‘Friends and Rivals’ by Brenda Niall


2020, 288 p.

In her most recent book Friends and Rivals, Brenda Niall has gone almost full circle. One of her early books was Seven Little Billabongs: The World of Ethel Turner and Mary Grant Bruce, published in 1979 and here she is, some forty years later with another group biography, this time linking “four great Australian writers”: Ethel Turner, Barbara Baynton, Henry Handel Richardson and Nettie Palmer. This book is more a quartet of essays rather than one integrated study. Indeed, it might be more appropriate to speak of two twinned biographies, as she was able to pinpoint a documented link between Turner and Baynton,  and likewise between Richardson and Palmer in a literary quest of degrees-of-separation.

I have come across three of these writers over my lifetime. We did not have a lot of books in our house, but my mother did give me three books from her childhood. One of them was the 1935 Children’s Treasure House, a book of 768 pages on very thin paper, full of English stories and full-length fairy stories, with beautiful Art Deco black-and-white illustrations and colour plates.  In Australia, the rights were reserved by the Australian Women’s Weekly and it cost 5/- plus 1/- postage to buy a copy. I still have the one my mother owned.

The other books she gave me were her copies of  Family at Misrule and Flower O’ the Pine– long since gone (unfortunately, because they were first editions I see, although of no great value).  These were both written by Ethel Turner, and I loved them. I borrowed Seven Little Australians from the library as well, and I can remember being heartbroken when Judy died.  I was never a Billabong girl- only ever Ethel Turner.

In contrast, I only encountered Barbara Baynton’s Bush Studies three years ago (my review here) and the stories are still etched in my mind, so different were they from the Bulletin/Lawson/Paterson nationalist bush stories of the turn of the twentieth century.  Elizabeth Webby’s introduction to the 1999 edition  really piqued my interest in this shape-shifting woman, whose final presentation of self was more fictional than her work was.

I read The Getting of Wisdom as a teenager, but was deterred from ever embarking on The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by a friend at the time who was made to read it at school (interestingly, she went to PLC – perhaps the school had forgiven HHR by then). She warned me that it was the most boring book ever written and to be avoided like the plague. I took her at her word, and did not read it until the summer of 2008, down at the beach. I just loved it, and it’s right up there on my list of favourite Australian novels.

Nettie Palmer I have only ever encountered as part of the two-for-one partnership of “Vance-and-Nettie-Palmer”, public intellectuals and champions of Australian literature. But I have encountered her often, through my interest in her uncle Henry Bourne Higgins, whose biography she was commissioned to write, and I’ve wanted to know more about her. In fact, it was Niall’s study of her that led me to read this book.

The book starts with an introduction ‘Women’s Work’, which I found a little lacklustre. The introduction didn’t explain why she chose these four women in particular (rather than others), because, as she points out, they did not make up a group, as such.

The lives of Turner and Baynton, Richardson and Palmer criss-crossed one another from the 1890s through the Federation period to the late 1920s. Their writing careers differ widely, as does the quality of their work. The writer of children’s books, the short story writer and the novelist, all were doing something new, as was Nettie Palmer, literary journalist and public intellectual. Their achievements, against the odds, were substantial and surprising. They didn’t make up a group; there were no groups for them to join. How did they do it?Each life story illuminates the others. (p. 10)

However, there were themes that arose her analysis of all four women. One such theme was that of reinvention. Ethel Turner was evasive about her childhood and parentage. There has never been documentary evidence of the man who was named as her father on her birth certificate, and she took the name of her stepfather, Henry Turner, a 39 year old widower with four sons and two daughters. Her mother had falsified both her own age, and the ages of her children. When Turner died her mother remarried quickly to Charles Cope, a bachelor ten years younger than her mother, and he was to take an unhealthy interest in his step-daughters. Niall observed that “Turner was strangely tolerant; it is as if she was blinkered to the sexual desire that he so plainly felt for her” (p. 35)

Barbara Baynton was even more evasive about her own history, giving her own family a completely fictional account of a Captain Robert Kilpatrick, who seduced Penelope Ewart away from her husband, and finally married her just before Barbara’s birth, thus rescuing her from illegitimacy.  No trace of this Captain Kilpatrick has been found. Instead, her father was a bush carpenter, and Barbara and her six siblings were all illegitimate, although her parents married later. She became a governess to the Frater family, close to Scone in NSW, and married her employer’s eldest son – shades here of My Brilliant Career. Her husband, however was a “shiftless, neglectful and unfaithful husband” (p.86) and she initiated divorce proceedings against her husband. She found security with her second marriage, to the elderly, wealthy Dr Thomas Baynton. Educated by her husband into the appreciation of furniture and porcelain, she took her place within Sydney social circles. When he died  in 1904, just after the publication of Bush Studies, he left her a substantial estate which she had a free hand in administering. She moved to London, and after WWI married Baron Headley, an eccentric peer but this was an unhappy marriage. When they divorced, she retained her title, and still had her money, and returned to Australia.

