Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 26, 2022

A Paper Inheritance: the passionate literary lives of Leslie Rees and Coralie Clarke Rees, by Dymphna Stella Rees

A good while ago, in discussions at Whispering Gums about Australian literary couples (2011) and writing duos, (2016) there were both well- and lesser-known names but now there are more to add.

I should have nominated Allan and Wendy Scarfe who separately and together over many decades produced an impressive body of work which you can see here. But because it was Wendy’s novels that I discovered first, it was not until 2020 that I read A Mouthful of Petals which they wrote together. Until then, I had tended to think of Wendy as an author in her own right.  (Indeed, she has a Wikipedia page, and he doesn’t, an omission which should be rectified.) But as Wendy says on the About page on their website:

We have jointly written and published biographies, oral history and school texts. Individually we have published poetry, novels and short stories.

A remarkable collaboration!

Another remarkable collaboration is the subject of the literary bio I have just read.  Taking a breather from the plethora of grim books that are stalking us these days, at night I am reading Gravel Heart by Nobel Laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah and I have dropped everything during the day to read Dymphna Stella Rees’s lively and engaging biography of her parents: A Paper Inheritance: the passionate literary lives of Leslie Rees and Coralie Clarke Rees

This is the blurb:

When Dymphna Stella Rees – named after family friends Dymphna Cusack and Stella Miles Franklin – finds bundles of love letters buried in her parents’ archive, she is intrigued by the discovery.

Leslie Rees and Coralie Clarke Rees were a power couple of the Australian literary scene in the mid-twentieth century. They took their shared dream of being writers from Perth to London and launched themselves in Fleet Street, interviewing some of the century’s literary greats, including James Joyce, AA Milne, and George Bernard Shaw.

After settling in Sydney in the 1930s, they embraced the city’s vibrant arts scene and established prolific careers. Leslie became an award-winning children’s book author and the ABC’s national drama editor, while Coralie was one of the country’s first female broadcasters. They influenced the development of an authentically Australian arts culture and included among their friends Mary Gilmore, Ruth Park, D’Arcy Niland, Mary Durack and Vance and Nettie Palmer. Their partnership and legacy are fully examined here for the first time.

Drawn from personal notebooks, letters and original transcripts, A Paper Inheritance is the engrossing story of what drove this literary couple to prominence and is a celebration of their love and their passion for words.

I hadn’t heard of either of them, I thought, until discovering that Leslie Rees was the author of 27 children’s books, including the Digit Dick series, some of which I had read to The Offspring when he was a little boy. The first of these was Digit Dick on the Great Barrier Reef (1942), and his last children’s book was The Seagull Who Liked Cricket (1997).  These children’s books were inspired by the Rees children, to whom Leslie told stories when he returned home from research for his travel writing.

But they were not just inspiration!

We were involved in the steps to publication too. Our opinion would be sought on the roughs of illustrations and we were always lined up to read the proofs.  If we picked up a mistake, the going rate was sixpence.  Megan always scored more handsomely on this task as she was definitely the superior speller.  However, I had other discernments.  I once found an egregious error — the gender of a subsidiary character changed halfway through the story.  For uncovering this blunder, I received 2/-, unthinkable riches when one considers that most of my indulgences at the time — rainbow balls or a threepenny ice cream — only cost a fraction of that figure.  (p.191)

While much of the Rees collaboration meant that each was a springboard for ideas for the other, this couple collaborated on a series of travel books:

  • Spinifex Walkabout: Hitch-hiking in remote North Australia (1953)
  • Westward from Cocos: Indian Ocean travels (1956)
  • Coasts of Cape York: travels around Australia’s pearl-tipped peninsula (1960)
  • People of the Big Sky Country (1970)

To write these travel books, Leslie and Coralie travelled widely, leaving their two daughters behind, either together or sometimes separately, with family or friends. (Mostly friends, since family was in Perth, and they had made their base in Sydney.)  Dymphna Stella Rees is a sympathetic biographer, but she interrogates this issue of long term absences and its impact on their childhood.  The girls did miss their parents, and they missed each other when they were separated.  But Dymphna is adamant that they would have hated boarding school more, and that they never doubted that they were loved.  She also acknowledges that her mother’s ambitions, already compromised by having to be the homemaker, should not have been sacrificed to a motherhood that she was not really suited for.  She loved her children dearly, but she was a career woman.  That is an unremarkable choice today, but it was more difficult to negotiate in her own time.

