Reading Other People’s Mail

A lecture by Harold White Fellow, Maryanne Dever, at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, 25 October, 1995

The subject of my lecture is not the product of my research here at the Library so much as the process. The alternative title for my lecture might well have been ‘The Scholarly Uses of Dirt’, for however I might dress it up, what I am looking at is scandal, gossip, and soap opera. When I wrote my PhD thesis on Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw, two writers from Australia ’s inter-war years, I was always dogged by the feeling that I had left the good bits out. There was plenty of politics but no sex, and personal intrigue was left on the side. It wasn’t always my fault, of course; some of my informants refused to cooperate. When I asked one whether she knew anything about Marjorie Barnard’s affair with the writer Frank Dalby Davison, she said she did not, but even if she did, she would not tell me, because you don not talk about things like that. Well, now, I do want to talk about things like that: about love and letters, perhaps a little more about what happened under the covers, rather than between them.

The letter that got me started thinking in this direction went something like this:

1 January 1947
2 Stuart Street,

… I was deeply in love with him—I think I still am, but it is all now so confused with pain that I know I don’t want to see him again. We were lovers for eight years. I didn’t come between him & Kay, that was over and finished before. I don’t think I had any bearing on that situation. I loved him from the first time I saw him. He was in love with someone else then and the bottom had fallen out of things … He turned more & more to me. He could talk to me—about the woman he loved. It hurt, but I could hide it, & he didn’t look very closely anyway …Then Frank wanted to make love to me but I found that hard to come at, because I loved him and he didn’t pretend to love me, and there hadn’t been anyone else. But the hour came when I couldn’t stand out against myself … I think he was a bit in love with me even, he liked my body very much … I kept a place for us at Kings Cross, we had every Monday evening together. I never asked for any more or tried to have any bigger part in his life. We never went anywhere together. I kept everything very still, not that I was ashamed but because I didn’t want to put any sort of bond on him. It would have if anyone had known—a woman like me … I was very happy. Frank taught me a lot. I loved him with all my heart. I don’t think I did him any harm. He grew in confidence in those years. Eight years is a long time for something like that to last. A couple of times he decided to finish with me. I swallowed my misery & did nothing & he came back. In 1942 I knew things were coming to an end. I still saw him but never alone, nothing said … I was, as he said, very naïve, I found it hard to believe that there was nothing left of our friendship.1

Marjorie Barnard is writing here in a letter to Jean Devanny of that secret relationship with Frank Dalby Davison. She concludes the account with a firm injunction to her friend to ‘Read this, dear Jean, and forget it. It is not a thing to remember’. But, I ask you, does anyone really write of such events in order to have them forgotten or do they write to share the memory? In preserving the letter, are we violating a secret trust or perpetuating that memory? How secret or sacred can anything be once it has been circulated in letter form? Should a scholar feel squeamish about revealing its contents?

In any case, we do not live in squeamish times. That such an obviously private letter from Marjorie Barnard to Jean Devanny is now published, and that I choose to read it aloud here should come as no surprise as we live in the age of disclosure, an age characterised by the public’s right to know. Over the years, one’s sense of another’s privacy, of their right to determine the degree to which they will be exposed, has been systematically eroded. And the prevailing fashion for the kiss and tell literary memoir has only enhanced our natural prurience. Henry James longed for the moment when it might ‘cease to be a leading feature of our homage to a distinguished man that we … sacrifice him on the altar of our curiosity’.2 But James himself, who freely admitted that the desire to know was a good and natural one, must have recognised that such preoccupations were neither new nor likely to disappear. Two centuries before him, the vogue for intimate revelation had fostered a boom in the publication of personal correspondence, those racy (and frequently fictional) volumes containing Five Letters from a Nun to a Cavalier (1678),3 a fashion which gave way in the eighteenth century to equally racy letter novels like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1741) and Clarissa (1748).4 Moreover, even as James expressed those sentiments, he was reluctantly witnessing in his own age a major shift in the nature of biography from its staid Victorian manifestations to a frightening new tradition of truth-telling, one that revelled in private lusts, dirty linen, and indiscreet letters. James’ own response to this shift was to go a-burning and a-scissoring among his personal papers, happily intending, he declared, to ‘frustrate as utterly as possible the post-mortem exploiter’.5

That James should have been so sensitive about personal letters was probably a wise thing given the mood of modern letters. As we know, the eighteenth century witnessed a shrinking in the letter’s public nature and function, so that by James’ time the days when each fresh item of correspondence would be shared aloud around the table were long gone. And what we find is that the letter writers themselves, no longer anticipating that wider audience, dropped into a more intimate mode of address, indulging in the possibility of exchanging a more salacious form of information. Thus, in the words of Virginia Woolf, ‘nobody would be so rash as to read a modern letter … in mixed company’.6 But, cautionary etiquette aside, Woolf was apt to observe that it was from its very indiscretion that the modern letter derived its most immediate interest and value. Countering the accusation that the telephone had killed the art of correspondence, she asserted that the modern letter was not dead, ‘but so much alive as to be quite unprintable’.7

