- Honour Roll
Born Janet Higgins at Bendigo in 1885, she studied languages in Europe before completing her Master of Arts at the University of Melbourne in 1912. As a student of comparative literature she knew French, German and Greek and later in life studied Spanish in order to be able to read Latin American literature.
In 1914 she married Vance Palmer and together they became immensely influential in Australian literary circles in general, but particularly in Melbourne, although they also lived for a time in Queensland (1925-29). Their literary partnership and their extensive literary contacts at home and overseas form the basis of Fourteen Years (1948), extracts from the journal kept by Nettie between 1925 and 1939.
In the words of the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, this constitutes a unique document in Australian Literature. It was re-published in 1988 along with a selection of her poetry, articles, reviews and essays. During the 1920s and the 1930s, Nettie's literary journalism was exceptionally important in bringing Australian writers to public attention and in developing serious critical approaches.
She also did important work in keeping Australian readers in contact with international literary movements and writers. Journals to which she contributed included the Australian Woman's Mirror, The Bulletin, The Argus, The Illustrated Tasmanian Mail, Brisbane Sunday Mail and Brisbane Telegraph, and from 1928-38 wrote a personal column for All About Books.
In the 1940s and 1950s she was frequently heard on radio for the ABC and she gave several lectures in the Commonwealth Literary Fund lecture series.
In 1924, she published Modern Australian Literature (1900-23), the first systematically critical study of contemporary twentieth century writing. At this stage she, like most of the Australian public, was unaware of the identity of the expatriate Henry Handel Richardson, who is therefore not included in the study. A mutual acquaintance, Mary Kernot, enlightened her, and this led to a long correspondence between the two and to a determination on Palmer's part to gain an Australian audience for Richardson's work.
Palmer's Henry Handel Richardson, published in 1950, was the first full-length study of the writer. Nettie is sometimes seen as having subjugated her own talent to that of her husband, for whose novels she frequently did research, and she was by no means unaware of feminist issues involved in dual career families. She worked hard to ensure that women novelists and poets received due recognition in literary circles.
In recent times the distinctive nature of her role in developing Australian literature has been recognised in studies such as Vivian Smith's Vance and Nettie Palmer (1975) and Drusilla Modjeska's Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers (1981) as well as in her separate entry in the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature. When the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards were established in 1985, the non-fiction award was named for Nettie in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the development within the community of a national literary culture.
Reviewed 26 May 2022