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Hanrahan, Barbara Janice (1939–1991)

by Elaine Lindsay

This article was published online in 2014

Barbara Janice Hanrahan (1939-1991), writer and artist, was born on 6 September 1939 in Adelaide, only child of South Australian-born William Maurice (Bob) Hanrahan (d. 1940), labourer, and his wife Rhonda (Ronda) Gwenlythian, née Goodridge, commercial artist. Barbara was raised by her mother, her grandmother Iris Goodridge, and her great-aunt Reece Nobes in the working-class suburb of Thebarton. She was educated at Thebarton Technical School, Adelaide Teachers’ College, and the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts (later the South Australian School of Art). In 1960 her prints attracted critical approval in an exhibition of student work and she won the Harry P. Gill Memorial Medal for Applied Art. After graduation, she taught art at Strathmont and Elizabeth Girls' Technical High schools then accepted an appointment as assistant lecturer in art at the Western Teachers College, commencing in 1962. She had won the Cornell Prize for painting the previous year.

Hanrahan enrolled in printmaking at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London, in 1963. She taught at the Falmouth School of Art, Cornwall (1966-67), and the Portsmouth College of Art (1967-70). During this period she had an abortion, the memory of which tormented her for the rest of her life. She commenced a relationship with South Australian-born Jo Steele, subsequently a sculptor of note, in 1966. The couple commuted between London and Adelaide for the next twenty years; they never married and had no children.

In London Hanrahan turned seriously to writing. The death of her grandmother in 1968 prompted nostalgia for her Adelaide childhood, resulting in the memoir The Scent of Eucalyptus (1973). In her subsequent autobiographical fictions and memoirs—Sea Green (1974), Kewpie Doll (1984), Iris in Her Garden (1991), and Michael and Me and the Sun (1992)—she returned repeatedly to her early years. Only in her diaries, published posthumously, did she write of her later years. These reveal her sometimes fragile psychological state and her sense of being two people, one hungering for critical recognition and commercial success, the other desperate to live apart from the world.

Between 1973 and 1992 Hanrahan produced fifteen books. In addition to the autobiographical works already mentioned, she wrote a series of gothic novels—The Albatross Muff (1977), Where the Queens All Strayed (1978), The Peach Groves (1979), The Frangipani Gardens (1980), and Dove (1982)—and a series of biographical fictions based on the lives of people known to her—Annie Magdalene (1985), Dream People (1987), A Chelsea Girl (1988), Flawless Jade (1989), and Good Night, Mr Moon (1992). In her gothic novels she created a fantastic world where evil, carnality, and greed ran unchecked. Her biographical fictions, in contrast, were affectionate celebrations of the hidden spirituality of working-class people. Here she offered Australians, used to extolling the virtues of explorers, soldiers, and sportsmen, an alternative set of heroes, notable for their courage in enduring everyday life.

Originally dismissive of the idea that she could be an artist and a writer, Hanrahan came to view these forms of creativity as complementary—printmaking was instinctive and writing was intellectual. Happiest when making prints, she created more than four hundred and her works are held in most major Australian galleries. She taught art part time until 1981. In 1977 she had been awarded a one-year fellowship from the literature board of the Australia Council. This was followed by a special purpose grant and a one-year fellowship from the literature board in 1980, a further one-year fellowship in 1982, a six-month general writing grant in 1983, and a prestigious two-year senior fellowship in 1984. That year Hanrahan was diagnosed with cancer: a malignant sarcoma was removed from the base of her spine and she went into remission for nearly four years but was never free of pain.

Although culturally Christian (and nominally Catholic), Hanrahan embraced an intense, idiosyncratic spirituality where art and writing were her religion. Her medical condition intensified a long held belief that it would be a sin for her to fail to complete the ‘terrible creative task’ of revealing God’s goodness through her work (Hanrahan 1998, 182). She set aside other distractions and, with Steele’s support, completed seven books, published a book of linocuts, and held multiple art exhibitions in Australia following her diagnosis. During her final periods of hospitalisation, she was still researching and planning literary projects.

A feeling of relative equanimity permeates her diaries from 1984. Whereas her earlier diaries were highly critical of other people and full of self-doubt, Hanrahan came to look for the good that would come out of her sickness. Her diaries reveal a love of life and the natural world and record her perception of the simultaneous presence of a spirit world. She believed death would not be a sadness for she would be reunited with her grandmother and father.

Survived by Steele, Hanrahan died on 1 December 1991 in Adelaide. Her last words, as she slipped into a coma, were: ‘I’m happier than I have ever been and I don’t want anyone to pity me’ (quoted in Hanrahan 1998, xx-xxi). She is buried in the same grave as her grandmother at the West Terrace cemetery. The Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship for South Australian writers was established in her memory, and a building at the University of South Australia’s City West campus was named after her.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Baker, Candida. Yacker 2: Australian Writers Talk about Their Work. Sydney: Pan, 1987
  • Carroll, Alison. Barbara Hanrahan Printmaker. Netley, SA: Wakefield Press, 1986
  • Hanrahan, Barbara. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 13 October 1982. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Hanrahan, Barbara. Papers. MS 7754. National Library of Australia
  • Hanrahan, Barbara. The Diaries of Barbara Hanrahan, edited by Elaine Lindsay. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1998
  • Lindsay, Elaine. Re-Writing God: Spirituality in Contemporary Australian Women’s Fiction. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000
  • Mott, Julie. ‘Interview with Barbara Hanrahan (1980).’ Australian Literary Studies 11, no. 1 (1983): 38-46
  • Stewart, Annette. Barbara Hanrahan: A Biography. Kent Town, SA: Wakefield Press, 2010
  • Stewart, Annette. Woman and Herself: A Critical Study of the Works of Barbara Hanrahan. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1998
  • The Barbara Hanrahan Memorial Exhibition. Compiled by Barbara Holbourn. Adelaide: Libraries Board of South Australia, 1994. Exhibition Catalogue

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Elaine Lindsay, 'Hanrahan, Barbara Janice (1939–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hanrahan-barbara-janice-15025/text26221, published online 2014, accessed online 27 May 2019.

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