Friends & Rivals | Brenda Niall #AWWbiography

‘All over the country, brooding on squatters’ verandahs, or mooning in selectors’ huts,’ so A. G. Stephens wrote in the Bulletin in 1901, ‘there are scattered here and there hundreds of lively, dreamy Australian girls whose queer uncomprehended ambitions are the despair of the household. They yearn, they aspire for they know not what…’

I have enjoyed a truly marvellous run of Australia women writers writing about Australian women writers, I guess it was only a matter of time before I hit one that was less than satisfactory.

Unfortunately Friends & Rivals: Four Great Australian Writers – Barbara Baynton, Ethel Turner, Nettie Palmer, Henry Handel Richardson by Brenda Niall never quite lived up to it’s potential. The idea linking these four women in this group biography was tenuous at best and Niall didn’t really spend a lot of time trying to convince the reader otherwise. I haven’t read any of Niall’s previous books (which I believe are wonderful) but this one felt like a biography by numbers; a rush job even.

In Life Class (2007) Niall wrote that she sees biography,

as a matter of border crossings into other lives, unlike my own, and thereby enlarging understanding, but with a certain degree of connection … The biographer’s relation with the subject may start by being indifferent, even commercial, as just another job, but it won’t stay that way … the author’s self is always involved.

Sadly, I never felt her involvement, let alone any degree of passion or interest in her subjects in Friends & Rivals. I admit my bar for group biography is pretty high ever since reading the almost perfect Square Haunting earlier this year. Niall lacked the connective tissue to make hers work as well as Francesca Wade’s. Wade gave herself plenty of space and time to make the connections around the common place her writers all shared. She went into its history, the architecture of the houses they inhabited, and the social standing of the square in different eras. In fact, the Bloomsbury square became the sixth biography.

Niall’s whole ‘friends and rivals’ link was questionable to say the least and I was concerned by the number of times she speculated on behaviours (usually in a negative fashion) that she didn’t back up with letters or journal entries. As a result, a sense of distrust came between us and I started to doubt her motives in writing this book.

Barbara and Ethel were friends later in life thanks to a common charity cause that was close to their hearts. Nettie and Henry were more wary and guarded of each rather than outright rivals. They were simply very different personality types that were never going to be more than polite acquaintances. Trying to bring them together in the one book as friends and rivals simply didn’t work. At best, their lives “criss-crossed one another” as Niall, herself, acknowledged.

In her Introduction she also says that “they didn’t make up a group; there were no groups for them to join.

However, if Niall had gone all the way down the path she hinted at in the Introduction, about how these four women challenged the Australian bush myth, then we might have had an incredible group bio on our hands! Turner, Baynton & Richardson all experienced absent, ill or difficult fathers and husbands in their childhoods and early adult lives. Palmer’s childhood was structured more traditionally, yet it came with its own anxieties including a strict religious upbringing haunted by the untimely early death of older siblings.

It was only natural then that their childhood experiences would influence their writing. Turner with her urban stories and “subversive heroine, Judy Woolcott” and Baynton with her “blend of brutal realism and gothic horror” clearly challenged the legends of the bush and mateship. Richardson also subverted the boarding school genre in The Getting of Wisdom, while Palmer was trying to build a national literary identity that would help writers “to shake off their colonial deference“. In fact her 1950 Henry Handel Richardson: A Study (minus access to her letters which had been left to the Mitchell Library in 1946 with a 50 year embargo) was the first full length book about an Australian writer.

The only good thing to come out of reading this book is that I now want to read longer, more in-depth biographies on all four women. Here I felt like we were only scratching the surface. For instance, Niall refers to a line in Seven Little Australians that was removed by the publisher for the 1896 edition that was not reinstated until 1994 about the ‘evil’ that the white man had inflicted upon the Aboriginal people. She was intrigued by what this might have to say about Turner and how she viewed her work. But that was that. She was intrigued but not enough to write anything else about this side of Turner’s life.

Having just read HHR’s autobiography (which had it’s own flaws) I can safely say that the first part of Niall’s biography about Henry was lifted (uncritically) straight from Myself When Young. The only thing we agreed on was that we both felt there was more behind Henry’s departure from Leipzig and the Conservatorium than she gave up. The difference being that Niall was in a position to research this further (and didn’t), whereas I was simply unsatisfied with the gloss over presented by HHR.

HHR’s letters to her friend in Australia, Mary Kernot, were the main source of information for Niall’s final section of Henry’s biography. Apparently she wrote more about Miles Franklins “birdnest” hairstyle than her work and she thought that Katharine Susannah Prichard needed to learn punctuation. She found Vance Palmer’s writing lacked emotion and thought that reflected his relationship with Nettie. She considered herself an Australian at heart, but not an Australian novelist. When Nettie came to visit her in England, HHR became impatient with her “babbling“. But she was content to let Nettie organise a campaign over several years for a Nobel Prize for Literature in the early 30’s, saying that “NP is very good and indefatigable about the Swedish affair. Of course nothing will come of it.

It was entertaining to read some of their blunt appraisals of each other, and other literary folk, in their letters or in their journals, but Niall never pulled it all altogether.

In the end, Niall finished the book with one very brief, three sentence paragraph at the bottom of Nettie’s chapter, declaring the four women “outliers” of Australian literature. It was like she had run out of steam and wanted to be done with the book.

Thankfully, the bibliography was quite extensive, so I have added a number to my wish list. Suggestions and recommendations welcome.

  • Lisa @ANZ Lit Lovers was also less than impressed and did some research of her own to show why.
  • The Australian Dictionary of Biography has a page for each of these women.
  • When I have time to read through their entries in my copies of Australian Literature, The Penguin Anthology of Australian Women’s Writing and The Oxford Literary Guide to Australia, I will add these four women to my Australiana tab above. But I also need to decide the how, what, why of this process…
Title: Friends & Rivals: Four Great Australian Writers - Barbara Baynton, Ethel Turner, Nettie Palmer, Henry Handel Richardson 
Author: Brenda Niall
ISBN: 9871922268594
Imprint: Text Publishing
Published: 31st March 2020
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 278
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

10 thoughts on “Friends & Rivals | Brenda Niall #AWWbiography

  1. I hope this doesn’t put you off reading Brenda Niall, because really, when she has the space the subject deserves rather than squeezing them into a group that by definition makes the bio scanty, she is without peer. Her portrait of Judy Cassab is wonderful, and I loved everything she wrote about the Boyds. She even managed to make a bio of Archbishop Mannix interesting, which takes some doing!


  2. Oh, yes …don’t forget “Mannix”! Award-winning biographer Brenda Niall has made some unexpected discoveries in Irish and Australian archives which overturn some widely held views. Mannix was a important figure who could …channel ‘the Catholic vote’ to whomever HE wishes! For the Irish underclass it was exhilaration to have a fearless leader.


    1. I remember your rave review of Mannix, which is partly why I was so disappointed by this book. I wanted to be swept away by the story telling and impressed by the research and ‘unexpected’ discoveries.


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