The Rainbow-Bird, Vance Palmer

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The Rainbow-Bird and Other Stories (1957) is a collection of short stories from earlier Vance Palmer anthologies, edited and introduced by Allan Edwards, Professor of Eng.Lit. at UWA. It must have been a set text in one of Edwards’ courses as my copy is covered in very nicely written notes (in real ink!). Edward’s Preface begins with ‘”My purpose in writing,” says Vance Palmer, “is to set down Australian rhythms.”’ and goes on to claim that “Palmer’s stories are among the best written in Australia”.

Edward Vivian (Vance)Palmer was born in Bundaberg, Qld in 1885, and without actually naming Bundaberg, a shipping port on the Burnett River, a few km inland of Wide Bay on the Queensland coast, a number of these stories are set in Queensland river port towns which more or less match this description.

Palmer was educated in state schools and at Ipswich Grammar, trained as a journalist, travelled to Europe, establishing himself in London from 1910. By Edwards’ account Palmer was in London when war broke out and came home to enlist in the AIF. We know from Sylvia Martin’s biography of Aileen Palmer (my review) that Vance was actually on honeymoon with his new wife Nettie in France when the Great War commenced, but in this bio she doesn’t rate a mention, not even in the context of “his many contacts with artists”. So much for all Nettie’s sacrifices!

Palmer had 17 novels published but was better thought of for his short stories. He was influential in Australian literary theory and his The Legend of the Nineties (1954), on the influence of the Sydney Bulletin in the 1890s on all subsequent writing by and about Australians, predates Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend (1958) although is not so accessible or well-argued. Palmer was Chairman of the Commonwealth Literary Fund’s Advisory Board from 1948 to 1953 and died in Melbourne in 1959. (ADB)

The thirteen stories presented here are not dated, nor are the original anthologies from which they were taken named. However, they seem to be ordered, if not by date of writing, then at least roughly by date of setting, but with one longer, earlier story, Mathieson’s Wife, saved for the end.

The title story features a young girl treasuring her glimpses of the eponymous rainbow-bird (a colourful bee-eater which nests in tunnels in the ground, info here) before its destruction by a bee keeper. Early Australian writers were often ponderously sentimental about little girls – think the lost child in Such is Life, or Harold, the squatter in My Brilliant Career who carts around on his shoulders the daughter of one of his workers, and Palmer is no different. A couple of other stories also have little girl protagonists. A slight one on the death of a school mate being announced at assembly, and an attempt at descriptive writing about waking to find the mare has foaled:

And then again the queer whinny! She sat up in bed, a flicker at her heart, staring out through the fly-netting. Near the woodheap she could see the thick form of Dozy, standing quite still and looking enormous against the rising ground in the dim light, her winter coat puffed out with cold. Her head was sunk low, her heavy forelock had fallen over her eyes, she seemed rooted in the waxy earth. But round her flickered something wavery and uncertain, a small, glimmering shape like her shadow in water, and from it came a light whickering. (The Foal)

Palmer is too self conscious to be a good writer, tries too hard to squeeze in an extra bit of description, even according to Edwards he is too writerly and lacks the easy flow of the master, Henry Lawson. Except for his year* in the AIF, he lived a comfortable life, surrounded by other writers, or overseas, and his exposure to the bush life he writes about was minimal.

The best story, The Birthday, and like all the others it’s just a little slice of life, is the one he was most able to write from lived experience. A father returns home overnight from being away, bearing birthday presents for the two children. They might be in a holiday house, a queenslander on stilts near the beach – maybe the house Vance and Nettie took for a while at Caloundra while Aileen and Helen were little – a day passes with a couple of minor dramas (the story would have been better with none), but still Palmer tries too hard in the wrapping up:

Moving away, Darrow began to feel emotion rise like a small, warm bubble in his brain till it softly burst.

“Life! … he thought vaguely, feeling for the spade in the darkness of the outhouse.

Most of the stories are Henry Lawson-standard issue – miners doing it hard out in the desert, stuff he’s read about or heard about rather than done himself. I don’t doubt his childhood in rural (not outback) Queensland, and his time in the army would have given him plenty of material – background and characters – but to be honest, I don’t understand why he wanted, why he tried so hard, to be a writer, when he was so much more suited to being a literary academic.

One story, Jettisoned, had the effect of making me uncomfortable. I don’t suppose I am alone in always identifying with the protagonist, but in this story, set on the coast, the main character is a bit of a loser, a scab during an earlier strike, an outsider in a tight community and who, in the resolution to the story, dobs in to the authorities his ‘mates’ in a mildly illegal activity as revenge for a perceived slight. Another story, Home Front, also has a protagonist with whom it is difficult to sympathise. A go-getter businessman flies into Perth from Port Hedland, during the Second World War, and bullies his way into a hotel which is full of American officers. He is put at a table with a taciturn Australian soldier whom he harangues about the importance of business compared with soldiering. It turns out the Australian is temporarily home from New Guinea, recovering from a head injury and I think we’re meant to draw our own conclusion.

