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Marjorie Faith (Marjory) Barnard (1897–1987)

by Jill Roe

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Marjorie Faith (Marjory) Barnard (1897-1987), writer and historian, was born on 16 August 1897 at Ashfield, Sydney, only child of Sydney-born parents Oswald Holme Barnard, clerk, and his wife Ethel Frances, née Alford, and was baptised in the Anglican church. A delicate child devoted to her mother, Marjorie was stricken with poliomyelitis and was, at first, educated at home. Aged 10, she was enrolled at Florence Hooper’s Cambridge School, Hunters Hill. In 1911 she moved to Sydney Girls’ High School, where she completed the Leaving certificate, matriculating with a bursary in March 1916. She was pleased to leave school, but was 'in love with learning'.

At the University of Sydney (BA, 1920) Barnard graduated with first-class honours and the university medal in history. Well regarded by the history professor George Arnold Wood, she was offered a scholarship to the University of Oxford. However her father, now a strict Presbyterian, prevented her from taking it up. In retrospect she thought he resented her abilities, and they were barely reconciled by 1940 when he died.

Barnard began work at the Public Library of New South Wales, where she topped library school examinations in 1921. Later she was transferred to Sydney Technical College, where she was librarian-in-charge from 1925. She pursued her writing at night. Her first book, short stories of childhood entitled The Ivory Gate, was published by Henry Champion in 1920.

On weekends, Barnard and Flora Eldershaw, a friend 'of the first importance' from student days, discussed collaborating on novels. A lucrative prize announced by the Bulletin in 1927 spurred them on. In 1928, as 'M. Barnard Eldershaw', they entered A House is Built (1929), a mercantile saga with a patriarchal theme set in nineteenth-century Sydney. To their astonishment, it was declared joint winner with Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo (1929). Their book was acclaimed by no less a writer than Arnold Bennett and is now regarded as a minor classic. Barnard would later ruefully recall it as her most successful literary work, 'because it’s ordinary'. At the time she asserted that the flawless collaboration was really quite simple: library research, agreed themes, allocation and exchange of chapters, and review.

Barnard and Eldershaw immediately embarked on a second novel, Green Memory (1931), with a similar setting and another patriarchal subject. It was less well received, and by 1932, Barnard’s heart was set on short-story writing. But Harrap declined to publish her efforts, a verdict upheld by her recently acquired mentor Nettie Palmer, and she had no success until 1936, when the first of numerous stories appeared in The Home. The Persimmon Tree and Other Stories (1943) came to be seen as one of her finest achievements, and a posthumous collection of stories by her and by M. Barnard Eldershaw, But Not for Love, appeared in 1988.

Photographs show the young Marjorie Barnard with high, wide cheek-bones and clear eyes behind thin-rimmed glasses. Shy but opinionated, she joined the main Sydney literary societies—the Society of Women Writers of New South Wales and the Henry Lawson Literary Society (1929), the Australian English Association (1930), the Sydney PEN Club (1931) and the Fellowship of Australian Writers (mid-1930s)—but without much enthusiasm. She also joined the Women’s Club, and on occasion wrote speeches of feminist import for Flora Eldershaw, for example 'Contemporary Australian Women Voters'. When she first met Frank Dalby Davison, in 1934, she surprised him with her sharp remarks.

In 1933 Barnard had taken six months’ leave and travelled overseas with her mother. She wrote 'The Conquest of Europe', an unpublished play, on the way home. In 1935 she resigned her job to write full time. Shipboard interactions provided the dynamic for Barnard Eldershaw’s next novel, The Glasshouse (1936). It was followed by Plaque with Laurel (1937), an acutely observed account of a literary gathering in Canberra.

As the world situation worsened, Barnard became more politically active. In 1935 she began a secret affair with Davison. With Eldershaw they were known as 'the triumvirate': they hosted literary soirées in a flat in King’s Cross, and together with other dedicated writers, notably Jean Devanny and Miles Franklin, vigorously promoted writers’ rights and opposed censorship. Essays in Australian Fiction (Barnard Eldershaw, 1938) evinced Barnard’s concern for mature literary values. In 1939 Barnard Eldershaw contributed an essay on peace to the FAW’s shelved `Writers in Defence of Freedom’.

The onset of World War II caused Barnard 'horror and grief'. Her attempt at a manifesto, 'The Case for the Future', written for the Australian Peace Pledge Union, which she joined in 1939, and contributions to the local Council for the Unemployed’s newsletter, show that an alleged indifference to politics has little basis in fact. In 1940 she joined the Australian Labor Party. But as a pacifist she was at odds with the times and, worse, with the Palmers.

