State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 83 May 2009


John Barnes
Remembering the Palmers

Nettie Palmer in 1958.
Photographer unknown. Copy supplied by John Barnes.

In My youth Vance and Nettie Palmer seemed to me to have an almost totemic significance in Australian literary life. I could hardly believe my good fortune in getting to know them and to have their friendship at a time when my only claim to be noticed was that I was full of enthusiasm (not wholly undiscriminating) for Australian writing.
Vance Palmer started to loom large in my consciousness in my last year at a Victorian country high school. His National Portraits was one of the major references for the Australian history course, and his warmly sympathetic character sketches of historical figures had an immediate appeal. That same year I discovered Meanjin Papers in the town library: merely curious at first, I had picked up a copy with the blue cover on which four white footprints appeared – it was the 1946 Summer issue – and I still remember the delight with which I read Vance's story, ‘The Foal’. Until then my knowledge of the Australian literary world had come from weekly reading of the Red Page of the Bulletin. Now I came under the influence of the Meanjin view of Australian writing, in which the Palmers – primarily Vance, with Nettie as a sort of handmaid – held a central place. Reinforcing this view was the impression I gained from the newspapers that he was a spokesman for Australian writers. Then there were his Sunday morning book reviews of ‘Current Books Worth Reading’ on ABC radio. I was familiar with that distinctive, dry voice and that careful, considered tone for some years before seeing Vance at a meeting of the Literature Club at Melbourne University some time in 1951.
Apart from the annual Commonwealth Literary Fund lectures, Australian literature was not taught on campus, but there was animated discussion of local writing among students. The 10th Birthday Number of Meanjin (containing Arthur Phillips's ‘The Cultural Cringe’) had appeared at the end of 1950. Hugh Anderson was contributing articles on Australian writers to the student weekly, Farrago; and another talented student enthusiast, Bruce Muirden, had started his own little magazine, Austrovert. Vance's talk to the student club was on the emergence of an Australian tradition, familiar enough ground to anyone who read Meanjin. I recall that Geoff Serle, already a campus identity known for his teaching of Australian history, was present in the audience, and I was surprised that he appeared to have to introduce himself (or perhaps re-introduce himself) to the speaker.
Then in his mid-sixties, Vance Palmer was a physically attractive man. I could not improve upon a description given by his friend, Frank Dalby Davison, in an article published in Walkabout (1 August 1950):
Appearance? A figure of medium height and build, clad except on formal occasions in fresh-looking sports clothes – in invariably brown tonings – usually with a blue shirt and a bow tie, and crowned with a dark velour hat, the brim tipped up a little behind and down a shade at one side. Add a walking stick to the crook of the left elbow, a curly
pipe to the mouth, and a peep of coloured handkerchief to the breast pocket and you have him as you might see him come walking down the street. As he came close you would notice bright blue eyes and a deeply tanned skin.
He had no hat or walking stick at the Literature Club, and I cannot be sure about the pipe (which I recall very well in photographs).
At the end of the evening I spoke to him about Joseph Furphy on whom I was writing my honours long essay. He was courteous but did not seem much interested in what I was saying. I was a little disappointed – and had no expectations of further meetings. Later, when I had been taken in hand by Nettie, who was so adept at keeping friendship in repair, I came to recognize that, even when he welcomed you as a friend, he never gave the impression of coming out to meet you, as it were. There always seemed to be some distance, some withholding of himself, as if he felt the need to keep something in reserve.
When Vance died in July 1959 I was in Perth, teaching at the University of Western Australia. I had never been closer to both Vance and Nettie than at the beginning of that year. I had spent the summer back in Melbourne and both of them had come with the Davisons to a party given by my friends in the Melbourne English Department just before I returned to Perth. On hearing the news I felt such a sense of personal loss that I wrote in one of my notebooks a highly emotional record of my feelings and memories, which was a sort of eulogy for Vance. In setting down my affection and respect for the man, I could not help registering as a defining characteristic that reserve which I had encountered at our first meeting: ‘Vance defended his secret self against the pressures of the world’, I wrote. Looking at the Palmer Number of Meanjin the other day, I noticed that in his valedictory at Vance's funeral Arthur Phillips, who knew him as well as anyone, said something similar: ‘And yet, for all their full giving, his eyes seemed to guard a secret life of the imagination and the spirit’. (It was only after I had written these recollections that I came across Dora Birtles’ unsympathetic description of him in her travel book, A Journal of a Voyage: north-west by north (1935), as having ‘built a fortress for his soul to dwell in’. Later still, looking through letters I had from Clem Christesen, I found him summing Vance up soon after his death as ‘A strange, diffident, “close” sort of man’ [15 September 1959]).
