Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Keesing, Nancy Florence (1923–1993)

by Elizabeth Webby

This article was published online in 2017

Nancy Florence Keesing (1923–1993), writer, was born on 7 September 1923 at Darling Point, Sydney, elder of two daughters of New Zealand-born parents Gordon Samuel Keesing, architect, and his wife Margery Isabel Rahel, née Hart. Nancy grew up in Darling Point and was educated at Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar School, Darlinghurst, and Frensham, Mittagong. During World War II she was employed as a clerk in the Department of the Navy, as described in her memoir Garden Island People (1975). She then studied social work at the University of Sydney (Dip.Soc.Stud., 1947) and worked at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children (1947–51). On 2 February 1955 she married Adolphus Marcus (Mark) Hertzberg, chemical engineer, at the Great Synagogue, Sydney.

Keesing’s parents were both readers, with her mother, to whom she remained close, being interested in contemporary poetry and fiction. She inherited their love of books and wrote poems and stories from childhood. In 1951 she began work with the Sydney magazine the Bulletin, where the poet Douglas Stewart had been literary editor since 1940. They had met in 1946, after Keesing had had poems published in the Bulletin and was beginning the close association with Sydney’s literary circles that continued throughout her life. Initially she worked one day a week, carrying out research for a proposed history of the Bulletin, and later assisting Stewart in the preparation of two jointly edited anthologies, Australian Bush Ballads (1955) and Old Bush Songs and Rhymes of Colonial Times (1957). From 1952 to 1956 (the year of the birth of her first child), she worked full time at the Bulletin, also writing many reviews and articles.

Through Stewart and other literary friends, Keesing became active in the Sydney branch of the English Association, publishers of the literary journal Southerly, continuing to serve on its committee until her final illness. Although joining in 1964, and therefore not a foundation member, she later also became deeply involved in the Australian Society of Authors (ASA). In 1969 she was elected to the management committee, and she edited an anthology of members’ work, Transition (1970), as well as their journal Australian Author (1971–74).

In 1973 the Whitlam government announced a reorganisation of the Australian Council for the Arts, which was now to include a literature board. Keesing was one of eleven writers and academics appointed to the new board; she chaired it from 1974 to 1977. In 1979 she was appointed AM for her services to Australian literature.

Throughout her life, Keesing continued to write and edit, publishing twenty-six books in a range of genres. Her first collection of poems, Imminent Summer, appeared in 1951; her fifth, the posthumous The Woman I Am (1995), was edited by Meg Stewart, daughter of Douglas. She also wrote a short critical monograph, Douglas Stewart (1965), and two children’s books set in nineteenth-century Australia. Edited works included collections of material on the gold rushes, the Kelly gang, and Australian motherhood, as well as Shalom (1978), an anthology of Australian Jewish stories. Her continuing interest in folklore led to Lily on the Dustbin: Slang of Australian Women and Families (1982) and a sequel, Just Look Out the Window (1985). Riding the Elephant (1988), her memoir, recalls her family life, youthful enthusiasms and ambitions, and later literary associations, giving lively portraits of friends, and the occasional foe.

Keesing also reviewed Australian fiction, poetry, and non-fiction for Southerly, the Australian Book Review, the Sydney Morning Herald, and other major newspapers, and was an early champion of the work of David Martin and Elizabeth Jolley, among others. In 1975, when critical material on recent Australian fiction was difficult to come by, she edited Australian Postwar Novelists: Selected Critical Essays.

Short-sighted since her childhood, Keesing was known for her large glasses, wide smile, and ready laugh. Friends remembered her honesty and generosity, and her lack of affectation. In addition to providing personal encouragement to many writers, in 1984 she helped establish the ASA Writers Benevolent Fund with a donation of $5,000. In 1985 she endowed the Keesing Studio in Paris in memory of her parents. This writer’s fellowship, administered by the literature board, allows holders to spend six months working in Paris.

Survived by her always supportive husband, and their daughter and son, Keesing died on 19 January 1993 at Hunters Hill and was buried in the Jewish section of Northern Suburbs cemetery. A bequest left to the ASA was used to establish the Keesing Press. Mark Hertzberg donated funds to the State Library of New South Wales for an annual Nancy Keesing Fellowship, which supports research using the library’s resources into any aspect of Australian life and culture.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Hellyer, Jill. ‘Nancy Keesing 1923–1993.’ Australian Author 25, no. 1 (Autumn 1993): 30
  • Keesing, Nancy. Riding the Elephant. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1988
  • Stewart, Meg. ‘Remembering Nancy Keesing.’ The Sydney Papers 7, no. 3 (Winter 1995): 18–29

Citation details

Elizabeth Webby, 'Keesing, Nancy Florence (1923–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/keesing-nancy-florence-17853/text29440, published online 2017, accessed online 25 November 2017.

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