Brenda Niall reviews 'Loving Words: Love letters of Nettie and Vance Palmer 1909–1914' by Deborah Jordan

When Vance Palmer met Nettie Higgins in the summer of 1909 in the sedate setting of the State Library of Victoria, they were both twenty-three years old. Yet even to speak to one another was a breach of convention; they had not been introduced, and Nettie at least felt quite daring. An arts student at Melbourne University, she had never been far from her parents’ house. Vance had made the break with home and travelled the world: he had worked as a teacher and a freelance journalist, and nourished hopes of becoming a full-time writer.

The correspondence that followed, after Vance returned to his home state of Queensland, began cautiously. Miss Higgins wrote to Mr Palmer, and signed off with ‘Yours sincerely’. He replied in the same correct form. They wrote about books and ideas, about his ambitions and her hesitations. Their contrasting personalities emerged. Vance was a loner, accustomed to making his own choices, but longing for a listener. Nettie was struggling for independence from kindly, controlling parents and a constricting social world. She told Vance that she lived with ‘other people’s problems’, not her own. As the daughter at home, she had so little privacy that she had to ask Vance to address his letters to her at the University Women’s clubrooms. Otherwise, questions would be asked.

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