Portrait of Nettie Palmer, courtesy of Fairfax
1885-1964 | Victoria | Literary critic
Nettie Palmer was Australia’s most important literary critic between the two world wars. Truly cosmopolitan, she and husband Vance Palmer celebrated the achievements of Australian culture on the world stage. Nettie’s journalism, poetry, book reviews, literary studies, selections of short-stories, biographies, histories and essays inspired two generations of writers and readers. Her 1924 book Modern Australian Fiction was considered the most important critical study of Australian literature of the times. For the newspapers, she wrote on a wide range of topics from socio-political, environmental to cultural affairs, and she reviewed all important books published in Australia, North and South America, Britain and Europe. She spoke seven languages.
Nettie Palmer’s break came with an article “How the War Affects Christmas in London”, one of her first pieces for the mainstream press. It was feted across Australia in 1915; her words resonated with the public’s war-weariness. By July 1916 she had a regular weekly column Readers and Writers for The Argus. Her spirited and provocative essays grounded contemporary tragedies of war and revolution not with sentiment but compassion. “Too high and mighty” her uncle Henry Bournes Higgins, the High Court judge, counselled. The column lasted for only 19 articles as Nettie Palmer’s second daughter was born in September 1917.
Palmer’s key strength, and why she was so loved by her readers, was an ability to listen for the future in her fine critical writing. She relied on the early modernist impulse to strip to the essence and find hope, inviting her readers to think about how to take responsibility for the issues under discussion.
She wrote about the profound and the seemingly trivial; the newsworthy and the ancient; from Indigenous languages to comics; from Thomas Hardy to C J Dennis; or Rebecca West to Katharine Susannah Prichard. Palmer’s significance in Australian letters has been framed by academics who emphasise her importance as an early precursor in Australian literature and its canonisation, but she was a writer who worked as a freelance journalist with an extremely broad range.
Janet Gertrude Higgins, born in 1885 and educated at the advanced Presbyterian Ladies’ College, was of the second generation of women in her family to attend the University of Melbourne – even before white women had the vote. She was reared with high expectations of economic independence, steeped in Victoria’s colonial liberalism and feminism.
She wrote her first book as a child: The Story of My Life, Mingled with Others. While completing an MA in classics, she was influenced by the poet Bernard O’Dowd in his vision for Australia as transforming the sins of the old world. In 1910 she completed an International Diploma of Phonetics in Berlin, London and Paris, and then taught modern languages at her former school and wrote for the socialist press. In 1914 she married Vance Palmer, fellow writer and journalist, in London. They were forced to return to Victoria in 1915 with militarism stalking journalism and the near-collapse of the labour press.
For nearly a decade living in the Dandenongs, Palmer edited the poetry magazine Birth, then wrote for the Herald, Stead’s Review, Spinner and the Bulletin. When the Palmers moved to Queensland, with her daughters at school, Palmer got into her stride. From 1925 to 1935 she wrote three to four 1500-word articles a week— with a weekly column for the Illustrated Tasmanian News; often weekly pieces for the Courier and Telegraph and unsigned Saturday leaders. She wrote regularly for the Bulletin’s Red page, the Daily Mail, Sunday Mail and occasionally for the Argus, Sydney Morning Herald, Age, London Times and West Australian. She also wrote for many of the new commercial periodicals with a column in All About Books. She wrote for the women’s press, most frequently for The Australian Woman’s Mirror.
The Bulletin editor thought hers was the best critical work he published. Firmin McKinnon, the editor of the Courier, asserted he printed anything she wrote without looking at it; and she used her considerable freedom. Postcolonial in the broadest sense and long before A. A. Phillips framed our “cultural cringe”, she challenged her “colonial provincial” readers about Australian philistinism and allegiance to anything British. The family had returned to Melbourne in late 1929.
An Argus series in 1934 on the Dandenongs was published in book form. Regional writings on Green Island, the Sunshine Coast and parts of Victoria were a powerful strand of her work. Most of Palmer’s books originated in her journalism; Talking It Over was a selection of essays, which were first published in various newspapers. Palmer also took on commissioned work. Her political biography of Henry Bournes Higgins was reviewed across the globe. Her editing of The Centenary Gift Book for Victoria’s centenary included a wonderful inclusive, rigorous selection of Victorian women’s voices from across the political and class spectrum.
In 1936, caught up in the Spanish conflagration, Palmer published first-hand accounts for the Argus, returned to Melbourne and wrote for and edited three booklets on the Spanish Civil War warning of the coming dangers. She was the Melbourne editor for Woman Today, had a column for the New Zealand journal Tomorrow, and she was involved increasingly in speaking out against fascism. She taught English to European refugees.
The later years of her life saw the consolidation of her journalism on Henry Handel Richardson into the first book length study on her. She co-authored a biography of Bernard O’Dowd and wrote Fourteen Years, Extracts from a Private Journal 1925-1939, a story of her life mingled with many of the foremost contemporaneous writers, artists and journalists, both national and international.
Through her ABC radio broadcasting, lecturing for the Commonwealth Literary Fund, and support for Australian writers and for literary journals such as Meanjin, she was a self-professed “public relations office” who saw her task as needing to “watch and listen effectively”, especially at the intersection of foreign languages and literature.
Palmer’s early analysis of housework was an important precursor to Women’s Liberation.
Many of the progressive values she espoused on the environment, multiculturalism and aesthetics were to sow seeds for the future. “You are a wise – a very wise woman,” Henry Handel Richardson had told her, “few have your critical ability”. Both the Palmers were forerunners, for four decades preparing the ground for the cultural and social awakening of the 1970s and the halcyon days of publishing in Australia.
Deborah Jordan, a biographer and historian, interviewed many of the surviving Palmer colleagues in the 1970s in her early doctoral work. Her selection Loving Words Love Letters Between Nettie and Vance Palmer 1909-1914 was published by Brandl & Schlesinger in 2018.
Nettie Palmer, circa 1930-40. Courtesy of State Library Victoria.
Portrait of Nettie Palmer, 1943. Courtesy of National Library Australia
'Nettie Palmer in 1958. Photographer unknown. Copy supplied by John Barnes.' Courtesy of State Library Victoria.
Nettie Palmer: Search for an Aesthetic, Deborah Jordan, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 1999.
Nettie Palmer; Her Private Journal ‘Fourteen Years’, Poems, Reviews and Literary Essays, Vivian Smith (ed.),UQP, St Lucia, 1988
'Palmer, Janet Gertrude (Nettie) (1885–1964)', D. J. Jordan, Australian Dictionary of Biography