Unprintable or not, such letters prove highly readable; and the more intimate the revelation, the more gratifying its consumption. But what protocols govern such indulgence? I recall a good friend of mine who telephoned to ask if she could borrow a copy of Colette’s letters. ‘Not that I approve of reading people’s mail’, she remarked, ‘that is, of course, unless I live with them’, referring to her thoroughly understandable inability to resist a cursory appraisal of her flatmate’s faxes. What motivations are we prey to in reading other people’s mail, whether openly or surreptitiously? Curiosity? Voyeurism? Schadenfreude? People have spoken of the paradoxical pleasure of the original letter reader, paradoxical because the pleasure is predicated upon the absence of the loved one.8 But what of the pleasure of those of us who read at one further remove, we who form the dubious and perhaps unanticipated third corner of a triangle of writer, recipient and interloper? Are we like the unnamed narrator of Henry James’ The Aspern Papers, a scholar in search of love letters who frankly admits there is ‘no baseness’ he would not commit in the pursuit of Jeffrey Aspern’s letters? He comes to Venice in the hope of extracting Aspern’s love letters by fair means or foul from the letters’ recipient and legal owner, the aged Miss Bordereau. While he rehearses in his mind the various methods he might use to insinuate himself into Miss Bordereau’s trust, he reflects:

Then it came to me that she was tremendously old — so old that death might take her at any moment, before I should have time to compass my end. The next thought was a correction to that; it lighted up the situation. She would die next week, she would die tomorrow — then I could pounce on her possessions and ransack her drawers.9

Personally, I neither pounce nor ransack, though I will give out to having a good many extended afternoon teas with elderly caretakers of both manuscripts and memories. So why do I pursue these letters? As I mentioned at the outset, for a number of years—more than I would care to admit — I have been researching the literary collaboration between Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw who published from the 1920s to the 1940s under the pseudonym ‘M. Barnard Eldershaw’. I have written previously on the dynamics of that collaboration, on their political activities, their efforts to promote the national culture, and on their position as women writers. More recently my research has taken a different turn, towards looking at the significant others who lie on the borders of the collaboration, the friends, confidantes, fellow writers, and lovers. I am interested in divining what creative links might lie in those other intimate partnerships. I am also keen to discover how the Barnard–Eldershaw collaboration may have been supported, sustained, or strained by the presence of others. For example, the eight years (1935–1942) of Marjorie Barnard’s relationship with Frank Dalby Davison represent a significant stretch of the active period of Barnard’s collaboration with Flora Eldershaw. How did this romance impinge on their writing during that time—and subsequently? How did the collaborators, singly and jointly, contribute to Davison’s literary career? How did Davison’s concurrent passion for the children’s writer and illustrator, Pixie O’Harris, complicate relations with Barnard? Would a knowledge of such events help me clarify some otherwise inexplicable gaps and silences in these careers? These are the questions that dog me. And finding the answers is not always simple because on such topics, the conventional published sources give out little; in them such secrets are often written over and written out. I find, for example, that in her 1983 autobiography, Was It Yesterday?, Pixie O’Harris deftly reduces her association with Davison to a mere footnote in her publishing history. ‘About this time’, she writes of 1934, ‘I became acquainted with Frank Dalby Davison who lived nearby. Later I illustrated his book, Children of the Dark People, published in 1936 by Angus & Robertson, Sydney and reissued in America by Coward-McCann, New York ’.10 Perhaps a few things had slipped Pixie’s mind (after all it wasn’t exactly yesterday). I suggest this because her published representation of events provides a stark contrast to Barnard’s account from 1935, given in a letter to critic and confidante, Nettie Palmer. Barnard writes:

Then recently Frank fell in love with someone else—a married woman—and her husband, wanting to be free himself, welcomed Frank at first, then, dreading the scandal, the double divorce and what not ‘crawled back’. And the lady began to think too—about Frank’s poverty, her social position, her children. She returned to her husband and they joined in blackguarding Frank. [His wife] meanwhile was no martyr but fighting tooth and nail. They all grabbed for the plate. They think I’m the one left with nothing but I’ve my idyll, my beautiful experience, that nothing can take from me while their life together will be degraded by the memory of this. It’s all very ugly—and pathetic … He’s ready to throw away everything for this shoddy affair that is over and done with. He wants it to look large and important. [His wife] wants to come back and patch things up. He says he won’t have her, patching isn’t good enough.11

