‘The Sharp Edge of Friendship: Henry Handel Richardson and her Biographer, Nettie Palmer’

Brenda Niall

It is a brilliant summer day in July 1935. The scene is a house called Green Ridges, near Hastings, Sussex. Two women, seated but not relaxed, face each other across a formal drawing room. This is the first time they have met. Nettie Palmer, Australian writer and journalist, has come to stay overnight with the novelist Henry Handel Richardson.

As novelist and journalist they know one another’s writings well, and they have been corresponding for years. But there is tension in this first face-to-face encounter. They will never be friends, never on first-name terms. Not because of the absurdity of their matching names – Ettie and Nettie – but because Ettie, who has for years insisted on being called Henry instead of her given name Ethel or that childish diminutive Ettie, prefers to keep her distance. Today it will be Miss Richardson and Mrs Palmer, as it has been in their letters. It will take years even to adjust the greeting to ‘Dear Nettie Palmer’. It will never become ‘Dear Henry’.

Green Ridges is the home of expatriate Australian novelist Henry Handel Richardson, chosen for its seclusion and its commanding view. In her husband’s lifetime, Richardson’s retreat was the top floor of a tall house in London, with a view of Regent’s Park. Green Ridges, too, looks outward, and from above. High on a windy hill, it has a wide view to the sea as far as Beachy Head. The big room downstairs is all that most visitors will see. Above is the author’s domain, with green baize doors to keep out the sound of human voices. No one can look in on the writer at work.

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