Not long before I returned to Perth, I was invited to dinner at ‘Ardmore’, the Palmer home in Kew. (All my previous visits to the house had been to afternoon tea with Nettie, Vance sometimes making an appearance.) In a typically Australian move, at the end of the meal Nettie insisted that I talk with Vance (about whom I was to write an essay for Meanjin) while she and the other guest – artist Kathleen McArthur – washed the dishes. In the note I wrote at the time of his death I recollected some of the things that he had told me. One moment stayed vividly in my memory:
I now remember that he was talking about the intimate essays he was writing. ‘I find it hard to write about the things that have affected me deeply’, he said. He had recently revisited his old school (Ipswich), and this has recalled a master, a homosexual, who had murdered a boy. Vance told the story of the dismissed master who had walked to
Brisbane with his companion, a lame boy, I think. He was agitated, and it was obvious that the whole business represented a shadow on his youth.
I could understand his feeling, but it seemed odd coming from a creative writer. On this occasion or some other he remarked, almost apologetically, ‘I don't like turning myself inside out’. The relationship between a writer's personality and his writing is a subject requiring considerable tact on the critic's part, and one should be careful not to jump to conclusions; but, much as I have admired Vance's quiet restraint, I have always felt that his deep-seated aversion to displays of personal emotion and self-revelation has a direct bearing on the limitations of his fiction. Certainly, it had a bearing on his personal relationships.
Vance and Nettie were a team, and in essays and lectures they presented a view of Australian literature in which the democratic tradition exemplified in the writing of Lawson and Furphy was the central creative stream. Yet, for all that they shared, they were very different personalities, and the differences showed up, not only in their relationships with others but also when presenting essentially the same arguments in their literary essays and talks. This struck me when I first heard Nettie lecture and before I had read any of her writing.
When I completed my university studies in 1951, the only jobs going for Arts graduates were in the Public Service. I was appointed to Navy Office and went to work at Albert Park Barracks. After finishing work – clocking off time was six minutes past five o'clock exactly – I often took the tram up to the Public Library or the University to spend a few hours reading or going to lectures and plays on campus. In 1952 the annual Commonwealth Literary Fund lectures were given by Vance and Nettie, along with Flora Eldershaw – there may have been other later speakers whom I have forgotten.
In their lectures Vance and Nettie presented the interpretation of Australian writing that is developed in Vance's The Legend of the Nineties (1954). I heard Nettie speak on Lawson and Paterson, and on going home that night, wrote down some thoughts about the lecture, beginning with a note on the lecturer:
Mrs Palmer was a surprise; she wore her hat (a rather old style) and a black fur during the lecture, and seemed herself to be a reminder of the period she was discussing. She is of medium build, and has a plain, somewhat severe face, though full of character. She impresses as a charming and dignified woman, whose life has been enriched through literature. I think Mrs Palmer has far more scholarship than Vance and is a more discerning and more articulate critic. At times during the lecture she assumed unconsciously the attitudes of a school marm, but I do not think she has ever taught. [2 July 1952]
When I unearthed this note recently I was surprised that I had made such an acute judgment at a first encounter.
Nettie was less colourful, less immediately attractive than Vance. In my memory she always seems to be dressed in brown, her manner a little intense, with none of the bohemian ease that Vance's dress and manner suggested. Nettie's severe expression implied great self-
control and seriousness of intention. I do not know her medical history, but I suspect that by the time I first saw her she was battling infirmity, although she was still very active, leading a full life as writer and speaker. She was an effective speaker and conversationalist, quick at repartee, her face lighting up at a witty exchange, as I discovered on getting to know her.
