Books

Brenda Niall
Friends and Rivals

“We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.” The eponymous protagonist of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient imagines a mapping of self that traces the hidden and intimate and reveals how we are “marked by nature” and by the flames of connection. It’s not enough “just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books.”

Friends and Rivals goes beyond solitary portraiture and linear catalogue to place its subjects in their landscape, enacting some of the mapping Ondaatje’s English patient longs for. In its four sections Brenda Niall depicts the lives of late 19th- and early 20th-century Australian writers who “defied the categories of female achievement”: Barbara Baynton, Ethel Turner, Nettie Palmer and Henry Handel Richardson. Each chapter limns streams of connection and the trees and caves of emotional experience.

Niall’s meticulous research here is a signature of her five decades’ work as a literary critic, biographer and memoirist. Her oeuvre includes scholarly and biographical works on writer Martin Boyd, artists Judy Cassab and Georgiana McCrae, and Catholic archbishop Daniel Mannix. Niall was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2004 for services to Australian literature.

The porous quarters of Friends and Rivals constitute a map scored by crossings, parallels and exchanges, as Niall frames four lives within questions of gender and creativity. This structure recalls Drusilla Modjeska’s Stravinsky’s Lunch, with its juxtaposed biographies of Modernist artists Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington Smith exploring the interplay of making and loving. Modjeska’s epigraph is Rilke’s lament about the “ancient enmity between our daily life and the great work”, a motif central to Friends and Rivals.

Ethel Turner was clear in her literary quest, for “fame – and money too”. Her Seven Little Australians was continuously in print for more than a hundred years from its 1894 publication when she was 24. Niall argues that Australian domestic realism “began with the unheroic, naughty children of Misrule”.

Another striking part of Turner’s novel, writes Niall, is its “rare and radical” clarity about the impact of colonisation on Indigenous people, whose “worst nightmares had never shown them so evil a time as the white man would bring”. Fearing the impact on sales in Britain, the publishers cut the section. It was not restored until 1994.

Behind the astonishing productivity of Turner’s career and the veneer of a comfortable life, Niall finds a traumatic upbringing. She carefully reassembles a familial narrative fractured and falsified by Turner’s mother, who was probably unmarried when she had Ethel, and later married a repugnant man, Charles Cope. Niall is sensitive but restrained in her commentary as she depicts incidents such as Cope’s violent intervention during Turner’s wedding ceremony, charging forward to kiss the bride. Abuses that were then allowed to slip away nameless now have names, and if, as Niall sees it, Turner “dodged the realities of Cope’s sexually predatory behaviour”, perhaps it was because she had no words to name it.

Niall presents Turner as sanguine about other violations. Turner considered most literary people “disagreeable specimens”, a mild assessment given her friend Louise Mack’s poisonous novel about a writer unmistakably modelled on Turner. This character’s work is “gushing, adjectival, girly-girly” with “no nerve, no freshness, no insight”. Turner kept writing, taking up bike-riding and surfing as hobbies rather than literary backstabbing.

Turner and Barbara Baynton had a provisional friendship, with Turner praising the “great power & originality & wildness” of Baynton’s work, though finding her conversation often “cutting and unkind”.

Baynton’s image was as much a confection of her own making as “the creation of her husband’s artistry” when she shed her history as an impoverished working mother to marry a retired surgeon and become a Sydney socialite. Martin Boyd, who circles through Niall’s book, wrote a scathing fictive portrait of Baynton, later reworked to evoke a “gifted, generous and tragically displaced” life. Among Baynton’s many contradictions, she campaigned against women’s suffrage but supported a home for unmarried mothers. The stories in her acclaimed Bush Studies contain similar tensions, knotty strands Niall does not try to tidy.

The pseudonym Henry Handel Richardson was another confection, a “protective barrier between Ethel Florence Robertson and the literary world”, a “straw man” to take the brunt of critical attacks the writer foresaw. Niall again finds further complexity behind this mask. Richardson wrote that she was “meant to be a man and something went wrong” in her making. Olga Roncoroni, eventually Richardson’s literary executor, was the writer’s intimate friend, possibly her lover.

Yet Richardson enjoyed a supportive marriage. Her husband, George, sharpened her pencils every morning, upheld her strict writing routine and provided “almost total freedom to write” her distinctive and acclaimed fiction.

Nettie Palmer had little such freedom. Her support of her husband, Vance – Niall calls them a power couple “well before the phrase was coined” – came before her own writing. As well as being a constant advocate of Vance’s work, Palmer maintained a prodigious output as a reviewer to be the breadwinner so that he could write. Niall’s treatment of Palmer’s childhood – steeped in the grief of her parents, who lost four children in infancy – and her extraordinary career balances sympathy and calm evaluation. (Palmer’s poems, says Niall, were slight.)

In an interview with Jason Steger, Niall comments that definitive biography is nonsense, “to think you have it all sewn up”. Rich and digressive, these portraits are open-seamed, their complex maps pointing towards other layers, other stories, named experience alongside the unnamed and the unnameable, elision and fiction jostling while loose threads run off into silence.

Felicity Plunkett

Text, 288pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 18, 2020 as "Brenda Niall, Friends and Rivals".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Reviewer: Felicity Plunkett