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Clift and Johnston would say of their relationship, that conversation was the first draft for writing... I remember once their older son said to me that ‘Mum and dad would rather be having an argument with each other, rather than a pleasant conversation with anyone else in the world’. So every day at lunchtime, they smashed out ideas for stories together over a few beers.

Nadia Wheatley

Explore the literary histories of Charmian Clift, Shirley Hazzard and Elizabeth Harrower.

Following her biography The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift, Nadia Wheatley contributed the afterword to The End of the Morning, Clift’s final manuscript, which was recently published more than 50 years after her death. Literary scholar Brigitta Olubas (Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life) joins forces with journalist Susan Wyndham to collate Shirley Hazzard and Elizabeth Harrower: The Letters, which reveals the deep and vexed friendship between two of Australia’s greatest writers.  

Learn more about these fabled authors’ work and writing lives with the scribes who are salvaging their stories from the archives.

This event was presented by the Sydney Writers' Festival and supported by UNSW Sydney.


UNSW Centre for Ideas: UNSW Centre for Ideas.

Caroline Baum: Good afternoon everybody. It's nice to see so many of you here this afternoon. For this session, I'd like to begin by reminding everybody that we are on the unceded lands of the Gadigal nation, of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. My name is Caroline Baum, and I present a podcast called Life Sentences, which is exclusively devoted to the practice of biography.

And as a result, I have been delighted to interview Brigitta on the podcast about her superb biography of Shirley Hazzard and Nadia, about her definitive biography of Charmian Clift. And I'm very much looking forward next year to interviewing Susan about what I'm sure will be an equally superb and definitive biography of Elizabeth Harrower. I am going to dispense with biographies of the biographers, because otherwise we are going to be here all day because they're so distinguished, and you can look them up.

We are four women here to discuss three women, three writers with very different lives and who lived and moved through the world in very different ways. Now, two of them were friends and one had nothing to do with the other two, which does make this slightly lopsided. To make things even more asymmetrical we have two biographers with books out, and as I said, we've got one biographer in waiting or in progress, but who, of course, has co-edited with Brigitta the wonderful collection of letters between Elizabeth Harrower and Shirley Hazzard. 

And given how private both Harrower and Hazzard were, I really felt reading this collection that it was almost indecent to be able to read these letters and find out what they really thought and how their relationship evolved. I would say that two of them are introverts, both writers of fiction that is psychological and literary, and I see Charmian Clift as perhaps more of an earthy extrovert who found a very successful voice for her readers that sounded kind of intimate and private, like a conversation between friends in a sort of cocktail of memoir, fiction, journalism and essays.

And today is the first time that these three women have been brought together, so I wonder what they would be talking about if they were together, as opposed to us being together. I think that maybe Shirley and Charmian would compare island life, perhaps Capri versus Hedra, or perhaps all three would have found common ground. In discussing whether Australia was fulfilling its cultural and political potential, which is something that they do all write about.

So will you join me in welcoming Susan, Nadia and Brigitta?


Nadia, I'd like to start with you. I imagine that as an expat, Charmian wrote a lot of letters. Is that right? Did she?

Nadia Wheatley: Yes. Charmian did write a lot of letters. And we have only a couple of them extant. So, unfortunately, there is no body of letters. She wrote them… the ones that are extant, and I quote them in my biography, to a woman called Jo Myer, with whom she lived in the flat above Jo in London, just before I went to the island of Kalymnos in 1954.

She wrote letters home to her mother and brother, and unfortunately they were all destroyed. So, we have very few letters from Charmian and even the business letters to their agents were more or less written, usually by George Johnston. So very few letters.

Caroline Baum: And when do you say the letters were destroyed? Who did? The destroying.

Nadia Wheatley: Family.

Caroline Baum: And they did that at the time, or they did that much later?

Nadia Wheatley: Look, I only know about this because one of her nieces mentioned it at a public talk I went to at Kiama so I don't know about it in any detail, but she said ‘Mum destroyed them in a hissy fit’. So there you go. It's as much as I know. 

Caroline Baum: It's interesting, because that is a tradition that we think of as being associated with the 19th century but it's interesting that in a lot of families, it did persist into the 20th century. Be interesting to see what happens with the destruction or the deletion of emails and the digital equivalent. Well, in terms of the letters that she wrote then - you mentioned this one friend, and I was just wondering, given that so much emphasis of the, correspondence between Elizabeth and Shirley is about the dynamic of their friendship, I was just wondering about what role friendship played in Charmian's life, because I get the feeling that her life was so full with George and with the children, and with trying to earn a living, and this kind of peripatetic life that they also had. Did she have time for really deep and significant friendships?

Nadia Wheatley: She had time. But I have to already take issue with your word of ‘extroverted’, because I think Charmian was one of the most private, introverted and vulnerable people I've ever come across. And she had four female friends in her life. She had a friend, Fairly Brown in Kiama when she was a teenager, a young woman in the block of flats where she lived as a young mother in Bondi.

Tony Burgess, this one, Jo Meyer again, the proximity of living in a block of flats in London and then no close female friend in Greece and June Crooke, wife of the painter Ray Crooke, with whom she went on a holiday in Australia in 67. And so she really didn't open herself up to many people apart from George and her children.

Caroline Baum: That's interesting. So I okay, I stand completely corrected then about the introvert extrovert thing.

Nadia Wheatley: I understand why you say that because she seemed amazingly rigorous and extroverted, but in fact, it was George who was the person who made friends. He was known as ‘Golden Boy’ as a young journalist, and she always felt that people were George's friends, not her friends.

Caroline Baum: And when you say so emphatically that they were no female friends in their circle in Greece, I'm just wondering whether you could just expand on that a little bit. Is that by choice or what? What's that about?

Nadia Wheatley: Quite a lot of women didn't like her. Grace Edwards, for instance, who was Big Grace in the novel, Clean Straw for Nothing by George Johnston - and I knew Grace quite well in Greece - she didn't like her. Women often reacted against her with a sense of hostility. Charmian was like a squid that lets out a whole lot of black ink.