My closer association began in 1955, by which time I was in my third year as a tutor in English. The 1952 CLF lectures had turned out to be a turning point in my life: after Flora Eldershaw's lecture I was invited for drinks in the English Department, and the Acting Head, Keith Macartney, asked me if I would be interested in a tutorship the following year. That was how appointments were made in the days of the ‘god-professor’! Through Vin Buckley, then a tutor, I met Clem Christesen, who encouraged me to go on with the Master's thesis on Furphy I was writing, though Vin thought that if I wanted to have an academic career I should choose a non-Australian topic. I got to know Nina Christesen, then Head of Russian, and one day at lunch in University House she introduced me to her guest, Nettie Palmer, whom I had, by now, seen (and heard) a number of times at literary gatherings. Nettie (wearing a hat) invited me to call – it might be more accurate to say that she ‘insisted’ that I visit her and tell her all about my work.
Clem and Nina had told her about my interest in Furphy, and she was keen to find out what I had been doing. I had been to the Mitchell and National libraries to look at Furphy's letters, and had copied by hand – it was before photocopying, and photoprints were expensive – some of the more interesting, which I had put in a folder. She wanted to see it; and having read through the collection pronounced it ‘ingeniously nourishing’. Vance was overseas attending the World Peace Assembly in Helsinki; she wrote to me that she wanted to keep it until he returned, as she knew ‘he'd love to see it’. I mentioned to her that I had been given the chance to lecture on Such is Life in the small Modern English class. To my great surprise, as I was about to start the first lecture, the door opened and Nettie (wearing a hat) walked in with a young man in tow. ‘I thought that you should know each other’, she said afterwards, as she introduced me to Francis Oeser, whose father was Professor of Psychology.
That was typical of Nettie. She liked to get to know people, to put like-minded people in touch with one another, to have a circle of congenial minds around her. She enjoyed correspondence, and kept on writing notes even when the physical act of writing grew more difficult. Vance told me once that she had had a series of small strokes that had affected her ability to hold a pen. ‘I am so shaky’, she would write in her last years, knowing how the recipient would have to struggle to decipher what she had written. I have treasured her last letter, written in February 1964 and almost illegible. It was actually an old postcard of Paris on which she had attempted to write, asking how I was and saying that she was looking forward to seeing me. She did not give up readily.
I had no letters from Vance, but from the time of my first visit to the Palmer home I

Cover of the Palmer Meanjin issue. Collection of John Arnold.
Reproduced courtesy of the editor of Meanjin.

was numbered among Nettie's correspondents. In letters and conversations she tactfully and unobtrusively assumed the role of a mentor, while drawing out of me accounts of what I had been doing. I represented the next generation, and my interest in Furphy was a point of connection with her generation, a sign that I was not likely to go whoring after strange gods and turn my back on what she and Vance valued. ‘You're not an ordinary young man’, she once wrote to me.
Two interconnected themes that recurred in the letters (as they did in our conversations) were her concern for continuity and her anxiety that I should understand what Vance was doing as a novelist. Throughout her life she had a strong desire to be part of a cultured community that was rooted in Australian life, as is evident in her essays and reviews; and the correspondence she carried on with a wide range of people as long as she was able was an attempt to overcome the isolation and disconnectedness that she saw as characteristic of Australian literary life. Vance was a recognized public figure but his novels had never achieved much popular or critical success. Nettie had made it a rule never to write about Vance's work although, as she told me in a letter [26 October 1957], she thought that she could have looked at his intentions ‘impersonally’. It seemed to her that ‘the Australian reading public was not mature enough to trust an honest wife’. She objected to the way in which critics had used the word ‘craftsmanship’ in talking of his novels, ‘not as approving and welcoming, but as limiting’. Frank Davison told me in a letter: ‘Vance has had the words ‘craft’ and ‘craftsman’ applied to him so often – in a rather belittling sense – that he must surely wince at [the] sight of them’ [5 April 1959]. Now that I have read some of the ‘commercial’ fiction that Vance produced so efficiently, I can better understand why the emphasis upon the shapeliness of his ‘serious’ fiction so irritated him.
