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Introduction by Drusilla Modjeska

Yes, there will come a time when
These clever, friendly,
Angry, hopeful people
Who wrote, sitting on the bare ground,
Surrounded by the poor and struggling
Will be publicly acclaimed.
        Bertolt Brecht




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1 If you have loved a brave story/Tell it but rarely

Lesbia Harford, poet and feminist, died in 1927 at the age of thirty-six. After her death Nettie Palmer wrote that “her life had always hung on a fine thread, which perhaps made her words seem all the more poignant as if final”.note In so far as Lesbia Harford has been remembered at all, it is too often in the light of her early death. And as Walter Benjamin reminds us, such a death casts a retrospective authority across a life: “A man who died at thirty-five,” he writes, “will appear to remembrance at every point in his life as a man who died at the age of thirty-five.”note And so it has been with Lesbia Harford; it has cast a gloss on her life that is far from accurate. Rather than frail and poignant, her poetry is tough and clear minded. Living with a heart condition, she always knew that her life was likely to be short, but she did not trade on it. Rather than finality, Lesbia Harford's poetry insists on the constancy of change. Her voice, unmistakably her own, speaks as part of the multiplicity of voices speaking about social injustice, hope for revolution and the contradictory experiences of women. Far from being final, Lesbia Harford's poetry is partial both in the sense of being unfinished and of taking sides. She lived her life as if she would have seventy years or more to engage with it both politically and aesthetically. There were sides to be taken and she took them; but she did not have the time to finish many of her poems, a task she assigned to the future.

Lesbia Harford graduated in law from Melbourne University, but she never practised. Instead she worked in textile and clothing factories and joined the International Workers of the World, the radical labour movement better known as the Wobblies. As a hard working woman, her poetry could be seen more as a by-product of her life than a centre to it. Yet she wrote a lot and well. Her clear and courageous voice takes as its subject the factory and the varied experiences of women in work as well as love, and the painful contradictions between the need for love and the desire for independence. In form her poetry moves from an early emphasis on the lyric towards the ballad and the song; from the personal expression of individual experience towards a more proletarian mode, representing the collective life experience and viewpoint of a group. But conditions in Australia in the 1920s were not sympathetic to a protest poet like Lesbia Harford, who gave voice both to her own silence and to the silence of working women.

Despite the current rather reductive fascination with the lives of women writers, frequently in preference to their work, Lesbia


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Harford is barely known. She has been anthologised off and on since her death. But until now there has been only one slim volume of her work. She is known more or less dimly to some poets and critics, beyond that barely at all, although one of her poems, “Periodicity” is sung by the Adelaide band Redgum on their album Virgin Ground: “Women, I say,/ Are beautiful in change,/ Remote, immortal, like the moon they range.” (June 1917.) Her poems, many of them written as songs, raise critical questions about the relationship between popular and literary traditions of writing, the forms of protest poetry and the interconnections between histories of writing, class and feminism. These issues and the necessary re-readings that accompany them, have become central to contemporary critical debates. Rescuing Lesbia Harford and reconstructing something of her life and experience is not simply an act of feminist restoration. Perhaps the overriding reason for her obscurity for so many years is not that she is a poet who speaks with a woman's voice, though I am sure that has something to do with it, but that her writing does not sit comfortably in the perceived traditions and discourses of Australian poetry. “The great stone wall,” as Ken Worpole has recently written in another, though not dissimilar context, “which separates ‘Literature’ from ‘Writing’, then as now, cuts a swathe through any possibility of a common discourse of writing and creates many more cultural blockages and difficulties than it solves.”note Writers who have been obscured cannot simply be fitted into existing canons and histories. The fact of their obscurity challenges those histories.

I first became interested in Lesbia Harford when I was researching Nettie Palmer. Nettie Palmer edited the one slim volume of Lesbia Harford's poetry which has been published. The Poems of Lesbia Harford appeared in 1941 and was one of the first projects to be funded by the Commonwealth Literary Fund in its reconstructed and expanded form. Impressed by the poems, I was also surprised that the C.L.F. had published in wartime a volume of poems clearly by the hand of a revolutionary woman. As Flora Eldershaw and Nettie Palmer's husband Vance were on the advisory board I put it down to their influence despite the conservatism of the rest of the board. Then I came across a letter from Nettie Palmer to Guido Baracchi, a friend and one time lover of Lesbia Harford. Guido Baracchi, along with Nettie Palmer and Miss Clark — the last a friend of Lesbia's who worked in the library at Prince Henry hospital in Sydney — had been pushing to get the poems published since the C.L.F. was expanded in 1939. Nettie Palmer told Guido that the poems were given the grant only because Professor Osborne, S. Talbot Smith and George Mackaness, “three old gentlemen of the censor type … have no


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time to read, which sometimes prevents them from fulfilling their natural function, which is to obstruct. Professor Osborne now says … that if he had read Lesbia's Poems beforehand he would never have consented to their publication. Fortunately Flora is a strong enough character to take all such back-kicks quite calmly and the Board carries on.” Nettie Palmer complained that Professor Osborne was then obstructing a selection of Price Warung's stories. “You see,” she continued, “after the advisory board sits, its findings have always to run the gauntlet of the political committee — Curtin, Scullin, Menzies, and Osborne's veto (of Price Warung) seems to have caught their ear. It's a good thing he hadn't read Lesbia in advance, or he'd have passed on his horror to them.”note

Well might Nettie Palmer have worried about Menzies for he and Lesbia Harford read law together at Melbourne University during the turbulent years leading up to the first conscription debate. Lesbia had been publicly involved in the Victorian Socialist Party, the anti-conscription campaigns and, after 1916, in the I.W.W. But the poems slipped through, and just as well. Or they might have met the same fate as her novel. She tried to get it published in the early twenties. In 1939, after her death, her mother tried again; but nobody was interested. It was considered “too unsympathetic” and has now disappeared.