So she had her… we were talking about the exquisite defences of Shirley Hazzard. I think, Charmian was very much like Shirley Hazzard in that I imagine she and Shirley Hazzard just would have been, impossible.

Caroline Baum: Yeah, I think so. I think they would have hated each other. 

Nadia Wheatley: She might have been better I’m sure with Elizabeth Harrower, but, no, she didn't… She just really, I think from a whole lot of stuff that went on in her childhood, a bad relationship with her elder sister, Margaret. She… it put close proximity, like living in a block of flats with another woman, for her to make that bond of female friendship.

Caroline Baum: That is so ironic, isn't it, though, in a way, Nadia? Because the relation and type of intimacy that she had with her readers when she created that voice and that persona in her column in the Herald for her so-called Thursday Ladies, presupposes a real gift for friendship.

Nadia Wheatley: Oh, all her readers felt that she was their friend was sitting across the kitchen table having a personal conversation. But again, one of the connections, I think, between these three women, is the way that they develop a persona and develop a myth around them, and that was part of her persona. 

Caroline Baum: Yes. And that that's a gift. I mean, that's a talent. We'll come back to that, I hope. because I wanted to ask you, there's a wonderful question that Elizabeth Harrower poses in a letter to Shirley, which is should, ‘Should one show letters to biographers?’ She's talking about her concern about Christina Stead, and she's obviously been approached by Christina Stead, biographer.

Brigitta Olubas: Three of them. 

Caroline Baum: Three of them, not one, but three. And so she turns to Shirley for advice. And I was just wondering, how you responded when you saw that question? As a biographer yourself, you must have thought, ‘Of course you've got to show the letters’. 

Brigitta Olubas: Yeah. And Shirley obviously thought that… 

Caroline Baum: She did. 

Brigitta Olubas: She kept the letters. She didn't organise them. They were, you know, pile of chaos in her apartment. But she kept them just as she kept diaries and so on. I think, Elizabeth was asking Francis Steegmuller as the experienced biographer and  / 

Caroline Baum: So he was the biographer of Flaubert, amongst others.

Brigitta Olubas: And Cocteau and others and I think he gave her a fairly nuanced answer about, you know, different kind of contexts for that. But, I got the sense, looking through her papers, that she very much had an eye to posterity, in the sense that there was an extraordinary amount of material, even if it wasn't organised. Harrower, on the other hand did burn things, or certainly destroy things, including letters. She burnt the letters that Shirley Hazzard had written to Shirley's mother, to Kit. 

And, that was a little, in a little list, of kind of last things that she was doing for Kit Hazzard as she was going into the nursing home. ‘Burn S’s letters’. And that's, to me, it felt when I read it that there was something quite aggressive about that. The burning of someone else's letters, at the behest of a mother with dementia, you know, that that you might have thought it was important.

Caroline Baum: Well, let's talk about that, because it is really significant that Kit, Shirley's mother, is the reason that Shirley and Elizabeth have a friendship. And that's quite an unusual way for a friendship between women to start. So can you just, take us take us in through that? And was also perhaps one of the reasons why, you know, the friendship almost didn't continue at key points.

Brigitta Olubas: Yes. So Elizabeth was introduced to Kit Hazzard by Norma Chapman from Clay’s Bookshop, and she had seen Kit wandering a little dishevelled. And, Kit had suffered from mental illness. She was later diagnosed as manic depressive or bipolar. These were not her strongest years at this time. She was quite vulnerable and Norma was obviously thinking, ‘She needs someone here’.

Shirley Hazzard’s obviously off in New York being famous and, introduced to Elizabeth heroine and Elizabeth Harrower liked her, and Kit really liked Elizabeth. And then Kit told Shirley when she visited her in New York ‘I've met this wonderful writer’. And Shirley fell for Elizabeth wholeheartedly. She wrote in a letter to someone else, ‘She exists as a kind of, you know, elevated consciousness for me’. She was some.. she really idealised Elizabeth heroine as this kind of not just an ideal friend, but a great intellect, a great writer, and not simply as someone who would do all the running around after her mother. And I don't know that - I'm pretty sure that Elizabeth didn't have quite the same elevated view of Shirley.

Elizabeth had, well, Shirley, with someone who wanted to believe in in the greatness of individual writers. She had a similar kind of response to Patrick White and was devastated when he didn't like her very much. And you know, that that friendship didn't continue. and there were other writers in her circle internationally that she had the same kind of awe and, and profound respect for.

Caroline Baum: It's interesting that you mention that, because I'm just thinking about the fact that when she wrote that book about Green on Capri /

Brigitta Olubas: He didn't like her either. 

Caroline Baum: / you get you get the impression that she, she thought he was wonderful and that he thought she was wonderful. But in fact, subsequently, we find out that he found her really annoying.

Brigitta Olubas: Oh, that's very clear in the memoir. And she tackles it and she says, you know, ‘He didn't like women’. And, you know, she's quite straightforward, really, about his reservations about her. 

Caroline Baum: But also later, I don't know whether she mentions this in the memoir, but apparently he thought that she talked too much. 

Brigitta Olubas: Oh, yeah. Everyone thought she talked too much. And Benjamin Taylor know the writer who adored her said she was more cataract than woman once she got going. You know, she just she was so excited about things. She just loved learning things. Like she was beside herself with glee when one of her friends in Naples found the Villa de Papiri, the basement, you know, with all the papyrus.

And he told me she really, you know.. there may have been, you know, poems, the Roman literature there that no one had read before. And she went down into the excavation with them and wrote about, I mean, she was just full of excitement about what the world might offer the intellectual world, the poetic world. And she thought everyone else was that excited and wanted to talk about it with.. or listen to her talk about it.

Caroline Baum: But I suppose what I, what I wondered was, do you think then, that that shows a kind of lack of self-awareness, that she didn't realise that people didn't always share her enthusiasm and also found her manner off-putting? 