In the public view Vance had become an authority figure on literary matters, a sort of literary statesman. When he had been attacked by right-wing politicians in the Federal Parliament in 1952 over his role as Chairman of the CLF Advisory Board, he had been defended by the right-wing Prime Minister Menzies. (I recall Menzies, in the course of a memorable speech opening a Moomba Book Fair in Melbourne in the mid-1950s, praising Vance's ‘integrity’. The speech was memorable to me because Menzies recited – yes, recited – Douglas Stewart's ‘Brindabella’.) There was, however, a discrepancy between Vance's high standing as a leading representative of writers and his standing as a creative writer.
This discrepancy was underlined when Clem Christesen decided to devote an issue of Meanjin in 1959 to a celebration of the work of the Palmers. It was planned as part of a tribute, with a committee headed by Justice John Barry gathering subscriptions to subsidise the special issue of the journal and to make a gift to the Palmers. The intention was to provide an opportunity for friends and admirers to acknowledge publicly the dedication of the couple to the creation of a ‘national literature’ and to make a contribution to their financial well-being as they reached their mid-seventies. A formal dinner to mark their joint birthdays and the publication of Vance's novel, The Big Fellow, had been planned for August, and moves had begun for them to receive honorary degrees from the University of
Melbourne. His sudden death on 15 July meant that the public celebration never took place, and he never saw the published Palmer Meanjin.
The greater part of the issue was devoted to Vance's writing, with separate essays on his novels (Jack Lindsay), short stories (Arthur Phillips), and plays (Keith Macartney), and one on ‘The Man of Letters’, which Clem invited me to write. Although I didn't think about it at the time, I was the youngest contributor by some years – now I think I am the only survivor. And of the major contributors I was probably the only one who had never before written criticism of the Palmers. Come to that, I had only one substantial publication to my credit – an article on Such is Life that had appeared in Meanjin in 1956. A novice, not foreseeing the hazards of writing criticism about the work of friends, I set about preparing a survey of Vance's writing career. In a generally disapproving review of the issue (‘Big Bad Meanjin’) in the University of Sydney student paper, Honi Soit (10 September 1959), Clive James described my piece as ‘a comprehensive and well-written combination of exegesis and apology’, which is fair comment.
I had had the opportunity of two extended conversations with Vance before I set about writing the essay. Clem arranged that I should talk with him at ‘Stanhope’ (the Christesens’ house) after the annual Meanjin-Overland cricket match which was played at Eltham in February 1959. (Vance played for Meanjin, with a runner between wickets.) That led to the dinner invitation already mentioned, when I was able to follow up lines of thought. On both occasions Vance was ready to talk generally about attitudes to fiction, but a little diffident when it came to himself. He admired the Russian novelists, and had turned away, as he put it, ‘from Hardy and the English novelists’. His stories, which I had enjoyed most of all his writing, led me to ask if he had been influenced by Chekhov, and he agreed that he had been influenced generally in his view of life. He did not mention Turgenev (whom I had not read in 1959), but I now think that his approach to fiction was shaped by the example of Turgenev. When I looked over Nettie's letters in preparing this memoir I found that, writing to me in 1961, she told me that Vance had been influenced by Turgenev ‘all through his writing life, from the first day I knew him’. That was a useful tip that I could have profited from when trying to define Vance's intentions as a novelist in my 1959 essay, though it probably would not have led me to write very differently about what I thought that he had achieved.
Unhappily, Vance was upset by the essay that I did write, though I was not to know of this until I read Harry Heseltine's Vance Palmer (1970) eleven years later. When I had sent Clem a first draft, he had responded enthusiastically, writing that it showed ‘sympathetic understanding of what makes Vance tick as a writer’ and ‘a feeling of empathy; which particularly pleases me, for it has been lacking in so many of the younger generation!’ Unbeknown to me, he then sent the draft to Vance, who wrote to him on 1 May 1959:
I am sorry I read John Barnes’ article. It may seem churlish to react against a piece as brimming with generosity and goodwill, but that first deadly sentence fell like clods on my coffin. And even if half the strictures on my work were valid (‘limited in tone,
lacking force’, ‘material often dull’, ‘characters not imagined dramatically’, ‘range of sensibility narrow’) there would be no excuse for the kind generalities at all. Unless the whole thing were to be regarded on another plane as a ‘tribute’ to a ‘good Australian’.
