Nettie was born in Bendigo, Victoria, the niece of Henry Bournes Higgins, a leading Victorian political figure and later a federal minister and justice of the High Court of Australia. She studied education at the University of Melbourne, and literature in Germany and France. In 1908, she met Vance Palmer, and they married in London in 1914. With the outbreak of war, they returned to Australia, and campaigned against conscription.
The Palmers lived in the fishing village of Caloundra, Queensland, and had two daughters - Aileen and Helen. They focused mostly on their writing, short stories, poetry and journalism. In 1924, Nettie published an academic study of Australian literature, and, in 1931, a biography of her uncle, Higgins. In the mid-1930s, the Palmers travelled to Europe, but before returning to Australia, one of their daughters, Aileen, joined the International Brigades in Spain.
By the time of the Second World War, neither Vance nor Nettie were in the best of health, but they continued their literary endeavours. Nettie, in particular, became one of Australia’s foremost literary critics, and was a great champion of Australian literature. Aileen suffered a mental breakdown in 1948, and Vance was attacked as a communist ‘fellow traveller’ in the 1950s. Nettie died on 19 October 1964. Further biographical information is available at the Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Library of Australia, and Wikipedia.
According to Robin Lucas, who studied Nettie Palmer at the University of Melbourne, she ’was an indefatigable and life-long diary and notebook-keeper’. A fragment of an early European diary can be found on the university’s website. Information on her ‘Commonplace book’ 1907-1936 can be found at the National Library of Australia. However, Palmer herself published, in 1948, a book of diary entries, and called it Fourteen Years: extracts from a private journal. This book has become a classic of Australian literature, and was republished in 1988 by the University of Queensland Press in Nettie Palmer: Her private journal Fourteen Years, poems, reviews and literary essays (edited by Vivian Smith). This latter tome - all 550 pages of it - is freely available as a pdf at UQP’s ‘institutional digital repository’.
Also freely available online are various texts by Robin Lucas about Fourteen Years - a masters thesis and an article entitled A Fine Ruddy Mess for the La Trobe Journal. Lucas argues that, although the original book was published under the Meanjin Press imprint (based in Melbourne), it was effectively self-published with the Palmers paying the production and other costs for the initial print run of 500. She explains how the whole process involved ‘confusion and frayed tempers’, hence the title of the La Trobe article. Lucas also notes that Fourteen Years was not so much a straightforward diary, but that it was ‘compiled from a miscellany of sources: work diaries, notebooks, letters, articles and family memories’. Prior to publication, both Nettie and Vance had worked on the book since 1945.
Vivian Smith, in her introduction to Nettie Palmer, says: ‘There is no other work quite like Fourteen Years in Australian writing and it is a text that has gained increasing importance for historians and those interested in the development of Australian culture between the wars.’ She explains how Fourteen Years is ‘in part a reconstruction, and in part a highly selective reassembling of original materials’; and she then provides some extracts from Palmer’s pocket diary for 1947 to illustrate the process that had been involved in assembling the book. Here are a few of those extracts:
2 Sept 1947
‘V. let N. read through some Notes. Decided time now come to sort them out into 8 period-places (Caloimdra, Kalorama, Barcelona, Melbourne, etc.). Need folders for what material I had here by now. Each folder has at least something, some a great deal already in it.’
3 September 1947
‘V. looked through N.’s file of rejected printed articles and advised on keeping only a few. Notes already done are enough on general literary subjects: those need interweaving with more personal ones. Drew up a list of names that must be included in some way practising writers and their purposes. Must get some characteristic phrases and appearances for each from appropriate periods. V. began re-reading old family diaries V. had bought for me, 1934, fitting in with some literary notes on visitors: Pfeffer, Ravitch, Huebner. But need to follow our own writers now - it’s just a matter of sorting more than writing.’
4 September 1947
‘N. tinkering with diaries and fitting persons in like mosaic. N.B. must write some of it . . .’
8 September 1947
‘Did notes. V. says too warm, too much informed after the event, on Len Mann at Kalorama 1933. Found phrases of his in old diary. Moral: keep good diaries with people’s phrases in them.’
4 October 1947
‘N. finishing note on Masefield in Melbourne; begin one on E.T. Brown . . . . Our worst years were 1937-39, when we were entangled in politics to no avail. We knew what was coming and no one would believe us except some fanatics who believed everything in advance. We knew too many people, for insufficient reasons.’
13 October 1947
‘Grey day. V. planning to begin on London and N. sat down to it after breakfast without doing a stint of housework first, and wrote two London pieces in the morning: on Shelley Wang and Christina Stead (and her husband). Tried to do Ogden too, but got wrecked on his learning.’
Fourteen Years, Smith says, is best looked on as an anthology in journal form. It is divided into eight sections which correspond to the main places in which the Palmers lived for varying lengths of time during this period: Caloundra 1925-29; Melbourne 1929-32; Green Island 1932; Kalorama 1932-35; Paris 1935; London 1935-36; Barcelona 1936; and Melbourne 1936-39.