Brigitta Olubas: Absolutely. She was aware of, I think one of the almost one of the first things she said to me was, you know, that Patrick White had like Francis far more than he liked her.

And I thought, well, it's you know, it's a little sudden in the conversation. And that's clearly true about Green, too. So, yeah, I think you're absolutely right. She didn't have a huge amount for all the sophistication. Yes. You know, and the fact that she held her own in some of the most elevated literary circles in the world, and people did adore her.

I mean, not everyone, but to speak to people on Capri, you know, they genuinely loved her. They loved her interest in them, her knowledge of them - talking to her housekeeper, you know, they thought she was someone incomparable. You know, and talking to friends who visited her in Naples, the same thing. The, the shopkeepers, the local people thought the thought of her as one of them.

And, you know.. so there was all of that. But yeah, even people who were fond of her, you know, her publisher, Jonathan Glancey, said, well, you know, we call her Senora Comunque. We, you know, sort of however, you know, she'd get to the end of something. And before anyone else could say, however, you know, I'm going to continue on this tack.

Caroline Baum: Well, her English publisher, Allen McLain /

Brigitta Olubas: Said ‘She just won’t shut up’.

Caroline Baum: / Shirley was talking and he was trapped into the seat next to her, and he got up and said, ‘Shut up!’ and went to the toilet. And then he came back and apologised, didn't he?

Brigitta Olubas: Yes. And this was one of the stories Elizabeth Harrower loved telling about Shirley.  

Caroline Baum: I did wonder about something he said that I wanted to ask you about, which is, it's convenient in a way that, Shirley, when she's writing to Elizabeth, is writing for two. She's writing for herself, and she's writing for Francis. So there's very much the sense of them as a couple responding to Elizabeth, but he does allow her to use ‘we’ all the time.

And it sounds so bloody regal. Yes. So ‘we’ are going to Naples. ‘We’ have just done such and such and it does sound terribly lofty and sort of, 

Brigitta Olubas: And it's also about the security of that life, because that was the thing that saved her. I don't know what she would have done had she not met him, and had they not been so compatible for all their incompatibilities, particularly early on.

But that would have made Elizabeth, I imagine, feel very much on the outer, too. You know, that that there's a kind of exclusiveness or something about that performance of marital happiness around someone who… 

Susan Wyndham: She was very fond of Francis though. So she loved Francis. He was the love of her life. 

Brigitta Olubas: No, no, no, sorry, I was talking about Elizabeth. 

Caroline Baum: She was very fond of him. 

Susan Wyndham: Yeah. And sometimes seemed to like him more than she liked Shirley also. 

Caroline Baum: Oh. I mean, I'm sorry, but I was going to ask you, Susan, is the correspondence with Elizabeth the most significant that Shirley had? Or do we know that Shirley had other correspondence that that match the kind of quantity? 

Susan Wyndham: Well I can you talk about it more from Elizabeth's side.

Caroline Baum: Yeah.

Susan Wyndham: I think Elizabeth had other correspondence.  Shirley had other correspondence, but probably not the same volume of letters.

Brigitta Olubas: That’s right.

Susan Wyndham: I mean, she had many correspondence and she, Brigitta’s working on another book of her letters now. But in Elizabeth's case, she I mean, Elizabeth was single, unmarried, no children. And at a certain point stopped writing, and more or less gave herself over to her friendships. And part of that was writing letters. She… I mean, from her childhood, she had an unhappy and rather lonely childhood growing up in Newcastle and then in Sydney.

And she always wrote letters. She wrote letters to her parents, who were divorced and in different places. She wrote letters to friends back in Newcastle. Unfortunately, none of these exist, but she talked about it. And then as an adult, she wrote all the time. She wrote a lot of letters when she was living in London, and writing her first three novels in the 1950s, back to her mother in Sydney and then later destroyed them, which would be such treasures to read now.

Caroline Baum: You can hear how heartfelt it is from a biographer.

Susan Wyndham: But she did keep, in her papers in the National Library, there is a terrific collection of her, correspondence with friends and particularly with other writers. So she became a good close friend in person and through correspondence with some Patrick White, Christina Stead, Kylie Tennant, Cynthia Nolan and Sydney, but more Cynthia, a whole range of people.

And she's kept those letters very carefully, as well as less famous friends. And you can see how important friends were to her. She was a very reliable correspondent. But Shirley's is certainly the largest collection - 40 years. And as we learned, 400,000 words typed up between them. And, it's really significant.

Caroline Baum: I just want to go back, Nadia, to something that Brigitta just said, which was about, how, Francis, in a way saved Shirley from herself, perhaps. And then you talked a little bit about that sort of performative quality of the couple. And I mean, if we've thinking about a performative couple, really Charmian and George, up there, aren't they?

But in their case, that dynamic of performance was not always as beneficial, was it? There was competition, there was tension, there was… Can you explore that a little bit?

Nadia Wheatley: Yes. There was overtly enormous competition as writers between Clift and Johnston in the latter period. In the earlier period, not so much, but in the earlier period they were collaborating and they were the world's worst collaborators because Clift was a very slow and painstaking writer. And Johnston had grown up in the newsroom where he'd been a journalist from the age of about 14. And so he was a very public writer. 

So as a couple collaborate writing, which they had contracted to do after their first book through another two books, it was a disaster. And it was in Clift's first solo book, Mermaid Singing, written on Kalymnos in 1955, that for the first time she wrote alone. And I suppose going back to our theme of letters today, thinking, while we were talking before about Charmian’s letters, the two that I have from her to Jo, her London friend, we can find them in Mermaid Singing.

And so Clift and Johnston would say of their relationship, that conversation was the first draft for writing. And Martin, I remember once their older son said to me that ‘Mum and dad would rather be having an argument with each other, rather than a pleasant conversation with anyone else in the world’. So every day at lunchtime, they smashed out ideas for stories together over a few beers.

