Aileen Palmer, Biography, mid twentieth century psychiatry, refinding women poets and writers, Vance and Nettie Palmer, volunteers in Spain in the 1930s
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.