State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 83 May 2009


Robin Lucas
‘A Fine Ruddy Mess’:
the publication of Nettie Palmer's Fourteen Years.

Title page of the Meanjin Press edition of Fourteen Years. Collection of Robin Lucas.

Towards the end of 1948, Melbourne's Meanjin Press published Nettie Palmer's Fourteen Years: extracts from a private journal. Despite the subtitle, the book was not simply lifted from an existing journal, but compiled from a miscellany of sources: work diaries, notebooks, letters, articles and family memories.
It was a major task of editing, re-writing and compilation, and Vance Palmer's contribution to the project was vital.1 Nettie selected and edited her own material, but Vance suggested ways of using and synthesising that material and also suggested an overall framework for the book. Given the disorganised form of the source materials, and Nettie's indifferent health – she was diagnosed with a coronary thrombosis in 1945 and suffered some later minor strokes – Vance's assistance was a necessity. As Nettie explained to publisher Clem Christesen in January 1948:
Vance is much more hopeful about my book than I am. Much as I want to finish it, I am often limp and useless … Vance has had to help me immeasurably.2
The hybrid work was eventually self-published by the Palmers, using the imprint and infrastructure of the Meanjin Press, a small press established in the early 1940s as an adjunct to the literary magazine Meanjin.
Nettie Palmer worked intermittently on the project from 1945, and her work diaries show that by late 1947 both she and Vance Palmer were working hard on the book.3 Selection and drafting of material continued, although plans for the book's publication were not formed. In September 1947, Vance suggested to Nettie that it be published privately.4 After that it is unclear how they proceeded until informal pre-publication agreements were under way, and the Palmers were corresponding with their friend Clem Christesen, publisher at Meanjin Press and editor of Meanjin.
Outside Palmer family correspondence, the first written mention of Nettie's journal project seems to be in a letter to Clem Christesen late in 1947. After sending him some of her papers for a projected article on Henry Handel Richardson, Nettie asked for her notes back as they were ‘part of a modest but rather long work-in-progress (between ourselves) an edited literary diary, A Reader's Notebook’.5 Later, she writes: ‘Still looking for a better name for that journal-book of mine. Thanks for taking an interest in it’.6
Christesen's interest in the project did not extend to suggesting that Meanjin Press might publish the book; in fact he seems at first to have suggested another publisher. Nettie's response was:
Some time ago you asked if I'd offer my ‘Reader's Notebook’ to Cassells for
consideration. Although I've been writing steadily here, it's not likely to be ready to show anyone for months yet. I'll show it to you when it's finished, but it's not going to be at all a book of critical essays (I might do that later). Cassells would not be likely to consider it their pigeon.7
Fourteen Years eventually appeared in late 1948 under the Meanjin Press imprint, the Palmers paying all the production costs themselves. They used the imprint and the infrastructure of the established Meanjin Press to market and distribute the book, and paid Clem Christesen a fee as editorial consultant. Nettie and Vance chose a printer in Bob Cugley8 of the National Press, and Verdon Morcom, a young Melbourne artist was approached to illustrate the book. Informed of their choices, editorial consultant Christesen advised: ‘Cugley's is virtually a one-man show; you'll have to keep on his tail. I'm rather uneasy about the designs. You have in mind, I presume, head-pieces the full width of the page? … Unless that sort of thing is really well done it is a mistake. Douglas Annand of course is my choice, but he is sometimes expensive. I don't know Morcom but if you are satisfied it is worth giving it a try-out’.9
The handsome book which eventually appeared was limited to an edition of 500, and was relatively expensive at two guineas. The price had been arrived at by the Palmers, and the book was sold initially by subscription. In speculating on their reasons for choosing self-publication, albeit under the Meanjin Press umbrella, several possibilities present themselves, especially when the torpid state of the Australian publishing industry at the time is kept in mind. Issues of control over the product may have been one of the reasons. Vance Palmer had been very disappointed over the publishing history of his Louis Esson and the Australian Theatre.10 Correspondence with his publisher makes it clear that he wanted greater control over decisions made for the book, which took a long time to reach the printer and then experienced distribution problems. Print run and pricing were also arranged against his wishes.11
