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Palmer, Janet Gertrude (Nettie) (1885–1964)

by D. J. Jordan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Janet Gertrude Palmer (1885-1964), by Lina Bryans, 1958

Janet Gertrude Palmer (1885-1964), by Lina Bryans, 1958

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an7568650

Janet Gertrude (Nettie) Palmer (1885-1964), writer and critic, was born on 18 August 1885 at Sandhurst (Bendigo), Victoria, only daughter of John Higgins, Irish-born draper and later accountant, and his wife Catherine, née McDonald. In the early 1890s the family moved to Armadale, Melbourne. Nettie felt isolated as a child; her only brother Esmonde was not born until 1897. Their upbringing was austere, their Baptist parents believing in 'high thinking and plain living'. Nettie began writing early, encouraged by her uncle Henry Bournes Higgins whom she had, as a small child, confused with God. She wrote in part to define her spiritual existence, in revolt against her parents' strict religious observances.

Nettie's education began at home with her mother and continued at Miss Rudd's Seminary at Malvern. In 1900-04 she attended Presbyterian Ladies' College where she formed lasting friendships with Christian Jollie Smith and Hilda Bull. P.L.C. nurtured both her scholastic and literary talents and she began to publish prose and verse. In 1903 she matriculated with honours in English Literature, French and Latin and also excelled in history, while struggling with compulsory mathematics.

In 1905 Nettie enrolled at the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1909; M.A., 1912). She was awarded the exhibition and first-class honours in first-year English and gained honours in modern languages. Her parents restricted her social activities but she participated in student affairs. Through H. B. Higgins she was introduced to the political events of the day and in 1905 to the Literature Society of Melbourne where Bernard O'Dowd, with whom she shared an almost mystical appreciation of the bush, shaped her commitment to socialism and cultural nationalism. While studying for her final-honours examinations in classical philology in which she gained a third class, in January 1909 she met Vance Palmer.

Financed by her father and uncle, in 1910-11 Nettie studied for the diploma of the International Phonetics Association in Germany, France and England. On the fringes of the suffrage movement, she was influenced by the works of G. B. Shaw and Henri Bergson and through Vance was introduced to guild socialism. Returning to Melbourne in 1912, Nettie taught modern languages at P.L.C. and began to write cultural criticism for the socialist press. Intellectually and morally rigorous, she continued to question her relationship to the Christian faith and to socialism, and became involved with Frederick Sinclaire's Free Religious Fellowship.

In 1914 Nettie revisited London and married Palmer on 23 May in Chelsea Chapel with Baptist forms. In Brittany when the war broke out, the Palmers returned to London where their daughter Aileen was born. Nettie published two slim volumes of poetry, South Wind (1914) and Shadowy Paths (1915).

The Palmers returned to Melbourne in 1915 and moved to Katharine Prichard's cottage at Emerald. Their second daughter Helen was born in 1917. Unable to have further children, Nettie felt 'forced into the preoccupation with outside matters which is usually the affair of women who have lived their life and finished it'. With Vance she was publicly outspoken in opposing censorship and conscription. She began a regular literary column in the Argus and with Christian Jollie Smith edited a collection of essays by the socialist E. J. Villiers. During Vance's absence in 1918-19 with the Australian Imperial Force she lived with her aunt Ina Higgins and taught privately. Her relationship with her brother became tense after Esmonde became a committed Marxist.

On Vance's return the family again lived at Emerald where Nettie taught her daughters. She felt life in the bush was important for quiet, considered work but also believed in the importance of cherishing an attachment to the soil. A series in the Argus was later published as The Dandenongs (1952). In 1925 they moved to Caloundra, Queensland.

In the 1920s Nettie emerged as possibly the most important literary critic in Australia. After the publication of Modern Australian Literature 1900-1923 (1924), a landmark in criticism which won the Lothian essay prize, she had many more regular outlets, notably her weekly literary causerie in the Illustrated Tasmanian Mail (212 articles in 5½ years), the Brisbane Courier, All About Books and the Bulletin Red Page. Regularly signing two or three articles a week of about 2000 words, she also used occasional pseudonyms. Her contribution to the modest Palmer income was vital.

