Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 22, 2020

Friends and Rivals, Four Great Australian Writers (2020), by Brenda Niall

If you love Australian literature, this book is a must-read.  Friends and Rivals, Four Great Australian Writers by preeminent biographer Brenda Niall consists of four biographies of women who put Australian writing ‘on the map.’  Of the four — Barbara Baynton, Ethel Turner, Nettie Palmer, Henry Handel Richardson — the only one I haven’t read is Ethel Turner: I didn’t have an Australian childhood so I never read Seven Little Australians (1894) which written so casually, has an extraordinary place in Australian literary history.  It redefined Australia’s relationship with English publishers who had not until then taken Australian writing seriously.

16th edition, 1912, publisher Ward Lock & Co. (Wikipedia)

Conventional, conservative Ethel Turner crossed paths with flamboyant, ebullient Barbara Baynton in 1896 when they were both writing for The Bulletin, but Niall begins Ethel Turner’s chapter with their meeting in 1911 when Barbara helped Ethel to choose an emerald ring.  Herbert Curlewis couldn’t afford more than an unspectacular engagement ring when he courted Ethel, but by 1911 he wanted her to have something finer, and it was Barbara to whom Ethel turned to help her find the prettiest ring in Sydney.  The friendship was surprising, because the women had very different temperaments, but they had bonded over their charitable work as patrons and fundraisers for the Ashfield Infants’ Home which provided shelter and support for unmarried mothers. Although they were both now affluent and confident about their place in Sydney society, they had both experienced the plight of the single mother or the deserted wife:

Baynton’s struggle to keep three young children without a father’s support matched the heroic efforts of Turner’s mother, left with three small daughters. (p.15)

It is small, intimate insights like this episode with the ring that make reading this book such a pleasure.  It’s fascinating to read the story of Turner’s turbulent childhood and the way she remade herself as a society lady.  She was ambitious, but Niall says that her success with Seven Little Australians constrained her development as a writer.  She became known as a children’s author, partly on the advice of Louise Mack who told her that drafts of the children’s book ‘wasn’t half-bad’ and she should finish it instead of working on her ‘serious novel’.  Sales of Seven Little Australians made her publisher want more, and she surrendered to the tyranny of the sequel.  

…Ethel Turner’s success was immense; her output prodigious; her life generously lived.

There was a cost.  Although Turner wrote fluently, met deadlines with strict professionalism and could devise a new plot outline before breakfast, she was a victim of her own efficiency.  She revelled in her popular and commercial success but fretted at the constraints of the genre in which she did best. (p.56)

Alas, whatever gratitude she may have owed to Louise evaporated when Mack published a gossipy novel with a central character of limited talent who seemed a lot like Ethel Turner. The friendship couldn’t survive the failure of trust. Yet when Louise died of a stroke at 67, Ethel gathered flowers from her own garden to take to the funeral and sent kind thoughts to Louise’s family.  (I hope I remember this when I finally get round to reading Mack’s An Australian Girl in London, on the TBR.)

I already knew a bit about Barbara Baynton’s extraordinary life.  You can read what I gleaned from the introduction to the Sydney University Press edition of Bush Studies here but what I didn’t realise then was that as late as the 1970s the true story was unknown.  Prior to that, readers were baffled by a rich and arrogant socialite being able to write so vividly about the poverty of bush life.

Thea Astley, who found the dominant theme in the six stories published as Bush Studies to be ‘an expression of revolt against the feudal conditions of women in the bush’ was perplexed by their coming from an author who was ‘comfortably off.’ Astley could see no connection between the privileged Baynton of the public record and the brutishness and horror that pervades her fictional world. (p.91)

Indeed.  And it transpires that we owe Bush Studies to the writer and critic Edward Garnett, who, as a reader at Duckworth’s saved it from the slush pile to which other publishers had consigned it. This vignette about the (not quite) unsung hero Garnett is fascinating too:

Like his wife, [the prolific translator] Constance Garnett, he had a passion for Russian literature.  His work enriched English literature in unexpected ways.  He was the discoverer and patron of Joseph Conrad, the Polish master mariner, and D H Lawrence, the brash young man from the Midlands who wrote about sex with shocking frankness.  Garnett was always hoping for ‘the delighted flash of recognition’, when, ‘amid the mass of trivial, indifferent, or heavily conscientious efforts a beginner’s work [showed] that instinctive creative originality which we call genius.’  He believed he had found that quality in Baynton’s strange, disturbing stories. (p.97)

Yes, let’s have a shout-out for all the publishers’ readers ploughing through the MSS to find the wonderful books we love to read!