As Barnard’s letter illustrates, correspondence obviously functions as an important supplement to biography. It provides a vital source of information, as well as opinions and attitudes, and in an instance like this, can change quite dramatically how we interpret a situation. But while we are fortunate to have that particular letter from Barnard, we are not always so lucky. When dealing with letters or ‘holograph manuscripts’ as they are known once they reach institutions such as these, we are inevitably dealing with what we might call the ‘fissured archive’. What survives of anyone’s letters will usually be but a fraction of the total, and their survival will have been dependent, more often than not, on accident rather than design. While I notice various contemporary writers ensuring their place in Australian letters by lodging their papers in public collections with almost unseemly zeal, the lure of posterity has not always offered the same incentive to earlier generations. We must contend with those periods ‘when literary property was not greatly prized nor very energetically protected, when notions of Fame were very different from our own’.12 We must also do battle with differing senses of propriety, with those who honoured suppression over candour, and decency over drama. And so I inevitably find that crucial sets of letters are not preserved or preserved in their entirety. There is, for example, only one extant letter, a mere four lines, between Barnard and Eldershaw who each destroyed parts of their mutual correspondence over a number of years. Barnard, it seems, was extremely perturbed at the thought that others might stockpile her letters. ‘What possessed you to tell me that you kept my letters?’ she complained on one occasion to Nettie Palmer. ‘It was enough to scuttle me as a correspondent.’13 Frank Dalby Davison, too, was chary at such exposure, making sure to burn his courtship letters to his second wife, Marie, in order he said ‘to keep literary people from ever “messing” with [them]’.14 These combined actions or accidents have ensured that my search for the love letters of this group is a barren one for the most part, as only the fraying edges of what might have been remain for me to read. So I guess that is my first problem: the letters we do not have.

But then there are the ones we do have. I discover that even those letters that remain may not always be what they seem as elements of manipulation can easily enter the field. With literary fame goes fortune, and where such financial incentives apply, it is not unknown for items of correspondence to be forged. (I would liked to know, for example, just how many writers now using word processors have subsequently written out their work longhand in order to sell their manuscripts to libraries). While I have yet to come across a forgery as such in the letters I have seen here, I have found that where personal reputations are at stake, a little sleight of hand, or cutting and pasting, is not out of the question. In the Pixie O’Harris Papers here, for example, I discovered two versions of the one letter from Frank Dalby Davison to Pixie: the original and an edited copy, presumably made by Pixie. The original concludes thus:

Our friendship seems to thrive on a basis of correspondence, doesn’t it? Perhaps we should have kept at something like that from the beginning. Touch wood?!
I am very glad to know you are happier than you were in respect of other relationships, and to know that the little girls are well.
Yours, F.D.D.

In the retyped version, however, the general import of the note has altered considerably as all evidence of intimacy is removed. It reads quite chastely:

Our friendship seems to thrive on a basis of correspondence, doesn’t it?
I am very glad to know that the little girls are well.
Yours, F.D.D.15

The obvious question is: why retype? Why not destroy the letter outright as probably happened with many other more explicit notes between the two? Well, there are personal reputations and then there are professional ones and the balance of this letter, as with the others that survive between the two, is fulsome in its praise of Pixie’s writing. So we can speculate that when it comes to placing peer approval on record, the claims of ego may sometimes outweigh those of absolute propriety. Whatever the motivations here, the result is the same; a partial account preserved, demonstrating again how, as readers and critics, we are left all too often with an archive that resembles a fishing net: the few threads (and an occasional judicious mending) held taut over pockets of nothingness. We gamble on what we have, but those significant absences fire the imagination. Maud Bailey sums up the problem quite well in A.S. Byatt’s Possession, that rather overweight satire on literary biography:

You know, if you read the collected letters of any writer—if you read her biography—you will always get a sense that there’s something missing, something the biographers don’t have access to, the real thing, the crucial thing …There are always letters that were destroyed. The letters, usually.16

So I have to face the fact that I am never playing with a full hand and this produces a plethora of problems. The primary one is how do I judge the letters that remain? To what extent can they be thought of as ‘representative’ when I sense that the letters that are missing could be of a very different—more intimate—complexion? What weight should I place upon the ideas or opinions expressed in a single letter? It seems I am condemned to live with two problems: firstly, that the letters I do not have may be precisely those which will undermine my most precious theories, and secondly, that those I do possess will only ever mirror the fragmented and contradictory nature of the subject itself. After all, letters do not give us unmediated access to the writing self but offer instead discrete instances of self-representation. They are occasions for the projection of what we might call ‘ideal selves’, fleeting—or flirting—masks adopted according to the demands of recipient and circumstance. I will give you an example. If we take one of Barnard’s early letters to ‘Mr Davison’, where she praises two stories he has sent her, graciously accepts his criticism of one of hers (‘it was a pot-boiler’), and slips in the following vignette of her recent activities:

Went to the choral concert in the Great Hall at the University last night. It was very fine, especially Brahms lovely, intricate Gypsy songs. Afterwards I climbed the tower in the dark, up among the bells and got out on the roof. It was good to lean my head against the stone and look at something big. The University always looks so unreal at night with the lawns unnaturally green under the electric light and the shadows falling with a sort of inevitable rightness that just doesn’t happen.17

