For more than half a century, and particularly in the years between the two world wars, Vance and Nettie Palmer stood as beacons in the Australian literary landscape. They were writers who nourished and encouraged others at a time when “the atmosphere was more likely to thwart and misdirect talent than nourish and encourage it”. 1

Oil painting of Vance Palmer
Danila Vassilieff Portrait of Vance Palmer 1938, oil on composition board, 32 x 24.3cm. State Library Victoria; H28605 © Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

“It was needed we should get a man like Palmer”, the author and poet Leonard Mann stated in a biographical note on Vance.  Mann, “a born humanist”, as Nettie described him, had written a much praised First World War novel, Flesh in Armour, which, he recalled, “was a very lonely venture and one financed by myself”. 2

It was a time when key Australian writers such as Henry Handel Richardson – the pen name of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson (1870-1946) – were virtually unknown, and a time when the Palmers did their best to help.  “I need hardly say how pleased I am or how grateful to you and VP for your efforts on my behalf”, Richardson wrote to Nettie in 1945.3

Nettie’s biography of Richardson – “the first full length study of the novelist”4 – appeared five years later.5

To the historian Brian Fitzpatrick, and many others, 6 the Palmers were a marvel: “they permeate articulate Australia”, Fitzpatrick wrote in 1959. 7

Both were born in August 1885: Nettie in Bendigo, Victoria and Vance in Bundaberg, Queensland.  Of particular interest to us at the State Library is that it was here, in the Public Library of Victoria (as it then was), that Nettie and Vance met.

Black and white photograph of people in the early 20th century seated at desks in the Queen's Hall and studying
Queen’s Hall, Public Library, Melbourne; H3970

It occurred in February 1909. Nettie was sitting at a desk within the library, with “copies of avant garde literary magazines” strewn across it, when Vance, who was visiting from Brisbane, “took the risk to speak … to the young woman who was regularly studying near him”. 8

Melbourne, at the time, was temporary capital of the newly established Commonwealth of Australia and seat of Federal parliament (until it transferred to Canberra in 1927).9 The Public Library of Victoria therefore became a de facto national library, a role that its visionary Trustees had prepared it for: “The Trustees regarded the Institution”, they wrote in 1880, “as a Public Library of reference, consultation, and research, which ought to be characterised by a comprehensiveness which would stamp it not merely as national, but universal”. 10

It was here, then, that the partnership described by Vance’s biographer, Harry Heseltine, as “the most famous partnership in Australian literary history”, 11 was born.

Nettie and Vance married five years later, in London.  “It was in 1914”, Nettie recalled, “that Vance Palmer and I, who had been living so long on letters alone, decided that we could be married and cease to live at opposite ends of the world – he in London and I in Melbourne”. 12

They became a team, “not only of writers”, publisher Walter Stone wrote, “but of unselfish and practical idealists, conscious not only of the value of the author in the community but also of the dignity of the profession”. 13  Yet they “were really very private persons”, the historian Marjorie Tipping, who had known the Palmers since 1929, wrote in 1985: “completely self-sufficient, physically and emotionally very much alive and in love”. 14

Black and white photo of Nettie Palmer
Nettie Palmer; LTAF 1250/304

Vance was known for his novels, short stories, poetry, plays, literary criticism, biographies, histories, as well as well-informed reviews. “There is no critic today”, literary scholar Ivor Indyk wrote of the reviews Vance prepared for ABC radio, “with anything like Palmer’s range, or the equanimity that allows him to treat a historical romance of the nineteenth century, a French detective novel and the philosophy of Alfred Adler all in one sweep”. 15

It had all started years earlier, Vance recalled, when he was “working in a Brisbane office and beginning, in leisure hours, the long task of learning to write”. 16 The path he followed saw him travel the world and, through his achievements, become recognised as Australia’s “foremost man of letters of his day”, 17 a figure of respect, but also a target for attack.

Vance’s role on the advisory board to the Commonwealth Literary Fund (he was a member from April 1942 until April 1953, and chair from March 1947) left him open to attack for being a communist sympathiser. “We seem always to be at the mercy of clowns on horseback”, Vance wrote to the journalist Allan Ashbolt in 1951. 18

The following year, after concerted attacks in Parliament, it was no less a figure than the prime minister, Robert Menzies, who rose to Vance’s defence. “I regard Mr Palmer as a distinguished writer”, Menzies stated, “and for sheer honest, disinterested and continuous work on the board, he will take a lot of beating”. 19

That same year Menzies arranged for Vance to receive an OBE. Vance, however, quietly refused the offer, “since he would be perceived as denying or selling out those radical and republican principles which he had consistently championed since his early writing days”. 20