Intrigued by this glimpse of Lesbia Harford and at a dead end with my casual inquiries, I asked Marjorie Pizer what she knew of her. I knew Marjorie would know something. She is a poet herself, a one-time member of the C.P.A. who with her husband Muir Holburn had edited Freedom on the Wallaby, that excellent anthology of Australian poetry. Imagine my surprise when she told me that she had the original manuscript books from which Nettie Palmer had made her selection. In the three thick exercise books there were dozens of poems. Marjorie and Muir had been lent them many years before by Guido Baracchi and were given them after Nettie's death by Helen Palmer, Nettie's daughter. Having discovered Lesbia Harford while preparing the anthology, they had bought up the last copies of the Poems as they were remaindered. After Freedom on the Wallaby was published in 1953, Marjorie and Muir decided to edit a new collection of Lesbia Harford's poems as the 1941 edition had been a small and rather cautious selection. With two small children and a living to earn, progress was slow, and then in 1960 Muir died suddenly. It was not until 1964 that Marjorie had the heart to return to the project. During 1964 she collected biographical material from people who had known her. Lesbia Harford's fellow student R. G. Menzies, then Prime Minister, sent a formal note through a private secretary merely


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saying that her health seemed poor. Guido Baracchi was much more helpful with detailed reminiscences and the script of a long lecture he had given to the Fellowship of Australian Writers in November 1941. Another fruitful source was her brother, Esmond Keogh, who had briefly joined the I.W.W. in 1916 or 1917, at Lesbia's instigation, the family always said. He subsequently became a doctor and was prominent in cancer research.

In mid 1964 Marjorie Pizer sent a new selection of the poems to Angus & Robertson but it was rejected: “Of course there's no doubt about the quality of the best of them,” Douglas Stewart, the poetry editor, wrote to her, “but others would be ahead of her on the list for the Australian Poets series, and we don't feel the time is ripe for a general ‘rediscovery’ edition.”note He suggested she write about Lesbia for one of the literary magazines. Not surprisingly Marjorie was discouraged and the project lapsed to a back shelf. As she pointed out, writing about her was not as easy as it sounded: there was very little relevant cultural and political history written in the mid sixties. Ian Turner's study of the I.W.W., Sydney's Burning, was published in 1967 but David Walker's Dream and Disillusion, which sets the context of left liberalism in Melbourne during the First World War and just after, was not published until 1976. Most of Lesbia's papers had vanished and even with Esmond Keogh and Guido Baracchi's help, Marjorie had only fragments and clues to work from. Ian Turner, probably through his work on the I.W.W., was also interested in Lesbia Harford at about this time. He too considered a new edition of her poems, but nothing came of it: another busy person, he also died too young.

It was in the mid seventies that Marjorie and I discovered our mutual interest in Lesbia Harford and in response to my urging that she take up the project again, Marjorie asked me to work with her. We have made the selection together with surprisingly little disagreement. We have chosen about a third of the poems in the manuscript collection. A large proportion of the poems we have not included are fragments, earlier workings of poems we have selected, or poems which were started and abandoned and which do not come together as poetry. As Lesbia Harford did not expect to publish more than occasionally and as the time she was able to give to reworking the poetry was itself fragmentary, it has been difficult to know where to draw the line. Where Marjorie Pizer and I have differed has been on its drawing. As a poet Marjorie has been much more confident than I have in the assessment of which poems succeed and which fail as poetry; as a poet she is sensitive to the risk of publishing poems that might detract from the overall impact and worth of the collection. She herself would not want her first attempts and near-misses published. In this she has Lesbia Harford


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on her side. In June 1926, a year before she died, Lesbia wrote to Percival Serle who wanted to include a poem she did not like in his An Australian Anthology:

Your anthology will be read in many places for many years. I would not care to be recalled to the memory of distant friends by the poem you have chosen. It was written one evening in the public library and is merely a versification of a fragment of Heracleitus. The thought, as you say, is eternal but the poem is marked for me by an absence of spontaneity because it was deliberately derivative.

I have only three or four poems in type and they are not favourites of mine. Beside I would not wish any selection to be made from a small body of poems by a person not conversant with my work, even if William Hazlitt himself were to be the selector. You see, I take my poetry seriously, and I am in no hurry to be read.note

As a historian and not a poet I am more brazen and argued for the inclusion of poems which, had she lived, she would undoubtedly have reworked. In a subsequent letter to Percival Serle after she had sent him some other poems she wrote: “Personally I hope old age will bring me leisure for more sustained effort. A poet should still be good at seventy or eighty.”note But she was dead within the year. Unlike Marjorie I am not confident of my assessment of a poem's worth; as a historian I am perhaps too aware of changes in taste and literary evaluation and in the historically and politically charged nature of the seemingly innocent activity of selection. While these differences may explain any lapses and inconsistencies in this selection, in the end we agreed to err on the side of too many rather than too few and let readers make their own evaluations. We also decided on a chronological arrangement of the poems. Thematic approaches proved impossibly misleading as any choice of theme ultimately became arbitrary. Too many of her poems bridge too many themes, and to force the poems into categories would be to deny their many-voiced strengths. We did not want to set up divisions, far less hierarchies, in her poetry. A chronological arrangement, it seemed to us, would best allow a sense of her development as a poet, her struggle with poetic form as well as a glimpse of a biographical portrait, the interaction of style, voice and ways of living, without limiting the possible readings of her poetry.

