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    Barry Watts seeks our own Bloomsbury ...

NETTIE PALMER AND FRIENDS

A Cottage Industry

Australia's own little Bloomsbury Group developed around what is still known as 'Rose Charman's Cottage' at Emerald, in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne.

The cottage is a small four-roomed timber home, built in 1908, standing at the end of a driveway of wattles.

The participants were the distinguished playwright Louis Esson and his second wife Hilda; the remarkable literary duo, Vance and Nettie Palmer; the prolific writer Katharine Susannah Prichard; music critic and poet Henry Tate; and bookseller-poet Frank Wilmot who wrote under the name 'Furnley Maurice'

Rose Charman's Cottage,
Photo from John Larkins'
The Book of the Dandenongs (Rigby 1978).


Nettie Palmer, Hilda Esson and Katharine Prichard
had been friends since schooldays.


Nettie Palmer (left) &
Katharine Susannah Pritchard, 1948

Many years later Mary Gilmore, who was twenty years their senior, told of her first meeting with two of this bright trio:

'One day in the gardens near me two beautiful girls were standing talking books. Hungry for intellectual converse, but too shy, three times I tried to muster up courage to address these radiant things. At last, as I feared they were going, I, nearly choked with dread of a snub, spoke. They responded when I gave them my name. They were Hilda Bull (later married to Louis Esson) and K.S.P. The result was we all had morning tea together.'

The Essons were the first literary occupants of 'Rose Charman's Cottage'. Hilda was a medical graduate of Melbourne University and practised in the Dandenong Ranges as Dr Bull - her maiden name. Eventually Louis and Hilda moved to a nearby hillside home and the cottage became vacant.

Katharine Prichard, after returning from a trip to Europe, had been visiting the empty house - 'going there every now and then, for a week of writing' is how she described it in her autobiography, Child of the Hurricane , 'The cottage stood in acres of virgin forest, and the singing of the birds at dawn was marvellous.

Vance Palmer,
weekend cricketer, novelist, critic

Eventually the itinerant Palmers moved into 'Rose Charman's Cottage' - Vance, Nettie, and their daughters Aileen and Helen (both subsequently published writers). Nettie taught the children herself rather than send them to the local school, and although the family was not heavily involved in community life at Emerald, Vance played cricket with the local team.

Frank Wilmot,
aka Furnley Maurice

Frank Wilmot, who described himself as 'an ordinary bookseller's assistant', was often a weekend guest. He ranked far higher than that with the Palmers; to them, he was close to being Australia's poet laureate.

Vance recollected these pleasant visits later -

'The smell of split wattle-logs burning on the open hearth, gossip about friends in town [Melbourne], the rumble of Wilmot's slow, deep voice, interrupted by his own little chuckles, and the whinny of the children's ponies as we smoked a last pipe outside by the rails, watching the thin moonlight silver the cold hillside.'
Wilmot chose to write as 'Furnley Maurice,' his biographer Fred Macartney wrote, from his liking of two places, Ferntree Gully and Beaumaris [both are suburbs of Melbourne, the former in the nearby hills, the latter is beachside] The purpose of using a psuedonym, he claimed, was to test the consistency of The Bulletin 's editor A.G.Stephens in his criticism of Wilmot's poetry.

The 'bookseller's assistant' worked at the incongruous Coles Book Arcade for many years. He was a tall, slim man with blue-grey eyes which 'dilated in moments of surprise or special interest, like an excited boy'. His many literary acquaintances often dropped in to see him at Cole's and enjoyed his kindly if ironic wit.

His friend and biographer recalled:

An early experience of his drollery was an occasion when I had got to know him and was spending a small windfall on books. As he was about to wrap them up he paused, and in a mock shopmanlike manner asked whether I would read them now or take them with me.

Frederick Macartney was subsequently best-known for his abridgement and rearrangement of Morris Miller's indispensable bibliography, Australian Literature [1956].

Another firm friend of Wilmot and Macartney was the composer and poet Henry Tate who, like them, frequently escaped Melbourne and visited the Emerald coterie. Tate befriended Katharine Prichard and taught her, in her own words 'to understand music better than I had ever done'.

Tate's 'Dawn Symphony' was conceived at Emerald when Katharine and her mother took him to the cottage to hear the birds singing at dawn:

With overcoats over our pyjamas, like unquiet spirits, we went out of the house and sat on a stump at the edge of the clearing. It was very cold, owls still muttering among the dark trees. But with the first light came Eopsaltria Australis, the psalmist of the dawn, as this yellow robin is called. He sat on a branch of a wattle-tree near us and tuned his harp. That morning he sang for Tate, as if he were doing his best to oblige me.
[from Katharine Susannah Prichard's autobiography Child of the Hurricane, 1963]

When Vance and Nettie Palmer decided to move to Queensland, Katharine arranged a farewell party and insisted that Wilmot and Tate be there. "You and Tatey,' she wrote to Frank Wilmot, "the nicest people I could think of. What is the masculine gender for 'bonzer tart'?"

Katharine's brother Alan was killed in action during WWI and left a legacy to their mother. With this money, 'Rose Charman's Cottage' was bought in Katharine's name. Her novel Black Opal was written there.

When Katharine Prichard married V.C. winner Hugo Throssell in 1919, and despite the raging local bush-fires at the time, they spent their honeymoon at the Emerald cottage.

Katharine Pritchard & Hugo Throssell

© BARRY JOHN WATTS 2002

 
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