Archives are relicts of a life. Bits of paper, shopping lists, advertising fliers for stoves, oil heaters and cars, personal messages and notes, are clues to the day in day out matters that people think about. Clara Geroe’s archive has many such things, all tossed into a suitcase and left for posterity. One smiles to discover a note in Geroe’s handwriting scrawled upon the back of some learned paper: ‘Would you like to dine with us tonight?’ To whom was it addressed? Probably the person was sitting next to her, both of them lulled into boredom by some psychoanalytic conference speaker or other. Was it the end of the day? Or just after lunch with another three lectures to go? Did she disagree with the speaker? Or had it occurred to her that she had forgotten to extend that particular invitation?
These are the little things found woven into correspondence from colleagues, poems, a paper for her interest, books, pamphlets and even a recipe collection. Archives are treasure troves of oddments. Some discoveries are totally astonishing and unexpected. Archive work is a risky business.
In her early years in Australia Geroe’s English teacher, the author and literary critic Nettie Palmer, introduced Geroe to her family: Vance, her husband and a leading Australian author, and her daughters, Aileen and Helen. It is a side story in Sylvia Martin’s excellent biography of Aileen Palmer, Ink in her Veins. Geroe, a cultured woman, and deeply interested and knowledgeable in literature and the arts, may have appreciated the Palmer’s friendship. Aileen Palmer’s work during the Spanish War, and her driving ambulances in England during the blitz, would have been known to Geroe. Aileen Palmer also studied French literature at the University of Melbourne and wrote a thesis on Proust. At the time of publishing her book, Martin said, no copy of the thesis was to be found. When Aileen broke down after her return to Australia from London, it is possible the Palmers sought advice from Geroe. Martin discusses Aileen’s hospitalization and psychiatric treatment at length. For a time she was a patient of Geroe’s – something Martin also discusses in her book. Perhaps Aileen liked Geroe enough to give her a copy of her thesis. Maybe it was a forgotten loan only to turn up almost thirty two years after Palmer’s death in Geroe’s archive…
Here is the link to Aileen’s story retold in Martin’s piece, The Lost Thesis, ‘published last week in the online journal, ‘Inside Story’.
On 17th August 1940 the Sydney based psychoanalyst Roy Coupland Winn wrote to Clara Geroe,the Hungarian trained psychoanalyst who had arrived in Australia on a refugee Visa five months earlier. ‘Considering the fact that there seems little likelihood of starting an institute in Melbourne, why not practise in Sydney? You, [Siegfried] Fink and I could commence a clinic’. Fink was a German born psychoanalyst, also refugee, who had arrived in 1938. Winn continued: ‘It may be a mistaken idea but I think that three analysts would make more rapid progress than two, just as two than one; I am of the opinion that analysts tend to advertise and feed each other, partly because as the practice of each is necessarily small each has to send any overflow that arises to be done by others; thus each also receives advertisement from each other’.
It was a tempting offer. Clara Geroe and her family had landed in Melbourne on the strength of a promise, a donation of five thousand pounds by a benefactor, Lorna Traill, for the commencement of an institute for psychotherapy. The family was on its way to Sydney, she wrote later. A place like Buda, with hills all around but close to the sea. But a Melbourne based psychiatrist Dr Paul Dane – a man with a dream – had argued, successfully, that the Traill funds were to be used to establish an institute for psychoanalysis along the lines of the British one headed by Ernest Jones. In Melbourne. Dane had written to Jones about it. Jones, in turn, always a supporter of psychoanalysis, particularly if it was a medical enterprise, encouraged its development. But the donation had not materialized. Traill had withdrawn her offer. Negotiations were continuing. Geroe had had to wait it out.
In her reply to Winn Geroe said that the Melbourne group had managed to retrieve a thousand pounds from Traill. Another five hundred pounds was promised if the Institute was opened on the benefactor’s birthday. It was barely a viable figure but Ernest Jones had given the project his blessing. Sydney though would be sidelined. It would be only a Melbourne Institute for Psychoanalysis, Geroe continued. Not the Australian Institute originally envisaged. Geroe would have preferred to start small she wrote in her notebooks. She would have liked to have built up a following before launching such a complex project as an Institute. But Traill had made the condition that an institute was founded with the funds. Geroe could do no more than shrug her shoulders and comply.
The Melbourne Institute for Psychoanalysis was duly opened on 11 October 1940, Lorna Traill’s birthday. Roy Winn made the long journey from Sydney to attend. Judge Foster from the Children’s Court led the proceedings. A coterie of psychiatrists – Reg Ellery, Norman Albiston, Albert Phillips among them, all attended along with local educationalists, nurses and workers from the Children’s Court Clinic. In July 1941 Geroe was made a member of the British Institute of Psychoanalysis and appointed as a training analyst. Jones, one might say, had captured the Australian Dominion for his Empire.
