth-century poet.
Alison Hoddinott has been a ‘keeper of the flame’ for Harwood for more than half a century. With Gregory Kratzmann, she edited Harwood’s Collected Poems 1943–1995 (2003) and, on her own, the prize-winning Letters to Thomas Riddell 1943 (1990). Now she has edited one of the most pungent and engrossing collections of letters by any Australian writer, the mildly titled Idle Talk: Letters 1960–1964. In her Introduction Hoddinott explains that ‘these letters from Gwen Harwood were written to me and my husband Bill (WGH) between early 1960 and March 1964’. Many were on the back of what Harwood called Sappho cards, illustrations cut from Victorian and Edwardian books and magazines, a number of them reproduced here, with often mischievous captions. Hoddinott anticipates: ‘[Harwood] describes academic and social gatherings with a lively mixture of excitement and satire.’ Often as the letters declare Harwood’s hatred of Tasmania—‘this ugly charm flung in seas of slate’—and Hobart in particular, she was inspired to acerbic wit by the tight, fractious and talented scene that she found there.
Alison Hoddinott met Harwood in 1952. (Frank) Bill Harwood, Gwen’s husband, was Hoddinott’s MA supervisor. Poet, pianist, student of Wittgenstein, Gwen was also pregnant with twins, her third and fourth children. The family lived at 89 Augusta Road, New Town, near the Hoddinott family home in Mortimer Avenue. This was Hobart, after all. Hoddinott was one of the daughters of the lawyer cum long-serving Tasmanian Liberal senator Reginald Wright, who had acted for the University of Tasmania in the case against the dismissed professor of philosophy, Sydney Sparkes Orr. That furore, bitterly divisive within the university and the wider Australian academic community, is often central in Harwood’s correspondence. All of it collected here was addressed to Armidale, where Hoddinott’s Welsh-born husband Bill had taken a lectureship in English at the University of New England in 1960. This provincial town in northern New South Wales was the unlikely site of both Harwoods’ dreams of escape (never fulfilled) from Tasmania.
Time for a disclaimer: I knew many of the characters animated in Harwood’s letters, although from a few years later, after I began a BA at the University of Tasmania in 1968. I had met Gwen Harwood while I was at school, when she came to give a reading and had to confront a bumptious student with a copy of the famous Bulletin in his hand. Years later—at a University Literature Club poetry reading that she generously attended with Professor James McAuley—she recalled, ‘You were that little shit …’ Her husband had been one of my first-year lecturers. As his postgraduate student, Hoddinott had been tasked to ‘transcribe by hand the entire word list of the Concise Oxford Dictionary on file cards and to analyse the words in their syntactic functions and component parts’. Bill Harwood became increasingly occupied by ‘his attempts to formalise and computerise syntactic structures’. For first-year students this meant the mad enterprise of applying transformational grammar to sentences of Anglo-Saxon. McAuley, who was appointed to the Chair of English in October 1961, was pithy in later remarks to me: ‘he came here to lecture on the Romantic poets and instead he speaks a kind of moon language’. Yet Gwen Harwood’s love for her husband is clear, as when she reconciled herself to his absence abroad on study leave: ‘I hate widowhood and shall be personally embittered.’
The cast of characters whom Harwood assembled in her letters includes the academic and poet Vivian Smith and his wife Sybille, and other members of the English staff—Sandy Porteous (an Orr supporter in the throes of conversion to the Church of England), Ted Stokes (passed over for the chair that McAuley took) and Laurie Hergenhan (founder of Australian Literary Studies). There were wives as well: Pam Hergenhan, who assured Harwood that her Catholic-educated husband had ‘got all that nonsense out of his system now’, and ‘Mrs Jim, or Norma. A shapely urn of amorous delight’. There Harwood was cheekily quoting from McAuley’s laborious epic poem of Pacific exploration by the Catholic zealot of his title, Captain Quiros. McAuley at once captivated and puzzled those in the ambit of the English department. Harwood acidly remarked that ‘Vivian [Smith] is up for conversion, I should say … and is plainly in love with Jim’. Of the latter she wrote on 12 September 1961: ‘Jim McAuley has been to Melbourne. Plotting what, I don’t know.’ The visit was probably political, to B.A. Santamaria on the particular business of the Democratic Labor Party and the wider cause of anti-communism. That, however, was not the sort of politics in which Harwood was interested.