The first part of the book entranced me.  Having met through university studies and resolved to become engaged, this couple of very different social backgrounds were separated when Leslie won a scholarship to study in London.  The love letters that form their daughter’s ‘paper inheritance’ are beautiful to read.  Desperately lonely and homesick, Leslie wrote to Coralie every day of the voyage, even though he didn’t post the letters until he reached London weeks later.  Coralie, back in Perth, however, was determined not to be ‘the girl left behind, waiting faithfully’ and she applied for, and got, the same scholarship.

The difference in their temperaments can be seen not just in the style of the extracts of their letters but also in the fact that he saved up for months because the scholarship didn’t include living expenses, while she launched herself on her journey with next to nothing in the bank.  And while he assuaged his loneliness en route by working industriously on work for potential publication and sale, she had a wonderful time enjoying the luxury that she knew was the last she could enjoy once she’d married the impecunious Leslie.  But they were a united front in London, sharing the privations and working furiously to establish themselves in their chosen careers.  The story of how they achieved this, and then chose to abandon it to come home to Australia, is fascinating reading.

It certainly wasn’t easy when they first came home.  Prior to establishing herself as a broadcaster, Coralie was a secretary to a very temperamental Eileen Joyce, while Leslie submitted work everywhere in an attempt to get a regular income.  With her London body of work comprising interviews with a ‘who’s who’ of British authors and thespians, Coralie got her break as a broadcaster in the very early days of the ABC, bringing news of the literary and theatrical world to an Australia isolated from cultural developments overseas.

Leslie’s break came when he was appointed the first federal ABC drama editor in 1936.  With a solid background in drama from his studies in London, where he saw a wealth of drama productions and actors in their heyday, he was determined to use the ‘wireless’ to deal with the cultural desert in Australia at that time.  As a young man developing his own skills as a playwright in Perth, he had been able only to read plays because there were such very limited opportunities to see performances.  By writing, selecting, adapting, and commissioning radio plays, Rees was the genius behind the scenes who brought world theatre even to the backblocks of Australia and was instrumental in nurturing a distinct Australian presence at the ABC.  This not only facilitated the careers of other Australian playwrights, it also provided them with an income stream.

There is much more to this partnership than outlined here, so do yourself a favour and get a copy of the book!

Highly recommended.

Author: Dymphna Stella Rees
Title: A Paper Inheritance: the passionate literary lives of Leslie Rees and Coralie Clarke Rees
Cover design by Christabella Designs
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2021
ISBN: 9780702263200, pbk., 296 pages
Review copy courtesy of UQP

 


Responses

  1. I have bought this book as I did know of Leslie Rees for his work in drama, back in my late teens, but of course I haven’t read it yet. I’m glad you have, and have introduced us to the couple. Must read it.

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  2. Well thank you Leslie Rees, I listened to a lot of ABC radio drama in the 1950s and early 60s, especially Sunday nights.
    I couldn’t imagine working creatively with my wife, what a recipe for arguments, yet Ruth Park for instance describes a similar starting out of married life in poverty and cooperation with Darcy Niland.
    I’m not sure I agree with having children then abandoning them.
    Dymphna Stella – what a great name!

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    • LOL The hardest part about two creative people living together is that the moment when they *must not* be interrupted doesn’t come on a schedule.

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  3. Gosh, I hadn’t heard of this couple (but maybe I wouldn’t have in the UK) – but they sound fascinating!

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    • It was such an interesting time in Australia. In the colonial C19th much of our cultural life (as you’d expect) was from overseas, but in the C20th things started to change. My own piano teacher (born in 1914) was a concert pianist who made her career here, not overseas, and she not only played the classical repertoire live on ABC radio, she also played new compositions by Australian composers. And this book is about that similar moment in time when Australian books emerged. Those children’s books that Rees wrote were about Australian animals and parents reared on The Wind in the Willows (and had never seen a badger) were delighted to read them to their children.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have this book on my TBR but had NO IDEA that they were the authors of Digit Dick!!!! Time to dig it out.

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    • It’s really nice that authors of children’s books are now starting to get the recognition they’ve always deserved. Australian picture story books are just brilliant, IMO.

      Liked by 1 person


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