The novel as essay: Charmian Clift’s writings

George Johnston and Charmian Clift both wanted to write great novels. But they lived in Australia in the 1950s, and all they could achieve in that rather parochial society was some occasional journalism. So they became bohemians, and lived lives like two characters in a novel, which in Clift’s case at least interfered with her creative output. They lived together, and when Johnston divorced his wife, they married. Although they loved each other, this turned out to be a mistake. Johnston won a literary prize, the couple went to England to try to build on his reputation, and found only poverty. They moved to Greece, where it was easier to be poor, wrote books, drank too much, said too many bitter things to one another. A neighbour and friend there was Leonard Cohen, who always remembered with pleasure how supportive the couple were in helping him find his way as poet and novelist. Eventually Johnston won another prize for his novel My Brother Jack and returned to Australia. Clift followed, but all she could find was more journalism. She felt eclipsed by her husband’s success, suffered his growing dislike with increasing pain, and finally she committed suicide.

Ironically enough, in the 40 years since her death Clift has been seen as one of the great masters of the essay, and her work compares favourably in my view with that of Virginia Woolf, Charles Lamb or George Orwell in this genre. Her two books on her life with Johnston in Greece are still popular. Only her origin as an Australian writer from Kiama on the NSW south coast holds her back from gaining her true stature. I’d estimate her the greatest master of the English essay in the last 50 years, and an accomplished novelist whose output was inhibited by her lifestyle, though what work she completed is very readable.

Johnston’s autobiographical trilogy beginning with My Brother Jack has entered the pantheon of Australian literary classics, but it’s probable it is read now mainly by university students ‘doing’ auslit. Then again most great literature gets archived in a similar way. I’ve never read My Brother Jack and I don’t need to know what it’s like growing up in a provincial, insular, restrictive environment where culture is mistrusted and barren materialistic values prevail. Both Johnston and Clift were oppressed by their background in Melbourne and Kiama respectively, and the books on Greece that Clift wrote express the joy of escape. The alcohol abuse and infidelity that were destroying their marriage at the time are not in evidence in these books, nor in anything she wrote until her suicide note.

When she accepted the assignment to write a weekly essay for the Herald in Melbourne and the Sydney Morning Herald in Sydney Clift was probably thinking of the regular income. Writing an essay a week though is hard work, harder work than most office workers know. There were 240 of them 1964-1969. They paint a portrait of Australia in the sixties, when the Beatles were a cause and multiculturalism starting to be a buzz word and Australians first began to wake from their long isolation from the rest of the world. Clift was relegated to the women’s section of the newspaper, and her essays were published along with recipes and knitting patterns for baby clothes. In those days in Australia, ‘women’ were kept separate, even the bars were sexually segregated. So Australian women were the first to realise that a major writer was writing just for them. Clift became a legend. I’ve talked to women who were young in those days who have revealed just how much Clift’s essays meant to them, how liberating, how hopeful the reading of them made them feel.

These essays, under 2,000 words each, are on a great diversity of topics: life in Greece, drinking customs, discrimination against women, nicknames, television, fashion, pop music. Clift writes with great charm, self depreciatory humour and lack of pretension and very much like the talented novelist she was. She sketches in characters and places deftly and concisely, and her observations are light hearted and extremely penetrating and accurate. Most of the essays are very personal, based on her own experiences and recounting her adventures in literature, family life and travel. Again and again she is able to widen the discussion so that she is talking about her society in terms that relate to any society, the people she meets in terms that make them interesting to any student of human nature. Her subjects might appear to be Australian cultural mores of the 60s, but they are much wider than that, and her essays can be read with pleasure and profit by people of all ages and many cultures.

Clift’s essays are probably her most popular work, but that very popularity has made it look as though they are the objects of indiscriminatory enthusiasm. Clift has been adopted by feminists who blame Johnston for her oppression and lack of success rather than looking at other sources of her alcoholism. The literary mandarins don’t accept the essay as a fashionable genre and are too busy writing their own essays on post-structuralism in the post modern novel to appreciate Clift’s essays. Almost everything I’ve read on Clift is a little, ever so subtly, condescending. After all, she wrote essays. For women. In newspapers. And committed suicide. And her writing exposes cultural snobbery like this.

Clift needs a champion from outside Australia (and I hope not a post-post-structualist). She needs to be looked at as a writer, not as a beautiful woman who received a lot of sexual attention and lived a life that shocked conservative people, not as a person whose resources were finally crushed by lack of appreciation, not as the wife and collaborator of another writer. Misrepresentation in her life led to Clift’s self-destruction; misrepresentation after her death has resulted in the kind of attention that can shift the emphasis away from what she achieved and the words she wrote. Charmian Clift ended up writing a four volume novel with herself as the central character: she didn’t know this, and until others recognise the achievement she won’t be fully appreciated. In the meantime I’ll go on reading her essays and celebrating her as a great writer, though that means nothing to her now.
charmian clift 1

1949 High Valley (George Johnston and Charmian Clift)
1953 The Big Chariot (George Johnston and Charmian Clift)
1956 The Sponge Divers (George Johnston and Charmian Clift)
1960 Walk to the Paradise Gardens
1964 Honour’s Mimic

Short Stories
1984 Strong Man from Piraeus (George Johnston and Charmian Clift)

Life in Greece
1958 Mermaid Singing
1959 Peel Me a Lotus

1965 Images in Aspic
1970 The World of Charmian Clift
1990 Trouble in Lotus Land
1991 Being Alone With Oneself

Biography and critical study
1994 Suzanne Chick Searching For Charmian
2002 Nadia Wheatley The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift
2004 Max Brown Charmian and George: The Marriage of George Johnston & Charmian Clift
1991 Graham Rochford From novelist to essayist
1994 Susan J Carson Seeking a life in the literary position

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


3 thoughts on “The novel as essay: Charmian Clift’s writings

    1. I haven’t heard of any. Her two books on Greece are illustrated by Nancy Dignan, there is an edition of her first book of essays illustrated by her son. There may be more details in her biography available here when you search for ‘charmian clift’, it was written by her son’s partner.

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