Visitors focused her keen eye. Of Vincent Buckley from the University of Melbourne she records herself as being ‘completely captivated by the Irish charm’, adding ‘and Bill didn’t like him at all’. Buckley knew the identity of the Bulletin hoaxer before she was revealed. After a ‘gibbering’ phone call from its acting poetry editor, Desmond O’Grady, Harwood decided ‘that shit-hawk Vincent Buckley sold me out to the Bulletin’. She supposed that he had done so to secure the poetry editorship and its five pounds a week for himself (which happened), but forgave him as he published her work under new aliases and took ‘to The Drink again’. Another mainland visitor in 1962 was Dr Leonie (Loony as Harwood dubbed her in advance) Kramer from Sydney University, who came to give a lecture at McAuley’s invitation. Harwood was entranced—‘she is beautiful, with ice-blue eyes that shine like jewels’—and she could afford a 30-guinea suit. On the relationship between Kramer and McAuley, she does not speculate.
McAuley she discovered to be ‘a great caller-in and stayer’. Thus while ‘we can’t help liking Jim … he costs us a fortune in drink, lunches and casual calls from our phone’. Harwood’s letters often reckon with domestic costs—for five tons of wood, school excursions, food, a new suit for him long delayed by ‘Bill’s parsimony’. There were also private school fees (with the Quakers at Friends), but neither for a long time a car nor a refrigerator. Hoddinott persuaded her that the latter would make life easier, when she opened the door of one that she had received as a present from her parents. Evidently Gwen Harwood won that argument, for the family had their own fridge within a week.
In the letters she adroitly shifts registers. She retails folk wisdom—‘as they say on the bus’; impales friends with similes—history lecturer Malcolm McRae ‘looked as mad as a bee’ or ventures loftier put-downs: ‘Webb–Buckley–Jones are a trinity who consider each other co-substantial and co-eternal, and the dullest of these is [poet and academic Evan] Jones’. Harwood is a master of vignettes, polished before their despatch to Armidale. These range from a dinner discussion about the metre of the hymnal with visiting British poet John Betjeman (who liked Tasmania so much he went twice), to an interrogation by the wife of the vice-chancellor, Mrs Isles, about the likelihood of Bill Harwood taking a job elsewhere: ‘“WE LOSE SO MANY OF OUR YOUNG MEN” (This last in a voice appropriate to the 1914 war)’. Very funny episodes are recounted, for instance when Harwood decided to take a job in the office of a Hobart ophthalmologist, and sad ones. On 8 February 1962 she wrote to Hoddinott that ‘the McAuleys have lost their baby’. Their sixth child had been born prematurely, but seemed to be doing well. Therefore ‘Jim then got on the telephone & began sending telephone messages & telegrams & birth notices madly in all directions’. Next morning McAuley appeared at breakfast: the child had died in the night. Later McAuley would recall this in ‘Pieta’, one of his finest poems: ‘One touch was all we had of you to keep … Clean wounds but terrible are those made by the Cross’.
Idle Talk comes with explanatory footnotes, whether for abstruse and foreign words or to identify the Tasmanian cast members, and brief introductions to the events of each year in which the letters were received. So much is packed into the book’s brief compass that it seems ungracious to ask for more, if not to wonder whether Hoddinott can gather the correspondence of later years as well. Harwood’s Hobart, for all her ambivalence, is depicted as a place of keen intellectual exchange, cosmopolitan tastes (among her circles), an openness to the world elsewhere. It is almost as if, by default and against her inclinations, Harwood was portraying the setting in which her art first truly thrived and that sustained it until her death, 30 years after the last of these letters.