Marjorie Pizer has done most of the hard work of matching the various versions of the poems against each other, and matching the published with the unpublished versions. She has kept to the original version where there are differences between unpublished and posthumously published poems, and to the latest manuscript


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version where there is more than one. In preparing the poems for this edition, she has tried to make as few alterations to the original punctuation as possible. Sometimes Lesbia Harford forgot stops at the end of verses; occasionally she over-punctuated. She had a habit of using a comma and a dash together. Marjorie has added punctuation to make the meaning clear when necessary. She has removed unnecessary commas, and with the comma/dash combination has deleted either a dash or a comma, whichever seemed appropriate. Basically the punctuation is Lesbia Harford's.

I have taken over responsibility for the introduction, a task I could not have undertaken without the groundwork done by Marjorie in the early sixties, in particular her correspondence with Esmond Keogh and Guido Baracchi. We are indebted to their executors for permission to quote from this correspondence. Another debt I should acknowledge here is to Lesley Parsons for permission to use and quote from her B.A. thesis at Melbourne University, “The Quest for Lesbia Harford”. Lesley Parsons made her very interesting study in 1976 without knowing of Marjorie Pizer and the manuscript poems. Coming to this project with the scantiest of information, I have been generously helped in my subsequent researches. What I have made of the materials is, of course, my own responsibility. It should be said, however, that few traces remain of the life and even the work of this remarkable woman. My attempt to reconstruct something of her experience is very hesitant. My research has been dogged by silences and dead ends. Yet despite the necessarily unfinished nature of this task, I hope these poems will speak to contemporary interests and contribute to a socialist and feminist re-reading of Australian cultural history.




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2 I do hate the folk I love/They hurt so

Lesbia Venner Keogh was born in Brighton, Victoria, on 9 April 1891, the first child of Edmond Joseph and Helen Beatrice Keogh. This much is known from her birth certificate. For an outline of the family history beyond these bare facts we have to rely on her brother Esmond's account; it was an account given late in his life, forty years after Lesbia had died, by a man who confessed himself “woefully ignorant of family history”.note For a more intimate reading of this troubled history we have to rely on the clues within the poetry, in silences and between the lines.

Lesbia Harford's mother, born Helen Beatrice Moore, was the granddaughter of a Church of England clergyman, the Rev. Henry Moore, who was a grandson of the Earl of Drogheda. According to Esmond, Lesbia was neither interested in nor impressed by this fact although from time to time proofs came from Debrett's for her mother to correct. The 1908 edition of Debrett's lists Helen Moore and her children as a collateral branch of the family. Their address is given as Wangrabell, Malvern, Victoria. This last piece of information was incorrect. By 1908 the elegant Malvern home had been sold and Helen Moore abandoned with four children. Several decades earlier her own mother had been widowed and left with nothing. She became postmistress at Bruthen, a tiny town in Gippsland. Esmond thought that his grandmother got the job through some sort of influence or patronage because she was “a very amateurish telegraphist, shaky on morse code, before telephones existed”. He remembers reading to her during her last years and described her as a “cultured woman”. Clearly she was resourceful too, a talent she passed on to her daughter, along with confidence in education as the way out of such difficulties and in the arts as a way of enduring them. It is hardly surprising that Lesbia Harford was unimpressed by her aristocratic heritage. She was more interested in another of her mother's relatives, Benjamin Kidd, a Victorian social philosopher. “This irritated me,” says Esmond Keogh, “because I thought that sort of thing was rubbish, that Benjamin Kidd was most likely as big a bore as Herbert Spencer, and that Lesbia as a socialist ought to think so too.” Benjamin Kidd was a conservative but not simply a bore. He was a British social philosopher who made a name for himself outside the universities where he was never really accepted, with his Social Evolution in 1894. Apart from Lesbia Harford's curiosity about philosophy, politics and morality, she would have been interested in his argument about the religious versus the rational and his somewhat bizarre treatment of the woman question in The Science of Power (1918).




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Edmond Joseph and Helen Beatrice Keogh had four children in quick succession: after Lesbia in 1891, Esmond was born in 1895, Estelle in 1897 and Gerald in 1898. They were born to a comfortable existence in a respectable bourgeois suburb of Melbourne: “There were maids and nurses,” Esmond tells us, “and a nursery, and I remember a movie of a train being shown at a children's party.” The money, while it lasted, came from Edmond Joseph Keogh. He was the son of a wealthy man who lived in a mansion on St Kilda Road. On Lesbia's birth certificate, Edmond Keogh's occupation was given as financial agent. He survived the depression of the early 1890s, but in 1900 was bankrupt and lost everything. There was no help to be found from the grandfather on St Kilda Road. He died at about the same time, leaving a large estate and a large number of warring beneficiaries. The result was that the lawyers made a lot of money, but not Edmond Joseph Keogh: “My mother,” wrote Esmond, “whom my grandfather apparently did not like, probably because she was not a Roman Catholic, though she turned before marriage, was left £2000, a considerable sum in those days. She was regarded by the others as having been cut off with a shilling, but as she got the cash, did better than most of them. In any case, my father got nothing, and took to drink, leaving my mother with four children to support. He cleared off to Western Australia, where for years he had a labourer's job on the rabbit proof fence… I think occasionally he would send a few pounds to mother. He enlisted in the Camel Corps in the first war and thereafter would appear very occasionally, always mildly sozzled, but never in any way objectionable.”