Henry Handel Richardson did not try to hide her background- indeed, she mined it heavily for The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, but she did manipulate her name. Ethel Richardson adopted the name ‘Henry Handel Richardson’ with the publication of her first novel, Maurice Guest as a sort of game – would anyone detect it as a woman’s work? Although married to the scholar J. G. Robertson, no one was allowed to call her Mrs Robertson, going by ‘HHR’ and ‘Henry’ amongst family and friends.

Nettie Palmer was probably the most straight-forward of them all, with an open and uncomplicated liberal Melbourne upbringing. She happily took her husband’s name, and was happy to be known in tandem with him.

When it came to publication, the three writers turned their eyes to British publishing houses, as was common at that time. Ethel Turner was probably the most put-upon amongst the three, with her publishers demanding a Christmas book each year, setting her up in competition with Mary Grant Bruce, and changing the endings and pruning the plots so as not to alienate a Sunday School prize market.

Baynton was already in England when she started looking to publish the short stories she had written back in Sydney, but even with her husband’s position in society, she could not find a publisher. Then, in keeping with her already fantastical life, she had the fairy-tale luck to be rescued from the slush pile at Duckworth’s publishing company through Edward Garnett (husband of the famous translator Constant Garnett), who had also discovered Joseph Conrad, John Galsworthy and D. H. Lawrence.  However, after this start, she struggled with her novel Human Toll, which received a few respectful reviews among mainly lukewarm ones.

Henry Handel Richardson began her first novel Maurice Guest while living in Strasbourg, and The Getting of Wisdom was also written and published overseas. Her husband took charge of most of the business side of publication, and was willing to pay for the publication of the third part of the Richard Mahony trilogy himself, when Heinemann rejected it. That volume,  ended up Ultima Thume being received with acclaim.

Most of Nettie’s work in reviewing books appeared in Australian newspapers and her survey of Australian writing in Modern Australian Literature 1900-1923  was published in Melbourne. She did, however, have a London publisher for her first book of poems The South Wind, followed by a second book of poetry in Shadowy Paths also published in London.

Another theme that comes through the essays is that of patronage and support. Both Barbara Baynton and Henry Handel Richardson had husbands whose interest and connections (and in Baynton’s case, money) supported their writing. Niall suggests that J.G. Robertson sacrificed his academic career for HHR’s writing success, and the incorporation of a young woman Olga Roncoronis into their household further left space for HHR’s own writing – (Niall leaves open the question of a sexual attraction between the two women). With Nettie Palmer, the tables were turned, with her assiduous promotion of her husband Vance’s work within literacy circles – a devotion which Niall feels to have detracted from her own career as critic.

A biography, if it is to be more than a chronology of facts and actions, is an argument or judgment, based on a reading of documents, conversations and actions. These are not necessarily accepted on their face value: sometimes they are ‘read against’ or set up in opposition to one another.  Especially when dealing with writers, there are not only the writer’s own works, and sometimes an autobiography written with varying degrees of deprecation or self-regard, but often there is also a body of correspondence with other writers, who in turn write to other writers. The retention of such correspondence is sometimes a matter of chance, at other times the target of ruthless culling or assiduous gate-keeping either by the author herself or her literary executors. For good or ill, these remaining letters are mined by biographers, giving them a life and significance far beyond the original intent.

The crafting of a biography as an argument is particularly apparent in a multi-essay volume like this one, where the same author deals with multiple and interlinked characters. Niall’s reading of Henry Handel Richardson is censorious, while she clearly admires Nettie Palmer and feels that she has not been sufficiently recognized as part of the Vance-and-Nettie-Palmer partnership. In dealing with Ethel Turner, she also examines the British-dominated publication culture of the day, and with Barbara Baynton she finds a paradox, interlaced with reinvention.  New material is always being uncovered, additional links discovered, and historical ‘turns’ invite historians and biographers to stand in a different place to re-evaluate their subjects. That is why there are no definitive biographies.

I admire Brenda Niall as a biographer. She is deft and efficient, and attuned to the nuances of relationships.  She paints a broad canvas for her subjects, but also hones in on details that give definition to her subjects, helping you understand why this particular person was distinctive.  That said, I was somewhat startled by the abrupt ending of this volume. In fact,  I felt a little short-changed by both the introduction and the absence of a conclusion. While I know that her focus is on her four subjects, I found myself wishing that Brenda Niall herself had come back on stage to draw out further the contrasts and commonalities in these four lives.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8/10


I have included this as part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2020

5 responses to “‘Friends and Rivals’ by Brenda Niall

  1. I was quite startled by Niall’s censorious attitude to HHR…particularly over her remarks about HHR’s husband’s career being compromised by her demands. So often we come across women writers whose work is compromised by lack of support, and here we have one whose husband clearly recognised her genius and wanted to support her, but Niall seems to suggest that HHR should have denied herself that support. It’s bizarre.

  2. residentjudge

    Yes, there are so many examples of the converse, and it almost goes unremarked. Although it seems that she is conceptually linking HHR and Palmer as examples where one partner made sacrifices for the other.

  3. Pingback: Classics and Literary Round-up: June 2020 | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

  4. Pingback: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020 – wrap up | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  5. Pingback: ‘My Accidental Career’ by Brenda Niall | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s