M. Barnard Eldershaw - Collaborative Life

Collaborative Life

Marjorie Barnard met Flora Eldershaw, who was a year ahead of her, in her first year at the University of Sydney. Marjorie Barnard wrote of their first meeting as being

ot entirely happy. I was the greenest of green 'freshers'. Flora was established in her second year. Chance had given me the locker immediately above hers. Its untidy contents frequently spilled out into her more ordered domain. My then meager person was continually underfoot, and Flora's brown eyes flashed with indignation more often than they smiled. But within the year we were close friends. She widened my horizons and quickened my mind. Later this friendship was to withstand what everyone agrees to be the acid test of collaboration in writing.

While Marjorie Barnard spent most of the 1920s to 1940s living at home with her parents, Flora Eldershaw resided at the schools where she taught. Dale Spender writes that

"with so little encouragement, opportunity - or inclination, given the demands of the day - she and Flora Eldershaw ... still managed to write their classic Australian novel A House is Built (1929), and another, Green Memory (1933)".

However, in 1936, when they were both thirty-nine, Barnard and Eldershaw also took a flat in Potts Point providing them with space for independence. Here, they held regular gatherings which operated something like a literary salon. Many of the leading literary and cultural figures of the time visited the flat. These included Frank Dalby Davison, Xavier Herbert, Leslie Rees, Tom Inglis Moore, Miles Franklin, Vance Palmer and Kylie Tennant.

Literature was not the only subject discussed at their "salon". Guests included peace activists such as Lewis Rodd and Lloyd Ross, and Frank Dalby Davison said that his pamphlet "While freedom lives" grew out of "social discussions at the M. Barnard Eldershaw salon".

Barnard and Eldershaw were not part of the Bohemian circle as practised, for example, by Norman Lindsay, but this was not due to "petty bourgeois morality". Rather, it was because of "their expressed desire to promote the local literary product and force recognition of it from the prevailing cultural establishment". They were, in fact, highly active in promoting Australian writers and Australian literature - through the Fellowship of Australian Writers and other formal and informal activities. This and their approach to writing and criticism

"had the effect of mainstreaming writing by women, incorporating it into the wider body of Australian letters, rather than confining it to the limited range of culturally sanctioned 'feminine' forms like romance and children's writing".

They were both also part of Nettie Palmer's literary circle. She corresponded with and encouraged both of them, and she recognised the importance of their partnership. She wrote

"It isn't easy for an outsider to understand how a literary partnership is carried on but in this case it seems to work well ... Any difference in the characters of the two women doesn't make for a difference in their point of view or values".

The partnership became harder to maintain after Eldershaw moved to Canberra in 1941. However, as well as still providing each other support, they were able to produce their last collaborative novel Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

While it is generally accepted that Barnard was the more expressive writer of the two, and that Eldershaw contributed her acute critical sense, Rorabacher also states that in their early collaborative novels it is impossible to distinguish their separate contributions. Overall, Barnard did more of the creative writing while Eldershaw focused on the structure and development of their major works. However, because Eldershaw was the more outgoing and articulate of the two, it was frequently assumed, at the time, that she was the dominant partner. This did not spoil their partnership, which lasted two decades, bearing testament to the fact that both derived value from it.

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