Charmian and George: The marriage of George Johnson and Charmian Clift
Rosenberg, $29.95 pb, 255 pp
For some Australians, the exotic, exciting and ultimately tragic relationship of Charmian Clift (1923–69) and George Johnston (1912–70) has attained the mythical status of other famous literary couples of the twentieth century: F. Scott and Zelda, Virginia and Leonard, Ted and Sylvia. The combination of beautiful people, prolific and personal writing, illness and suicide makes them irresistible and seemingly inexhaustible subjects for biographers and readers alike. In the case of the Johnstons, escape to London from the conservative Australia of the 1950s, and then years on the Greek islands of Kalymnos and Hydra, add another level of fascination. The dream of an idyllic island life is a resilient one: evidence that it is unattainable only serves to strengthen the myth.
Long fascinated by the writing and life of the Johnstons, I nevertheless opened this book with some trepidation, the familiarity of the first-name title and the concentration on their ‘marriage’ sounding warning bells of voyeurism. The unusual situation of writing a review about a book whose author has recently died added to my unease.