And yes, sometimes there were arguments. But those conversations went into writing, but so did the letters. And so, we know that the letters that have been destroyed, we can actually find them… essences of them there in the two travel memoirs, written in Greece.

Caroline Baum: And I suppose that Francis and Shirley would have talked shop endlessly. They would have been discussing each other's works in progress all the time. 

Brigitta Olubas: Shirley… the sense I have is that Shirley didn't share things ahead of time. She didn't want to talk very much about what she was writing and she… Francis was a very disciplined writer. And he wrote a lot of did a lot of public writing as well as churning out books after, you know, and translations. I mean, he was incredibly productive and, and, was writing for magazines and so on as well. And, and Shirley spoke often in interviews about, you know, she should hear, him, him clattering away in his study.

But then he would be coming and knocking on her door and asking for advice about the best word or whatever. And she said she started putting a sign up on the door saying ‘Consultation between, you know, this time and this time’ because he was interrupting her work and but that she was not sharing the other way.

She's, I mean, and she was notoriously kind of secretive about her work. I mean, she did say when The Transit of Venus came out, that, you know, she'd done 20 to 30 drafts of every page. but none of them survived, you know, so she, she kept maintain this image of herself as writing this almost perfect novel, with no drafts, with no backstory.

And, what I'd give to see even two of those stories.

Caroline Baum: Susan, Brigitta said before that, you know, when Elizabeth and Kit met, Elizabeth liked Kit. And I'm curious about that, because Kit obviously has got mental health problems. She's needy, she's demanding. She's not always rational. An enormous volume of the letters consists of updates on ‘Why M’ your mother or back the other way, ‘MM’ My mother - a lot of the anecdotes about Kit's behaviour, aberrant behaviour can seem funny,  unless you've come across that particular kind of a parent, in which case, you know, it resonates in a different way. What was it about Kit that Elizabeth liked? And why did she saddle herself with the responsibility for her?

Susan Wyndham: That is the big question. Yeah, yeah, I look, I've read Kit's letters to Elizabeth, which she usually wrote when she was traveling, which she was always doing. Kit was a very restless character, and she was divorced quite early in Shirley's life, wasn't she? And, she lived on her own. She was quite lonely. She didn't get on with her other daughter, Valerie, who avoided her as much as possible.

And Shirley, of course, was on the other side of the world, so she was quite lonely. But she was also, I think, very good company, from what you can see. And in her letters to Elizabeth, she was very enthusiastic about her friendships and, full of praise for Elizabeth and loving her next book. Always read her books and they would go out for coffee together and out to dinner and I think she was, in her own way, quite a gregarious and polished friend at times, when she was in the right mood.

But then she'd have these crashing depressions and was sometimes suicidal. And I think when Elizabeth first met her, she didn't realise what she was getting into. It was a friendship and you can see in the letters how it gradually closes in and she can't… Elizabeth is a caring friend to many people, and as she made the point to others later, Kit was not the only person she was looking after.

They were other needy friends, and she always seemed to give of herself to them. But there were... She always told Shirley how ‘We had good times together’. You know, she'll go over on Christmas Day and see kids and have lunch and organise dinners. And she'd had other friends and they became Elizabeth's friends as well. So there was a genuine friendship going on there.

But why did she become the caring.. beyond the point of duty friend? I think she always says, both in her fiction and her conversations that she could always feel sympathy for people. She could see the vulnerability in people. And I think she was an incredibly observant person who could see inside other people. And this is what she was writing about in her fiction.

These psychological and emotional wounds really are at the centre of all her fiction. and damaged people kind of fascinated her. I always wondered if she intended to write a novel about Kit, because I think she’d have been sitting there while doing all the kind and genuine things, sitting there watching. Yeah, I don't know if she took notes, but, you can imagine that she was at least mentally doing something away.

Caroline Baum: She was storing something away. And, I mean, it is worth reminding the audience for those that that don't know, just another little detail about Kit that I remember was very shocking that you tell us in your biography, Brigitta, which is that, Kit asked Shirley to join her in a suicide pact when Shirley was six. I mean...

Susan Wyndham: Yeah, she's she has terrible rages. She's so unkind to the people that love her and care for her. And Elizabeth was the brunt of a lot of that, too. And her wonderful, a psychiatric nurse, Andrew, who comes in to the letters a lot, too. He did more than he should do professionally. He was so generous to her, and he got all this anger back in return. So in her bad times, she was unbearable. But, you know, they still understood that this was only part of Kit. And that was the illness that was doing this, largely, largely.

Nadia Wheatley: I wonder with  Elizabeth giving so much time not just to Kit, but to Kylie Tennant and other friends and spending a lot of time writing, writing letters. 

Brigitta Olubas: Yes. 

Whether that wasn't an avoidance of writing the next novel in the same way that, the other day in an interview, I was asked whether Clift writing her column her weekly column, was an avoidance of getting back to The End of the Morning, the novel that she had - not a block in the sense of writer's block, of not being able to write it, but a block with intractable material that would have taken her into personal stuff.

And in answer, I use the analogy of the way we will find a task - doing the washing up or whatever - if we know we should be doing our tax return, you know we will, we will.

Caroline Baum: Or you will either do your tax return so as not to write the book.

Nadia Wheatley: Yes. So I felt that when I was reading the correspondence, and also when I was reading your joint introduction that maybe, Kit provided for Harrower, the distraction that the weekly essays provided for Clift having said which, the weekly essay was clipped, what Clift needed to do as a bread winner when a while George was in hospital.

Caroline Baum: Exactly, exactly. 

Brigitta Olubas: And to add to that, Shirley Hazzard was always complaining about people coming to visit them in Italy you know. Always too many visitors. And she kept inviting them. Yeah. You know, so I can't possibly do any work because, you know, people been coming in… Don Dunstan's coming in and talking to me. And, and she keeps inviting them and loving them, you know, so loving that they’re there. 