Exhibition catalogue cover features portrait black and white photos of Vance and Nettie Palmer
Catalogue cover from Vance and Nettie Palmer : an exhibition, to celebrate the centenary of their births, in the Queen’s Hall, State Library of Victoria, 20th August-30th September, 1985; SLT A823.2 P182L

Vance and Nettie both cared deeply. When, in the early 1940s, Australia was threatened with invasion, Vance calmly wrote of “an Australia of the spirit, submerged and not very articulate, that is quite different from these bubbles of old-world imperialism”. His earnestness, however, was evident in the opening sentence: “The next few months may decide not only whether we are to survive as a nation, but whether we deserve to survive”. 21  Two years later, with war in its fifth year, Nettie wrote of a “time for stock-taking, as never before”. 22

These two articles, one by Vance and one by Nettie, encapsulate their passions in stark, brilliant depth. It is important to know, as the historian Humphrey McQueen reported, that “Australia’s finest reviewer in the 1920s was Nettie Palmer”,23 and that her life, as the writer Flora Eldershaw observed, was “in effect dedicated to the service of Australian literature”. 24

In 1961, when Nettie wrote of 1914 – the year of her marriage and the year when the First World War erupted – Vance was no longer alive.  A gentle tribute to him permeates the article.

Nettie mentions the profound shock she and Vance felt on hearing that the French socialist leader Jean Jaurès had been assassinated on 31 July 1914, quoting the writer Anatole France, who had lamented: “Never to see him again, he who was the greatest of hearts, the most far-reaching of geniuses and the most noble of characters”. 25

Do we here catch a glimpse of the respect Nettie and Vance had for Jaurès, as well as the respect and love Nettie felt for Vance?

Watercolour painting of Nettie sitting behind a desk at a bookshop in Prahran
Nettie Palmer [in a] Prahran Bookshop, 1953. Drawing by Mary Zuvela. This work is in copyright; H90.98/5

In 1985 the Victorian government marked “the centenary of the births of Vance and Nettie Palmer” by establishing the annual Premier’s Literary Awards. 26 At the State Library the centenary was marked with a Palmer exhibition that went on to tour Queensland in the following year. 27

For us in the twenty-first century, it seems appropriate to recall that this “most famous partnership in Australian literary history” began here, at the State Library.  As well, we might care to note a prediction writer Frank Dalby Davison made in 1955, on the occasion of Vance’s seventieth birthday.

“If anyone, in a couple of hundred years, wants to share vicariously in Australian life as lived in the first half of this century”, Davison wrote, they “will find Palmer’s writings a lot of help”. And, in these writings, he added, they will experience “the bloom on Palmer’s prose”. 28

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  1. Smith, V, 1975, Vance and Nettie Palmer, Twayne, Boston, p [x]
  2. Mann, L, 1947, ‘Vance Palmer’, Australasian Book News and Literary Journal, vol 2, no 6, p 292; Palmer, N, 1947, ‘Leonard Mann – Humanist’, Australasian Book News and Library Journal, vol 1, no 10, p 434; Mann, L, 1969, ‘A Double Life’, Southerly, vol 29, no 3, p 167
  3. Henry Handel Richardson to Nettie Palmer, October 1945, in Probyn, C, Steele, B & Solomon, R (eds), 2000, The Letters,  vol 3, 1934-1946, Miegunyah Press, Carlton South, p 701
  4. Jordan, D, 1985, ‘Nettie Palmer and Henry Handel Richardson: The Power of Feeling’, Flinders Journal of History and Politics, vol 11, p 67
  5. Palmer, N, 1950, Henry Handel Richardson: A Study, Angus and Robertson, Sydney
  6. See, for example, the imposing list of contributors to the ‘Vance and Nettie Palmer Tribute Fund’, 1959, in Meanjin, vol 18, no 2, pp 272-3
  7. Fitzpatrick, B, 1959, ‘The Palmer Pre-eminence’, Meanjin, vol 18, no 2, p 211
  8. Jordan, D (ed), 2018, Loving Words: Love Letters between Nettie and Vance Palmer, 1909-1914, Brandl & Schlesinger, Blackheath, p 23
  9. See, for example, Smart, J, 2015, ‘A divided national capital: Melbourne in the Great War’, La Trobe Journal, no 96, p 28
  10. Catalogue of the Public Library of Victoria, 1880, p xxx
  11. Heseltine, H, 1970, Vance Palmer, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, p 13
  12. Palmer, N, 1961, ‘Remembrance of Things Past: 1914’, Meanjin, vol 20, no 3, p 297
  13. Stone, W, 1978, ‘The National Heritage: Letters of Vance and Nettie Palmer’, Quadrant, vol 22, no 4, p 85
  14. Tipping, M, 1985, ‘Remembrance of Palmers Past’, Overland, no 100, p 10
  15. Indyk, I, 1990, ‘The ABC and Australian Literature, 1939-1945’, Meanjin, vol 49, no 3, p 580
  16. Palmer, V, 1959, ‘Writers I remember: Steele Rudd’, Overland, no 15, p 21
  17. Smith, V, 2002, ‘Vance Palmer (28 August 1885 – 15 July 1959)’, Australian writers, 1915-1950, Gale, Detroit, p 263
  18. Quoted in Ashbolt, A, 1984, ‘The great literary witch-hunt of 1952’, Australia’s First Cold War: 1945-1953, vol 1, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, p 164
  19. Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates: House of Representatives, 28 August 1952, p 722
  20. Ashbolt, A, 1984, ‘The great literary witch-hunt of 1952’, Australia’s First Cold War: 1945-1953, vol 1, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, p 166
  21. Palmer, V, 1942, ‘Battle’, Meanjin, vol 1, no 8, p 5
  22. Palmer, N, 1944, ‘Australia, an International Unit’, Meanjin, vol 3, no 1, p 6
  23. McQueen, H, 1979, The Black Swan of Trespass: The Emergence of Modernist Painting in Australia to 1944, Alternative Publishing Cooperative, Sydney, p 15
  24. Eldershaw, F, 1955, ‘Nettie and Vance Palmer: 70th Birthday Tributes’, Overland, no 5, p 6
  25. Palmer, N, 1961, ‘Remembrance of Things Past: 1914’, Meanjin, vol 20, no 3, p 300
  26. See, for example, The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, 2004: Report, p 2
  27. Vance and Nettie Palmer: an Exhibition to celebrate the centenary of their birth, in the Queen’s Hall, State Library of Victoria, 20th August – 30th September, 1985 (curators: Richard Overall and Mandy Bede), 1986, Library Council of Victoria, Melbourne
  28. Davison, F D, 1955, ‘Nettie and Vance Palmer: 70th Birthday Tributes’, Overland, no 5, p 6

