Edward Vivian (Vance) Palmer (1885–1959) was born in Bundaberg, Queensland, and educated at country schools and Ipswich Grammar School. After leaving school, he worked as a clerk and later as a teacher and tutor. He read widely and began writing for Steele Rudd’s Magazine. He lived in England and France in 1910–15 and wrote both serious stories and poems, and pot-boiling stories and music hall sketches. After serving in the Australian Imperial Forces in 1918–19, he returned to Melbourne and lived as a writer for the rest of his life. He wrote novels, poetry, plays, essays, literary criticism, reviews and historical works. His books included:
The World of Men (1915)
The Passage (1928)
National Portraits (1940)
The Legend of the Nineties (1954)
Let the Birds Fly (1955)
Janet Gertrude (Nettie) Higgins (1885–1964) was born at Bendigo and educated at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Melbourne and the University of Melbourne. She began writing poetry and prose at a young age and in 1905 became active in the Literature Society of Melbourne. She met Vance Palmer in 1909 and they married in London in 1914. On their return to Australia, she began a literary column in the Argus and by the 1920s she was one of the most influential literary critics in Australia. She wrote two or three articles a week, edited anthologies, essays and short stories, and corresponded with hundreds of writers. Her books included:
Modern Australian Literature 1900–1923 (1924)
An Australian Story-book (1928)
Henry Bournes Higgins (1931)
Fourteen Years: Extracts from a Private Journal 1925–1939 (1948)
Henry Handel Richardson: a Study (1950)
Bernard O’Dowd (1954)
Vance and Nettie Palmer together had an enormous influence on Australian literary and cultural life for nearly 40 years. Although they did not seek publicity, their names were widely known through their newspaper reviews and articles and their broadcasts. They were prominent in debates about conscription, censorship, civil liberties and the rise of fascism in Europe. Vance was a founder of the Fellowship of Australian Writers and was chairman of the Commonwealth Literary Fund’s advisory committee (1947–53). Above all, through their published writings and their extensive correspondence, they championed the cause of Australian literature.
The Palmer Collection, including books, paintings and photographs, as well as personal papers, was purchased from Aileen and Helen Palmer in 1964–66. The papers of Henry Bournes Higgins, the uncle of Nettie Palmer, were acquired at the same time. Aileen and Helen Palmer donated further papers and books in subsequent years, including large groups of letters and photographs in 1974–75.
The death mask of Vance Palmer was donated by Sir John Barry in 1960. The commonplace book (1907–36) of Nettie Palmer was purchased from a Melbourne bookshop in 1981. The portrait painted by Lina Bryans in 1958 was purchased at auction in 1990.
The Palmer Collection contains about 2500 books and pamphlets. The majority are Australian works published in the period 1900–60 and many of them are inscribed by the authors. The collection is particularly strong in novels, poetry and history. There is also a substantial number of British, Irish and American publications and a smaller number of European works. They include multi-volume editions of the writings of Robert Browning, George Eliot, John Ruskin and Friedrich Schiller.
Some of the books had originally belonged to Higgins and other members of the Higgins family. There are a number of school prize books awarded to Nettie Higgins, Ina Higgins and Helen Palmer.
Manuscripts and Personal Papers
The manuscripts and personal papers of Vance and Nettie Palmer form one of the finest literary archives in Australia and, ever since their acquisition, they have been one of the most heavily used collections in the Library. They include correspondence, the manuscripts of novels, plays, poetry, short stories, historical and biographical writings, book reviews, newspaper articles, broadcasts, lectures and material concerning writers, artists and literary organisations. The diaries of Nettie Palmer extend from 1910 to 1961, with a few breaks. Some papers relate to the Spanish Civil War.
The correspondence mostly dates from 1911 to 1964, but there are some earlier letters extending back to 1889. There are letters from hundreds of writers, ranging from a single letter to correspondence extending over many years. The more prolific correspondents include Vance Palmer, Nettie Palmer, their daughter Helen Palmer, Nettie’s brother Esmonde Higgins, Marjorie Barnard, C.B. Christesen, Frank Dalby Davison, Eileen Duggan, Hilda Esson, Louis Esson, Miles Franklin, C. Hartley Grattan, Kathleen Macarthur, Hugh McCrae, Bernard O’Dowd, Katharine Susannah Prichard and Henry Handel Richardson.
In addition to the papers of Vance and Nettie Palmer, there are manuscripts, correspondence, legal papers, photographs and published material of their daughters Aileen Palmer (1915–1988) and Helen Palmer (1917–1979).
Paintings, Photographs and Objects
The Palmer Collection includes two portraits of Vance Palmer by Colin Colahan (1935) and Noel Counihan (1953) and three portraits of Nettie Palmer by P. Hurry (c. 1941) and Lina Bryans (1958, 1959). In addition, there are portraits of Henry Bournes, Anne Bournes and Aileen Palmer. All the portraits were painted in oil. The Library also holds the Australian Literature Society gold medal awarded to Vance Palmer for the best Australian novel in 1930 and his death mask by Teisutis Zikaras.
There are about 550 photographs in the Palmer Collection. Most of them are family photographs, dating from 1866 to 1964, including many members of the Bournes, Higgins and Palmer families and the Palmer homes at Emerald and Kew. They include three albums dating from about 1915–21. There are also a small number of group photographs including other writers, such as Frank Dalby Davison, Jack McKinney and Judith Wright.
The books and pamphlets in the Palmer Collection have been kept together as a formed collection within the Australian Collection. They have been individually catalogued and have the call number PAL 820.9 P176.
The manuscripts and personal papers are held in the Manuscripts Collection. The main collection is held at MS 1174. The papers acquired after 1970 are held at MS 3942. There are finding aids, including correspondence indexes, for both collections which are available online at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-229721643/findingaid and https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-254495343/findingaid. The papers of Helen Palmer are held at MS 6083 and the papers of Aileen Palmer at MS 6759.
The papers in MS 1174 have been microfilmed. There are 81 reels and the call number is mfm G24446–24526.
The paintings, photographs and objects are housed in the Pictures Collection. The seven portraits are held at PIC R3881–3886 and PIC R4969. They have been individually catalogued and the portraits of Vance and Nettie Palmer have been digitised. The photographs are held at PIC/778 and are housed in eight albums. They have been catalogued at the collection level and a list of the items is filed in the first album.
Heseltine, Harry, Vance Palmer, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1970.
Jordan, D.J., Janet Gertrude (Nettie) Palmer, Australian Dictionary of Biography online
Jordan, D.J., Nettie Palmer: Search for an Aesthetic, Department of History, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 1999.
Jordan, Deborah, ed., Loving words: letters of Nettie and Vance Palmer, 1909-1914, Brandl & Schlesinger, Blackheath, N.S.W., 2018.
Modjeska, Drusilla, Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers 1925–1945, Sirius Books, Sydney, 1981.
Serle, Geoffrey, Edward Vivian (Vance) Palmer, Australian Dictionary of Biography online
Smith, Vivian, (ed.), Letters of Vance and Nettie Palmer, 1915–1963, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1977.
Smith, Vivian, Vance and Nettie Palmer, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1975.
First posted 2008 (revised 2019)