Caroline Baum: That's a well-worn strategy. I know many writers who do that. 

Nadia Wheatley: And Clift did the same thing with people on Hedra /

Susan Wyndham: Yeah. There we go.

Nadia Wheatley: / 'Oh, Leonard Cohen’s come to stay'. Oh, okay. Six months later.

Susan Wyndham: That's right. And Elizabeth had to throw a party for Shirley and invite Gough Whitlam. And, you know, she was a great party and dinner thrower. 

Nadia Wheatley: She was. She was. Terrible cook, great party thrower. 

Caroline Baum: I wanted to ask you, Brigitta, whether, Kit was proud of Shirley. Like, Shirley’s success something which reflected well on her, and she sort of, you know, she enjoyed the sort of reflected glory. 

Brigitta Olubas: Absolutely, absolutely. She and Shirley was always the preferred daughter of the two of them. Valerie, the older sister, was closer to the father.

And so when the pair, I mean, the sisters hated each other from the start anyway. But then when the parents relationship became acrimonious, the daughters kind of mirrored that and threw themselves into really disliking each other. And Kit told the story, very proudly, and reminded Shirley about it in letters. You know, I remember well, ‘When you were 18 months, you came out and recited The House that Jack Built.

You know, a long poem, right? We keep going. and then at, at, you know, she was reading it three or whatever in it at 4 or 5. She's sitting on the step reading poems to her mother and say, don't you think that's beautiful? You know, likes it. And she loved that her daughter had this extraordinary capacity for reading and remembering poetry and, and that that then translated into writing and that then translated into fame.

And she was she was hugely proud of it. And Shirley would often send Kit clippings and things about her work that then Kit passed on to Elizabeth. And so there's this kind of three way traffic, not all about Shirley, but often about, you know, other kind of related things. But yeah.

Caroline Baum: I want to talk about the clippings because I love the fact that Elizabeth is responsible for sending all these clippings to Shirley and to Francis about things that are going on in Australia. And she's really like their correspondent in Australia, who kind of keeps them up to date. There's some very funny things, she says. Like in about 1975, she says, well, maybe it's in 1974… She says… there was a lot… she's trying to give them a sense of the literary landscape.

And she says ‘There was a lot of excitement about Thomas Keneally last year but that's over'.

Brigitta Olubas: Yeah, that's right.


And no one likes Thea Astley’s book

Caroline Baum: No one likes Thea Astley

Brigitta Olubas: Yes. 

Caroline Baum: That was horrible. That was a really bitchy line.

Brigitta Olubas: There's something behind that.

Caroline Baum: Yeah. The bitchiest line, I think in the book actually. But I really got the sense that Elizabeth took it upon herself to convince Shirley that Australia was not a backwater. And there's this really poignant little thing that she says when she's sending a batch of clippings. She says, ‘Do be interested’.

I just thought, ‘Oh my God, you really, really want to try and persuade these people that there is something interesting going on here’. 

Brigitta Olubas: But Shirley did believe that she was so excited to come back here after the election of the Whitlam government. She hadn't met Elizabeth.. No they had met.  But coming out here in the mid 70s to the Adelaide Festival and Frances said Adelaide is like one of the better… the more elevated Greek city states.

And he said also Australia was like New Deal America. There was just this sense of excitement. And there's later after later where Shirley compares what Elizabeth's told her about Australia to all the terrible things that are happening to the arts, in particular in the US, you know, so… and she loves it all.

It all falls apart, though, when she says in the Boyer Lectures in the 1980s, 'It's got so nationalistic.' And that was that was her objection. At which point Elizabeth was, you know. 

Caroline Baum: Yeah, that's a real misstep. She kind of misreads Australia comprehensively at that point. But before we get to that, Brigitta, I want to ask you, Brigitta, sorry, I want to ask you about something, because when I was reading your biography, it really struck me that, you know, we talk these days about bubbles, and it's a given that we're all in a bubble of one kind or another.

But Shirley's bubble seems to be so refined and so high culture and so narrow, you know, there she is. And she's in New York in the 1970s. And I'm thinking to myself, you know, uptown at the Dakota Building, Leonard Bernstein is having a party for the Black Panthers, and Tom Wolfe is writing about that in his fabulous article, Radical Chic.

So I'm waiting for a reference to a black author, and I find none in your biography. I find no reference to Joan Didion. It's like the 70s American literary culture that I know of completely passed her by. 

Brigitta Olubas: I think she read a lot of it. I mean, and Francis was great friends with Ralph Ellison. 
But that's before Shirley's time and she knew him, through that. But yet, look, certainly broadly, she and Joan Didion, they, they I think they had the same literary agent, certainly later…. I think they Nesbit... You know, so and they so those circles crossed. But and she loathed Susan Sontag. 

Look I think when she married Francis Steegmuller, she kind of moved into his age group and she lived and read and thought and spoke very much as someone from that generation.

Francis Steegmuller was 25 years older than her. So, I think and there was something very old fashioned and very buttoned up about her, her demeanour, her costume, her speaking voice, all of those things. And I think her literary tastes well or her poetic tastes, her artistic tastes were all in the past. I mean, for goodness sake, she didn't…

She couldn't bear the Abstract Expressionists. No. You know, the most exciting artistic movements of the century. You know, ‘It's not for me. It's everything that I hate’, you know. So she there's a lot about modern, the modern world and modern art and modern literature /

Caroline Baum: And modern values generally, particularly where they, revolve around ideology. And I mean, I imagine you when we were saying before that Shirley and Charmian would probably have hated each other, some, you know, identified strongly as a feminist, Shirley absolutely did not. And I presume that Elizabeth didn't either.

Brigitta Olubas: Even though they lived fairly feminist lives. certainly Elizabeth did as an independent woman on her own, making a career and, you know, financially surviving on her own on all those things. And, had some fairly liberal views about the way her friends lived and everything. But hated that term.