Palmer scholar Deborah Jordan agrees that control over all aspects of the publication was probably the reason for self-publishing. She has suggested that the Palmers, although never rich, were more financially comfortable by 1948 (both had received inheritances) and therefore could risk losing money on the project. Perhaps Nettie, who seemed to ‘pull back from the fray’ after her first stroke in 1945, wanted to write something that was not commissioned, not for newspapers, but was her own production, and without interference from middlemen. Jordan has also suggested that at sixty-three years of age, and in indifferent health, Palmer may have been – consciously or unconsciously – writing for future generations.12 Certainly Fourteen Years can be seen as an intellectual history, as Chris Wallace-Crabbe has suggested.13
Fourteen Years was first announced in Meanjin in the Spring issue of 1948.14 Subsequent issues intermittently advertised it, sometimes with other Meanjin Press books, until mid-1950.15 Lists of potential buyers were made, and circulars sent to them. An order form for Fourteen Years soon appeared, and Christesen initiated ‘a simple scheme’ to keep
track of orders and dispatches.16 It proved inadequate, largely because of the Palmers’ own lack of organisational and project management skills and Christesen was to become increasingly frustrated by the muddle surrounding Fourteen Years.
The book was never going to be produced and distributed without confusion and frayed tempers, as areas of responsibility were unclear from the beginning. The problems were multiplied when communication between the key figures relied on scribbled notes, hasty telephone calls and contradictory messages to the printer, Bob Cugley. Nettie Palmer was in Caloundra for some of the pre-production period, Christesen was working out of Melbourne University where the Meanjin office was run with a minimum of staff, and Vance Palmer was intermittently at home at Kew, or interstate. The printers, National Press, were at 34 Lonsdale Street in the city and the Palmers did not own a car.
One area of confusion was the duplicate listing of potential subscribers, since both the Palmers and Christesen made separate lists, and then cross-checked them. As the first hurried binding of Fourteen Years was of only one hundred of the five hundred copies printed in December 1948, additional lists were made for each successive batch to be bound as the orders came in. There are indications that cross-checking of the many different lists was not thorough, resulting in duplicated mailings and returned copies.
Correspondence in the Meanjin Archive at the Bailllieu Library reveals that preparations for the production of Fourteen Years were hardly reassuring. It was not until September 1948 that Vance Palmer attempted to set out in writing his own and Christesen's separate responsibilities. The letter17 is worth quoting in full:
I have been a little uneasy these last few days as to whether we have been definite and clear enough about our responsibilities and functions in publishing this Journal of Nettie's. It seems to me there might be room for uncertainty, or even disagreement, unless the main matters were written down somewhere in black and white. I had meant to go over that fully in the beginning, but you were away until the book was actually set up and I couldn't consult you even about the drawings; then I, in turn, was away for a month, and so things have just drifted on. It couldn't be helped.
But the element of financial risk in the undertaking makes it necessary to be quite precise and clear. Even Cugley may not be certain as to who is ultimately liable for the costs, though he has my written acceptance of his tender. (There is also a remote, but not utterly fantastic possibly that someone mentioned in the book might bring an action for libel!)
To safeguard the Meanjin Press from your angle, and to make the liability clear, from mine, I think we should be quite formal and exact about certain things:
That I am responsible for all costs of production, including cost of circulars.
Also all costs of distribution – envelopes, labels, postage of circulars, postage of books, postage of receipts – except in so far as necessary office work is concerned and the circularisation of subscribers to Meanjin.
That your fee of twenty pounds on the first 250 copies sold will be payable even if this number is not sold.
The income for subscriptions represents a difficulty. As I would have to operate on any separate account that was opened, could it be arranged with Brooks [presumably the bank manager or the financial controller at the University of Melbourne] that the ‘Number 2 Meanjin account, was in my name? It would be rather a nuisance to be continually transferring the book's earnings from your account to mine.
I'd like to discuss every detail of the distribution of circulars with you as soon as possible – how far each of us is responsible. It's very tiresome all this, I know, but my experience convinces me that the more definitely everything is agreed beforehand, the less scope there is for misunderstandings.