Here then are several extracts from Fourteen Years itself.
20 September 1925
‘Early this morning, we watched a man on a ridge behind Mrs. T.’s house lassooing the branch of a tree with a length of rope. What was he doing? Stretching a clothes-line? But why so high up, and on that slope?
Here in South Queensland, life moves lightly and intimately; you’re always looking out of doors at this sunny end of winter. From the narrow shelf of the front veranda, there’s the bush sloping towards the ocean in one direction, and towards the Passage with its wide water in another. Along the western skyline stand the unbelievable Glasshouses. Then from the back windows, you look across the open ridges to forest country. You see the casual events of your neighbours’ lives, especially when you sit at breakfast in the open sun.
You see dreamily, and often without understanding. That clothes-line? I met Mrs. T. at the end of the morning while we both waited for our mail at the lighthouse post-office. She was bubbling kindly: ‘My son-in-law from town’s just fixed a radio aerial, and the crystal set he’s brought is clear as can be. Would you come in this evening and hear it? It’s the first wireless set in Caloundra.’
This evening we went along in the moonlight. In Mrs. T.’s open lounge there must have been sixty visitors. Fishermen and their women; lighthouse-keeper and ex-keeper, wives and families. Children sucking large black humbugs solemnly. And in the place of honour, the new miracle of communication, the wireless. (The son-in-law was a self-effacing showman. At eight o’clock, and before we noticed the instrument was turned on, came heavy strokes - the Post Office clock, Sydney: ‘as if they were right in the room,’ sighed someone voluptuously). Then came a weather report: squally, we heard, as the calm moon listened in with amusement.
What next? Some ‘music’ so nondescript that people mostly relapsed into friendly talk while it lasted - as if it were real-life music. So far no statics or interference. The son-in-law muttered technicalities to the few eager youths who could lap up his learning. A speech is announced on the air: ‘it’s a lecture on Christian Science,’ says the son-in-law. For five minutes of it, everyone listens; even the children with their still-revolving jaws. It’s so wonderful to have any opinion conveyed whole, like eggs by plane from Sydney. Then people begin asking one another questions. Can everything be caught up by wireless? Could you use it like a listening telescope and direct it to a cathedral service or a trade union meeting? No? Well, who decides what you’ll have? It all comes so clear it might be important some day.
The Sydney clock struck the hour again. The children had sucked away their issue of humbugs. Time to thank Mrs T. and her son-in-law and go home. We drifted in the moonlight along the strip of rough road. There stood that other aerial mast, the lighthouse, mild winds humming in its flagpole ropes. Its light blinked regularly against the moon, that supreme mistress of communication. Long before wireless, the light was: long before the light, the moon. What was it Andrew Tripcony said yesterday, as patriarchal fisherman in these parts: ‘Th’ moon’s useful; y’ always know the tides by her. Quarterflood over the Bar at moonrise. Same at moonset.’
Will the wireless ever catch up with such established guides of mankind?’
19 March 1931
‘For a long time I’ve been paying, in casual articles and notes, my humble tribute to Edmund Wilson as the most penetrating critic in the modem literary world - the Anglo-Saxon one at any rate - and yesterday an unlooked-for response came from him in the form of a signed copy of his new book ‘Axel’s Castle.’ I’ve found it hard to keep my mind from it ever since. It has all the brilliant clarity of his occasional critiques, together with the thematic backbone you expect from a book - in this case the idea that the six writers he chooses as significant figures in the literature of today are guided, like Axel, by a will toward refusal.
The six figures are Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Gertude Stein, Proust and Paul Valéry. At first you are a little surprised at the choice of names, but Edmund Wilson shows how certain socially-minded writers before the war - Shaw, Wells, Bennett, Anatole France - have lost credit, while his half-dozen have gained by producing masterpieces in isolation, almost secretly.
These books revealed new discoveries, artistic, metaphysical, psychological; they mapped the labyrinths of the human consciousness; they made one conceive the world in a new way. What wonder then that for those who survived the war these writers should have become heroes and leaders?’
7 April 1932
Before I came here I’d imagined the Barrier Reef as a great wall running along the line of the coast - a rampart of pure coral rising from the depths. Now, looking out from our knob on its edge, it seems a straggling assortment of honeycomb reefs in all stages of growth, varied by fragments of sunken mainland, such as the great hump of Fitzroy Island to the south. Our island is one of the coral cays that have come to maturity. It has fully emerged from the sea, collected its cover of humus, created a beautiful safe jungle in which you can lie unaware of the sea, though never fifty yards from the beach.
This gleaming little forest of vines and evergreens can seem at times even more wonderful than the coral reef itself. There’s a gentleness about it - no thorns, poisonous reptiles, stinging insects. Instead, there are the unafraid birds - tiny silver-eyes, ground-pigeons with lustrous wings of dark-green - and the bright, flickering butterflies, all seemingly sure of being in some forest fastness.’
The Diary Junction