Barnard was born in Ashfield, Sydney, to Ethel Frances and Oswald Holme Barnard, and was their only surviving child. She had polio as a child and was taught by a governess until she was 10 years old. She then attended the Cambridge School and Sydney Girls High School. After high school, she went to the University of Sydney, from which she graduated with first class honours and the first University Medal for History in 1918. She was offered a scholarship to Oxford, but her father refused her permission to go, and so she trained as a librarian at the Sydney Teachers' College. She worked as a librarian at the Public Library of New South Wales and then the Sydney Technical College until 1935 when she left to write full-time, at the encouragement of her friend, writer and literary critic, Nettie Palmer, and made possible through a small allowance from her father. She wrote to Nettie Palmer at the time that she was seeking "some sort of fulfilment, to run my vital energy into a creative mould instead of just letting it soak into the thirsty sand of a daily round".
She joined the Fellowship of Australian Writers in 1935, of which Flora Eldershaw was President for a couple of terms. During the next five years, she, Flora Eldershaw and Frank Dalby Davison were known as "the triumvirate" for their joint work on political and cultural policy. As well as Flora Eldershaw and Frank Dalby Davison, Marjorie Barnard knew many of the leading writers of her time, including Vance and Nettie Palmer, Miles Franklin, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Eleanor Dark, Xavier Herbert and Patrick White.
Barnard travelled overseas several times, the first time in 1933 with her mother. She loved travel but in 1986 stated that "I think it's dangerous for writers to leave their roots. I am - was - an Australian writer".
In the late 1930s, though she still lived at home, she and Flora Eldershaw took a flat in Potts Point where 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, and it was here that she was able to spend time with Frank Dalby Davison whom she admitted many years later had been her love. She wrote of this relationship to her writer friend, Jean Devanny, "I was deeply in love with him ... We were lovers for eight years ... In 1942 I knew things were coming to an end ... I was, as he said, very naïve". She admitted to Devanny that the break-up of this relationship was the cause of a serious illness.
Her father died in 1940, leaving her with an ailing mother. She returned to library work in 1942, at the Public Library of New South Wales and then the CSIRO. However, her mother's death in 1949 left her 'modestly independent' enabling her to leave work in 1950.
Marjorie Barnard never married, and destroyed essentially all her correspondence. However, several of her correspondents, particularly Nettie Palmer and Jean Devanny, kept her letters to them, and some of these are now held in Australian libraries and archives, such as the National Library of Australia.
She died at Point Clare on the Central Coast of New South Wales, in 1987, aged 89.
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