Undoubtedly it would be simpler to hand the whole business of distribution over to the trade as you suggested, but I have a strong feeling against this and so has Nettie. She wants to keep the price of the book down; I buck at the 33 1/3% cut. I know that it's the customary percentage and perhaps no more than is justified in the way of trade; but this isn't a commercial proposition and so the difference between the producer and middleman seems more flagrant. The thought that if the whole issue were sold a few booksellers would get as much (five hundred pounds) for merely turning the book over as Bob Cugley [would] who has put time, material and labour into the work over a period of months, is (in the old-fashioned phrase) repugnant to the moral sense.
So I'd rather shoulder the risk and the petty labour, and I hope you won't find your part of it too burdensome. Hope too that the quality of the publication won't be a bad advertisement for Meanjin [Press].
Christesen's reply to this somewhat naïve view of book distribution appears not to have survived. He did not allow Vance Palmer to take charge of the Meanjin Number 2 bank account, which was the dedicated Fourteen Years account. This created constant correspondence such as Vance Palmer's letter to Christesen of March 1949: ‘Could you make a cheque out to me for forty-five pounds, from the money now in hand at the Fourteen Years account. That will clear up the book's present debt to me personally and will give a better idea of how its finances stand’. Christesen replied: ‘I am enclosing a cheque for forty-five pounds as requested. At 21.3.49 there was a credit balance in the Number 2 account of seventy six pounds. Since then about fifteen pounds has been paid in’. This exchange was repeated, with variations, for the life of the book at Meanjin Press.
Vance and Nettie Palmer had both engaged with a number of different writing genres, and both had been published by a range of publishers in England and Australia. It could be assumed that they knew what they were doing in taking on attempting the project management of the publishing of Fourteen Years. Nettie's columns in the Illustrated Tasmanian Mail and All About Books had often criticised the failures of Australia's publishing and bookselling industries, and it is obvious that the idea of a subscription-only publication, by-passing the booksellers, would have appealed to her. (That the booksellers had greater and more efficient warehousing and marketing resources did not seem to have been taken into consideration.)
Vance's desire for more authorial control led to disarray. Finally, of necessity, Clem Christesen took over, dealing with all the correspondence, including letters sent to Nettie,
which she forwarded to Clem: ‘Kate Baker still hasn't got her copy, could you make sure she gets one? I'd get Cugley's to do it myself but am afraid of confusion’. ‘Dr. Duhig sent the enclosed. Will you keep a note of the private address he wishes to be used for the book. Today I posted you a cheque from Mrs Macarthur of Caloundra.’ ‘Mr Lowy, who had a cheque sent for him the other day (I forwarded it to you) writes that he wants a second copy reserved for him: he'll pay when he's out of hospital. I'd be glad if you'd let him have rather early numbers of both copies.’
Some subscribers to Fourteen Years sent the one cheque to cover the book as well as a yearly subscription to Meanjin. In an office memo, Christesen's secretary Ruth Schunkel tells him, ‘Because people have combined subscriptions, Fourteen Years owes Meanjin 3 pounds 8/6’. Christesen's scribbled response was: ‘Fourteen Years is getting into a fine ruddy mess’. Many of Nettie's friends who received gift copies from the author wrote to Christesen asking that the copy they had ordered be sent elsewhere to friends or family. All of this meant much irritating ‘petty labour’ for Christesen, who dealt with all the orders, made out the receipts, and kept the Meanjin Number 2 account in order.
Many memos have instructions to ‘notify Betty’. Elizabeth Harding was the secretary at the National Press, printers of Fourteen Years. Printed and bound copies were stored at the National Press, where Nettie Palmer signed and numbered them. At first Nettie and Vance labelled and posted copies, but problems of inadequate cross-checking of subscribers’ lists and a long and slow communication chain between the Palmers and Christesen (who dealt with all the correspondence), followed by a slowing of orders by April 1949, meant that once more Christesen took over. As single orders dribbled in, Christesen would telephone Elizabeth Harding, who then posted the previously signed and numbered book as directed. Although Vance had anticipated ‘a good deal of work in the sending-out, as Clem has no resources’, the work in the end was Clem's and Betty's.
Possibly the Palmers had left it too late to embark on a project which required efficient, and reasonably constant, supervision. Vance Palmer had a heart attack in mid-1949, and was still unable to climb the steep stairs to Cugley's office at the National Press in 1950. Nettie had been in indifferent health for some years. As freelance writers, the Palmers had always relied on their talent, hard work and good health to continue to make a living. They had both juggled writing projects in different genres, public responsibilities (often involving periods away from Melbourne) and family duties all their working lives, and had high expectations of themselves. However, now they were ageing. Perhaps they underestimated or misunderstood the ongoing tasks that would be involved in the publishing of Fourteen Years.