All the while Geroe was bitter, sad, and upset about having to leave the intellectual, cafe culture of Budapest. She was trying to settle into Melbourne, in a land on the other side of the world, far from the pastoral beauty to which she was accustomed. As far as she was concerned Melbourne was a back-water. If her husband’s decision to leave Hungary and Nazi Europe was prescient, Geroe was a trailing spouse. She was not accepted by the Australian government on the basis of the work as a psychoanalyst. In fact none of the six psychoanalysts with whom she had applied for a visa, first to New Zealand and when that was refused, to Australia, were considered eligible for entry. Her husband’s experience as an accounts manager in a factory making magnesium bricks was most probably the reason for the family’s acceptance. That, and his decision to seek the assistance of a local Sydney solicitor, Eric Jones who, somehow, managed to obtain visas for the family. Their own application made directly to the Australian government through Australia House in London had failed two weeks earlier. The Geroe family left Budapest on 20 January 1940.
On Friday 20 April 1945, about four years after the opening of the Melbourne Institute of Psychoanalysis, three of the Board members met with Clara Geroe, at the office at 111 Collins Street, the rooms rented from the Union Bank of Australia by Dr Paul Dane. Dane, the founder of the Institute, along with psychiatrists Guy Reynolds and Albert Phillips had called the meeting ‘to deal with the matter of the renewal of Dr Geroe’s agreement with the Institute’.
Geroe was employed by the Institute as its resident training analyst on 14 January 1941. Her second two year contract expired on 14th January 1945. By April 1945 it was clear that the Institute’s financial position was such that ‘it could not be renewed’. At this stage it was agreed that Clara would continue at the Institute for a salary of four guineas a week. Of this she would pay three guineas a week a rent for the use of the rooms, telephone and so on. Five hours of her time would be devoted to the Institute’s Clinic, providing services on behalf of the Institute.
Matters did not improve. On 3rd August 1945, another meeting was held, this time to discuss Dr Paul Dane’s decision to resign as Chair of the Board. The Institute’s financial situation was more than perilous: Dane, it appeared, had fallen behind in his rental payments – perhaps a result of his absence through illness. He owed forty five pounds to the Institute. But Clara and her husband, Vilmos, a trained accountant, had compiled a financial statement and proposal showing that the Institute could continue for a further thirteen months. ‘It was decided to carry on’, the psychiatrist Reg Ellery noted in the Minutes. He continued, ‘Dr Geroe proposed to continue her work for the Institute without a fee’. This, of course, ‘was willingly agreed to’. Geroe took on Dane’s share of the rent and his rooms, with the proviso that he could return at any time. Frank Graham, Geroe’s first trainee was elected as a member of the Board.
On 23 September 1945 a third meeting was held between Geroe, Graham, Ellery and Guy Reynolds. Paul Dane had decided to take twelve months leave of absence on consenting to withdraw his resignation as Chairperson. An Acting Chairperson, Albert Phillips, was appointed. Clara Geroe was elected to the Board and, along with Dane and Graham, approved as a subtenant of 111 Collins Street.
Most importantly Clara Geroe was recognized by the Board as ‘no longer an employee of the Institute but ‘voluntarily agrees to give without any renumeration the same services [to the Institute’s Clinic] as heretofore; and that her previous agreement with the Institute is null and void since 3rd August 1945’.
And so Clara Geroe’s psychoanalytic career, begun in Hungary in 1926, entered its longest phase.
Roy Winn to Clara Geroe 17 August 1940
Clara Geroe – draft reply to Winn, c August 1940
Clara Geroe, notebooks in English language, c. 1940.
Minutes of the Board of the Melbourne Institute of Psychoanalysis – No 20, 20 April, 1945;
No 21 undated; No 22, 3 August 1945; No 23, 28 September 1945.
Sylvia Martin, Ink In her Veins: The Troubled Life of Aileen Palmer, University of Western Australia Press, 2016.
It is difficult to not turn away when someone’s life is not working out well. It’s easier to shun. Work colleagues, unable to cope with difficult behaviours, might ease the person from their midst. A family might banish that brother, sister, son or daughter to a silent place. When respectability is everything mental distress can shake to the core.