Caroline Baum: Hated the term. And also, I mean, it's interesting that given that, you know, that there was no affinity with feminism from the two of them, and yet when you look at the three women, they were all aligned with the left. They all had progressive views. 

Brigitta Olubas: And I think they would have been if we can stretch things and imagine some kind of conversation between, Charmian and Shirley, I think getting engaged in kind of political critique and, and, you know, that kind of thing that may have been a possibility.

Nadia Wheatley: I think it would have been the connection with Harrower, because I think the strong political stuff to come out of Clift's essays after she returned in 64. So in that 64 to 69 period, is that again and again she uses the word ‘imminence’, and she was intuiting this change that was happening in Australian society that she wouldn't live to see, but which would become manifest in 1972 when she was and Whitlam was elected.

And the other change was the coming of second wave feminism. And so all of them were of that generation that was just before second wave feminism. But Clift was engaging with younger women. There's one essay called Action or Activities where she goes and she comments on the generation difference between her generation, which was women wanting activities like knitting tea cozies, at the actual meeting she goes to, and the younger women wanting to start organisations. 

But yeah, so I think she and Harrower would very much have been there at the same pro Whitlam rally and that part of the tragedy for Clift was that she didn't live to see that change that she foresaw - and also that she helped make, because the women who voted for Whitlam in 1972 were part of those Thursday Ladies that Clift had been radicalising in her conversations.

Caroline Baum: And, Susan, I think one of the loveliest parts of this collection is the are the letters from Elizabeth to Shirley, capturing her exuberance at the election of Gough, and the sense that there is real change in the air and that this is the most exciting place on the planet, and you couldn't possibly want to be anywhere else.

Susan Wyndham: That's right. Yes. Well, she happened to be. Well, she wasn't in Canberra when he was elected, but she had George. She joined the party with some friends. She was living in Hunters Hill and she was probably one of Charmian's ladies, you know. She was, you know, fairly in many ways conservative woman. But she was, extremely progressive, very much on the side of the underdog, the worker.

She'd grown up in Newcastle with a working class family, and she'd worked in offices and factories herself. And she was always on that side. And, she became more politicised in London in the 50s and went on one of the Aldermaston marches against, nuclear weapons and so on. And she was an activist in her own way.

So when Whitlam was elected, she just thought, ‘Hallelujah, at last! I waited all this time’. And she was a very active party member in Hunter's Hills with her friends and, of course, Achilles Bushnell at Hunter's Hill Group were, you know, quite determined. And I don't know if you'd call them radical, but they were a very strong group.

And then.. so she was actually in Canberra staying with Christina Stead by coincidence, when the dismissal happened on the 11th of November 75.

Caroline Baum: It just galvanises her - her writing at that point just leaps off the page.

Susan Wyndham: She becomes a reporter, doesn't she? 

Caroline Baum: Yeah.

Susan Wyndham: She's just this eye witness to the events that are happening. She hears Christina Stead answer the phone, and someone tells Christian what's happening over at Parliament House. You know, the government's been sacked and Malcolm Fraser is prime minister, and Elizabeth sang in the background. ‘What's going on? What's happened, what's happened?’ And Christina comes off and tells her the story and says, 'Do you want a sherry? Do you want a brandy?' And Elizabeth says, ‘No’.

And then she says in this letter to Shirley, 'Eventually I had some Nescafé and went off to Parliament House'. And then her next letters talk about what's going on there. And, you know, she's standing looking up at Whitlam on the, you know, that famous scene that we see from Parliament House.

And then she and Patrick White sort of become part of the group that, you know, protesting against the dismissal and working towards trying to get Whitlam re-elected. And she kind of goes into a bit of a depression when it all fails, as I guess many people did. But all of that from her is such great writing.

Caroline Baum: It’s so immediate isn’t it? She’s really got a gift for capturing the urgency and the frenzy of all the different parts of the movement that are trying to coalesce around forming a protest and then opposition and, but again, you know, I can't help but feel something slightly queenly about Shirley, in that when she then comes to Australia to write a piece about the country for The New Yorker, I think it is, she assumes, she kind of says, you know, it would be good to meet Gough.

Like, you know, she kind of throws out these requests and then she expects Elizabeth to make these things happen for her. 

Brigitta Olubas: Well, I don't know if it's quite that queenly, but she's… Elizabeth certainly introduced her to an extraordinary array of significant people. And it's a quite magnificent piece, you know, thanks to Elizabeth's, you know, intel on the ground..

Caroline Baum: One also gets the feeling that Elizabeth is sort of slightly laying out the ways of Australia to please Shirley. Like, ‘If I can get you to meet Patrick White, will you then think that we're interesting?’

Brigitta Olubas: Well, Elizabeth thought the… I'm sorry Shirley thought that Patrick White was the most exciting novelist of the time internationally. Anyway, she was just in awe of and remained so, of his achievement. Not so much of his, his character and personality, but he was quite, quite awful to her.

And, yeah. So, I mean, I, I think yes, Elizabeth's very keen to make that material available to Shirley, but Elizabeth's not… she's not taking a back seat or a second place in relation to Shirley at all. I mean, she's a formidable woman and every bit as intelligent and, you know…

Caroline Baum: But you couldn't say it was a relationship of equals, could you? Would you argue that it was because, I mean, I think when Susan was saying, you know, she's single, she's childless, she's got she's got writer's block, you know, when, when they meet, their careers are on the ascendant, and then one of them stops and the other one goes on and on and on ever upwards. And it doesn't feel to me… maybe I'm reading too much in terms of subtext, it doesn't feel like a relationship of equals.

Brigitta Olubas: Oh, no, I absolutely get that point. And of course, the other difference is one of them kept writing. Yeah. And the other one didn't, you know, and the mystery of that is we can we can endlessly speculate. But remember what I was saying before, that Shirley was in awe of Elizabeth as / 

Caroline Baum: Yes. 