I cannot help but contrast the familiar image of Barnard in her wire-rimmed spectacles with the image here of a sensitive, restless, and ever-so-slightly mysterious woman, offering her culture and her learning to a handsome, gifted, if troubled man whose formal education ended at the age of 12. And offering she is too, for the letter concludes with the startling direct statement that ‘I want your friendship very much’. This is a rather different Barnard from the one who in letters to others represents herself as a rather staid individual. She writes to Nettie Palmer, for example, that she is a ‘dull dog’ socially, warning her that ‘the chance of my scintillating in your drawing room is nil’.18 Similarly, the Frank Davison who writes anxiously, if manfully, to Vance Palmer of his ‘weakness’,19 those crack-ups and minor nervous breakdowns that plagued him through the 1930s, is a very different Frank from the effusive gallant who writes six pages to Pixie O’Harris in seductive praise of Pearl Pinkie and Sea Greenie, her latest children’s book. Honest and intimate expressions of the self? Or, personal dramas performed in ‘a series of private theaters for an audience of one’.20

Keeping these questions in mind, how do I read these ‘performances’? Can I read the letters for plot, for autobiographical revelation? I might do so, but I would clearly be missing key sources because, as I have noted already, there are some major gaps. Only a handful of relatively insignificant letters remain from Barnard to Davison and Davison to Pixie O’Harris, none it seems from Pixie to Frank or Frank to Marjorie. So, to trace the bare outline of these relationships, I would have to use almost exclusively letters from Barnard and Davison to other parties, chiefly Nettie and Vance Palmer. But it is worth following that path, at least momentarily. I could begin with Barnard’s anticipation of their first meeting in 1934 (‘Am to meet F.D. Davison on Monday … I shall have to wear my best hat which is a pity as it depresses one’), then follow their growing intimacy and Marjorie’s increasing involvement in the marital strife that follows Frank’s passion for Pixie (‘I am sinking even deeper into the Davison’s affairs’). From there I could read on through intermittent accounts of Frank and Marjorie’s many joint literary activities, their political differences, Marjorie’s passionate admiration for Frank’s literary ability (as she writes: ‘Frank’s small clear spring of genius’). Interspersed are letters over the years from Frank to Pixie asking her to agree to meet with him (‘will you let me know when we can have a little time together?’). And so it goes on till the breakdown of Frank and Marjorie’s relationship in 1942 and Frank’s divorce and remarriage in 1944. Then, after years of silence, a final letter in 1970 from Barnard to Davison:

Dear Frank,

Leslie has told me that you are desperately ill but that your morale is high. I am sorry and salute you.

It is good news that The White Thorn Tree is to come out in a larger edition. I have read it but cannot find in it any shred of you as I knew you. That was a long time ago and no one stands still.

Marjorie 21

I am unable help it, but I get rather sentimental when I put all that together. However, to place these scattered letters to various recipients in sequence like this produces some interesting effects; after all it is a slightly unnatural way to read them. For one thing, we are imposing an alien continuity on the letters, forcing an orderly, seamless narrative from what were once scattered and discontinuous fragments. The pace of revelation becomes a dizzying one, particularly if we are reading it on the microfilm reader, a technological advance which deprives me of the sensuous and guilty pleasure of handling actual letters. What we find when we read them this way is that we are not subject to the same delays and hesitations that marked their original composition and receipt. Instead, we hit the fast forward button on the microfilm reader and skip from one letter to the next, untroubled by the days or weeks of silence their dates represent and unmoved by the breathless hurry the poor handwriting may imply. Moreover, altered senses of temporality and loss of suspense are not the only consequences of this sequential ordering. Placed in such a context, individual letters also take on new significances for, placed together, ‘the correspondence has a plot of which the letters themselves could not be aware, as the letters of a word cannot know the word they spell’.22 In other words, from the artful interlacing of these individual letters emerge unexpected patterns of response and ironies of juxtaposition. We can see how, once Barnard becomes intimately involved with Davison, she stops writing to Nettie in great detail about his domestic affairs. Instead she focuses on his state of health (a constant source of concern) and his writing (an equally constant source of concern). The more intense the attachment to him, the more sympathetic, even elegiac, her accounts of his creative labours:

Have you read the MS of Davison’s new book Blue Coast Caravan … The book as a whole is good, I think, and has some really beautiful passages—lovely natural patterns … Although Blue Coast Caravan is not another Man Shy it is still, in a way, I think, an advance. He’s getting more control over his own literary powers, can tap, more at will, his own springs and hasn’t destroyed anything in the process of learning.23

