Inside Story

A fragment of a life

Charmian Clift’s most ambitious but unfinished work illuminates her childhood in coastal New South Wales

Susan Lever Books 28 March 2024 1306 words

A lightness of touch: Charmian Clift in Coolah, New South Wales, shortly after arriving back in Australia in 1964. George Johnston & Charmian Clift Archive, courtesy of Harry Fatouros

The publication of Anna Funder’s Wifedom late last year has drawn attention to the role of wives in the creation of their husband’s art, not only in providing domestic support but by contributing ideas and editorial advice. Funder argued for the importance of George Orwell’s wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy, often overlooked by his biographers, in the creation of his best novels.

Offering another perspective, Ann-Marie Priest’s recent biography of Gwen Harwood presented the case of a woman writer fighting to be published and recognised despite her husband’s obstruction and the daily grind of domestic life. Charmian Clift is a third example of wifedom: a writer married to a writer who was acclaimed for a novel, My Brother Jack, that he admitted could not have been written without her help.

The lives of Clift and George Johnston retain a certain glamour because they were spent partly on the Greek island of Hydra, mixing with Leonard Cohen, Sidney Nolan and other artists, during the 1950s. Interest has been renewed in recent years with the release of Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell’s study of their role in the Hydra artistic community, Half the Perfect World (2018), Sue Smith’s play Hydra (produced in Brisbane and Adelaide in 2019) and a documentary film, Charmian Clift: Life Burns High, will screen soon on Foxtel. Nadia Wheatley, who has long been the leading expert on Clift, published an excellent biography, The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift, in 2001 and edited a selection of her essays published in a new edition as Sneaky Little Revolutions in 2022.

Now comes The End of the Morning, the first section of an autobiographical novel Clift never completed but Wheatley believes can be read independently as a novella. Readers of Wheatley’s biography will recognise it as a significant source for her account of Clift’s childhood and adolescence in the quarry community near Bombo Beach, north of the NSW coastal town of Kiama.

The novella presents a vivid and charming picture of a childhood spent amid the freedom of the beach and bushland, Clift’s parents managing their poverty with creative resourcefulness and a commitment to literature as a reliable means of access to a wider imaginative world. Some recognisable tropes of autobiographical fiction appear — the rebellious tomboy narrator in rivalry with a more conventionally feminine sister for her parents’ attention; the narrator’s delight in learning — but this is not the conventional story of workers beaten down by the Depression. The father has chosen to live beyond the grind of English city life, among workers in Australia, so that he can enjoy a life with plenty of fishing.

Wheatley explains Clift’s struggle to meet the deadlines of the Commonwealth Literary Fund grant she’d been given for the novel, and gently outlines the anxieties that led to her suicide (which she refers to indirectly as “a cry for help that went unheard”). She speculates about the direction the novel might have taken without suggesting that Clift would have dealt with the sexual experiences that worried her so much at the time of her death.

Many readers will know that as a teenager Clift had a child who was adopted at birth. (She could not know that the child would become the artist and writer Suzanne Chick, herself the mother of Gina Chick who has gained fame in the reality television series, Alone.) But Clift’s concern at the time of her death was the imminent publication of George Johnston’s novel Clean Straw For Nothing, which depicted some of their sexual liaisons on Hydra.

As a kind of scaffolding for the unfinished novel, the rest of The End of the Morning is made up of a selection of thirty essays from the 225 columns that Clift wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald between 1964 and her death in 1969, chosen for their references to family life and childhood. Where the unfinished novel may frustrate the reader looking for a completed story, these short essays show Clift in total command of her form.

These 1000- to 1500-word pieces are full of thoughtful observations about her life and the social world around her. Sometimes she mentions the artistic community on Hydra, sometimes aspects of Sydney life, including renovations to her home in Mosman and the building of the Opera House. Often, she makes literary allusions to John Donne or Laurence Sterne or the most popular Romantic poets, but she never puts on airs — she has met many contemporary English poets and was struck by “over-reverence” before realising “that poets can be just as vain ordinary, peevish, arrogant, timid or plain dull as other people.” The essays assume that her readers also admit literature into their lives.

In this selection Clift makes no mention of her husband’s debilitating illness or the difficulties of her private life. The closest she comes to a political statement is when she contrasts the goals of younger and older women — helping women return to work in one case, engaging them in handicrafts and theatre parties in the other — at the inaugural meeting of a new women’s organisation. There is a lightness of touch and a clear sense of an audience that is made up, by implication, of other intelligent suburban women.

The same close observation enlivens the essays and the novel. Clift delivers wonderful lists of things: “On a Cluttered Mantelpiece” is made up mainly of descriptions of various objects found on her mantelpieces and their histories. “An Old Address Book” does a similar thing with places and people. Here are the county English:

men wearing either tweeds and caps and driving farm utilities or dinner jackets and driving Bentleys, mucking in with the pigs or serving champagne by candlelight and ladies who alternated between maintaining an Amazonian posture on perfectly frightening horses (and that horn so plangent over the Cotswold hills) and rising with that twitch of the trailing skirt that summoned all females at the table to retire and leave the gentlemen to their port.

Reading this you feel there is a novel waiting to happen.

Clift’s writing conveys a nostalgia for a lost Australia, not only for present-day readers but within the essays themselves, as she often remembers Sydney’s past and her own youth on the south coast. The End of the Morning also looks back fondly at the lost world of childhood, giving some clue to Clift’s role in the success of My Brother Jack. The novel is alive with a sense of what it was like to live in suburban Melbourne in the 1930s that Johnston couldn’t match in the Hydra of Clean Straw for Nothing or the Sydney of A Cartload of Clay. Clearly this detailed observation was Clift’s particular talent, just as her adaptation of My Brother Jack (1967) for television showed her gift for dramatic concision.

Clift’s newspaper columns remind me of Helen Garner’s articles for the Age, collected in True Stories and later books, and her comment that feature writing saved her from the loneliness of fiction and the need to “make things up.” Clift also admits to being gregarious, and it may be that she too found personal journalism suited her personality. But the literary world always rates the novel more highly than this kind of ephemeral writing and she struggled to finish her most ambitious work.

As well as her fears about the revelations in her husband’s next novel, perhaps the attitudes of the 1960s made it impossible for her to write about her teenage pregnancy, let alone sex outside marriage. We can speculate and regret the loss of what might have been an important addition to Australian fiction. At least we have these entertaining essays to enjoy. •

The End of the Morning
By Charmian Clift | Edited by Nadia Wheatley | NewSouth | $34.99 | 240 pages