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Palmer, Aileen Yvonne (1915–1988)

by Sylvia Martin

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

Aileen Palmer, by Peggy Maguire, 1939

Aileen Palmer, by Peggy Maguire, 1939

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2283023

Aileen Yvonne Palmer (1915-1988), poet, translator and political activist, was born on 6 April 1915 in London, elder daughter of Australian-born writers Edward Vivian (Vance) Palmer and his wife Janet (Nettie) Gertrude, née Higgins.  The Palmers arrived back in Australia in October that year.  Aileen and her sister Helen were home-schooled by Nettie in the Dandenongs, near Melbourne, and then at Caloundra, Queensland.  In 1929 the family returned to Melbourne; Aileen attended Presbyterian Ladies’ College and graduated with first-class honours in French language and literature from the University of Melbourne (BA, 1935).  She also studied German, Spanish and Russian.

Politically conscious from an early age, as an undergraduate Palmer was involved with the Melbourne University Labor Club and the left-wing Victorian Writers’ League, through which she helped to organise the campaign for Egon Kisch in 1934.  She joined the Communist Party of Australia in April that year.  Travelling to England with her family early in 1935, she took part in anti-fascist rallies in London and spent three months in Vienna translating the work of the German writer Helene Scheu-Riesz.  In Spain with her parents in 1936, translating for the Popular Olympics that were planned as a left-wing counter to the Berlin games, she was caught up in the July uprising in Barcelona that heralded the start of the Spanish Civil War.  After briefly returning to London, as secretary and interpreter she joined the first British medical unit to travel to Spain and worked close to the front lines with the International Brigades until 1938.  Back in London, she wrote 'Last Mile to Huesca', an unpublished novel based on her experiences.  During World War II Palmer drove ambulances for the Auxiliary Ambulance Service at Stepney, leaving in 1943 to work at Australia House.

Palmer was ambivalent about returning to Australia but eventually responded in 1945 to a cable from her sister informing her that her mother had suffered a mild stroke.  She found it hard to settle in Melbourne after a decade in Europe, much of which had been spent in war zones, but continued her political activity and her writing.  In 1948 she suffered the first of a series of mental breakdowns and spent long periods of her remaining years in psychiatric institutions.

A peace activist, Palmer visited Tokyo and China in 1957.  Her translations from French of the poems of the Vietnamese dissident To Huu (1959) and of Ho Chi Minh’s Prison Diary (1962) were published in Hanoi.  She published articles and poems in Melbourne left-wing journals, such as The Realist and Overland, and a volume of original poems and translations, World Without Strangers? (1964).  Much of her writing, including the unfinished autobiographical novel 'Pilgrim’s Way', remains unpublished.

Palmer’s friendships with older writers from her parents’ circle, notably Katharine Susannah Prichard and Flora Eldershaw, were important influences on her writing and politics.  Sturdy, with short dark hair and a strong Palmer profile, she never married; the lesbian historian, Sally Newman, analysed an autobiographical novel written while Palmer was an adolescent and her later diaries, and concluded that her sexual orientation was probably lesbian.  Palmer died on 21 December 1988 at Ballarat East and was buried in the local cemetery.  The National Library of Australia holds two portraits of Palmer, painted in London in 1938 and 1939 by Peggy Maguire, although there is some doubt about the provenance.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Caine et al (eds), Crossing Boundaries (1988)
  • M. Dever et al, The Intimate Archive (2009)
  • Hecate, vol 26, no 1, 2000, p 10
  • Women’s History Review, vol 11, no 3, 2002, p 505
  • S. Martin, 'A Linguist for the Republicans', National Library of Australia News, September 2008, p 11, and 'Aileen Palmer - 20th Century Pilgrim', Hecate, vol 35, nos 1-2, 2009, p 94, and 'Tracing Aileen Palmer', Heat, 20, 2009, p 67
  • A6119, item 111 (National Archives of Australia)
  • A., H., V. and N. Palmer papers (National Library of Australia)

Citation details

Sylvia Martin, 'Palmer, Aileen Yvonne (1915–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/palmer-aileen-yvonne-15015/text26211, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 November 2017.

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

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