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