Sylvia Martin takes us into these shadowy silences in her biography of Aileen Palmer, a translator and talented poet and novelist. Plagued by mental illness during the second half of her life- or was it, in part, the mental distress of wartime trauma? – Palmer never truly flourished as a writer despite the talent of her youth. Instead she remained within the protective cowl of her family: her parents, the writers Vance and Nettie Palmer and her sister, Helen Palmer. Regarded on a par with royalty in the Australian literary world from the 1930s the Palmers moved with socialistic, communistic elite. They held a central place in Melbourne’s literary circles which included Clem Christesen, the founder editor of the journal Meanjin, his wife, Russian born, Nina Maximov Christesen who launched the study of Russion and Slavonic Studies at the University of Melbourne and the historian Brian Fitzpatrick . Nettie Palmer’s biography of the writer, Henry Handel Richardson certainly underlined Richardson’s importance as an Australian author who centred her work on the colonial experience and the vexed question of identity. The author Katherine Susannah Pritchard was a presence in Palmer family life – and a mentor to Aileen. Vance Palmer’s books: The Passage published in 1930 and The Rainbow-Bird and Other Stories, published in 1957 sold more than 50,000 copies each between 1959 and 1974. The Passage found its way onto high school reading lists. Helen Palmer, an educationalist, sometimes poet and, along with her sister, a member of the Communist Party , also has a place in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, in a biographical written by fellow Communist Party member, Robin Gollan a historian of the Australian left. Aileen, it seems, was put away. Until Sylvia Martin found her.
Aileen Palmer was born in 1915, Helen in 1917. At the time her parents were struggling to make their living from writing. Neither had an independent income: both came from middle class families. Nettie’s own background centred upon the Baptist Church where good deeds were prized over monetary gain. Vance’s family valued respectability and decency. Rebellion, if that was what it was, did not venture much beyond these bounds despite the couple’s professsed political radicalism. Neither entirely came to terms with Aileen’s choices including her sexuality. Both sisters appear to have struggled against the strictures of their parents’ iron grip. Aileen was the one who did not get away.
When Aileen was a small child the family moved to Queensland so Vance and Nettie could afford to live on their writing. During her teens she attended Presbyterian Ladies College in Kew, Melbourne, and went on to the University of Melbourne to study French literature along with German, Spanish and Russian. She graduated with a first class honors degree in French in 1935. All the while she wrote. Her semi autobiographical novel, ‘Poor Child’, was written during her late teens, explored her passion for a beautiful teacher – part of a rite of passage as she grew into adulthood. At university she was part of a friendship group of women whose political and literary views, if not their sexuality, appealed to her. Aileen was a young woman in formation – using the space that university life provided to explore ideas and identity.
After her graduation the Palmer family went first to England where Aileen immersed herself in the local politics. She travelled alone to Vienna working as a translator at the while Hitler’s fascism asserted its power. She rejoined her family in Barcelona at the time of the July 1936 insurrection. After her parents departure Aileen volunteered for the Communist led International Brigade and worked as an interpreter at the English Hospital at Granén on the Aragon Front. She returned to London, and drove ambulances during the Blitz. She appears to have had a serious love affair with ‘B’, who while never identified, appears to have been a woman. Nettie Palmer, her mother, may not have known about this even though, Martin notes, Aileen’s preference for women was clear.
Aileen’s years in Spain and London were the time of her life. It ended in 1945 when she returned, reluctantly, to Australia at her sister’s request after her mother suffered a mild stroke. Helen promptly moved to Sydney leaving Aileen with their parents in Melbourne – subject to their ways that stifled Aileen’s creativity and sexuality. Nor did the milieu in which she lived help. Aileen’s life was built upon the conventions, constraints and assumptions of elder daughterly duty. Unable to reconcile herself with unconscious strictures within her family’s life, Aileen broke down. She became an alcoholic; her mind snapped, and for the rest of her life she was admitted to hospital for long periods where she was treated with new and experimental forms of psychiatry. She attempted psychoanalysis and tried to write.
But this writing, unlike her juvenilia, was often designated the product of a mentally ill person with signs of manic behaviour (p. 276) and was not taken seriously. Martin does not agree with this view. Nor, eventually, did her sister who began to see the beauty in Aileen’s poetry, and the rhythms and cadences of her writing ( p. 276). Aileen was able to put her emotional experience into words, Martin says. Is it that the clumsiness of psychiatric treatment of the day has obscured talent? This is not to say that the treating psychiatrists were ignorant of such qualities in their patients. But good work has been lost even if talent has not been undermined. I have heard of paintings, given to carers in gratitude by such talented people, destroyed because they were thought of as ‘mad art’. Fortunately someone was wise enough to keep Aileen’s work and donate it to a library.