Let one letter from Nettie stand for all received by Christesen at this time:
Important But at Leisure:
XIV Years. Before Xmas 1948
NP took home altogether 9 copies.
1 to K. Macarthur 45
1 for Palmer family unnumbered: still here
1 for [?] – labelled 31 or 30 (one of those numbers was ordered by [?])
1 for Schnierer 67
…and five more given to friends and numbered 10 11 12 13 14.
Note: this 10 was a pure mistake, and must be corrected. I'll try to find out and have the number changed to 15. I had posted off No. 10 as you know to CH Peters [manager at Robertson and Mullens]
The remaining books, completing I think this first hundred, were labelled and posted from Cugley's early on Thursday, except for the copies, fingermarked, which I showed Cugley on Wednesday. He undertook to clean these but was not in when I called before two on Thursday. If you managed to call in that day before three, when the works closed, did you take those three copies to send away or are they left to add to the new ones on 20th January?
Also, did you get the one copy I left signed on Cugley's desk for you to give to Davidson, whose present address seems known to you?
Last, if you got there before three, did you get the two separate sheaves of signed subscription forms, the first already answered, the second not yet. Betty-in-the-office had the two piles ready.
Think that's all. If you think anything's unclear, please put your query in writing or I'm done.
And let this one exchange between Christesen and a subscriber stand in for many similar:
24.4.1949. Dear Sir, I have received from you on March 24th a statement for one copy of Fourteen Years by Nettie Palmer. I also have a receipt for two guineas dated 12.4.1949, but up to date no book has arrived. If, as stated on first memo it was sent on or before 24.3.1949, even allowing for all the little things that go wrong in our local post office, it should be here by now. The Post Master has asked me to enquire exactly when it was sent. Would be grateful if you would check up on this for me. Yours sincerely, Edeline Carfrae, Charleville Queensland.
Attached is a pencilled note from Christesen to his assistant:
Beryl – for God's Sake Enquire into this – and if No Copy Sent, then Get Betty to Send it. Any Reason for this Lapse. Please Check Back. Return Letter to Me.
Underneath in Beryl's hand: ‘172 was evidently mislaid at National Press but will be sent at once’.
Christesen was still writing apologetic letters to subscribers in November 1949, explaining that ‘the simple scheme I initiated broke down time and again because of stupidity or incompetence’. (Here he was blaming his staff, not the Palmers.) Fourteen Years mishaps continued to plague him until the accounts were closed in late 1950.
Much of this confusion would have been avoided if the Palmers had followed
Christesen's advice and used a distributor (essentially a wholesaling firm that would take the product at a discount and handle all distribution and sales). From publication in late 1948 to the closing of the Fourteen Years account in October 1950, Christesen tried again and again to persuade Nettie Palmer to allow a distributor to handle the few remaining copies, but she always refused. Correspondence between them on the matter became increasingly tetchy. Nettie Palmer, misunderstanding Christesen's suggestions of 1949 to hand remaining copies over to a distributor, thought that he was instead suggesting that the book be remaindered. ‘Rather than remainder it in such a way’, she wrote to Christesen, ‘I would see all the rest of the copies guillotined and pulped tomorrow …;
Christesen's mild reply was: ‘I am constantly amazed at the wide areas that exist for misunderstanding. Childish, I suppose, but this constantly troubles me. There was no talk of “remaindering” Fourteen Years … The move was designed purely and simply in your interest… However it is for you to decide’.
The last book account for Fourteen Years reveals that by October 1949, 270 copies had gone out. Not all of these would have made a monetary return, as Nettie gave many copies away. Three hundred and twenty copies were either still in the warehouse at National Press (206) or went out as review copies, or were unaccounted for (24). Of the 206 copies held at National Press, only 56 were bound. It is most unlikely the remaining 150 unbound copies were ever bound, as orders had all but stopped by late 1949. These were probably eventually pulped. Of the 56 bound copies, some few may have sold but it is more likely that the Palmers gave them away over the years.
Receipts and cheque butts suggest that the Palmers made about 185 pounds on the project (approximately $7,500 in today's values). Muddle and frayed tempers aside, the project was financially rewarding. The book's handsome appearance, noted by many who wrote to congratulate the author on publication, and the warmth of its critical reception, would also have been personally rewarding to Nettie Palmer.
A projected second volume, ‘The Next Fourteen Years’, never eventuated.18 Perhaps it was just as well – the Palmers’ long friendship with Clem Christesen may not have survived a return bout.

