Vance and Nettie Palmer
Vance and Nettie Palmer were two of Australia's best-known literary figures from the 1920s to the 1950s. Edward Vivian "Vance" Palmer (28 August 1885 – 15 July 1959) was a novelist, dramatist, essayist and critic. Janet Gertrude "Nettie" Palmer (née Higgins) (18 August 1885 – 19 October 1964) was a poet, essayist and Australia's leading literary critic. Between them they did more to promote Australian literature, particularly (in Nettie's case) literature by women, than anyone else of their generation.
Vance was born in Bundaberg, Queensland, on 28 August 1885 and attended the Ipswich Grammar School. With no university in Queensland at the time, he studied contemporary Australian writing at the intellectual hub in Brisbane at the time, the School of Arts, following the work of A.G. Stephens. Working in various jobs, he took a position as a tutor at Abbieglassie cattle station, 800 kilometres west of Brisbane in the 'back of beyond'. He also worked as a manager: at that time there was a large Aboriginal population with whom he both worked and celebrated, attending their frequent corroborrees. It was here his love of the land and environmental awareness was honed, so too his interest in white black relationships. From his early years he was determined to be a writer, and in 1905 and again in 1910 he went to London, then the centre of Australia's cultural universe, to learn his craft and advance his prospects. He was acknowledged as an expert on foreign affairs - in Mexico and Ireland. His association with Alfred Orage and his work for the New Age and other guild socialists greatly influenced his political outlook.
Nettie Higgins was born in Bendigo, Victoria, the niece of H.B. Higgins, a leading Victorian radical political figure and later a federal minister and justice of the High Court of Australia. A brilliant scholar and linguist, she was educated at the Presbyterian Ladies' College, Melbourne, the University of Melbourne and studied phonetics in Germany and France for the International Diploma of Phonetics. She was active in literary and socialist circles on her return to Melbourne and formed a deep and long term relationship with the visionary poet Bernard O'Dowd. While her brother Esmonde Higgins was a prominent early Australian Communist, neither Nettie nor Vance ever joined any political party: they were much more interested in broad social change. To suggest Nettie and Vance were liberals is to misrepresent them: in their young adulthood, before their children, they were extremely active in a number of radical causes (later in textual representation).
Vance and Nettie met in 1909 and married in London in 1914. When World War I broke out they returned to Australia, settling in Melbourne, where their daughters Aileen and Helen were born in 1915 and 1917. In 1918 Vance joined the Australian Army, but the war ended before he saw service. Vance, Nettie and Esmonde all campaigned against the Hughes government's attempt to introduce conscription into Australia.
Writing careers and later lives
Both Vance and Nettie had begun to publish poetry, short stories, criticism and journalism before the war, but in the 1920s, living in the fishing village of Caloundra, Queensland, to save money, they dedicated themselves to literature full-time. Vance published his first novel in 1920, and a well-received play, The Black Horse, in 1924. His best novels of this period were The Man Hamilton 'Men Are Human'(1928), The Passage (1930) and The Swayne Family (1934).
In 1924 Nettie published Modern Australian Fiction, at that time the most important critical study of Australian literature. With her two daughters then attending school she returned to writing full-time. Writing regularly for numerous newspapers all round Australia, she wrote on a wide range of topics, from environment to cultural events, reviewing all important books being published in Australia, America, Europe and elsewhere. 1928 saw the publication of her selection of 'An Australian Story-Book' drawing on short-stories which had only found form in ephemeral publications. In 1931 she published an important biography of her uncle, Henry Bournes Higgins. She also became the centre of a network of correspondence with many other writers, mainly women. She was an important confidante and mentor for such writers as Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw.
In 1935 the Palmers travelled to Europe, and they were holidaying near Barcelona when the Spanish Civil War broke out. Aileen and Helen had both joined the Communist Party as students, and Aileen stayed behind to volunteer for service with the British Medical Unit in Spain when the rest of the family returned to Australia. On their return to Melbourne Nettie devoted herself to supporting the Spanish Republic.