And so, in 1900 or soon after, Helen Keogh was left alone with four children, no house, no income and very probably debts. It is not clear exactly when her husband left. The photo of him with Lesbia suggests he may not have left immediately after his bankruptcy. Or perhaps it was taken on a visit. The drama of the separation has begun. She is twelve perhaps, maybe younger. In any case neither the marriage nor the £2000 lasted long. Helen Keogh supported herself and the children through a variety of jobs. According to Esmond one of her first jobs was looking after four children whose parents had been killed in an accident. The children, Esmond remembers, were roughly the same age as the Keogh children and came from a family which was well enough off to afford seaside holidays. Esmond remembers it cheerfully; but for Helen Keogh it meant eight children to mother, one of them with a debilitating heart condition.

The glimpse we get of Helen Keogh is of a strong, resourceful and self sacrificing woman. She told Esmond that she was determined


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the children would get the education they would have got had they stayed at Malvern. It was through education that they were to hold onto the class advantages she had expected for them in marrying Edmond Keogh, and which her own mother had had to struggle to give her. But in her day, of course, there were fewer opportunities for women to gain professional qualifications, and she was living the consequences of that. At least three of the children got the education she hoped for: Lesbia qualified in law, Esmond in medicine and Estelle in nursing. Nothing is known of what happened to Gerald. But in the case of Lesbia the heightened awareness of class during her adolescence was undoubtedly a factor in her radicalism, her unease in accepting what she saw as bourgeois privilege and her decision to work in the clothing industry. There is no record of Helen Keogh's reaction to this; perhaps it was enough to know that Lesbia would have the option of returning to a professional career—which she did. In the last year of her life she was articled to a firm of solicitors in Melbourne. After Lesbia died, her mother was proud of the tributes from the Trades Hall.

In April 1900 Lesbia Keogh began school at Clifton, a Brigidine convent in Glen Iris, but she was withdrawn almost immediately, presumably because of her father's bankruptcy. There is no further record of her schooling until 1903, when she returned to Clifton, remaining there until 1906. In 1907 she moved to the Loreto convent, Mary's Mount in Ballarat, where she boarded until her matriculation year in 1909. Estelle was also sent to Loreto convent in 1907 while, according to Esmond, the boys went to a “small convent boarding school”. Esmond speculated about the fees. He did not think it likely that relatives paid, though Miss Winifred Keogh, a first cousin whom Lesley Parsons interviewed in 1976, thought that one of the Keogh uncles, a doctor in South Yarra, helped Helen out. She remembered that the children were sent to various paternal relatives in the holidays. Esmond suggested that Helen might have managed to organise some fee reduction; as the two girls and Esmond were clever and came from a large Catholic family this could well have been the case. According to Winifred Keogh one of the Loreto nuns at St Mary's Mount was a Keogh cousin.

“About 1912,” Esmond's narrative continues, “mother managed to gather us together again. She established what was called a ‘Nurses Home’, a combined employment agency and boarding house for trained nurses. It was better than a boarding house because most of the time the nurses were away looking after patients—they boarded in the ‘Home’ only between cases. Still it was, in effect, a boarding house and my mother did all the work, including the cooking, except for a char and a washerwoman. It


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wasn't, I am sure, a very profitable business. I was then a day boy at Melbourne Grammar, on a scholarship which didn't cover all the fees, and each quarter would have to go to an Uncle with the money for the bill to ask him to write a cheque for the amount (to have paid the school in cash would have been unthinkable). This only to show that there was nothing in the bank, and mother managed from week to week.” Helen Keogh was apparently still running a boarding house in 1939 when she was corresponding with Nettie Palmer about Lesbia's poems and the now lost novel. By then it seems to have become a modestly successful venture.

Lesbia Keogh's early family experience is reminiscent of Henry Handel Richardson's. Richardson's father died when she was nine; the family had already moved from wealth to poverty and her mother ran a post office to support the children. It was a common tale during the years of unstable development of capitalism in late nineteenth century Australia and little social welfare. But unlike Henry Handel Richardson, Lesbia Harford has left only the obliquest record of her response. Esmond comments in passing that their father's occasional visits were, he suspected, “a bit of a nuisance” to Lesbia, as they were to him. His silence on the subject suggests he did not consider it an issue. Lesbia has only one poem which makes direct reference to her father. “Fatherless” begins: “I've had no man/ To guard and shelter me,/ Guide and instruct me/ From mine infancy.” (1916–17.) Reading this at the most superficial level, one could point out that she was about ten when her father left. A clever sensitive child, and frail, she was remembered by Winifred Keogh as the favoured daughter. As a child she had a sense of herself as an intellectual being, winning a prize in 1901 for an essay in an English children's magazine. Later, according to Winifred Keogh, Lesbia's father boasted about her poems and sent copies of them to his friends. Whatever his domestic role, he had lived with her during the formative years of her childhood and at that age she would have been very much aware of the loss and its impact on her mother and the younger children. Of the unconscious effects we can only speculate. “Fatherless” ends:

I have gone free
Of manly excellence
And hold their wisdom
More than half pretence

For since no male
Has ruled me or has fed
I think my own thoughts
In my woman's head.