This article has 7 comments

  1. This is a wonderful glimpse of the Palmers, Australian literature and history, above all the history of a fine institution like the SLV! Carefully researched and beautifully written. Thank you.

  2. Well done Walter. Their championing of other writers and artists is inspirational. The Palmers deserve to be better known than they are and your piece will hopefully increase people’s curiosity – it certainly has me wanting to know more.
    Thank you
    Dennis Spiteri

  3. Melbourne, city of writers, what would you be without the Wheeler Centre, the State Library of Victoria and Vance ‘n Nettie Palmer?

    One of my favourite treasures the Library archives hold is an interview of Nettie Palmer by Stephen Murray Smith where she tells the story of being picked up by Vance. It was in those days when chaperones were only just being dispensed with so the nature of their meeting in the library had to be kept secret.

    As highlighted by Walter Struve, they were a wonderful, committed, generous couple in the realm of creative ideas and literary endeavour engaged with the key issues of their times – modernism, feminism, colonialism, environment and war.

  4. Working on this blog piece gave me much pleasure: engaging with the writings of both Vance and Nettie, and so much that has been written on them, all the time wondering what they would be doing in our current world.

    Deborah, your work surely deserves at least one koala stamp from Phillip Adams (if not more), as you help us to understand them within their times, and allow us to feel awe (not uncritically, yet very real all the same), while also allowing us to see them as human beings.

    One anecdote I should have included in my piece relates to Nettie’s support of refugees from Hitler’s Europe, efforts which earned for her the label ‘Angel of the refugees’.

    Irma Schnierer, an Austrian psychologist who settled in Melbourne, told how, when she sought to have a book of hers published in Australia (the book was written in German), the publisher asked her to submit two sample chapters in English. Irma was elated, but also alarmed, given that her ‘English was hardly good enough for routine shopping needs’. When Nettie learned of this, ‘she immediately volunteered to translate the book for me’. Nettie refused payment of any kind: ‘Let it be my contribution to the fight against the Nazis’, she insisted. (I wonder if Irma did find a way to repay this generosity when she undertook a German translation of Alan Marshall’s I can jump puddles, published in Switzerland in 1959?)


    • When i met Loretta and the Garvey family in 1967, the Palmers were one of their literary references… And Peg Cregan who was working with Loretta at the AEU office in Victoria Parade, whose home was a kind of salon of art & literature & politics, introduced us to the Palmers’ daughter, Aileen Palmer, whose poetry book launch we attended. I wonder who was in that crowded room that day. All best wishes, Kris

  5. just an admirer
    in so far as he painted the very lanes and streets of my childhood in fitzroy
    literally one block from where he (and i as a child) lived
    always great to find these fabulous mosels
    for us to chew on
    stay safe
    love + anarchy

  6. A thoughtful and beautiful piece about a pair who did so much for our literary culture. Thank you for writing it Walter.

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