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Friends and Rivals and the ocean in the shell

  • 01 May 2020
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.

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