Henry Handel Richardson — whose Fortunes of Richard Mahoney trilogy is one of my favourite books — had doubts about the realism of Baynton’s squalid stories.  I was a bit surprised by the treatment of HHR in Friends and Rivals: it’s not a very sympathetic portrait, and Niall seems quite exercised by the fact that HHR’s husband compromised his own career as a writer in order to support hers.  (Isn’t that what we would like to see more of, instead of women of great talent always sacrificing their own ambitions to support their men?)

…without Robertson, it is hard to believe that Henry Handel Richardson’s literary career could have flourished.  Henry needed support as well as intellectual companionship; and she needed—or demanded—a very large degree of freedom from everyday duties and relationships.  (p.148)

Yes, my feminist hackles are rising: HHR’s success ascribed not to her abilities, but to having a supportive husband…

Perhaps my opinion of HHR is coloured by having first read Nettie Palmer’s Henry Handel Richardson, a study, and perhaps my doubts about Niall’s representation of both HHR and Nettie Palmer has been influenced by having previously read this article in Overland but I’m a bit taken aback by the condescending tone of some of Niall’s commentary:

Writing about the Leipzig years in her autobiography Myself When Young, Richardson gave the impression that her failure in public performance [at her final year piano concert] was solely due to panic symptoms.  Her account of the student concerts at which she felt the attack of ‘the eyes’ [everyone looking at her] could be read as her final defeat: at the least it implies withdrawal from the competitive musical world.  But Ettie did not drop out in her final year.  She completed her studies after becoming engaged to George and went through the public ordeal without showing undue nervousness.

Neither her examiner’s reports nor the newspaper review of the concert suggest the rich promise that had brought the family to Europe. […] Not exceptional, then, not a future star on the concert platform, the former schoolgirl prodigy was one among many competent students. (p.145)

And there’s this too:

After her mother’s high hopes, and her own, it would have been a miserable comedown to teach music in a girls’ school.  Marriage was a way out, and luckily, she loved George Robertson.  He became everything to her: father, husband, mentor and intellectual companion; and the mainstay of her literary career. (p.144)


And this:

After the anticlimax of the final concert, Mary Richardson took her daughters back to England.  After three years in Leipzig, speaking no German and enduring, in a two-bedroom flat, the sounds of Ettie’s piano, Lil’s violin and the cello played by their friend and lodger, Mattie Main, Mary needed to go home.  Home for the moment was England.  Lillian’s claims to a musical education were deferred.  Her promise as a violinist went with a less demanding nature than Ettie’s.  Besides, with her looks and charm, she was sure to marry.  Ettie’s future was the problem.  The steady devotion of George Robertson became the best hope for a difficult young woman.  (p.145)

There is evidence in Michael Ackland’s Henry Handel Richardson, A Life (2004) that Mary did indeed find the musical household a sore trial.  But it was this passage that prompted me to check his bio (which I haven’t yet read), to see if it was the source of Niall’s negative interpretations of events.  To my surprise — having read Niall’s suggestion that a possible reason for HHR’s childlessness was a fear that her father’s insanity might be hereditary, and another is Ettie’s lofty view that gifted women should not waste their possibilities in childbirth, something that could be left to the masses —  I read that HHR suffered poor health, including

… intense, lower abdominal pains that accompanied menstruation.  In her case these were not simply period pains, but the result of dysmenorrhea, ‘a disease of organically normal childless women up to the age of thirty.’ (Ackland, p.150)

Since these episodes could leave Ettie prostrate for days, my money is on a diagnosis of endometriosis of which dysmenorrhea is a symptom, and childlessness a common consequence.  But whichever it was, Niall makes no mention of it at all, preferring instead to offer a snide remark about HHR’s lofty views.  For the first time ever, I began to doubt Niall’s objectivity as a biographer.

HHR comes out of it very badly too, in the chapter about Nettie Palmer.  Nettie herself is judged to have sacrificed her own writing to support her husband Vance, and to have been a bit of a pain in the way she besieged influential others to promote his career.  But it was when Nettie decided to write a bio of HHR and was stymied by HHR’s literary executor who withheld letters because they were unkind about the Palmers, that HHR comes across as a nasty, patronising, arrogant piece of work whose letters about the Palmers were in stark contrast to her face-to-face behaviour towards them.  Well, as the Overland article suggests, the situation can be read differently.  I’ll leave it to scholars to sort that one out, but I will read the Ackland bio to clarify my own opinion.