Barnard’s fifth novel in collaboration with Flora Eldershaw was written in 1941-43, when fear of invasion was intense. Censored in 1944 and published in expurgated form in 1947 as Tomorrow and Tomorrow, the complex and challenging futurist fiction fell flat, due to changed circumstances and the cuts. Its reception marked the end of the collaboration. Barnard never again published a novel (although she did complete one in 1969, 'The Gulf Stream', set in the Blue Mountains after 1945). When reissued in full by Virago in 1983 under its original title, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow was instantly recognised as a masterwork. Barnard deserves most credit for the writing and approach. However recent research suggests a true collaboration, despite emergent ideological differences and Eldershaw’s move to Canberra in 1941.

For Marjorie Barnard, history was one of the creative arts. Before World War II Barnard Eldershaw had published three historical monographs of significance: the sesquicentennial Phillip of Australia (1938), dedicated to Wood; a fluent overview entitled My Australia (1939); and, in a luxury edition illustrated by Adrian Feint, The Life and Times of Captain John Piper (1939). Thereafter, as sole author, Barnard published seven historical works. In 1941 came Macquarie’s World, dedicated to Davison. The book was a delight to generations of history students but displeasing to Malcolm Ellis, whose charge of plagiarism was dismissed by the publisher. Australian Outline (1943), a striking miniature, and several deft minor works on Sydney history and biography which appeared over the next two decades, underpinned her magnum opus, A History of Australia (1962). But the History was another disappointment to her, due to drab presentation and grudging reviews; that she was the first Australian woman to meet the challenge of general history passed unnoticed. She was ahead of her times in highlighting social history and biography, and outstanding among the first generation of women historians trained in Australia.

With her turn to history, Barnard’s reputation as a writer suffered an eclipse. However, she wrote lectures for the library school, and published short stories and a serial (in the Australian Women’s Digest). In 1945 Barnard and Eldershaw delivered the Commonwealth Literary Fund lectures at the University of Sydney. Next year Barnard Eldershaw edited the short-story annual Coast To Coast, and later Barnard contributed reviews and critical essays to the literary journals Southerly and Meanjin. Notable outcomes of a long correspondence (1944-74) with the Meanjin editor Clem Christesen were articles on Miles Franklin (in 1955), on Patrick White (in 1956), and on the creation of Tomorrow and Tomorrow (in 1970).

The war had brought drastic changes to Barnard’s personal life. She was now without regular contact with Eldershaw ('Teenie'); her relationship with Davison ended abruptly in mid-1942; and in that year, after stress-related ill health, she returned to work to support her widowed mother. As the librarian for the Division of Radiophysics and the National Standards Laboratory, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization), Barnard earned the respect and affection of her staff. But 'housekeeping for scientists' and CSIR’s failure in 1946 to publish her history of radar, 'One Single Weapon', affected her.

After Barnard’s mother’s death in 1949, a friend, Vera Murdoch, came to live with her in the family home at Longueville. Marjorie had met 'Vee' aboard ship in 1933 and they shared a passion for travel. Following Barnard’s resignation from work in 1950, they embarked on extended and increasingly venturesome trips abroad, which punctuated sustained periods of research and writing. Barnard’s last major work, a commissioned biography of Miles Franklin, appeared in 1967. Written with misgivings and before the release of Franklin’s voluminous papers, it exhibited characteristic virtues, with insight and style making up for ambivalence and inevitable error.

In 1973 the State branch of the Society of Women Writers (Australia) gave Barnard a seventy-sixth birthday party and in 1989 it instituted a triennial award in her name for a published book. She had been appointed OAM in 1980. Three years later she received the Patrick White award, next year a New South Wales premier’s special award. In 1985 the Lane Cove Library created the Marjorie Barnard local studies room to acknowledge her association with the area. The University of Sydney conferred on her an honorary D.Litt. (1986). She died on 8 May 1987 at North Gosford and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • L. E. Rorabacher, Marjorie Barnard and M. Barnard Eldershaw (1973)
  • C. Baker, Yacker 2 (1987)
  • G. Giuffre, A Writing Life (1990)
  • C. Ferrier (ed), As Good as a Yarn with You (1992)
  • B. H. Fletcher, History and Achievement (1999)
  • J. Roe, `The Historical Imagination and Its Enemies: M. Barnard Eldershaw’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow’, Meanjin, vol 43, no 2, 1984, p 241
  • Hecate, vol 17, no 2, 1991, p 9
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Nov 1983, p 43, 14 May 1986, p 9, 9 May 1987, p 6
  • R. Darby, While Freedom Lives (PhD thesis, ADFA, 1989)
  • Marjorie Barnard papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jill Roe, 'Barnard, Marjorie Faith (Marjory) (1897–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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