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This seemingly simple poem throws up a number of possible readings. It can be read as a comic comment on the posturings of men, the gap between ideology and reality. But there are less comic possibilities. When her poetry was at its most concerned with love and sexuality in 1914 and 1915 the only response to her father is one of silence. What is not said can be as significant as what is said. Her pain at her rejection by him turned, perhaps, into her rejection of him. Even Guido Baracchi, a lover and a friend, thought that he was dead. And in a very real sense she had had to negotiate the terms of her emerging adulthood without reference to a father. Worse, she had to make that negotiation in the knowledge of a father who had abandoned her. The poem suggests that no father would have been easier, allowing her to speak from beyond that emotional entanglement and the needs and desires it throws up. And of course the fact that she and her mother and the younger children managed as well as they did, in a household focused on women, did give her an enormous strength and a wry, slightly detached amusement: “I think my own thoughts/ In my woman's head.” But also a bravado which thinly disguises the pain, for no relationship, least of all one as complex as that between father and daughter, is unambiguous. In Lesbia Harford's case the real father failed to come anywhere near the symbolic ideal. Whatever his actual role in the family before 1900, Lesbia's realisation of this failure came abruptly and traumatically at the approach to puberty. Look at the photo of the two: her eyes straight ahead, his cast down at the hand he is holding. The oblique testimony of her poetry is that this break and the accompanying sense of betrayal and abandonment was dizzyingly painful. From it she developed a certain toughness, but also a vulnerability that dogged her all her life. Guido Baracchi remembers her as “very straightforward indeed. She would never concede anything that she did not thoroughly agree, she'd just contradict it.” He also described her as “very Irish-Australian, you know, very warm and romantic”, and these two aspects of her personality and the contradiction they represent speak throughout the poems.

As a young woman Lesbia Harford took a stand for free love and for many years she lived an exemplary independence with various lovers. Since adolescence she had been interested in feminism and the woman question. Her earliest poems use the image of love as a tyrant ripping her from the safety of childhood. Heterosexual love is linked with abandonment and betrayal. Other poems long for “flight from home and friends/ And sweet desire” (27.7.17). Her first love affair, or at least what seems to have been her first, serious love affair, was with a woman, an intense and absorbing relationship which lasted in some form until her death.


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But in her poems to Katie Lush, as much as to Guido Baracchi, she works and reworks that contradictory set of desires and emotions between love and independence. Such contradictory needs and the relentless pushing at them are to be found in the work of many women writers. Their appearance in Lesbia Harford's work owes something of their specificity to those crucial early experiences: the desertion of the favoured daughter by the father in the years leading up to the menarche, forcing the adolescent girl who had already identified herself with intellectual and hence masculine interests into closer identity with the mother whom, day after day as she approached her own womanhood, she saw bravely enduring the unendurable yet also the source of love and of continuity, and of education, a strong indomitable character. All her adult life she was sensitive to the intersecting oppressions of class and gender. Her friends were mostly women; her most constant support came from her mother and from Katie Lush. She championed her mother, always, yet experienced herself, in another poem that can be read ambiguously, “sun-darkened by the shining of her love” (14.6.25). Little wonder that she hated the boarding house. Esmond was puzzled by this, seeing it perhaps as an unaccustomed snobbery rather than as a reaction to a symbol, an ever present reminder of that painful conflict between identity with and a never acknowledged rejection of her imperfect mother.

For Lesbia Harford these conflicts and the accompanying struggle for independence were heightened by her physical condition. She was born with a defect of the heart valves. She was what would now be called a blue baby, a condition these days remedied with fairly straightforward surgery. But the technique was not developed until the mid 1940s. Her blood was never fully oxygenated and she became breathless with only moderate exertion. It was a condition that grew worse as she grew older. Even as a child her mobility was severely restricted. Nettie Palmer, six years older than Lesbia, remembers her at a children's party in the days of Wangrabell:

I remember seeing her at a children's party with her sister. The sister ran about like the rest of us; but the dark-eyed little girl who sat quite still, looking on, her dark hair waving round her like a cape — that was Lesbia. We were too shy to talk to her, and we never guessed she might be lonely.note

The most immediate effects of her condition were her restricted mobility and, as a child, a greater than usual dependence on home. She could not walk far without resting, she was dependent on help with physical tasks which would barely be noticed by a person with


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normal health. Yet as an adult Lesbia Harford worked for months on end in the clothing industry. Her mother told Nettie Palmer in 1939: “Her will to overcome her delicate health and to do just as others did was so strong that for months she left home at a little after seven in the morning and spent the long day at a Power Machine.”note She often worked with May Brodney, a close friend and another activist in the radical labour movement. May's husband, Bob Brodney, remembers that May sometimes covered for Lesbia and kept her rate up with some of her own work.note That she may have been dependent on help from sister workers does not detract from the achievement. Contrast her to Beatrice Webb who worked in a clothing factory in the East End of London in 1888 to a fanfare of admiration from the London press and London society. Miss Beatrice Potter, as she was then, a healthy woman of just thirty, lasted, even on the most generous estimate, barely three weeks. My estimate from the diaries is that she worked for two days. Her diary for those two days is graphic in its description of the exhaustion of an admittedly longer working day.note Lesbia Harford, in contrast, worked over several years, not continuously but often for months at a stretch. Even Guido Baracchi, inspired by her example, found a job in a boot factory but couldn't take more than a few weeks, “the conditions”, he said, “being far less to my liking than those of Pentridge gaol”.note

Lesbia's determination not to give in to her ill health emerges from every account of her adult life. She never hid behind her illness, or used it as a defence against the conflicts and crises of a social and public life. If she hid anywhere it was in her poetry which, particularly before 1917, was intensely personal and which she was reluctant to publish more than occasionally, and then under a watchful eye. There she both spoke her feelings and kept them under wraps in three neatly ruled exercise books. It was the novel, not the poems, that she was anxious to publish. The novel with its narrative structure, its plots and gendered characters, offers a mode of writing which allows the woman writer to speak while maintaining a certain distance from the text. With poetry there are no such veils. The relationship between the writer and her writing is more exposed. The poet speaks, however ambiguously, in her own voice.

