Palmer, Nettie (1885–1964)

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Palmer, Nettie (1885–1964)

Australian critic, poet, and journalist. Name variations: Janet Gertrude Palmer. Born Janet Gertrude Higgins on August 18, 1885, in Bendigo, Victoria, Australia; died on October 19, 1964; daughter of John Higgins (an accountant) and Catherine (MacDonald) Higgins; University of Melbourne, B.A., 1909, M.A., 1912; married Vance Palmer (a writer), on May 23, 1914; children: Aileen Palmer (b. 1915); Helen Palmer (1917–1979, a writer).

Selected writings:

The South Wind (1914); Australian Story-Book (1928); Talking It Over (1932); Fourteen Years: Extracts from a Private Journal 1925–1939 (1948); Henry Handel Richardson (1950); Bernard O'Dowd (1954).

Assisted by a strong interest in comparative world literature, writer Nettie Palmer dedicated much of her career to gaining a wider readership for the works of Australian authors. In turn, the respect she attained in literary circles provided her with a forum for promoting socialist ideals and combating the spread of fascism in the 1930s.

She was born in Bendigo, Victoria, Australia, in 1885, and was educated by her mother before attending Miss Rudd's seminary in Malvern and the Presbyterian Ladies' College. In 1909, she received an undergraduate degree from the University of Melbourne with a major in classical and comparative literature, and the following year traveled to Europe to study languages in London, Marburg, and Paris. (By mid-life she would speak a number of languages, including French, German, Greek and Spanish.) In London, she met writer Vance Palmer and through him became involved in guild socialism. Upon her return to Australia in 1911, she pursued a graduate degree at the University of Melbourne, where she met Bernard O'Dowd, further forging her commitment to socialism and cultural nationalism. She taught modern languages and began making contributions to the local socialist press. After receiving a masters of arts degree in 1912, she returned to London, where she married Vance Palmer two years later.

Palmer gave birth to her first daughter Aileen and published two volumes of poetry, The South Wind (1914) and Shadowy Paths (1915), while living in London. The family then moved to Emerald, Victoria, where her second daughter Helen Palmer was born in 1917. In partnership, both Palmer and her husband became important contributors to Australia's literary circles. An outspoken foe of mandatory military enlistment during World War I, Palmer wrote a regular column for Argus. Her commitment to promoting Australian literature and authors meanwhile began to take shape, and her favored means of promotion became literary critiques. In 1924, she published her own Modern Australian Literature 1900–1923. The book was widely praised and immediately opened greater opportunities for her career.

After suffering a miscarriage in 1926, Palmer plunged into her literary career with increased energy. Her Australian Story-Book (1928), a highly received collection highlighting both well-known and lesser-known Australian writers, was considered to have set new standards for the short-story form. From 1928 to 1938, Palmer wrote a personal column, "A Reader's Notebook," for All About Books, and from 1927 to 1933 regularly contributed longer pieces to the Illustrated Tasmanian Mail. In 1929, she moved with her family to Melbourne, where she published Henry Bourne Higgins (1931) and Talking It Over (1932), a collection of her own essays, as well as co-edited a collection of women's writings in The Centenary Gift Book (1934). She was the first to recognize the importance of novelist Henry Handel Richardson , and wrote critical studies of the works of several others, including Barbara Baynton and Katharine Susannah Prichard , bringing them greater visibility. She also became active in various organizations, including the Australian Literary Society, the Verse-Speaking Association, and the Fellowship of Australian Writers. She found time to assist her husband with some of his literary efforts as well.

In the 1930s, Palmer again became involved in international political issues as she opposed the rise of fascism and promoted world peace. Continuing to travel widely, she attended the Writers' Congress in Paris in 1935 and was in Spain in 1936 when the Civil War broke out. She became a member of the Spanish Relief Committee, for which she wrote several booklets, and also joined the Joint Spanish Aid Council and Refugee Emergency Committee, dedicated to helping Spanish Civil War refugees and emigrants.

By the 1940s, she was maintaining a full schedule with writing, lecturing, and editing the memoirs, poem collections, and short stories of others. What many regarded as her best work, Fourteen Years: Extracts from a Private Journal 1925–1939, was published in the journal Meanjin in 1948. In the 1950s, Palmer published three books, Henry Handel Richardson (1950), the first major study of that writer, The Dandemongs (1952), a history of an area near Melbourne, and Bernard O'Dowd (1954), which underscored his influence in Australia. Both she and her husband also became frequent broadcasters over ABC radio through the 1940s and 1950s. After her husband's death in 1959, Palmer worked on her autobiography, but it remained unfinished due to her failing health. Credited with raising the prestige of Australian literature in general, and Australian women's literature in particular, Palmer died on October 19, 1964.


Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

Radi, Heather, ed. 200 Australian Women: A Redress Anthology. NSW, Australia: Women's Redress Press, 1988.

Wilde, William H., Joy Hooten, and Barry Andrews. The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press, 1985.

suggested reading:

Modjeska, Drusilla. Exiles at Home, 1981.

Richard C. C. , freelance writer, Eugene, Oregon

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