But while I can use these letters to sketch the outlines of these relationships, filling in those outlines is a more difficult and dicey proposition. Adam Phillips (On Flirtation, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored—how could you go past them?) describes lovers as ‘notoriously frantic epistemologists, second only to paranoiacs (and analysts) as readers of signs and wonders’.24 That may be so, but how more desperate then am I, following in their footsteps, attempting to draw meaning and make conclusions. Because, unlike the original recipients, I lack the shared context that would guarantee full comprehension of so many details in these letters. As Derrida says in The Post Card, ‘it’s not that you are absent or present when I write to you but that I am not there myself when you are reading’.25 And so I have to learn to live with ambiguity, with the details I cannot pin down, and with downright error. I will give you an example: I recall good naturedly the friend writing a biography of Eleanor Dark who believed she had at last uncovered a none-too-secret lover for quiet, conventional Eleanor, a man who seemed to be going just everywhere with her quite openly. Fortuitously, a further note revealed that the name Eleanor bandied about so freely was not that of another man but the family car. And then there is the time I claimed the Eldershaw family’s favourite dog, Laddie, as a hitherto unmentioned brother; that is, until he began to round up the sheep. Such errors are not rare, I suspect, but commonplace in a field where the distance between writer and scholarly reader grows daily, luring us further and further into speculation and inference. But beyond the unidentifiable names and references there is a further sticking point with this kind of correspondence, for however articulate an individual letter or sequence of letters may be, they cannot tell us what they do not know. I know that no amount of reading or juxtapositioning will open the silences and discover the self-censorship and repression which was obviously practised by these correspondents on matters of the heart. After all, how straightforward can you be when writing to a straight-laced pair like the Palmers who were apt to circulate certain letters received or when you worry that letters might fall into other hands. It follows that on romantic matters my correspondents here are likely to practise certain forms of subterfuge—whether conscious or unconscious. And so I must contend with ellipsis, code, and impenetrable innuendo. I am thinking here particularly of some of the letters between Marjorie and Frank, and between Marjorie and Nettie Palmer. Despite being listed as ‘restricted’ in the manuscript catalogue, (a sure fire way to raise a scholar’s interest) the few letters that we have from Marjorie to Frank dating from the period of their involvement are, on the surface at least, models of propriety, letters that could easily be left lying around the Davison home. When Marjorie, on board ship, writes of how at night ‘the engine throbs … all over my body, now in my right hip, now in the back of my head and sometimes ticklingly in the soles of my feet’,26 she is only writing of the engine, is she not? And when she tells Frank that her holiday in the country ‘makes me happy in an aching sort of way—with gaps’, and that she ‘read [Marcel] Aurousseau’s Beyond the Pyrenees and looked at the view, layering the two things in my mind with a third that is always there’,27 it is again scarcely compromising. Her letters to others betray a similar obliquity. It seems to me that some of the peculiar preciousness that I find in Marjorie’s letters to Nettie Palmer is a product of the stifled desire to tell what she cannot bring herself to tell. And so her letters are marked on occasions, I think, by a paradoxical impulse to reveal that something has been concealed, to leave tell-tale signs hidden, like Poe’s ‘Purloined Letter’, where all can see them. Consider her description, from a 1937 letter of relations between Flora, Frank and herself:

We see a good deal of Frank. By some happy & unexpected chemical process we have become a group. I’m secretly amazed & happy to find myself where I am.28

I do not know about you, but I think those references to chemistry and secrecy surely deserve a second glance. Then there is her earlier description of Kay, Davison’s wife, seeking advice from her on her marital woes, a visit that almost certainly coincided with Marjorie’s own growing involvement with Davison:

Kay is coming here to lunch next Thursday, on purpose, I suspect, to tell me her troubles. This is dreadfulsearch desperately as I may, I seem to have nothing to give anybody. I’m a disappointing confidante anyway. I seldom get all hot & urge people to fight for their rights.29

What is the real source of dread here? Does the description of Marjorie as ‘a disappointing confidante’ not point to the things she herself is unable to confide to others? And why, indeed, would she of all people urge Kay to fight for her rights as a wife? To me, the unconscious is struggling here to make itself heard.

If we shift from the sexual to the textual side of things, however, the letters are rather more forthcoming. This means that I can certainly use the matrix of these letters to recover some understanding of the role these personal attachments played in the professional domain to which these writers belonged, but I also want to pursue the role the letters themselves may have played in the creative processes of these writers. We know from Barnard’s and Davison’s letters to Nettie Palmer that their initial encounter was prompted by admiration for each other’s published work. Within a few short months they were exchanging manuscripts for comment, while Marjorie was helping Frank to obtain copies of banned books such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses.30 Casual opinion soon gave way to formal editorial advice when Barnard’s help was enlisted on the troubled manuscript of Davison’s Blue Coast Caravan. Barnard reported to Nettie Palmer that Frank ‘asked me to sub-edit’, observing that it is ‘strange that anyone who can write so well, could also write so badly and not know it’.31 While Barnard sweated over the manuscript, Davison sweated over her opinion. ‘No word from Marjorie’, he confided rather theatrically to Nettie Palmer. ‘She is coming up to dinner next week. I called her up on the ‘phone this morning to make arrangements. Reference to the MS was avoided. The suspense grows exciting. I’m wondering whether I’m going to get a crown of bay leaves or a sock on the jaw. It is comforting to know (knowing Marjorie) that whatever comes will be intended for one’s own good—as near to the truth … as it is possible for human words to be. The thought of still having Marjorie is a great comfort in view of the departure of you and Vance.’32 Marjorie’s criticism in this instance was hard hitting (‘seven pages packed with necessarily brutal comment’) and Frank it seems returned the compliment with a similar level of damning honesty on Marjorie’s writing. To him Marjorie submitted, not the work from her collaboration with Eldershaw, but usually her own short stories, a form of fiction that she struggled with throughout the 1930s. Having left full-time employment, she hoped that short fiction might prove to be something of a money-spinner but her efforts invariably failed to find favour. ‘Have been wrestling with some short stories’, she relates to Nettie, ‘but they continue bad. Frank declares that they are “beautifully done”, but that every time I write one I “leave life poorer than I found it”. I ought to commit suicide after that’.33 Obviously the engagement of minds as well as emotions here proved a fruitful one as the effort each seems to have expended on the other clearly exceeds that which could reasonably have been expected from a mere a colleague (and competitor). Other influences could be traced on the political front. Barnard’s increasing politicisation across the later 1930s certainly owes a debt to Davison’s more strenuous political commitment, while Barnard, in tandem with Eldershaw, clearly offered moral, if not intellectual support for Davison’s own political writing. Of his 1938 pamphlet, While Freedom Lives, he observed:

