Nettie Palmer

Janet Gertrude Palmer (1885-1964), critic, was born on 18 August 1885 at Sandhurst (Bendigo), Victoria, only daughter of Catherine (born MacDonald) and John Higgins, accountant. Her brother Esmonde was eleven years her junior. Nettie started writing early, in part to define her own spiritual existence in revolt against her parents' austere Baptist faith. Her education began at home with her mother and continued at Miss Rudd's seminary, Malvern, and the Presbyterian Ladies' College. She graduated from the University of Melbourne, BA with third class honours in classical and comparative philology and Dip Ed 1909, MA 1912. Through her involvement in student and literary circles she met Bernard O'Dowd, who shaped her commitment to socialism and cultural nationalism. In 1910-11 she studied for the Diploma of the International Phonetics Association in Europe. Influenced by the works of Tolstoy, G. B. Shaw and Henri Bergson, she participated on the fringes of the suffrage movement and, with Vance Palmer, in guild socialism. Back in Melbourne she taught modern languages and began to write seriously for the socialist press.

She travelled to London to marry Vance on 23 May 1914 and they went to Brittany. In 1915 they returned to London, where Aileen was born. Nettie published two volumes of poetry. They returned to Victoria, living at Emerald. Helen (q.v.) was born in 1917. The Palmers were outspoken opponents of censorship and conscription. Nettie had a regular column in the Argus and with Christian Jollie Smith (q.v.) edited a collection of essays by E. J. Villers. After Vance enlisted she lived with her aunt, suffragist Ina Higgins, and taught privately. Reunited with Vance at Emerald she taught her daughters. They moved in 1925 to Caloundra, Queensland, and in 1929 back to Melbourne. After a miscarriage in 1926 and believing she would have no more children, Nettie felt 'forced into the preoccupation with outside matters which is usually the affair of women who have lived their life and finished it'.

Nettie played a seminal role in establishing the canons of Australian cultural criticism. After publication of Modern Australian Literature 1900-1923 (1924), she had many more outlets, notably in the Illustrated Tasmanian Mail, the Brisbane Courier, All About Books, and the Bulletin Red Page. Her lively correspondence established a network of contact and encouragement between many Australian and some overseas writers. An Australian Story-Book (1928) set standards for the short story. She published Henry Bourne Higgins (1931); her essays were included in Talking It Over (1932); she co-edited The Centenary Gift Book (1934). Nettie was active in the Australian Literary Society, the Verse- Speaking Association and later in the Fellowship of Australian Writers. Her contribution to the modest Palmer income was vital.

In 1930s the struggle against fascism and for peace became her major concern. She attended the International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture, was a member of the Spanish Relief Committee, with whom she published several booklets, and the Joint Spanish Aid Council. She was Melbourne editor of Women Today, an anti-fascist journal for women, and a member of the International Refugee Emergency Committee. She taught English and was 'a guiding angel' to refugees. From the 1940s her self-professed role was that of 'liaison officer in literary life': she edited memoirs, published collected poems and short stories, wrote introductions and made translations, continuing to write, lecture and encourage younger writers. In 1948 Meanjin published Fourteen Years: Extracts from a Private Journal 1925-1939, regarded by many as her most important work. Henry Handel Richardson appeared in 1950 and Bernard O'Dowd in 1954. All her books are now out of print. Much of her later life was spent caring for relatives. She died on 19 October 1964.

Most writers found her supportive and her criticism stimulating though a few regarded her as patronising. 'She was lovable and dedicated, passionate and impulsive, at times absent-minded, even eccentric'. Nettie placed little value on domestic labour and was an untidy housekeeper. While she subsumed her creative talents and early feminism to support of her husband and the cause of a national culture and political freedom her work and life was a courageous endeavour to embody her ideals. A. D. Hope praised her 'intellectual toughness': she was 'a really professional writer in the European sense'.

Deborah Jordan

Drusilla Modjeska Exiles at Home l981.