Nettie Palmer is one of the most important Australian writers who emerged between the 1920s and the 1940s, but where her contemporaries were novelists, dramatists, or poets, she worked almost exclusively within the essay form, the book review, and the journal. She was self-effacing and self-critical, considering that her writing was of minor importance compared with that of the “creative writer,” but it has stood the passage of time much better than that of many of her contemporaries. Her lively style went hand in hand with an exceptional critical shrewdness. While she was underrated in her time, her posthumous reputation has continued to grow.
Like her husband Vance Palmer, Nettie Palmer was concerned with breaking down entrenched colonial attitudes that refused to consider local writing on its own merits. She wanted to encourage an intellectual, critical approach to Australian writing and increase the writer’s sense of an audience. She wrote on a range of topics such as the Australian accent, suburbs, Australian English, surfing, Italian immigrants, and wooden houses. But she also wanted Australian writers to keep in touch with the great currents of world literature and not to become enclosed in the limited world of the merely local. University educated, Nettie Palmer spoke French and German, had studied Greek and Latin and later took up Spanish to study South American literature, seeing important analogies between the Australian and South American situations.
Her first extended publication (apart from two early volumes of verse) was Modern Australian Literature, 1900–1923 (1924), a milestone in the study of zoth-century Australian writing. Throughout the 1920s she contributed literary essays to major Australian newspapers and the weekly Bulletin, her main aim being to introduce women writers like Mary Gilmore and Katharine Susannah Prichard to as wide an audience as possible. In 1929 she began contributing a personal column to All About Books, but her most important essays appeared in the lllustrated Tasmanian Mail. In those articles there is a conscious but flexible and unstrained merging of overseas and local writers. She brought the same quality of attention to bear on the poetry of John Shaw Neilson as on Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain) or Osbert Sitwell’s England Reclaimed (1927). Most of the best-known English, American, and Australian writers of the time are mentioned in her columns. Within the limits of weekly and fortnightly literary journalism and working within the belletristic tradition of the 1920s (less deliberately politicized than her work in the late 1930s), she was able to produce much relevant criticism and alert, lively comment. She dealt with a wide range of authors, including Spenser, Goethe, Ibsen, Strindberg, Yeats, Hardy, Lawrence, Sigrid Undset, Proust, Joyce, Pound, and O’Neill. Most of this work remained uncollected during her lifetime though some of it appeared in slightly different form in her journal Fourteen Years (1948). Her opinions could be trenchantly independent. Writing of Aldous Huxley in April 1929 she judges Point Counter Point to be glittering journalism, claiming that Huxley is a writer of ingenuity rather than imagination, and that his skeptical materialism puts him on the side and in the service of the philistines.
For all her absorption in the European tradition, Nettie Palmer took every opportunity to discuss the work of Australian writers and their particular situation. She insisted that Australian culture was still at the stage where writers had to interpret and humanize the country and give the lie to D. H.Lawrence’s statement that “Australia is a country with no word written across it yet.” Palmer wanted to see a movement in Australian writing away from a prolonged colonialism to an independent and autonomous literary tradition. No one wrote more forcefully than she about the literary situation in Australia in her time: she pointed to the poor publishing conditions, the lack of weekly and monthly reviews which are indispensable to the growth and nourishment of a sound literary culture, the unavailability or inaccessibility of Australian books, the impossibility of a writer making a living purely as an author, the indifference to local work, the stifling censorship laws.
She had a marked gift for focusing on the significant writers and issues of her time. In her best essays she did not merely serve Australian literature, she contributed to it.
Fourteen Years: Extracts from a Private Journal, 1925–1939 was originally published in an edition limited to 500 copies, a fact that reveals much about the condition of Australian literary production at the time. A collection of some of Palmer’s best writing, it contains character studies and portraits of figures as different as Barbara Baynton, Christina Stead, Shaw Neilson, and Henry Handel Richardson, among many others; nature notes and observations of places ranging from Barcelona to Paris, London to Green Island and Melbourne. Miles Franklin compared Nettie Palmer with Mary Collum and Lady Gregory; A.D.Hope wrote of Fourteen Years that “it gave the impression, rare in Australian literature before the present day, of a really professional writer in the European sense.” There is no other volume quite like it in Australian writing.
Born Janet Gertrude Higgins, 18 August 1885 in Sandhurst (now Bendigo), Victoria.
Studied at the University of Melbourne, 1905–09, B.A., 1909, M.A., 1912; traveled to Europe to study modern languages in Marburg, Berlin, and Paris, 1910–11, then returned to Australia. Returned to London, 1914. Married Vance Palmer (died, 1959), 1914: two daughters. Staying at Tregastel, Brittany when war was declared, 1914; returned to Australia, 1915. Literary journalist and essayist, 1920–35, contributing to various journals, including the Argus, All About Books, the Brisbane Courier, the Bulletin, the Illustrated Tasmanian Mail, and the Australian Woman’s Mirror. Traveled to Europe again, 1935–36. Active in the Spanish Relief Committee during the Spanish Civil War.
Died in Melbourne, 19 October 1964.
Essays and Related Prose
Modern Australian Literature, 1900–1923, 1924
Henry Bournes Higgins: A Memoir, 1931
Talking It Over, 1932
Fourteen Years: Extracts from a Private Journal, 1925–1939, 1948
Henry Handel Richardson: A Study, 1950
The Dandenongs, 1952
Bernard O’Dowd, with Victor Kennedy, 1954
Nettie Palmer: Her Private Journal Fourteen Years, Poems, Reviews and Literary Essays, edited by Vivian Smith, 1988
Other writings: poetry and correspondence.
Smith, Vivian, “Nettie Palmer: A Checklist of Literary Journalism, 1918–1936,”
Australian Literary Studies 6, no. 2 (October 1973): 190–96
Hope, A.D., “The Prose of Nettie Palmer,” Meanjin 18 (1959): 22–27
Hope, A.D., “End of an Age” (obituary article), Australian, 24 October 1964; reprinted in his Native Companions, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1974
Jordan, Deborah, “Towards a Biography of Nettie Palmer,” Hecate 6, no. 2 (1980):6–72
Jordan, Deborah, “Nettie Palmer as Critic,” in Gender, Politics and Fiction, edited by Carole Ferrier, St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1985
Jordan, Deborah, “Nettie Palmer: The Writer as Nationalist,” in Double Time: Women in Victoria—150 Years, edited by Marilyn Lake and Farley Kelly, Ringwood: Penguin, 1985
Modjeska, Drusilla, Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers, 1925–1945, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, and London: Sirius, 1981
Serle, Geoffrey, The Creative Spirit in Australia: A Cultural History, Richmond, Victoria: Heinemann Australia, 1987
Smith, Vivian, “Vance and Nettie Palmer: The Literary Journalism,” Australian Literary Studies 6, no. 2 (October 1973)
Smith, Vivian, Vance and Nettie Palmer, Boston: Twayne, 1975
Stewart, Douglas, “Conversation Piece,” The Bulletin, 3 August 1949
Tipping, Marjorie, “Remembrance of Palmers Past,” Overland 100 (1985):10–18
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