The book arose out of social discussions at the M. Barnard Eldershaw salon— Orwell Street and elsewhere. We’d agreed that the times were out of joint—but couldn’t decide in just what way … The book, as you will see by the dates, was written during the European crisis … I was close to collapse when I finished … and Marjorie and Flora were on hand with the smelling salts.34

People have argued that, over the years, Davison benefited more from the arrangement than Barnard, gaining not simply a woman willing to participate in an affair without the conventional guarantees of marriage and respectability, but an enviable level of informed and partisan support for his creativity, public and private endorsement of his talent, and a convenient social set-up through which to showcase his growing fame.35 But I would like to argue that we should not underestimate the secret satisfaction Marjorie may have derived from knowing herself to be desired, however conditionally, by a man she judged to be highly desirable, or the complex ways in which this intimacy may have fed her fiction, contributing particularly to the production of her highly successful short stories in The Persimmon Tree and elsewhere. Going back to the letters again, this time to read them against that later Barnard fiction, we can begin to trace what we might call a pattern of dress-rehearsals. As we have seen, in many of her letters to others, Marjorie avoided telling the whole truth; instead she used selective facts to create acceptable fictions, smoothing out her accounts of events and intimacies to satisfy the demands of discretion. We might say that the act of storytelling, of re-presenting, had already begun as the letters traversed the delicate path between life, consequences, and fiction. If we take the account of a meeting between herself and Frank from a letter to Nettie Palmer in 1935:

We met at a P.E.N. luncheon and went around afterwards and had a look at Harvey ’s one man show at the Macquarie Galleries. I expect you know his work. There were mostly still lifes—friendly, comforting, quiet pictures. There were one or two I’d like to have taken to live with me. The exhibition was, but for us, quite deserted and the lofty [?] pale-walled rooms were full of the sort of tranquility that makes even a train passing outside sound dramatic—like the sound of a galloping horse on a dark still night in the country. So we sat down in front of a picture of three melons leaning, in ineffable peace, against a pink wall, and talked of the Art of Letters with the innocent garrulity of people who each feel assured that the other knows no more than he. Frank I think, was glad to redress the balance with abstractions.36

Compare that scene, with another taken from the story, ‘It’s Dangerous to Pause’, written in the mid to late 1940s:

It happened next afternoon that they were alone in the high tranquil rooms of a little gallery looking out on a quiet street, an old porticoed building and a jacaranda tree across the way. Even the girl who was brightly willing to sell a masterpiece was out of sight … it was like being inside a bubble floating in still air. Rhonda couldn’t remember now whose exhibition it had been, though she had once been enthusiastic about the man, but she could recapture the feeling of the pictures. Most of them were still lifes and the artist used a palette of subdued but clear colours that had, upon her at least, a curiously harmonious effect, like the unassailable rightness of long-remembered and familiar poetry. There was one picture of melons and a sunlit wall, nothing else, that had this quality so strongly that it seemed to shed a light of its own coming not from any insistence but from an inner quality.

The room put its peace upon them and they were content to sit and talk, time mattering not at all. Everything went right that day. She had brought Len to the one place where they could become effortlessly intimate. He told her something about his life, more about his feelings, hinted at the disappointment of his marriage. She had a pre-view of Chloe, hard, worldly, thirsty for success. Rhonda and Len had in common the frustration of their marriages. They communicated their feelings to one another with every refinement of reticence, all the delicacy of unfinished sentences, of little silences and faint praises.37

What emerges is a pattern of conscious and unconscious retextualising of events previously presented in correspondence, with the letters forming the first stage in the fiction-making process, and the stories marrying the realms of memory, narrative, and suggestibility. Not all instances are as explicit as the one cited here; others tend to be more ephemeral, but equally resonant.