With Vance, Nettie was committed to the development of a national literature as a means of achieving a more enlightened community. Much of her writing dealt with the themes, subjects and idiom of Australian writers, notably Henry Handel Richardson. She played a seminal role in establishing the canons of Australian literary criticism but she also wrote widely on world literature. Some of her essays were published in Talking it Over (1932); her 1928 anthology, An Australian Story-Book, set standards for the short story. Nettie's lively correspondence from Caloundra, and from 1929 from Melbourne, established a network of contact and encouragement between many Australian and overseas writers and intellectuals, and especially for young women writers such as Marjorie Barnard and Eleanor Dark for whom she provided an anchor. In 1931 she published her biography, Henry Bournes Higgins, and in 1934 she co-edited The Centenary Gift Book. Active in the Australian Literature Society, the Verse-Speaking Association, and later the Fellowship of Australian Writers, she lectured and broadcasted.

In 1932 the Palmers camped for eight months on Green Island, Queensland, where Dora Birtles described how Nettie 'liked people, she found out whatever was worthy of appreciation in them and encouraged them with a small personal song of praise'. She was always the same, Marjorie Tipping remembered. 'She bubbled along with her enthusiasms'. 'In height she was probably five feet five inches [165 cm] … and medium in build. She was handsome, in spite of her complete lack of care for her personal appearance. She had dark straight hair … and quizzical eyes that expressed something of her animated personality even before she began to speak'. Most writers found Nettie's personality warm, her letters supportive and her criticism stimulating, but a few found her patronizing and self assured.

She became increasingly involved in political issues as her hopes for a more integrated world diminished. In 1935 in Paris she attended the first International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture. After living in Spain in 1936, she improved her Spanish, largely in order to grasp South American literature. On her return to Melbourne the fight against Fascism became her major concern. She was a member of the Spanish Relief Committee with whom she published several booklets, and of the Joint Spanish Aid Council. She spoke about Spain, notably in a notorious debate at the University of Melbourne in 1937. Active in literary groups for the 'defence of culture', she was Melbourne editor of a Sydney anti-Fascist journal for women, a member of the Victorian branch of the International Refugee Emergency Committee and taught English to migrants to whom she was a 'guiding angel'.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s Nettie's self-professed role was largely that of 'a liaison officer in literary life'; she edited memoirs, collections of poems and short stories, wrote introductions and translated. While continuing to encourage younger writers and to publish in journals such as Meanjin, she no longer reviewed regularly. She lectured for the Commonwealth Literary Fund and the university extension board and was a member of the Goethe Society. In 1948 Meanjin Press published Fourteen Years: Extracts from a Private Journal 1925-1939, often seen as her most important work. She published the first major study of Henry Handel Richardson in 1950 and Bernard O'Dowd (1954), a thorough revision of Victor Kennedy's manuscript.

A. D. Hope has highly praised Nettie Palmer's 'intellectual toughness' and the distinctive quality of her writing: 'the accent of good talk and the unaffected charm of a stimulating personal conversation … a style at once feminine, Australian and civilised'. She was 'a really professional writer in the European sense'.

In uncertain health from the 1940s, Nettie spent much time caring for ill and elderly relations. Nevertheless, she actively continued her championship of and care for Australian writers, her generosity to all inquirers and her interest in the new. Her ability to wear her extensive scholarship lightly—perhaps too lightly—stands out in her sensitive criticism. She had subsumed some of her creative talents and early feminism to support of her husband and the cause of a national literature. No public honour was offered to this eminent citizen. Survived by her daughters, she died at Hawthorn on 19 October 1964, and was cremated. A portrait by Lina Bryans is held by the National Library of Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Modjeska, Exiles at Home (Syd, 1981)
  • J. Rickard, H. B. Higgins, the Rebel as Judge (Syd, 1984)
  • Overland, no 100, Sept 1985
  • D. Jordan, Nettie Palmer: Australian Women and Writing, 1885-1925 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1982)
  • H. B. Higgins papers (National Library of Australia)
  • E. M. Higgins papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

D. J. Jordan, 'Palmer, Janet Gertrude (Nettie) (1885–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/palmer-janet-gertrude-nettie-7948/text13835, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 22 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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