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

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

Loving Words: Love letters of Nettie and Vance Palmer 1909–1914

edited by Deborah Jordan

Brandl & Schlesinger, $39.95 pb, 500 pp, 9780994429667

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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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).