Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 28, 2009

Opening Lines: The Big Fellow by Vance Palmer (1959)

The BIg FellowVance Palmer (1885-1959) is probably best-known amongst my generation for his non-fiction title The Legend of the Nineties and National Portraits because they were on school reading lists, but he won the Miles Franklin in 1959 for The Big Fellow. According to the dust jacket, it was third of a trilogy comprising Golconda (1948), and Seedtime (1957), stories based on the life of the Queensland politician Ted Theodore’ [1] – the visionary Federal Treasurer who in 1931 during the Great Depression  proposed an innovative stimulus package by expanding credit to farmers and small business.  As we all know, the measure failed to pass parliament and catastrophic unemployment ensued, scarring the lives of thousands and thousands of people well into the decade.

My copy is inscribed by Nettie Palmer, Vance’s wife, also prominent in literary circles.  She gave it to someone called ‘dear Dorothea’.  Dorothea Mackellar, the poet who wrote My Country, Australia’s best loved poem??  Who knows?  Although I can’t find out if they ever met, they were part of the same literary scene in Sydney (and coincidentally born in the same year).  It would be surprising if they didn’t know each other because Nettie championed Australian writers and women authors and poets in particular.

Anyway, these are the opening lines of The Big Fellow:

‘Awake, Mr Donovan? It’s past seven.’

The voice came floating in on Donovan faintly, coaxing his eyes open, dissolving the last veils of sleep.  He gave a grunt and roused himself, turning over on his back as the girl who had brought in the tea disappeared through the glass door to the balcony.  It was as if she had come and gone without sound except for that distant echo in his ears.

The sun was already streaming into the bedroom, and for a while Donovan lay inert, looking at the rolled-up cane blind, the pale strip of sky beneath it, the filmy tops of sugar-gums at the bottom of the garden.  Another hot day!   His head felt as if it had something loose in it, and his mind was confused with a memory of dreams that had no clear outline except for the last.  He tried to recapture it.  He was flying over jungly hills with an American general somewhere in the north, uneasy because the plane was continually losing height and had to be kept up by his raised arms and efforts of will.  A deadly strain, for the man beside him wouldn’t help, merely sat  watching him sideways with a little chuckle curioulsy like Sealy’s.  When he peered out, the wings of the plane seemed to be made out of brittle gauze like the shell of a dead locust, and the pilot at the controls had the look of an insect too, hooded with a gleaming black helmet that reached down over his spine. (p1. Angus & Robertson, 1959)

The Victorian Premier’s Prize for fiction is named after Vance Palmer while the non-fiction prize is named after Nettie. [2]

[1] Source: and

[2] (Do have a look at the Visual Wiki graphic organiser at the bottom!)

Author: Vance Palmer
Title: The Big Fellow
Publisher: Angus & Robertson, 1959
Source: Personal copy, purchased from The Grisly Wife Bookshop, Eaglemont.


  1. Back in 1916/17 Nettie Palmer wrote a series of book columns for THE ARGUS (under the title “Readers and Writers”) which are now becoming available as a result of the National Library’s newspaper digitisation project. They are certainly worth reading.



    • There’s that book of hers too, Modern Australian Literature 1900-1923, which would be great to have. Can anyone access the NLA’s digital resource? Lisa


  2. Ah, except he’s best known to me for his novel The passage, which I read in first year high school and would love to read again! He also wrote a weekly book review column for the ABC Weekly from 1939 to – well, I don’t know when as I’m still perusing them – but it’s a great little column.

    Anyone can access the Newspaper digitisation program and it’s a great program (you can spend all day editing the records if you like)…but not necessarily the eJournals.


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