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’.