Lesbia Harford's poetry voices her struggle with her heart condition and the consequent sense of confinement: “Open my window/ And look at the stars./ Then my heart breaks through/ These prison bars” (December 1911). Her physical flaw was in her heart, the symbolic site of love and courage. Her vulnerability lay in the space that was left for doubt. She spoke of herself with the “heart of a bird” and she used the image of the fuchsia, the


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hedgerow flower with the blueish tinge frequently noticeable on her hands and lips, never the alluring rose, traditional image of female sexuality: “No loveliness of mine/ That comes and goes/ Wildfuchsia-like,/ Need blind you to the rose.” (6.9.17.) The other side of the image of doubt is one of strength; the flawed heart must be guarded and itself protects an image of a self that cannot be touched by the merely physical:

And my heart is a stream that seems asleep
But the tranquil waters run strong and deep;
.…
He may come, my lover, and lie on the brink
And gaze at his image and smile and drink
While the hidden waters run strong and free
Unheeded, unguessed at, the soul of me.
(5.6.18.)

She lived in the shadow of her illness: “Terror crouches always at the heart of things.” (4.10.15.) In the end, of course, it killed her. She did not rest enough, she fought against her condition despite the possibility of “brief years of pain”. After the failure of her short-lived marriage, which proved no solution to insoluble problems, she moved back to her mother. It was becoming harder to work and keep house. In 1926 she was articled to Paul Noonan's chambers in Melbourne. Her mother wrote to Nettie Palmer: “that last year completely tired her out as she had to attend regularly or lose the year. She finished the year on Friday and on the following Monday developed an attack of pneumonia from which she died, the strain had been too great.”note She died on 5 July 1927 in St Vincent's Hospital. The death certificate records phthisis and myocardial failure as the cause of death.

Esmond was in his last year of medicine and was constantly with her in the ward. According to him she developed acute bacterial endocarditis due to infection in the damaged heart valves. It was very painful. “Her death was very distressing,” Esmond wrote to Marjorie Pizer, “but I won't inflict the distressing details on you.” Another person who stayed with her to the end was Katie Lush. Guido Baracchi reports that “Katie was knocked rotten when Lesbia died … I think life for her without Lesbia would be not nearly so good.”note Katie Lush herself died eight years later, in 1935, after a long illness. Lesbia Harford is buried in the Methodist section of Booroondara cemetery, Kew. Neither Lesley Parsons nor I could find any sign of a headstone.




  ― 18 ―

3 My every act has reference to man/Some human need

When Lesbia Keogh enrolled at Melbourne University in 1912, Katie Lush had just started as philosophy tutor at Ormond College. There is no record of where they met; possibly through philosophy which Lesbia took in 1912 and 1913 as part of her law degree; possibly through the Princess Ida Club, the University women's club which met regularly for discussions and social events. Lesbia certainly joined the club which included feminism among its discussions. The first of Lesbia's poems to Katie Lush appears in the manuscript book at the end of 1912. In one of her longer poems, dated December 1912, she describes Katie in the public library. It is an ambitious poem exploring the contradictory experiences of a successful academic woman. Always aware of her position, on the one hand privileged, on the other precarious, the woman as scholar is daily confronted with the images of women and sexuality which are a backbone of the liberal arts: “Tales of an uncrowned queen who fed her child/ On poisons,” images which raise for a woman problems of a sort that were not then admitted to academic discourse:

Suddenly afraid
She seemed to see her beauty in a flare
Of light from hell. A throng of devils swayed
Before her, devils that had learned to wear
The shape of scholar, poet, libertine.
They smiled, frowned, beckoned, swearing to estrange
Kate from reflection that her soul had been
Slain by her woman's body or would change
From contact with it to a thing unclean.
Woman was made to worship man, they preached,
Not God, to serve earth's purpose not to roam
The heavens of thought.… A factory whistle screeched.
   Xmas, 1912

It is also a poem that foreshadows the love poems to Katie Lush, the erotic glimpse as Lesbia watched her sleeve slide up, “Standing on tiptoe, head back, eyes and arm/ Upraised”.

Lesbia Harford's academic record is at Melbourne University. She did well in philosophy and English. She passed all her law subjects except equity which she failed in 1915. Not many women read law at that time. Joan Rosanove who read law with Lesbia estimates that five went through with them.note A few others, including


  ― 19 ―
Christian Jollie-Smith, had just graduated. Esmond Keogh thought she read law because she had friends who were reading law. Nettie Palmer attributed it to her political commitment; Lesley Parsons to the scarcity of women in the profession. Esmond's suggestion seems rather flighty for Lesbia, and besides she probably had as many or more friends in the Arts faculty. It is much more likely that it was a decision influenced by her feminism and her interest in social reform which were already evident while she was at school. Her mother's aspirations for her were probably another factor in the decision. Both Helen Keogh's daughters were professionally trained. Her confidence in education was typical of that generation of women whose class position had been affected by the instability of colonial capitalism at the turn of the century. Helen Keogh also knew the instability of marriage. Her confidence in education for her daughters was not, as her mother's had been for her, based on class and marriage, on making a “good marriage”, but on a notion of professional independence. When it came to supporting four children, a genteel education in the liberal arts was not much help.