What I find, for example, is that the original presentation of Frank and Pixie’s affair and the marital strife that follows it is revived and revised, refreshed and recreated through various stories. But rather than being delivered in its entirety, like the art gallery episode, this material tends to be broken down, so that small fragments appear across a range of stories dealing with the attendant risks and humiliations of adulterous liaisons from differing points of view.

In pursuing this connection between letters and stories, another twist occurs to me. If letters can become stories, is it possible that the reverse may happen and stories take the place of letters, especially the letters that cannot be written? I’m thinking here of something that caught my eye recently. In 1944 Marjorie Barnard took the unusual step of submitting a very old M. Barnard Eldershaw story, ‘The Broken Threshold’, along with one of her own for possible inclusion in Coast to Coast, which Vance Palmer was editing that year. It seemed an odd thing to me to fish out a story that was probably 10 years old. Interestingly, when Palmer decides against publishing the story, Barnard confesses that ‘I’m relieved on the whole that you don’t want “Broken Threshold”—there were various reasons for submitting it, none of them literary’.38 What might those ‘other’ reasons be? Why that story and why publish it now? I could be wrong, but this is what I think. It is 1944 and Barnard and Davison are no longer in direct communication, no more letters move between the two. Davison has recently divorced (a matter he communicates to Pixie) and will shortly marry his second wife, Marie. Whatever else he might be doing, Marjorie knows Frank could reasonably be expected to read Coast to Coast; after all, he submitted his own story, ‘The Road to Yesterday’, to it.39 ‘The Broken Threshold’ is an account of a 40-something spinster who has loved and lost, foregoing, as she puts it, ‘what women want, a husband, a home, a baby’. Perhaps in publishing it Marjorie was hoping to send a tribute to memory, a muted reminder that—as the story says—it wasn’t only ‘the young, the beautiful and the elegant [who] loved’?40

In the end, reading these letters is like being the proverbial eavesdropper on a telephone call, inferring from the overheard fragments of information, those portions of the conversation to which I am not privy. I read between the lines and trust I have not got them crossed. But this partial, disconnected dialogue leaves me unable to clarify so many details of the relations between Marjorie, Frank, and Pixie, so many scenarios I can picture but not pin down. Take this one, for example: Frank it would appear came fairly regularly to dinner at the Barnard’s, and Marjorie makes quite of point of mentioning that she was introduced to Frank’s father:

Met Davison père after the meeting. Frank was so anxious that I should make a good impression that I was rather intimidated. It was quite simple however. He did all the talking & I put up a steady gaze.41

Frank tries very hard to persuade Marjorie’s mother to part with a photo of Marjorie that he was particularly fond of and later, when Marjorie and her mother take a cruise to Cairns, Frank farewells Marjorie at the dock with chocolates and flowers. Is it possible that the sum of these actions, combined with her intimate knowledge of the state of the Davison’s marriage, never brought Marjorie to expect that their relationship might one day take another form, that Frank would indeed divorce and marry her? After all, in a very early letter to Frank she speaks of the pleasure she gained from seeing her name and his coupled together in the dedication for Vance Palmer’s Sea and Spinifex.42 Another sticking point: years after his apparent dismissal, Frank is still in correspondence with Pixie, seemingly familiar with her movements and her work, and requesting further meetings:

I hope you are enjoying your trip to Blayney. Will you drop me a line telling me when I can see you again? Could we meet at the same place one afternoon soon? … I don’t know what we will do but on past showing we won’t find each other’s company boring.43

Was Marjorie aware of these continued meetings? Did she, passing her days quietly writing at home, imagine her ‘genius’ did likewise, or was she forced to turn a blind eye, having already witnessed first-hand his indifference to his wife’s voluble jealousy? I will probably never know. Certainly, Marjorie recounts details of a launch party she and Flora held for Frank’s book, Children of the Dark People, but makes no mention of Pixie who had illustrated the work at Frank’s request, the same Frank who walked Marjorie to the ferry after the party. And finally, piecing together the potentially hectic round of female company Frank kept, should I seek some alternative interpretations of his famed nervous condition?

It is a humbling thought, but ultimately my work is shaped by what I do not know and will never know, for it is the material losses and subtle silences which structure my reading of these letters. Absences and losses. But perhaps this is only in character, for after all, love letters, by their very nature, embody loss, for they are a form of writing that strives to make absent bodies present: as though the heaping up of words or the spilling out of narrative can draw out the loved one and produce the illusion of full presence. But as Anne Carson laments, this ‘absence from the syntax of my life is not a fact to be changed by written words’.44


1. Marjorie Barnard to Jean Devanny, 1 January 1947, JC JD/CORR (P)/16. Published in Carole Ferrier, ed. As Good As a Yarn with You: Letters Between Miles Franklin, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Jean Devanny, Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw and Eleanor Dark (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 156–157.

2. Henry James, ‘Gustave Flaubert’, Selected Literary Criticism, ed. Morris Shapira (London: Heinemann, 1963), p.139.

3. Anonymous, Five Letters From a Nun to a Cavalier, trans. Roger L'Estrange ( London, n.p., 1678).

4. For more on this topic see Mary A. Favret, Romantic Correspondence: Women, Politics and the Fiction of Letters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) and Ruth Perry, Women, Letters and the Novel (New York: AMS Press, 1980).