It’s not so long ago that I was irritated by the entry at Wikipedia which combined Nettie and Vance Palmer on the same page.  Now at least she has her own entry.  But as far as I can gather, while there is a bio of her daughter Aileen, and there are inclusions of her story in such works as Drusilla Modjeska’s Exiles at home: Australian women writers 1925–1945, (1981), there is no comprehensive bio of Nettie Palmer whose contribution to Australian literature is prodigious.  She was Australia’s steadiest and best-informed critic, she championed our authors at home and abroad, and she did heroic work for refugees from the Spanish Civil War as well.  I’d love to read her story, I really would.

It’s ironic, then, that I want to finish off by sharing this excerpt, which is not about Nettie, it’s about Vance.  But it’s irresistible:

In 1907 he was ready to go home, but not without seeing more of the great world.  Rather than look for sunshine in Italy or Spain, he made his way to Russia.  more than anything he wanted to see the author of War and Peace.  He went by boat to Copenhagen, then to Finland, and on across Russia.  Taking night trains to save accommodation costs, he headed for Tolstoy’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana.  Lacking directions and without a word of Russian, he lost his way and gave up, ‘in need of warm food and dry boots’, feeling a fool for trying.  (p.206)

My heart aches for him, because my visit to Yasnaya Polyana was one of the highlights of my trip to Russia in 2012.

Update: 24/6/20 I came across this article by Brenda Niall today, and this excerpt goes some way towards explaining my dissatisfaction with Niall’s treatment of HHR:

Probably the first question I’m asked as a biographer is something like this: what did you find out about him or her? This suggests that biography is a matter of detection or even investigative journalism. And it is true that a lot of the interest of writing in this form comes from puzzling over bits of evidence, trying to make sense of a jigsaw that will never be complete.

A more useful question would be: “How do you see your subject?” or “How are you planning to shape that life?”

Image credits: Seven Little Australians: Public Domain,

Author: Brenda Niall
Title: Friends and Rivals, Four Great Australian Writers, Barbara Baynton, Ethel Turner, Nettie Palmer, Henry Handel Richardson
Cover design by W H Chong
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2020
ISBN: 9781922268594, pbk, 278 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $34.99


  1. As you know, Lisa, I consider ‘The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney’ one of the outstanding series of novels ever. I have not read the other three, but am familiar with the name of Nettie Palmer. I suppose Ruth Park was of a later generation.


    • Yes, Ruth Park was one of the beneficiaries of Nettie Palmer’s work. By the time she came to write her novels there were Australian publishing houses and an audience hungry for Australian fiction. I love her books… these writers of social conscience appeal to my sense of fairness.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. For whatever reason, the Like key on your site doesn’t work for me. Otherwise I would have Liked it. This has happened on several other articles here.


    • I’ve had that happen to me too, and I’ve found that switching from MS Edge (my default browser) to Firefox or Chrome works ok. I’m not sure what the cause is, WordPress always suggested clearing the cache as they do for every problem, but no amount of clearing the cache worked and I always had to read my WP blogs on Firefox or Chrome. (Which is always WP Support’s second piece of advice).
      Now I have my new computer MS Edge is working fine. For the time being….


      • I use Firefox, but it doesn’t work, so maybe I’ll switch to Chrome.


        • Do report it.
          Sometimes I report things and they make token efforts to fix it but months later it will resolve. I assume this is because other people have complained too.
          For a couple of months, the button for uploading an image from within the editor didn’t work. The only way I could do it was to open the ‘library’ screen in a different tab, and upload it there, then refresh the draft post page and select the image.
          And then they fixed it.
          A lot of things don’t work in the ‘new editor’ which has just been displaced by the ‘block’ editor. I use the classic editor because, for example, it’s the only way you can put a border round an image, which I like to do when book covers are pale and look wishy-washy on the screen.
          I love the fact that blogging is free, but I think we would get better service if they had more staff, and that would happen if more people bought the extras (no ads, domain name &c).


          • Do you use Word Press?


            • Yes, have done for years. I started on Blogger but it was too inflexible so I exported the whole thing to WP.


  3. The only Ethel Turner I ever read as a child was ‘Flower o’ the pine’. It was first published in 1942, and would have been given to my mother as a gift a year or two later. I wish I still had her copy.


    • I’d love to get my hands on Nettie Palmer’s survey of Oz Lit…


  4. I have Nettie Palmer on HHR in ‘C20th Australian Literary Criticism’, Semmler ed. but I thought, wrongly according to Wiki, she’d written an overview of Oz Lit.
    I’m not sure how much Baynton needed to be discovered, plenty of her stories were published in the Bulletin. Was her ‘bush’ marriage before Dr Baynton well known? I’m not sure. I had assumed it was. The biography I have is by her great grand daughter Penne Hackforth-Jones.