Presentation inscription on copy number 3 of Fourteen Years from Nettie Palmer to the book's printer, Bob Cugley. The inscription reads ‘With sincere regards to Bob Cugley who helped to acheive the impossible’. Collection of Robin Lucas.


For a detailed account of the writing, preparation and publication of the book, see Robin Lucas, ‘Nettie Palmer and Fourteen Years’, MA thesis, The Australian Centre, University of Melbourne, 2002.


Nettie Palmer (hereafter NP) to Clem Christesen (hereafter CBC), 6 January 1948, Meanjin Archive, 1/1/158, Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne.


Vivian Smith, ed, Nettie Palmer: her private journal Fourteen Years, poems, reviews and literary essays, St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1988, pp. 2–4




NP to CBC, Baillieu Library Meanjin Archive 1/1/147, nd, but probably late 1947


NP to CBC, Baillieu Library Meanjin Archive 1/1/156a, nd, but probably late 1947


NP to CBC, Baillieu Library, Meanjin Archive, 1/1/143, 16 October 1947


Robert Cugley (1902–1987). See Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 17.


CBC to Vance Palmer (hereafter VP), Palmer Papers, National Library of Australia, MS1174/1/7442, 3 July 1948.


The book was published by Georgian House in 1948.


See VP to CBC, Baillieu Library, Meanjin Archive, Vance Palmer Box 23, October 1948; and CBC to V P, Palmers Papers, National Library of Australia, MS1174/1/7522, early November 1948. Although this disputatious correspondence was exchanged in 1948, the problems with the Esson book had been dragging on since 1946, when the manuscript was completed.


Deborah Jordan, email to the author, 21 August 2002.


Chris Wallace-Crabbe, ‘Autobiography’, in Laurie Hergenhan, ed, The Penguin New Literary History of Australia, Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin, 1988, p 50.


Meanjin, vol. 7, no. 3, 1948.


Meanjin, vol. 9, no. 2, 1950.


CBC to Beatrice Fowler, Baillieu Library, Meanjin Archive, 1/2/45, 2 November 1949.


VP to CBC, Baillieu Library, Meanjin Archive, Vance Palmer Box, 16 September 1948.


The planned volume is referred to in John Barnes’ article in this issue: see p. 66.