Brigitta Olubas: / a sensibility, as a person. And this was the kind of serious, thoughtful, aesthetic, poetic person that she wanted to be friends with. And she was friends with those, you know, people like that. But Elizabeth was very special because everything to do with Australia was difficult for Shirley. She never got on easily with people here. She had never been happy growing up here, apart from her rapture at the physical environments, the light, you know, all of that.

So Elizabeth, in emotional terms, had this extraordinary, power for Shirley, and I think Shirley was trying to, you know, gain her approval in some ways as well. It mattered to her enormously. She always said in the letters when Elizabeth wrote, you know, positively about Shirley's writing. And I think it really hurt, Shirley that, Elizabeth obviously didn't think didn't like the Boyer Lectures you know, she's very, you know, courteous and Shirley doesn't mention that, but I think that was probably the, you know, cherry on top of all the opprobrium that was visited on her by the Australian listeners of the Boyer Lectures. 

Caroline Baum: Yeah, that she was out of touch /

Brigitta Olubas: Well, she was too critical.

Caroline Baum: / and condescending as well. 

Brigitta Olubas: Or critical.

Nadia Wheatley: Caro, I want to throw something into the mix, which I only thought about on the way coming here today, was that was points in common between the three. One is that they all three had unhappy childhoods, which Chris was at pains to write differently in The End of the Morning. But all three, and this comes out in your introduction to the letters that they mystified or mythologised or shared that.

But I was thinking about how in in class terms, they all had rather ambiguous class backgrounds that Clift's father was an engineer, but they lived in, a quarry workers settlement where the family didn't really fit in with the other working class labourers. Hazzard's parents, you mentioned, were illegitimate and that they covered those things and Harrower also in class terms, came from Newcastle, which in that time was a working class suburb.

But it was a sort of genteel middle class, sort of a background. So it was… I think all three didn't fit in from their childhood. And I think that those things come across in so much of what they wrote and some and in prickly relationships that they might have had a wasn't prickly in that sense, but, difficulties of relationships with other people from that early childhood time which comes out in the Watchtower much more than in Harrow, was letters.

Caroline Baum: One of the things that, I got a sort of almost perverse sense of comfort from in away from reading the Harrower, Hazzard letters, was that they bemoan the state of the world in a way that we think that the world is in a terrible state now, but they thought it was absolutely dreadful too. So they were contending with the Vietnam War, Shirley hated Nixon, but then she also hated Carter. But they were constantly harping on the fact that the world was in a terrible state weren’t they.

Nadia Wheatley: It’s a great lesson because it gives you perspective. 

Caroline Baum: Yes, absolutely.  

Brigitta Olubas: And they even talk about climate change. Yes. Back then and worried. about that.

Caroline Baum: And First Nations issues come up. So Shirley muses a little bit on that. I don't know whether she touched on it at all in the Boyer Lectures, but of course, this was something that Charmian was absolutely ahead of her time on in terms of thinking about an apology and thinking about treaty.

Nadia Wheatley: Well - overtly supporting the 1967 referendum, and was very friendly with Faith Bandler who was the instigator of that campaign, yes. 

Brigitta Olubas: Shirley, in the Boyer Lectures talks… she says something like Australia is not an innocent country. This, you know, our short, the short recorded history is, you know, shadowed by the terrible treatment of the native people. So she's, you know… when you say ‘condescending’ and I say ‘critical’, you know, these are very resonant things. And she and Elizabeth have a little bit of a disagreement over, a bit, but I don't know if you want to talk about it Susan. Elizabeth's talking about the Geoffrey Blainey, kind of, events in the 80s? 

Susan Wyndham: Yes. You go on. 

Brigitta Olubas: And Elizabeth say something like, I don't know what you know. No one's going to keep their house up to, you know, people and, you know, sail back to England. And Shirley says, well, I think there might be something, you know, a little bit less extreme than that.

And you know, and she said the problem was… well, for her, Kit had had consistently voiced these kinds of racist, views. And that for Shirley was one of the worst things about growing, growing up here. And of course, in, in her last novel, I mean, she's not speaking specifically about, First Nations issues, but she goes on and on about the White Australia policy as a defining feature of the Australia of her childhood.

And that is one of the great, you know, the things she pulls back from and, and doesn't want to engage with. So I think there's possibly other points where she would be interested in, in both.

Nadia Wheatley: Yes. And and on that I mean Clift, from her second or third essay, I described herself as a migrant and identified we didn't yet have the word multiculturalism because that didn't come in till Whitlam was in, but she was identifying with the body of people who were still being called migrants if they weren't being called something worse.

Caroline Baum: We've got time for a couple of questions. So if you've got a question, put your hand up. And yes, there is one at the end of that row. Thank you.

Audience 1: I would very much like to know, what speculations you might make about why Elizabeth stopped writing. Maybe even just a small, educated guess, because I've often wondered that myself. You know, what led her to give up something that that had previously brought her so much joy?

Susan Wyndham: A lot of factors. No definitive answer. But she, Elizabeth wrote three of her, four of her novels quite quickly. She wrote three within several years, and they were all published in London. She came back to Australia in 1959 and then published her, probably her greatest work, The Watchtower, in 1966. And then she got a Commonwealth Writer's Literary grant, along with George Johnson, same year, to do her next novel, and she left her job working for Macmillan Publishers in their office to give herself to this book.

Meanwhile, her mother's… well, there's a whole lot of things going on, but let's say she submits this last novel to her publisher and she's got doubts about it. She doesn't think it's good enough. It clearly wasn't coming out of her in the same driven, organic way that her earlier books were, which were drawing on all her early problems and suffering, emotional, trauma and so on.

This book gets a very mediocre reader's report in London. Elizabeth decides to withdraw it from publication in 1971, and it's a big decision. Her publisher was willing to go ahead, but she said, no, you know, it's a lot of dead books out there don't need to be written. Meanwhile, her mother dies in 1970, and she said later that, she spent about two years, feeling emotionally paralysed after that. And she felt as though she had a kind of, post-traumatic syndrome. And she went off to London, stayed with Sidney and Cynthia Nolan over there for most of 1972. 