As he got older it seems Palmer wrote stories taking the form of an older man looking back to his youth, interrogating his follies so to speak. They seem very old fashioned now, and might have been even when they were written. In Mathieson’s Wife he remembers back to being 13 or 14 and getting a crush on the flighty young woman recently married to their old parson in a small, inland country town. In this longer, 20pp, story other characters are introduced, including a handsome (and of course untrustworthy) stranger and the boy’s feelings are shown developing over a couple of years.

Palmer, and others of his ‘generation’, of the first half of the Twentieth century, Ion Idriess, Darcy Niland and so on represent the Australia of white bread and boiled cabbage and men in hats that my father idolized, and that I escaped from in the 1960s, and I’m not sure I was ever going to give him a fair reading. So be warned. They’re not bad stories, they’re just not very good.

*I originally wrote 4 years, as Edwards implies Palmer enlisted in 1914 on his return from London. According to ADB he did not enlist until 1918, and in fact arrived in France a few days after the end of the war.

 

Vance Palmer, The Rainbow-Bird and Other Stories, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1957

Ink in Her Veins, Sylvia Martin

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Ink in Her Veins is the newly published biography of Aileen Palmer (1915-1988) – daughter of Nettie and Vance – by Sylvia Martin who, it seems to me, is well on her way to joining the first rank of Australian literary biographers. This is Dr Martin’s third biography, after Passionate Friends (2001) on poet Mary Fullerton and her friends, Mabel Singleton and Miles Franklin (my review here,) and the Margarey Medal-winning Ida Leeson: A LifeNot a bluestocking lady (2006).

One of the attractions of Ink in Her Veins is the new view it provides into the lives of Nettie and Vance Palmer, and their wide circle of literary friends and correspondents. Martin’s research is necessarily based on this correspondence, but there are also letters between the Palmers and their two daughters (Aileen’s sister Helen was born in 1917), many failed/unpublished attempts by Aileen to fictionalise her life, and interestingly, snippets of gossip from Henry Handel Richardson and Frank Dalby Davidson writing to others. In consequence Martin has been able to produce a detailed and fascinating account.

Nettie’s family was pretty well off, her father, John Higgins, was an accountant. His sisters had both attended university and his brother, Nettie’s illustrious uncle, High Court Judge Henry Bourne Higgins, made sure Nettie did too (my post on the education of Nettie’s generation here). Nettie rejected her parent’s Baptist religion but there is no doubt her strict upbringing was an influence throughout her life. Nettie was forced to endure a long engagement to Vance while he got his career as a journalist and writer underway and, importantly for our understanding of Aileen’s later life, while he dealt with the committing and institutionalisation of his brother. Finally, in May 1914 when they were both 29, the stars aligned and Nettie having joined Vance in London (from Melbourne), they were married in a Baptist chapel the following day.

For the first of many times throughout their married life, Nettie and Vance took a cottage in a seaside village where they could work and relax, in this case Tregastel in France. Of course, within two months war had broken out and the Palmers, with Nettie already pregnant, returned to London. Vance went on, briefly, to New York to secure new writing jobs, while Katherine Sussanah Prichard who was to be an important friend to Aileen, moved in with Nettie. Shortly after Aileen was born, the Palmers returned to Melbourne, and thence to another seaside village, Caloundra in Queensland, where they purchased some land with some money from Nettie’s father.

Martin suggests that “Nettie’s fierce and almost excessive support of Vance’s career may have been pursued, at least in part, to compensate for the continuing necessity of her parents’ assistance, which she knew would be bruising to her husband’s ego.” Later, Aileen was to blame the truncation of her mother’s career as a poet not just on her support for Vance, but as well on herself, on the demands she and Helen made on Nettie as their mother.

Aileen’s life may be considered in 3 parts – her schooling, initially in Caloundra then, from 1929, back in Melbourne at PLC and Melbourne Uni; the years of the Spanish Civil War and World War II; and the rest of her life, mostly back in Melbourne, dependent on her parents, struggling with mental illness. Throughout, we see her parent’s socialist politics manifest in her (and Helen) as a firm commitment to Communism; a preference for same-sex relationships which she seems mostly to repress, and certainly to conceal from her parents; and a conflicted relationship with her parents, particularly with Nettie, where she strives to achieve their ambitions for her, is dependent on them for money, and even at a young age is over-involved with their work, typing and proof-reading for Vance and acting as secretary for Nettie.

Aileen did well at PLC, had the usual crushes on attractive teachers, and did a lot of writing. ‘Poor Child!’, an early unpublished novel – it seems all her novels were autobiographical – suggests she was already suffering depression. At uni where she studied French and German, she became politically active through the Labour Club, which when I joined it in the late 60s was Fabian socialist (and they soon suggested I would be better off with the Anarchists), but which back then in the 1930s was firmly communist. She was also “received into the ranks of a small and select group of female Arts students who referred to themselves as the Mob. Older than Aileen, her new friends set about initiating her into Mob philosophy of spontaneity, free love and worship of trees.”

