Brenda Niall reviews 'A Steady Storm of Correspondence: Selected Letters of Gwen Harwood 1943–1995' edited by Gregory Kratzmann

Brenda Niall reviews 'A Steady Storm of Correspondence: Selected Letters of Gwen Harwood 1943–1995' edited by Gregory Kratzmann

A Steady Storm of Correspondence: Selected Letters of Gwen Harwood 1943–1995

edited by Gregory Kratzmann

UQP, $40 pb, 528 pp, 9780702232572

From a small island, messages in a bottle floating out to sea. That was Gwen Harwood’s image for the poems she sent out during her early years in Tasmania, long before she had due recognition. Her letters, by contrast, knew their destination; they were treasured for decades by her friends, and they now make up the remarkable collection A Steady Storm of Correspondence.

As editor, Gregory Kratzmann has had an enviable but not an easy task in choosing no more than four hundred letters when ten times as many were made available to him. The quality is extraordinary. There’s nothing forced or formal: none in which Harwood’s voice seems muffled by the conventional phrasing of a duty letter. Spirited and witty, warm, reflective, at times enraged, often overcome by laughter, the letters are so varied that this large volume can be read as one might read a novel or an autobiography. It would be a pity just to dip in at random: this is the story of the making of a poet as well as many stories of friendship; and it gains from being read in sequence.

Many readers will remember the letters of the young Gwen Harwood (then Gwen Foster) from the collection Blessed City (1990). Written from Brisbane before her marriage, these letters all have the same recipient, Thomas (Tony) Riddell, the friend of a lifetime to whom she dedicated all but one of her published volumes of poetry. They were written in quick succession (sometimes two or three in the same week) during a single year, 1943, when Harwood was twenty-two, working as a secretary in the War Damage Commission and as organist at All Saints’ Church of England. Kratzmann reprints only three from Blessed City: enough to place the new reader, but with minimal repetition for those who know the earlier volume.

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Published in November 2001, no. 236
Brenda Niall

Brenda Niall

Brenda Niall’s writing career began during her time as an academic at Monash University, where she was Reader in the Department of English. Since 1995 she has been writing full time. Her books include award-winning biographies Martin Boyd: A Life (1988), Georgiana (1995), The Boyds (2002), Judy Cassab (2005), and a memoir, Life Class (2007). Her book The Riddle of Father Hackett was shortlisted for the 2010 Magarey Medal for Biography. She is a frequent reviewer for The Age and ABR, and has been a guest at the Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane, and Byron Bay literary festivals. In 2004 she was awarded an AO for services to Australian Literature. Her latest book is Can You Hear the Sea? My grandmother's story (Text Publishing, 2018).

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