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Lindsay, John (Jack) (1900–1990)

by Paul Gillen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Jack Lindsay, by Alec Bolton, 1985

Jack Lindsay, by Alec Bolton, 1985

National Library of Australia, 14469182

John (‘Jack’) Lindsay (1900-1990), writer and polymath, was born on 20 October 1900 in East Melbourne, eldest of three sons of Victorian-born Norman Lindsay, artist, and his first wife Kathleen Agatha, née Parkinson, who was born in India.  Known as Jack, he spent his early childhood in Sydney but, when his parents separated in 1909, his mother took him and his brothers Raymond and Philip to Brisbane to be near her sister.  For the next ten years Jack spent much time in the household of his aunt and her husband J. S. C. Elkington.  His academic ability earned him scholarships to Brisbane Grammar School (1914-17) and the University of Queensland (BA Hons, 1921), where he studied classics under J. L. Michie.  Norman Lindsay had no contact with his son until 1919 when the two established an intimate emotional and intellectual bond that was to last through the 1920s.

Missing out on the university’s 1921 travelling scholarship (awarded to his friend Eric Partridge), Jack abandoned a promising academic career and moved to Sydney, where he became a prolific critic and enthusiastic advocate of his father’s Nietzschean philosophy, which critics have called 'vitalism'.  Vitalism affirmed that life finds its highest realisation in creative inspiration.  It celebrated energy, play and sexuality, and was fiercely anti-Christian and anti-modernist, looking to the Greco-Roman world for artistic inspiration.  To it Jack brought distinctive interpretations of William Blake, the French philosopher Henri Bergson, and the Cambridge classicist Jane Harrison.

On 27 October 1922 at the district registrar’s office, Waverton, he married Janet Beaton, granddaughter of W. B. Dalley.  He published a book of verse Fauns and Ladies (1923) and, with Kenneth Slessor, edited (1923-24) the literary journal Vision.  In 1926 Lindsay left his wife and travelled to London with John Kirtley to set up Fanfrolico Press.  It produced an impressive list of classics and literary curiosities, including Lindsay’s own Greek and Latin translations and other books illustrated by Norman.  Next year Kirtley was replaced at the press by P. R. Stephensen, whose place in turn was taken in 1929 by Brian Penton.  Lindsay and Stephensen also founded and edited (1928-29) the London Aphrodite, which they intended as a cheeky riposte to the establishment London Mercury.

Fanfrolico was declared bankrupt in December 1930.  After a bitter rift with his father, Lindsay withdrew to Cornwall with his psychologically disturbed lover, the poet Elza de Locre (d.1941).  Poverty-stricken and emotionally strained, he refashioned himself as a historical novelist, beginning with Rome for Sale (1934).  Writing about the past helped prepare him for a belief in Marxism.  His conversion to communism in 1936 triggered an almost manic creative outpouring, and in the following years he wrote some of his best and most characteristic work including a psychoanalytic study, John Bunyan, Maker of Myths (1937); a trilogy of novels about revolutionary periods of English history, 1649: A Novel of a Year (1938), Lost Birthright (1939) and Men of Forty-Eight (1948); performance poetry for political rallies; and A Short History of Culture (1939), in which he attempted to explain his vitalist theory.

Conscripted to the British Army in 1941, Lindsay served with the signals corps before being seconded to the Army Bureau of Current Affairs to write and produce political plays for the troops.  He spent the last years of World War II in London, associating with writers and intellectuals in the Communist Party of Great Britain, among them E. P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and Doris Lessing.  At this time he formed a relationship with Ann Davies, an actor for Unity Theatre.

After the war Lindsay continued to be politically active, co-editing (1949-51) the Communist Party journal Arena and helping to manage the party-affiliated Fore Publications.  He and Ann travelled extensively in Europe, especially Russia and Eastern Europe, and some of his novels were later published in communist states.  They left London in 1951 to settle in the Essex village of Castle Hedingham.  After Ann’s death in 1954 Lindsay lived there with Dutch-born Meta Waterdrinker, a divorcee with whom he had two children.  He wrote Betrayed Spring (1953), about the 1948 dockers’ strike, the first of nine novels on contemporary British class politics.  In his last decades, politically disappointed though never disillusioned, he concentrated on books for a broad readership about the Greco-Roman world, and biographies of famous artists, including J. M. W. Turner (1966), Cézanne (1969) and William Morris (1975).  Janet Lindsay died in 1973, and on 17 July 1974 at the register office, Braintree, Essex, he married Meta, who had changed her name by deed poll to Lindsay.

Lindsay maintained an extensive correspondence with left-wing writers and intellectuals around the world, meeting many in London or inviting them to Essex.  His early literary works, translations of classical authors and poetry in the Georgian style, were dominated by ancient Greece and Rome and the Hyperborean fantasy worlds so loved by his father, and made few references to Australia.  Yet Australia continued to shape his identity and imagination.  In the 1930s he had written a young-reader’s book about the Eureka stockade, Rebels of the Goldfields (1936), and a novel about anarchists in Brisbane during World War I, The Blood Vote, which was not published until 1985.  In the 1950s and 1960s he contributed a series of distinguished critical essays to Meanjin, most of them on contemporary Australian fiction by authors such as Patrick White, Alan Marshall, Katharine Susannah Prichard and Vance Palmer.  He also wrote an autobiographical trilogy of his first three decades, published in one volume as Life Rarely Tells (1982).  He was awarded the Australian Literary Society’s gold medal in 1960.

While Lindsay rejected many of his father’s attitudes, particularly Norman’s reactionary politics and masculinism, his eclectic communism was framed by the enduring influence of vitalism.  He used the dicta that all things are connected and that life and art are ultimately one to justify the remarkable variety of his output, which ranged freely over topics as diverse as Greek science, the Provençal troubadours, Latin poets and British history.  His vast, diverse output of more than 150 books is uneven.  For Doris Lessing he was 'perhaps the purest example I know of a good writer done in by the Party', but loyalty to a political creed cannot be entirely blamed for his stylistic deficiencies.  At its best imaginative and vigorous, Lindsay’s prose was always hampered by haste and lack of revision.  In later years, when he often felt 'chained to the typewriter', it could be meandering and turgid.

The University of Queensland conferred on Lindsay an honorary D.Litt. in 1973 and he was appointed AM in 1981.  He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (1946) and of the Australian Academy of the Humanities (1982).  Stocky in build, Lindsay had piercing blue eyes.  Acquaintances noted the hectic pace of his soft-spoken conversation, similar to his father’s.  Throughout adult life he maintained a bohemian carelessness about his clothes and grooming.  In 1984 he moved to Cambridge, where he died on 8 March 1990.  His wife and their son and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Mackie (ed), Jack Lindsay, 1984
  • B. Smith (ed), Culture and History, 1984
  • B. Smith (ed), The Death of the Artist as Hero, 1988
  • P. Kirkpatrick, The Sea Coast of Bohemia, 1992
  • G. Andrews et al (eds), Opening the Books, 1995
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004
  • Southerly, vol 60, no 1, 2000, p 58
  • P. Gillen, 'Tending the Birth of a Better World', Meanjin, vol 60, no 3, 2001, p 110
  • Meanjin, vol 63, no 3, 2004, p 65
  • H. de Berg, interview with J. Lindsay (ts, 1970, National Library of Australia)
  • J. Arnold, interview with J. Lindsay (1982, National Library of Australia)
  • Jack Lindsay papers (National Library of Australia)

Citation details

Paul Gillen, 'Lindsay, John (Jack) (1900–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lindsay-john-jack-14177/text25189, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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