5. Letter written in 1915 by Henry James to his executor Harry James. Quoted in Ian Hamilton, Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography. (London: Pimlico, 1993), p. 220.

6. Virginia Woolf, ‘Modern Letters’ in Collected Essays Vol. 2 (London: Hogarth, 1966), p. 261.

7. Ibid., p. 262.

8. Joy Hooton, ‘Life-Lines in Stormy Seas : Some Recent Collections of Women’s Diaries and Letters’, Australian Literary Studies 16:1 (1993), p. 10.

9. Henry James, ‘The Aspern Papers’, in The Novels and Tales of Henry James, Vol. XII (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922), p. 24.

10. Pixie O’Harris, Was It Yesterday? (Adelaide: Rigby, 1983), p. 39.

11. Marjorie Barnard to Nettie Palmer, 22 March 1935, Palmer Papers NLA MS 1174/1/4622–7.

12. Hamilton, op.cit., p. 2.

13. Marjorie Barnard to Nettie Palmer, 9 April 1935, NLA MS 1174/1/4642.

14. Quoted in Louise Rorabacher, Frank Dalby Davison (Boston: Twayne’s, 1979), p. 138.

15. Both copies are undated, headed simply ‘Thursday’. Pixie O'Harris Papers NLA MS 4800.

16. A.S. Byatt, Possession (London: Vintage, 1990), p. 89.

17. Marjorie Barnard to Frank Dalby Davison, 19 September 1934, Davison Papers NLA MS1945/1/23.

18. Marjorie Barnard to Nettie Palmer, 1 March 1933, NLA MS 1174/1/4210.

19. See Frank Dalby Davison to Vance Palmer, 14 September 1934, NLA MS 1174/1/4491–2

20. Catherine Stimpson, ‘The Female Sociograph: The Theater of Virginia Woolf’s Letters’ in Donna Stanton, ed. The Female Autograph: Theory and Practice of Autobiography from the Tenth to the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 169.

21. Marjorie Barnard to Frank Dalby Davison, 16 April 1970, Davison Papers NLA MS 1945/1/23.

22. Daniel Karlin, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett: The Courtship Correspondence 1845–1846 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), p. xii.

23. Marjorie Barnard to Nettie Palmer, 26 February 1935, NLA MS 1174/1/4606.

24. Adam Phillips, On Flirtation: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Uncommitted Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 41.

25. Jacques Derrida, The Post Card, trans. Alan Bass. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 123.

26. Marjorie Barnard to Frank Dalby Davison, 31 August 1939, NLA MS 1945/1/115:94.

27. Marjorie Barnard to Frank Dalby Davison, 9 September 1936, NLA MS1945/1/115.

28. Marjorie Barnard to Nettie Palmer, 31 July 1937, NLA MS 1174/1/5292. Emphasis added.

29. Marjorie Barnard to Nettie Palmer, 28 April 1935, NLA MS 1174/1/4655-6. Emphasis added.

30. Marjorie Barnard to Frank Dalby Davison, 3 February 1935, NLA MS 1945/1/23.

31. Marjorie Barnard to Nettie Palmer, 4 March 1935, NLA MS 1174/1/4607.

32. Frank Dalby Davison to Nettie Palmer, c. March 1935, NLA MS 1174/1/4554.

33. Marjorie Barnard to Nettie Palmer, 20 November 1936, NLA MS 1174/1/5169.

34. Frank Dalby Davison to Nettie Palmer, 29 November 1938, NLA MS 1174/1/5463.

35. See, for example, Drusilla Modjeska in Exiles At Home: Australian Women Writers 1925–1945 and Carole Ferrier's introduction to As Good As a Yarn with You.

36. Marjorie Barnard to Nettie Palmer, 9 April 1935, NLA MS 1174/1/4642.

37. Marjorie Barnard, ‘It’s Dangerous to Pause’, in Robert Darby, ed. But Not for Love: Stories of Marjorie Barnard and M. Barnard Eldershaw (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1988), p. 220–21.

38. Marjorie Barnard to Vance Palmer, 5 October 1944, NLA MS 1174/1/6641.

39. Frank Dalby Davison, ‘The Road to Yesterday’, in Vance Palmer, ed. Coast to Coast: Australian Stories 1944 (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1945), pp. 220–51.

40. M. Barnard Eldershaw, ‘The Broken Threshold’, in Darby, op.cit., p. 43.

41. Marjorie Barnard to Nettie Palmer, 16 January 1937, NLA MS 1174/1/5218.

42. The original letter from Barnard has not survived, but Davison paraphrases it in a letter to Vance Palmer in December 1934, NLA MS 1174/1/4535.

43. Frank Dalby Davison to Pixie O’Harris, 22 November 1938, NLA MS 4800.

44. Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986).