Another Impression of HHR from Aileen Palmer

Ric Pawsey

Society member, Ric Pawsey recently came upon another impression of HHR when he read Sylvia Martin’s biography of Aileen Palmer, daughter of Vance and Nettie – Ink in her veins: The troubled life of Aileen Palmer. UWA Publishing: Crawly WA, 2016

In the early decades of the last century, the Melbourne couple Vance and Nettie Palmer were very active advocates of Australian writing, as well as contributing as authors themselves. In 1924 Nettie published a long essay entitled: ‘Modern Australian literature 1900-1923’ but failed to mention HHR. Mary Kernot, who was Melbourne based, and a former schoolmate and long-term correspondent with HHR, read the article and alerted Nettie to the omission. Mary then initiated a three-way correspondence which brought Nettie into contact with HHR, and by 1927, HHR and Nettie were exchanging letters directly. At some stage, in this correspondence, Nettie obtained a copy of the photo of HHR that now features at the head of our newsletter.

Nettie’s elder daughter Aileen, who had commenced as a PLC student at age thirteen, the same age at which HHR had commenced at PLC forty years earlier, penned a tribute to HHR for the school paper Patchwork which I think speaks to the familiar photograph quite cleverly:

“No one would guess her cramped and thwarted youth:
Her lofty brow betrays no sign of frown,
Her hair is ebon-black, her lips are curled
In half-contemptuous pity for the world;
Her watchful, dark, round-lidded eyes have known
And looked with quiet courage on the truth.”

Nettie sent the piece to HHR, who was perhaps less impressed by the cleverness of Aileen’s poem than either her mother or I had been. She wrote privately to Mary Kernot: “The verses weren’t bad; in fact they were too good for my taste. At that age young people shd [should] be wilder.”

Postscript: In later years both Vance and Nettie Palmer made pilgrimages to meet with HHR in the UK and both parents also struck Henry as too emotionally constrained. She conveyed her unflattering opinions of the Palmers and their work in her correspondence with Mary Kernot, and this may be the reason neither Mary nor Olga Roncoroni cooperated with Nettie when she sought to write a 1950 biography of HHR. Both Mary and Olga apparently thought Nettie had done a reasonable job of the biography, given they had prohibited her access to private papers they each held, and it is worth noting that Nettie Palmer’s biography of HHR is reputed to be the first ever book-length study of any Australian writer.

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