Caroline Baum: That probably didn't do her much good.

Susan Wyndham: Probably didn't. And she came back. She even got another writer's grant, from the New Literature Board, but she couldn't get anything substantial out. I think she started another novel. She wrote a number of good short stories, but that was it. And that would be fine, except that she was always saying, ‘I have to get organised and sit down to write, and there aren't going to be any parties.

You know, 'Kit's going to have to take a back seat.’ All these things. But as we've said, Kit was a kind of excuse for not writing. Other people came into her life and were, reasons not to write. It's all procrastination in a way. And I think she didn't give up the idea that she was going to write again for a very long time, but she really didn't write after the 1970s. She was always sitting at her typewriter, but I think it was mostly letters that came out. She took a lot of notes. So as much as one can understand what's going on in a writer's head, and we all know bits of this, there's no one thing that made her stop. But a lot of circumstances came together.

Caroline Baum: And Patrick White said that she wasn't writing a novel, but she was living one.

Nadia Wheatley: Yeah.

Caroline Baum: Diana.

Audience 2: Does anybody think that any of these writers, or indeed any writer, would be a writer of great worth if they had happy childhoods? 

Susan Wyndham: I think probably not. I think a miserable childhood is miserable to live through, but it gives you a lot of great copy to be going on with. It's a great store of stuff.

Brigitta Olubas: Yeah, and also something to run from, something to shield yourself from. I mean, that writing rather than thinking of writing just as the beneficiary, I suppose, of that unhappiness, it also constitutes a way, you know, to distance yourself from that to, to create, to invent, including inventing yourself in a life. And that certainly was true for Hazzard.

Susan Wyndham: An additional thing it gives you - I saw the American actor Alan Alda interviewed on that TV program One On One a long time ago, and he talked about his mother, who had some, mental, anxiety, bipolar issues. And he talked about how as a child growing up, he watched her all the time, and he learned to be observant and watch her.

And that was the reason, he said that he was able to become an actor. And when he said that, I just went with that sense of recognition because as someone with a miserable childhood, I know I was watching both my parents all the time for cues, and I think you do, and I'm sure Harrower did with her childhood, and also Shirley you become extreme, early, perceptive, alert to every little nuance of human behaviour, around you.

Caroline Baum: And learning by example. I think sometimes you learn by the example of what not to do. So that's what you're doing when you're in that kind of childhood, you're looking at dysfunctional behavior and thinking, ‘Not that. Don’t want to be that don't want to do that.’ We've got time for one last quick one if you've got one.

Audience 3: Much of the discussion has been around, diaries that people have kept. And I wonder, does a person need to be of some significance to make their diaries of significance, or does a person's diaries give them significance? And it's the diaries themselves that become, you know, noteworthy and a substance of making some kind of, novel or story.

Caroline Baum: Thank you. 

Brigitta Olubas: I can give a liminary answer to that, which is Shirley Hazzard’s early diaries..  it is such a relief, really, to write, given what a beautiful writer she became and how quickly she became a magnificent writer. Reading her early diaries from, you know, when she was 18 or 19, she was not a writer then, you know, diabolical. Probably worse even than my own. In the self-centredness, the terrible, you know… So those diaries, which are fascinating to read now, are only fascinating through the lens of how she transformed that material into something extraordinary, which is so far from the, you know, self-pitying nonsense that she was she was writing. I don't know.

Nadia Wheatley: I think it also just depends on the circumstance that the person is in so that, we fascinate or we might be fascinated by, soldiers letters or, letters written from, by someone in an extraordinary circumstance… I actually happened to be reading some of my mother's letters this morning, that she'd written as a nurse in Palestine in 1941, and to be reading about Gaza and Palestine from that viewpoint at the moment is very, very different.

Now. My mother was not a writer professionally or she wasn't a great writer. but just to have those insights of what the weather was like, what the poppies were doing on the field, was… is fascinating because of the context of the material.

Caroline Baum: We have come to the end of this hour and what happens when you've got three fabulous writers on stage is that the hour goes three times as fast. please join me now in thanking Susan, Nadia and Brigitta. 

UNSW Centre for Ideas: Thanks for listening. This event was presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and the Sydney Writers’ Festival. For more information, visit 


Brigitta Olubas

Brigitta Olubas

Brigitta Olubas was born in Hobart, Tasmania and now lives in Sydney. She is professor of English at the UNSW Sydney where she teaches and researches in Australian Literature. Her publications include books and essays on Australian Literature, particularly on writing by migrant, diasporic and refugee writers, as well as on the work of Shirley Hazzard. Her writing is directed at both scholarly and general readerships. She is a recent and late convert to writing literary biography.

Nadia Wheatley

Nadia Wheatley

Nadia Wheatley is the editor of The End of the Morning – the previously unpublished novella by Charmian Clift, which has just been released. Regarded by Charmian as her major work, it recounts the childhood of her alter ego, Cressida Morley. Nadia is the author of The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (The Age Non-Fiction Book of the Year 2001; NSW Premier's Australian History Prize 2002). In 2022, she edited Sneaky Little Revolutions – Selected Essays of Charmian Clift.

Susan Wyndham

Susan Wyndham

Susan Wyndham is a writer, journalist and former literary editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. She is co-editor with Brigitta Olubas of Hazzard and Harrower: The Letters, published in May.

Caroline Baum

Caroline Baum

Caroline is the author of Only: A Singular Memoir about being an only child, published in 2017. Her life-writing has also appeared in several anthologies including My Mother, My Father: On Losing a Parent and Rebellious Daughters. Life Sentences, her podcast about the practice of contemporary biography, is available on all major platforms. Caroline is the winner of the 2015 Hazel Rowley Award and her journalism has appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, Griffith Review, and The Guardian. Caroline is the Ambassador for the Older Women’s Network in NSW.

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