Martin muses on the problem of the biographer with too many sources:

Sometimes I have felt that working on Aileen Palmer’s autobiographical writing, in which actual people and places are given fictional names (and not always the same ones), is a little like entering a hall of mirrors where nothing is quite what it seems. [A] fictionalised memoir based on the real letters and diaries of the group … helps to illuminate the arcane and mysterious world of Aileen’s diary at the same time as it adds another cryptic layer. But Aileen’s diary itself further confuses the boundaries between fact and fiction by including some of the fictional characters from ‘Poor Child!’ in it.

In the final year of university, Aileen’s active involvement in left wing politics saw her heavily involved in the protests around the Lyons government’s notorious attempts to deport the Czech, communist (and multi-lingual) writer Egon Kisch who had been invited to address the Movement Against War and Fascism. Intellectuals active in the nation-wide protests included the Palmers, KSP, and Louis and Hilda Esson.  The following year, 1935, Vance and Nettie took the two girls to Europe. According to Aileen, “[Nettie] said to someone, ‘We want the children to see something of Europe before it is blown up’. Which seems a frivolous way of putting it now, since I’ve seen a bit of what blowing up can be like …”

The Palmers went first (of course) to London where Aileen became increasingly involved with the local Communists, attending conferences with Helen, going to rallies and selling the Daily Worker on street corners. Her parents farmed her out to a secretarial job in Vienna for a while, then in 1936 Helen returned to Australia to commence university, Vance was commissioned to undertake the abridgement of Furphy’s Such is Life (subject of an earlier post here) and Nettie, Vance and Aileen set out to spend the year in another seaside village, this time Montgat in Catalonia (on the Mediterranean, north of Barcelona). Aileen was soon involved with the anti-Fascist movement in Barcelona, but when Franco rises up against the elected government, Aileen and Vance take fright and remove her, and themselves, to London. Within a month Aileen is back, a translator-secretary with the first British Medical Unit into Spain (subsequently folded into the International Brigades), while her parents return to Australia, where it must be said, they were active in supporting the Republican side.

Aileen spent two years all up in Spain, nominally in admin but often up to her elbows in blood, working in tents and huts as a field hospital orderly. As the Francoists prevailed and the IBs were withdrawn, she returned to London, but in another year Hitler had set off WW II and Aileen was once again doing war work, with a unit of the Auxiliary Ambulance Service, rescuing victims from bomb sites in the Blitz. In a story called Ambulance Station she writes:

‘There’s something over there on the pavement’, I tell one of the stretcher-party men, ‘that was once somebody’.

The body is lifted up and placed on a stretcher, beside another dead woman.

No time for any more words. More ambulances are coming to carry off similar grim loads. Everyone speaks with a harsh, dry utterance that expresses a kind of inner numbness. So much piled-up death, so much plain butchery – it is too horrible to be pathetic.

For a while Aileen lives with another woman, ‘B’, who she does not name in any of her writings, and is happy in love. As the war grinds on she eventually gets out of ambulance work, and finds a less distressing job at Australia House. She probably also has one other love affair. Not yet aged 30, it’s her last.

After the war she returns to Melbourne to live in the family home, Ardmore in Kew. Probably, she is bi-polar – she writes of being happy mad and depressed mad – anyway, her mother, who has always been controlling and her sister, who is ‘practical’, get her committed and so she commences years in and out of residential care, and constant shock treatment.

In the end, the woman who felt she should be a novelist like her father, had just one or two slim volumes of poetry published. Martin appears to feel very strongly that it was Nettie who failed Aileen. She quotes a letter by Aileen to KSP:

I feel very grateful when anyone reminds Nettie that my own writing is one of those things that matters. She’ll never be very interested in it, I feel, but it still strikes me as extraordinary at times, after the way she impressed on me profoundly as a young child that writing was the thing above all others worth spending one’s life on, and how she treasured and carted from pillar to post the exercise books I filled with novels from the age of nine or ten, how little interested she is in what I have to say as an adult.

Finally, if there is one shortcoming it is the absence of footnotes. Ink in Her Veins uses the system I complained about in my review of M. van Velzen’s Call of the Outback: at the back of the book “a long list of page no.s and phrases with their sources, which might have been informative if only we could have referred to them while following the text”. A system it seems I’ll just have to get used to, but, thankfully, there is at least this time a comprehensive index.

 

Sylvia Martin, Ink in Her Veins: The Troubled Life of Aileen Palmer, UWAP, Perth, 2016

Reviews:
Nathan Hobby at A Biographer in Perth or at Westerly
Drusilla Modjeska in the SMH/Age.