    • It wasn’t her stories that were ‘discovered’ it was her bizarre personal life!


  5. Louise Mack wrote about her rivalry at school, Sydney Girls High, with Ethel Turner in Teens and Girls Together, which Sue/Whispering Gums and I respectively reviewed in AWW Gen 2 Week.


    • AH yes, I remember that now. They were very different personalities. Mack thought she was bourgeois.


  6. I’ll have to buy this … I have of course read Seven little Australians. In many ways it is OUR Little women. Very different, but there are loose similarities. I’ve also read and reviewed some of Turner’s Juvenilia, and mentioned her little contretemps with Louise Mack at school in that post. Anyhow, I’ll try to get this book and come back and read this review in detail then.


    • I must get onto reading the Mack. I’d forgotten I had it until I did the Big Reshelving to reconstruct my TBR file…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on how the biographer’s slant impacts the work. It seems that we are always being given great excuses to read more and more and more (because no single author can do it “all”). And, yes, I share your frustration that a woman writer “needed”, nay “demanded”, support in the household, unless the same would be said of a male writer too. The only one of the four I’ve read myself is HHR, but I’m sure the others are worth exploring too (not done with HHR though!).


    • Ooh, I like that. Not that I need ‘great excuses to read more and more’, but it’s lovely to have those excuses all the same!


  8. […] Niall’s representation of HHR in Friends and Rivals, Four Great Australian Writers, see why, here) but Orwell’s essay in the Penguin Moderns series was on top of the NF pile… I was sure […]


  9. Thanks so much for this wonderful essay; I too have been troubled and disappointed by what seems a lack of self-awareness in the biographical narrative and it isn’t just on HHR, although given her incredible significance in Ozlit’s landscape, it is very poor form. It is one thing to hold a critical view and to substantiate that view, and another entirely to speculate uncritically, based on what seems to be personal ideology and preference. There is so much written now about the choices (or not) of women writers and artists around family and domesticity, that there is no excuse for sloppy speculation – we have context. And at time when birth control was ad hoc and the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth were so great, you’d think we could at least find understanding of choices.


    • Thank you Kate, it cost me, a bit, to be critical of Brenda Niall… she has written so many thoughtful biographies that I have really valued, that I felt well out of my comfort zone when questioning her objectivity. So I appreciate your comment very much:)


  10. […] Friends and Rivals: Four Great Australian Writers; Barbara Baynton, Ethel Turner, Nettie Palmer, Henry Handel Richardson by Brenda Niall (Text Publishing).  This is the only one I’ve read. […]


  11. […] Niall’s representation of HHR in Friends and Rivals, Four Great Australian Writers, see why, here) but Orwell’s essay in the Penguin Moderns series was on top of the NF pile… I was sure […]


  12. […] deal”, adding that “her sometimes mordant commentary is particularly enjoyable”. Lisa calls it a must-read for Aussie literature […]


  13. […] Friends and Rivals, Four Great Australian Writers (2020) by Brenda Niall […]


  14. I saved my read of this until I had finished my review of the book, and yes like you, I had many issues with this group bio. Unlike you though, I had only read one other bio about these women (& that was on HHR) so I couldn’t really compare.
    By the end of the book, though, I had stopped trusting Niall’s version of events.


    • Oh, my goodness, re-reading this I found *four* typos! How embarrassing!!
      And although I’ve started it, I still haven’t finished the Ackland bio. Is that the one you read?


      • I read HHR’s autobiography


        • Haha, Lisa … I do that all the time! I found two in an old post yesterday (a “though” instead of “through”) and a missing article.

          I still have this book on my TBR!


          • What’s especially galling is that (apart from the fact that I proofread obsessively through successive drafts) I updated it, and I must have re-read it when I did that, and *still* didn’t see them!

            Liked by 1 person

        • Ah yes, *smacks forehead* I read your review of it!

          Liked by 1 person

          • 😅 that’s something I do all the time!!
            I’m also upset/perturbed by the number of typos in my old posts too.
            As I WordPress-ise old posts I’m astounded by how many slip through !


            • Well, just so you know, I’m always pleased to have mine brought to my attention so that I can fix them…

              Liked by 1 person

  15. […] Lisa @ANZ Lit Lovers was also less than impressed and did some research of her own to show why. […]


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