I could invoke the politician's defence that phrases were being quoted out of context, and argue that the drift of my commentary was misrepresented in his letter, but the whole episode is too distant and too minor to be worth detailed discussion. I know only the portion of Vance's letter quoted by Harry, never having been able to bring myself to look into the Meanjin and Palmer archives. It still surprises me, though, that an established writer could have been as disturbed as Vance appeared to be by the criticism of a young academic with no reputation.
After nearly half a century I see more clearly than I could have done at the time the ironies of the situation. The public tribute to Vance and Nettie, of which Meanjin was the centrepiece, came at a time of change when so many of the assumptions which they held about Australia could no longer be sustained. In particular, their view of Australian literature was challenged by the emergence of Patrick White as a major figure. In declaring, as he did in his 1957 essay,‘The Prodigal Son’, that he had been ‘determined to prove that the Australian novel is not necessarily the dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism’, White was dismissive of his contemporaries and their achievements; and his own fiction gave him a kind of critical authority. If he was not directly attacking the Palmers, he was nevertheless attacking what they valued. In the 1950s White's bold use of language exhilarated many readers and disconcerted others; but even critics who had reservations about his creative practice quickly recognized that he was a major talent. A. D. Hope, who notoriously complained that in The Tree of Man White ‘deliberately chose as his medium this pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge’, thought that he ‘shows on every page some touch of the born writer’.
Vance, however, made no such concession. I think that he genuinely could not understand the excitement produced by the appearance of The Tree of Man and Voss. He regarded the enthusiasm of his old friend Marjorie Barnard for White (her 1956 essay on White in Meanjin was the first assessment of his work) much as one regards a disabling infatuation. I cannot recall ever having discussed White with Nettie, but I had an awkward encounter with Vance at a Moomba Book Fair – I think it was early 1958, not long after Voss was published. There was a copy on one of the tables where new books were being displayed, and, seeing me pick it up, Vance who was standing nearby said: ‘White can't write prose. Do you know anyone who has got beyond the first twenty-five pages of The Tree of Man?’ Well, I did, as I had given a talk about the novel at the Fellowship of Writers the previous year; but I did not say so, merely murmuring something noncommittal about White's prose being a challenge. (I never felt able to have a literary disagreement with Vance, as I did with Frank Davison, who could be very forthright in his opinions and even thump the table.) It was later that year that Marjorie Barnard reviewed the second volume of the Golconda trilogy for Meanjin along with Patrick White's Voss; the contrast between her enthusiasm for White and

John Barnes standing on the bank of the Cam river, 1961, with the Pembroke College boat in the background. Photographer unknown. Copy supplied by John Barnes.

her conscientious effort to find something positive to say about the conventionality of Seedtime must have made painful reading for him, as did my essay.
When I read the phrase, ‘clods on my coffin’, in Vance's letter, it reminded me of what he had said to Clem on the day of the cricket match. Vance and I were getting a lift back from Eltham to Kew with Irene Newton-John (Olivia's mother), and as we got into the car Clem told Vance that Kathleen Fitzpatrick wanted to write a piece about his ABC book reviews. In a somewhat strangled voice Vance said: ‘Oh Clem, I feel as if I'm being buried before I'm dead’. Clem was momentarily taken aback, but quickly rallied and said something like: ‘Oh, when that happens we'll really put on a show’. I did not realise then that Vance had mixed feelings about the issue. In a letter to me after his death Clem voiced his exasperation that Vance had not made available material that would have been helpful to contributors, and had kept putting off an interview that had been planned [15 September 1959].
