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Friends and Rivals and the ocean in the shell

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In Friends and Rivals Brenda Niall brings together four significant Australian women writers. Between them they published works from the 1890s to the 1950s. Ethel Turner and Barbara Baynton were from NSW. Nettie Palmer and Henry Handel Richardson were from Victoria, both schooled at Presbyterian Ladies College.

Main image: Cover of Friends and Rivals: Four Great Australian Writers: Barbara Baynton, Ethel Turner, Nettie Palmer, Henry Handel Richardson (Text Publishing)

Their lives spanned times of great change in Australia and the wider world: the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s, Federation and the two Great Wars. They also wrote within a changing cultural climate for writers: from the initial combination of an emphasis on the values of the Bush and reliance on English editors and publishers before Federation, to later more expansive Australian and international themes and possibilities.

The thread that leads Niall to link these very different literary figures is perhaps best caught in the story she tells of her grandmother who had come to Australia as an immigrant and married into a Riverina family. She had a large shell which she used to put to the ears of her children and grandchildren, asking them if they could hear the sea. A moment of magic for children in inland Australia.

The image lies at the heart of Niall’s extensive biographical writing. She asks what creative people heard, what prepared them to follow it, and where it led them. These subtle questions are teased out in the flux of relationships over time and space that shape people’s destinies. They include particularly the unlikely meetings that have lasting effects, such as the first encounter of Baynton and Turner in a jewellers shop.

For all four women reading and writing represented a freedom from constraint. Turner, who had lost her father as a child, came to Sydney with her mother and life with an unpredictable stepfather. School, wide reading and writing opened a rich world to explore. The strictures of a poor childhood in rural NSW shaped Baynton’s desire to write, while Ethel (Henry Handel) Richardson grew up in a family forced often to move because of financial insecurity and her father’s dementia. School offered a world of music and literature. Nettie Palmer was raised in a strict Methodist family, from whose expectations writing gave her space.

Once the desire to write became central in their lives, each writer faced challenges to find recognition. Turner and Baynton entered a largely male world. It was popularly seen as one in which Australian books were written by macho male authors who celebrated male values of endurance and mateship in stories of the bush. Women were expected to write improving stories for children.


'If both women had heard the sea within the shell, they also saw the advantage of the shell as a living space.'


Both Turner and Baynton, however, were encouraged to write and were published by J F Archibald and A G Stephens at the Bulletin. Turner’s Seven Little Australians was immediately successful. Because it was set in the bush and spoke to a young audience it did not challenge the stereotypes of Australian writing. The success of her book, however, led her to continue writing on a profitable but limited plane, leaving her larger dreams unrealised.

Baynton also wrote stories about the bush, savage ones that undercut the myth of mateship while focusing on women’s oppression. Only one, strongly edited by Archibald, was published in the Bulletin. She, like Turner, was at the mercy of her publishers.

Richardson and Vance were both familiar with European languages and culture. Only after her musical ambitions failed after years in Germany did Richardson return to writing, first translating Scandinavian novels, and then completing her first novel Maurice Guest, European in its setting and influences. She published it under the male pseudonym she considered necessary to gain an audience. She then wrote as a diversion The Getting of Wisdom, a school story whose anti-heroine arrived at and finished school an untamed rebel.

Baynton and Richardson were alike in pursuing a style of life that broke with their roots and perhaps responded to their childhood terrors. Baynton, brought up in poverty and to drudgery, married into wealth and later into nobility, cultivated the finer things of life and lived regally. She would never be poor again. Richardson, whose childhood was one of constant movement and memory of a father who lost control of his mind, insisted on being called by her nom de plume and instituted a regime of total control within her household to protect her writing. If both women had heard the sea within the shell, they also saw the advantage of the shell as a living space.

In her account of these four women Brenda Niall enters their writing sensitively and sets it within the lasting and passing relationships that shaped their lives: to place, to schools, to husbands especially, wider families, publishers and to associations that supported women and their rights. To hold this complex story together also depends on her listening for the sea in the shell, sifting through the tangible to catch the intangible, and then to find a compass to guide the telling of the story.

In the games that words play, compass provides the first two syllables of compassion. This quality underlies the sure moral compass evident in all Niall’s writing. She explores with empathy decisions that are occasionally thoughtless or self-centred, looking to find the strong flow of the stream below this turbulence, and finding it in a rich humanity that transcends its fallibility and betrayals.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: Cover of Friends and Rivals: Four Great Australian Writers: Barbara Baynton, Ethel Turner, Nettie Palmer, Henry Handel Richardson (Text Publishing)

Brenda Niall, Friends and Rivals. Four Great Australian Writers: Barbara Baynton, Ethel Turner, Nettie Palmer, Henry Handel Richardson, Text Publishing, ISBN 9781922268594

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Brena Niall, Ethel Turner, Barbara Baynton, Nettie Palmer, Henry Handel Richardson



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Existing comments

Reading is such a deep pleasure. It's interesting to learn about the inner lives of writers and we can invariably discern this from their writing. For these four women reading and writing were their lifeblood and their success in their chosen field was very probably a bonus to what really enlivened them. I know the choices I make in selection of books is developed by my interest in the author. And, indeed, it is their humanity and flaws which draw my esteem and admiration - their striving to be more than their circumstances.

Pam | 01 May 2020  

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