In­sider’s view of a na­tion’s bur­geon­ing lit­er­ary scene

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Ley

MAR­JORIE Quinn (18891972), who was born and lived most of her life in Syd­ney, was a jour­nal­ist, short story writer and poet. Her work might not be well-known but she was very much a part of the bur­geon­ing Aus­tralian lit­er­ary scene in the early 20th cen­tury.

She was the niece of the some­what bet­ter­known poet Roderic Quinn and the daugh­ter of Pa­trick Quinn, who also penned the oc­ca­sional verse, but whose ca­reer in­volved stints as a jour­nal­ist, a mem­ber of par­lia­ment and a diplo­mat.

She con­trib­uted to The Bul­letin dur­ing its hey­day, and in the late 1920s was among the found­ing mem­bers of the Syd­ney branch of PEN In­ter­na­tional and the Fel­low­ship of Aus­tralian Writ­ers, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that has been work­ing to en­cour­age and pro­mote the work of lo­cal au­thors ever since.

The Years that the Lo­cust hath Eaten was writ­ten in the late 1960s af­ter Quinn re­ceived two grants from the Com­mon­wealth Lit­er­ary Fund to record the facts of her life, with the spec­i­fi­ca­tion that she pay ‘‘ spe­cial at­ten­tion to the lit­er­ary, artis­tic and mu­si­cal celebri­ties [she had] known’’.

She was by that time a frail nurs­ing home res­i­dent and most of the text was dic­tated rather than writ­ten, with the help of at least four dif­fer­ent amanu­enses.

Quinn was un­able to find a pub­lisher and af­ter she died the man­u­script was for­got­ten, only to be re­dis­cov­ered many years later among a pile of boxes des­tined for the tip.

We can be thank­ful that the man­u­script was not lost, for The Years that the Lo­cust hath Eaten is in­deed, as Quinn’s sur­viv­ing rel­a­tives Deb­o­rah Mcma­hon and Kathryn Ber­ry­man sug­gest in their brief in­tro­duc­tion, a work of some his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance.

Quinn’s fam­ily con­nec­tions and her pro­fes­sional life brought her into con­tact with many em­i­nent peo­ple.

Her mem­oir records en­coun­ters with in­flu­en­tial politi­cians, in­clud­ing prime min­is­ters Ed­mund Bar­ton and Al­fred Deakin. There is a brief, swoon­ing glimpse of the com­poser Percy Grainger and a first-hand ac­count of a per­for­mance by Dame Nel­lie Melba (who sings ‘‘ like a damned bus-horse’’ ac­cord­ing to Quinn’s es­cort for the evening).

But this mem­oir is no­table pri­mar­ily for its rec­ol­lec­tions of a re­mark­able num­ber of prom­i­nent writ­ers. In­deed, it is some­thing of a who’s who of early Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture. Henry Law­son, Ethel Turner, Steele Rudd, Miles Franklin, Dorothea Mackel­lar, Dul­cie Deamer, Ion Idriess, Mar­jorie Barnard and Florence Elder­shaw are all re­mem­bered, along with many other po­ets, nov­el­ists and ed­i­tors.

The im­pres­sions are some­times fleet­ing, but many are sub­stan­tial. Mary Gil­more, a fam­ily friend, is re­called with par­tic­u­lar fond­ness.

There is also a mem­o­rable en­counter with H.G. Wells, whom the Fel­low­ship re­ceived as a guest of hon­our dur­ing a visit to Australia.

Quinn has the temer­ity to ques­tion one of Wells’s utopian flights of fancy and re­ceives a mas­sive dose of con­de­scen­sion in re­sponse, only to have him look at her again with a twin­kle in his eye in re­ply to her mildly flir­ta­tious at­tempt to make amends. That’s H.G. all right.

The text bears some traces of the less than ideal con­di­tions un­der which it was com­posed. Quinn at­tempts the oc­ca­sional lit­er­ary flour­ish, notably in the early chap­ter in which she nar­rates the story of her par­ents’ first meet­ing as if she had wit­nessed it her­self, but for the most part she is con­tent sim­ply to get ev­ery­thing down.

One is some­times con­scious of read­ing a work that has been dic­tated, rather than pur­pose­fully shaped into a writ­ten nar­ra­tive. The chronol­ogy jumps around a lit­tle, and some pas­sages de­volve into lists of sig­nif­i­cant peo­ple Quinn has known.

At one point, a char­ac­ter sketch of the writer and ed­i­tor Eric Baume breaks off sud­denly to record the date, April 25, 1967, and the fact that Quinn has just learned of his death the pre­vi­ous day.

But Quinn proves to be an agree­able and un­pre­ten­tious mem­oirist.

Though the text is rough in places, it is in­vari­ably read­able and con­tains any num­ber of in­ter­est­ing anec­dotes.

The ed­i­tors, Stephen and Jill Ire­land, are to be com­mended for the sub­stan­tial vol­ume they have as­sem­bled around Quinn’s man­u­script.

The Years that the Lo­cust hath Eaten has been sup­ple­mented with a good deal of con­tex­tu­al­is­ing his­tor­i­cal ma­te­rial, in­clud­ing bi­o­graph­i­cal pro­files of the book’s most im­por­tant fig­ures, pho­to­graphs, news­pa­per ar­ti­cles, let­ters, and hand­writ­ten po­ems by Gil­more and Roderic Quinn.

In her el­e­gaic final chap­ter, Quinn ex­presses her grat­i­tude at hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced first hand the ‘‘ cli­mate of po­etry’’ that sur­rounded The Bul­letin in the early decades of the last cen­tury and re­flects that ‘‘ my forte was look­ing on’’.

It is a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally mod­est ob­ser­va­tion from a writer who re­veals rel­a­tively lit­tle about her own lit­er­ary as­pi­ra­tions, but the many valu­able rem­i­nis­cences pre­served in this vol­ume sug­gest that Quinn’s self­assess­ment is not un­just. James Ley is a Melbourne-based lit­er­ary critic.

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