Clem gave me no hint of Vance's reaction to the draft of my essay. Another who read
it was Frank Davison, who made helpful detailed comments, but wrote: ‘For a number of reasons too lengthy to be gone into I wouldn't want the Palmers to learn – even indirectly – that I have seen your article’ [5 April 1959]. Frank had written appreciatively about Vance, but – like so many of Vance's friends and admirers – had reservations that he did not voice in public, perhaps out of a feeling of the need to maintain solidarity. Nettie was, as always, reticent. Some time after Vance's death she mentioned that he had read my essay, but made no comment. When she read a ‘Fiction Chronicle’ (Meanjin, 1960, no. 1) that I had written, with a more extended discussion of The Big Fellow than appeared in my essay, she wrote that she was ‘deeply interested’ but added: ‘Only just one or two of your phrases I don't quite understand. Altogether, though, I value your general opinion and hope to get them right’ [letter postmarked 20 March 1960]. We never did discuss those ‘phrases’, and whatever degree of difference they signified.
Naturally enough, Nettie was shaken by her partner's death, but she struggled on gamely, attempting to put together ‘the second XIV Years – mostly Vance I hope’, as she told me [16 December 1960]. Whatever Nettie thought of my work, she continued to be encouraging, and was as interested as ever in what I was doing. She wrote to me several times when I went to Cambridge for two years in 1960.A mention of Leavis led her to send a photo from the Times Literary Supplement which, she said, ‘makes him seriously tall & handsome. I hope he continues so. How did his son turn out?’ [16 December 1960]. Her letters were often brief, but she had a gift of making you feel part of her life. ‘Just now the BBC had an interview with E. M. Forster, and it made me think of you in your Pembroke’, she wrote on 28 June 1961. Her letters grew more warm and affectionate as she grew feebler. I saw her several times after my return to Australia at the end of 1962, and her last note, early in 1964, was to remind me that I had promised to visit her. Most touching of all was the ending of a letter soon after my return: ‘Goodbye, dear John – Live long and be happy. Your friend, Nettie P.’ [postmark 24 January 1963].
I knew Vance and Nettie only in their last years, and only for a comparatively short period. My impressions of them as individuals are those of an immature scholar of a different generation from theirs. After half a century they remain vividly in my memory, almost like family. There was a curious difference between them, which emerged in conversation: Vance so easy and agreeable on the surface, but avoiding the depths; Nettie, a little stiff and formal at first, but sharply focused, producing spiky phrases and images that stayed in the mind and set one thinking. She was ‘proper’ and never said anything that would bring a blush to the cheek of Mr Podsnap's Young Person; but she enjoyed picking up your words and returning them flecked with irony. She was serious-minded, and did not gossip; her anecdotes always had a real point to them as when, with a touch of malice, she described Martin Boyd having his portrait painted with a copy of Burke's Landed Gentry open on the table beside him. Yet, for all the liveliness of her talk, I got a feeling of sadness – especially towards the end when the furrows on her brow were etched deeper and she struggled to hide her discomfort. Now
that I know a little more than I did then, and perhaps understand a little more, I reflect on the topics I might have raised and the questions that I might have asked – especially of Nettie. One small instance. When I went to England she gave me a copy of Louis Becke's By Reef and Palm, inscribed ‘Salud!’ It had no particular significance for me until a few years ago when I started teaching in Barcelona, and realised that ‘Salud’ was the Republican greeting at the time of the Civil War. What feeling, I wonder, prompted her to call up that memory? What was she saying to me as I set off?
More searching questions, perhaps, could never have been put to her – and cannot now be answered conclusively by others. Nettie's reputation as writer and critic has risen steadily since her death. Esther Levy was right when she wrote in the Palmer Meanjin: ‘We are too close to appreciate the full significance of all that Nettie Palmer has done for literature in Australia’. As the intellectual strength of her writing starts to get the recognition it deserves, one wants to ask: did she sacrifice her own literary opportunities for the sake of Vance?
The scholars of today know more about the lives of Vance and Nettie Palmer than I do. I have not sought to check my memories by going through their papers in the National Library; to me that would seem like prying on friends. I continue to remember them with affection and respect, my image of them unaltered by what researchers may have discovered. They are part of my personal history. Their confidence in my abilities mattered greatly in my formative years, and heightened the influence of their writing on my thinking. Over time, as I developed my own views, I was less accepting of their version of Australian literature, but the sense of indebtedness remains.