Martin’s archival mining has produced a number of Aileen’s poems including this one: ‘The dead have no regrets‘ read at the 2016 commemoration of the British and Irish volunteers who went to Spain from 1936 to 1939.
Maybe Aileen Palmer absorbed her mother’s ambivalence about the entire literary enterprise. Palmer had put aside her poetry Aileen was born. She hoped, too, that her daughter would not have ‘ink in her veins’ suggesting that her experience as an author had led her to conclude that a writer’s life was not a desirable one. Palmer continued to write and promote other authors, helping describe Australian literature to the rest of the world and Australia itself.
Aileen may not have known, consciously, of her mother’s doubt, but absorbed it, as if by osmosis. She wanted more than anything to be remembered as a poet, Martin writes. But her mother’s injunction, internalised from the the cradle, confused her. Her more emotionally robust younger sister was not as encumbered. Nor did she suffer, as Aileen did, the mental illnesses that also plagued their uncle, ‘Wob’, Vance Palmer’s brother. When Aileen finally published her book of poetry, World Without Strangers, it almost co-incided with her mother’s death in 1964. As if by then, Martin writes ‘she could cast off her mother’s shadow’. ( p. 265).
While Martin’s portrait of Aileen takes us into the Spanish Civil War and to the London Blitz, her writing about 1940s and 1950s Melbourne intellectual circles adds much to the historical record. In 1940, true to form for she was always in the front line when it came to doing good, Nettie Palmer volunteered to assist with the Victorian International Refugee Committee and began teaching English to newly arrived Europeans refugees – among them doctors and architects. One of them was Melbourne psychoanalyst, Hungarian doctor Clara Lazar Geroe who had arrived in Australia in March 1940 with her husband and son after intense lobbying by a group of doctors and their supporters. These included Sydney psychoanalyst Roy Coupland Winn and in Melbourne, Paul Dane, Norman Albiston, Reg Ellery and Guy Reynolds. These were Melbourne’s leading psychiatrists working at a time when new ideas and treatments were developing: electroconvulsive therapy, insulin treatment and other medications. Such methods were revolutionising psychiatric treatment – particularly for those suffering psychotic illnesses. Ostensibly this new medication relieved symptoms enough for people to be treated on an outpatient basis, rather than incarceration. But not without severe side effect and wild experimentation such as the sleeping cure; with lithium where learning about side effects was part of the process. Patients still had long spells in hospital: but months rather than years. At times treatment must have felt worse than the illness. And if Aileen told her story about her life in Spain and England it appears that her carers regarded this as part of her delusional system. Martin relates these events without judgement. Rancour is left to the reader.
Even more so upon reading Martin’s account of Aileen’s psychoanalysis with Clara Geroe. Nettie Palmer had taught English to Geroe – well enough for her to begin practising psychoanalysis in 1941. At this time Nettie recorded conversations with Geroe: about her frustration about her refugee life; her inability to move about the community without a permit and the prejudicial behaviour she had experienced at the hands of a police officer. ” You say your’re a doctor! Can’t you read the rules? Says it’splain hatred of the intellectual”. ( p. 237). Geroe’s dissatisfaction with her emigration and loss of her intellectual world is apparent.
Aileen was to remark that her treatment with Geroe did not help. In fact it made her more depressed, she said. Geroe did her own bit of undermining. She employed Helen Palmer as a typist requesting that Aileen not be told. She seems to have wanted to be part of the Palmer’s lives. One wonders whether such fragments, recorded in Nettie’s diary, are clues to another story about Geroe’s longing to connect with the world she had lost. Was it that Geroe wanted to recover the place she had left behind in Budapest more than she wanted to practice as a psychoanalyst? Or was it that her ideas about psychoanalysis and how it is practiced are no longer in favour – if they ever were? Geroe was a long way from the land of her birth, training and the accountabilities these implied. Aileen, shocked by her Spanish and English experiences, and by her subsequent emotional collapse, appears not to have found the treatment she needed.
There is much to learn from this biography about a very troubled person who tried so hard. Martin’s accumulation of evidence, carefully collated, is written without judgment but all the while building a portrait of a woman interacting with her world, conscious and unconscious. I walked the streets Aileen. I rode beside her on the battle fields and stood watching, shocked while she pulled bodies from the rubble in London. And then there was the downhill slide…
I finished this book with sadness for a life and talent not realised. I wanted more for Aileen Palmer. A biographer cannot do better.
Deborah Jordan (2013), ‘In defence of Vance and Nettie’, Overland, No. 10, October 2013.