During World War II Vance and Nettie were strongly opposed to the advent of fascism, whether in Australia or overseas. Because they had witnessed the loss of democratic rights during the Great War their work was to strengthen the Australian belief in egalitarianism. Vance published a series of historical and biographical works: National Portraits (1941), A G Stephens: His Life and Work (1941), Frank Wilmot (1942) and Louis Esson and the Australian Theatre (1948). Nettie published The Memoirs of Alice Henry (1944) and Fourteen Years: Extracts from a Private Journal (1948), perhaps her best work.
In the postwar years Vance wrote a trilogy - Golconda (1948), Seedtime (1957) and The Big Fellow (1959), based loosely on the life of the Queensland politician Ted Theodore. The trilogy met a poor critical reception. While today Vance's novels are out of print, many of his short stories are still read and reissued.
In 1954 Vance published The Legend of the Nineties, a critical study of the development of the nationalist tradition in Australian literature usually associated with The Bulletin. This is perhaps his best-remembered work. Nettie published Henry Handel Richardson: A Study, which did a great deal to establish the reputation of now-acclaimed Melbourne author Henry Handel Richardson (the pen name of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson) and her monumental trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.
Vance and Nettie were remembered by those who knew them for their great compassion and generosity. They were instrumental in the recognition of Australian literature as a subject worthy of serious study and teaching in the academy. During the last decades of his life Vance is remembered for his regular radio broadcasts on books and writing. While Vance and Nettie's last years were clouded by their own ill health and by worry about their daughter Aileen, who suffered a mental breakdown in 1948 and became an alcoholic, she was also an established poet in her own right and wrote extensively on the Spanish Civil War. Helen Palmer went on to edit Outlook, an important critical journal, write several books and have a career in education. A member of the advisory board for the early Australia Council Vance was attacked as a Communist “fellow traveller” (which to some extent he was) during the McCarthyist period of the 1950s, but his integrity was recognised by the deeply conservative Prime Minister of that era, Sir Robert Menzies. Vance died from heart disease in 1959 probably hastened by his passion for cricket. Nettie died in 1964, universally mourned by Australian writers and readers.
The Victorian Premier's Literary Award for fiction is named the Vance Palmer Award, while the prize for non-fiction is the Nettie Palmer Prize.
- NAA: MT395/1, ABC Radio talk scripts, 1 Jan 1940 - 31 Dec 1944
- Robin Gollan, 'Palmer, Helen Gwynneth (1917 - 1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, Melbourne University Press, 2000, pp 562-563.
- Adelaide, Debra (1988) Australian women writers: a bibliographic guide, London, Pandora
- Goldsworthy, Kerryn (2000) "Fiction from 1900 to 1970" in Webby, Elizabeth (ed.) The Cambridge companion to Australian literature, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
- Jordan, Deborah (1999) Nettie Palmer: Search for an Aesthetic, Melbourne, University of Melbourne History Monograph,
- Modjeska, Drusilla (1981) Exiles at home: Australian women writers 1925-1945, London, Sirius
- Rorabacher, Louise E (1973) Marjorie Barnard and M. Barnard Eldershaw, New York, Twayne Publishers
- Smith, Vivian, 'Vance and Nettie Palmer' New York, Twayne
- Wilde, W., Hooton, J. & Andrews, B (1994) The Oxford Companion of Australian Literature 2nd ed. South Melbourne, Oxford University Press
- Roger Osborne 'Vance Palmer, Short Fiction and Australian Magazine Culture in the 1920s' JASAL 6 (2007)
- Deborah Jordan 'All that my love and I/Strive till after we die': The Courtship Letters of Vance and Nettie Palmer, 1909-1914 JASAL 8 (2008)
Vance Palmer, Hail Tomorrow, first published 1947
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