Lesbia Harford's academic results are the most concrete record of her years at the university. Her poems speak another more equivocal testimony. The first poems in the manuscript books are dated 1910, the year after she left school. They increase slowly in number during 1912, 1913 and 1914, reaching a quantitative peak in 1915. Although she did not publish until 1921, poetry had become an important part of her life. The Melbourne poems, written between 1914 and 1918, speak of her evolving radicalism and its interconnection with the social and psycho-social experiences of gender. The two relationships which touched her the most deeply, emotionally and intellectually, during those years of war and class conflict were with Katie Lush and Guido Baracchi. Guido Baracchi has left his account of Lesbia Harford, but in this narrative Katie Lush is almost entirely silent. Although she is well remembered, the only words of hers that I could find are in the Socialist of August 1917, in a letter defending Guido against the Professorial Board. The Board was censuring him for an article in the Melbourne University Magazine. Subtitled “Capital and the State”, the article was on Guild Socialism which was popular among Melbourne's left intelligentsia at the time. What offended was his statement that the war was not Australia's concern: “Essentially it is a European war, fought by the Allies against Germany to maintain the balance of European power.”note There was a storm of protest in the Argus and at the university.

Katie Lush's long and elegant letter was one of the few voices from the university public in his support.note In a period of wartime patriotism and acute paranoia within the university and the


  ― 20 ―
bourgeoisie about the increase in radical activism, it was courageous to challenge the Professorial Board. As a tutor and a woman, Katie Lush's position would not have been secure. Alexander Boyce Gibson, Professor of Philosophy at Melbourne University from 1935 to 1966, was an undergraduate there in 1917. He remembered Katie Lush as “a very tall rather dominating woman with red hair and a mind like a knife.… She was fairly prominent in University left wing politics. She had any amount of courage … in espousing unpopular causes.”note Katie and Lesbia made a striking pair, the one tall and red headed, the other small and dark. Together they were members of the Victorian Socialist Party, of Frederick Sinclaire's Free Religious Fellowship and the anti-conscription campaigns. Mrs J. H. Warren who took over Katie Lush's teaching when she died in 1934 also remembers her as an impressive teacher. She too commented on the striking contrast between the two women. Katie Lush was rather reserved, she said, “but I think had a quiet fund of good humour and joy which she would share with intimate friends”.note Her reputation as an inspired teacher is mentioned by most people who remember her. Her nephew Sir George Lush says that it was commonly thought that Katie's students were the only ones who really understood the difficult subject of logic.note

While the relationship between Katie and Lesbia lasted Lesbia's lifetime, their affair seems to have been brief. It was intense and passionate but dogged by the social difficulties of a lesbian relationship in a conservative town at a conservative time. “Would that I were Sappho,/ Greece my land, not this!” (4.4.15.) The poems speak the pain of social constraint and the inevitable hesitations which seem to have come more from Katie than from Lesbia. For Lesbia, Katie was enormously important. She arrived at the university with a strong but naive interest in politics and philosophy. Her adolescence had aroused this interest through the immediacy of experience, but had kept her isolated from intellectual influences that could satisfy her. The nuns had failed her; her mother was not an intellectual; Esmond was too young. She was exactly ready for Katie Lush.

The first glimpse we get of Lesbia Keogh as an intellectual is in 1908 at the Loreto convent when an essay of hers appears in the school magazine. Despite its adolescent fervour, the essay is recognisably Lesbia. It is a tribute to the founder of the order of Loreto sisters, an Elizabethan nun named Mary Ward. Lesbia was attracted to Mary Ward's struggle for the emancipation of women from the purely contemplative orders for pastoral work. It was a story that combined the struggle for social reform with personal bravery and moral conviction:




  ― 21 ―



  ― 22 ―

How one loves her true feminism shown in this zealous defence of her sex.… Fervour is not placed in feelings, but in a will to do well, which women may have as well as men. And I hope in God it will be seen that women in time to come will do much.note

It is telling that Lesbia Keogh admired Mary Ward for her will, her ability to act on intellectual conviction. While Lesbia Harford's poetry testifies to a powerfully experienced emotional life, it also speaks, as does her life, of an intellectual and moral decisiveness. She lived out the intellectual implications of her politics, as she assessed them, by working in the clothing industry despite the danger to her health.

In March 1915 she gave the weekly sermon to the Free Religious Fellowship, a group set up around the socialist unitarian minister Frederick Sinclaire: “We are people who are dominated by theories of life,” she said. “We think that certain ways of living are wrong. The life of a typist, the life of a clerk, the life of a merchant, a doctor, a lawyer, seem to some of us pretty well immoral.” Later she did modify this rather reductive view of the professions and class collaboration. But in 1915 it was of pressing importance to her. She was speaking to a group of people who did, on the whole, make too easy an accommodation between their way of life and their politics. Sinclaire's Free Religious Fellowship was attended by Fabians, Guild Socialists and Melbourne's literary and intellectual groups disillusioned with the Labour Party. It was a left liberal and predominantly bourgeois association. “Our interest in morality is inclined to be intellectual, and is not translated into action,” she warned.note At the end of that year she graduated into the clothing factory and the I.W.W.

The Free Religious Fellowship made an impact on her brother who thought it equally influential on Lesbia; but Guido Baracchi said that she “did not go much for the Fellowship” and Esmond admitted that she was mostly interested in the play readings. Certainly by the time Guido and Lesbia were lovers she had moved a considerable distance from it. However in 1915 she was still concerned with the philosophical bases of morality rather than direct industrial action. Her sermon indicates that while she had given up her faith in Catholicism, opposing the oppressive hierarchies of the Church and its denial of sexuality, she maintained an interest in the philosophy and spirituality of early Christianity. Religious imagery runs through all her poetry, an ambiguous vein. The sermon argues for the necessity of two sorts of morality — one coming from Tolstoy whom she admired as “the most striking example of a man who let his theories govern his


  ― 23 ―
mode of life”, the other from Christ. Tolstoy offered a private code of morality while Christ offered a universal morality. Both, she argued, were necessary for a moral and spiritual life. She maintained this balance of oppositions incorporating it into her practice of socialism. In many ways she echoed an ideal of feminism and socialism that had been dominant among Owenite groups earlier in the nineteenth century. As Barbara Taylor suggests in Eve and the New Jerusalem, it was not an inheritance which sat comfortably with later Marxist socialisms.note

Guido Baracchi's recollections of Lesbia Harford between 1916 and 1918 cover the period of her move towards Marxism and socialism. The conjuncture of her move from the university to the factory and his influence resulted in her greater emphasis on economic and class analysis. Guido Baracchi returned to Melbourne University to read law in 1914 after a year at the London School of Economics where he studied the economic bases of capitalism. He remembers reading Marx's Capital to Lesbia in 1916, the year they became lovers. He “quickly conceived a profound respect for the original mind and revolutionary spirit of this law graduate”.note She had already experienced the factory, working between school and university and during holidays to pay her way.

Guido Baracchi's recollections of Lesbia Harford are interesting because he has left two versions separated by the differing perspectives of twenty years. The first was a speech to the Fellowship of Australian Writers in 1941 just after the Poems were published, the other an interview with Marjorie Pizer in 1964. The details remain much the same; her involvement in the conscription campaigns, her work in the factories, her personal courage and energy. He remembers her speaking night after night against conscription until “her exhausted heart and throat finally landed her in a Melbourne hospital”. There she was ordered to bed for total rest. But, Guido continues, “she bribed a maid to bring her clothes, donned them and, like the Arabs, silently stole away, only to break the silence the very next night from a soap box”.note But in his analysis there are marked differences. In 1941 Guido Baracchi claimed Lesbia Harford as a Marxist, even a Leninist. In 1964 he admitted that she would never have joined the C.P.A., that she was certainly not a Leninist. He told Marjorie Pizer that she was attracted to the anarchism and syndicalism of the I.W.W. and could never have accepted party hierarchies and authoritarianism. In 1941 Guido Baracchi was speaking immediately after the poems had been published and he wanted to correct the imbalance created by Nettie Palmer's introduction to the Poems. Nettie Palmer had chosen the more respectable poems and was at pains to insert Lesbia into a


  ― 24 ―
view of Australian literature concerned more with nationalism than with class. She does not mention the I.W.W., referring vaguely to post-war “struggles for a better world” that engaged Lesbia. Guido Baracchi in contrast tried to claim her as part of the Communist tradition and a radical cultural history. Although she might have had doubts about the theory of surplus value, he said, “she had already realised … the far reaching implications of Marx's words about the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and with this, the international character of the capitalist regime”. In 1941 he took this to mean that she was really a Leninist whereas in 1964 he admits that it was equally an underpinning of her membership in the I.W.W.: “She was a sort of wobbly type of girl. The idea of a strictly disciplined organisation did not really appeal to her.” He had called his 1941 paper Rebel Girl after the Wobbly song writer Joe Hill's famous song. To him she was, “like a lot of us then, a romantic revolutionary”.note

Guido Baracchi credits Lesbia Harford with making a Wobbly of him. He joined the I.W.W. in 1917. In 1918 he was convicted of making statements against recruiting in a speech on the Yarra Bank. He was given a £50 fine on each charge or three months gaol. Lesbia, he said, “took great pains to see that I should go to gaol … She was quite right … so I went to gaol. She was a great help to me.”note Betty Roland, who later lived with Guido for many years, says that his father, the government astronomer, brought him roast chicken but he wouldn't accept it, an advantage over the other prisoners.

When Guido came out of gaol, Lesbia had moved to Sydney. Their affair had already ended, painfully for Lesbia when he married someone else. He was married by Frederick Sinclaire just before the second referendum. His wife had opposed his going to gaol and when he came out she had left for Sydney. Guido followed her and there he also saw Lesbia. After that they lost touch, meeting only occasionally; “Old memories waken old desires/ Infallibly.…, But we'll not think/ When some stray gust/ Relumes the flicker of desire,/ That fuel of circumstance could make/ A furnace of our fire.” (24.3.22.) It was a relationship in which he had benefited far more than she from the ethos of free love. “My loves are free to do the things they please/ By day, or night” (19.10.17), she wrote in one poem as the relationship was ending. Two weeks later, distanced from her confident self, bitter with self doubt and the pain of rejection, she wrote of herself in the third person: “And all her joy is blackest pain,/ And all her love is bitter woe” … “She held her womanhood in scorn.” (30.10.17.)

The precise dates of Lesbia Harford's membership of the I.W.W. are not clear. She does not appear on the files of members


  ― 25 ―



  ― 26 ―
which were seized by police in mid 1917, although Guido Baracchi counts her membership much earlier. Whatever the formal date of her membership, she was moving in those circles in 1916. The I.W.W., which had had only a handful of members in 1914, gained considerable support during 1916 and 1917 as the radical labour movement became increasingly hostile to the compromises and retreats of the Labour Party. Australia had entered the war with comparatively little dissent, but by mid war the shaky semblance of unity broke into bitter and overt class conflict fuelled by the suppression of the Easter Rebellion in Ireland, by the attempts to introduce conscription, by worsening economic conditions and, later, by the revolutions in Russia. By 1916 the I.W.W.'s refusal to be implicated in a bloody and imperialist war and their call for direct action was attracting working class activists and disaffected working people.

Lesbia Harford joined the I.W.W. on this upsurge through Percy Laidler, a friend who ran a bookshop in Melbourne. Her Tolstoian principle of living her beliefs in action had taken her back into the workshops and factories exactly as the I.W.W. slogan for Direct Action was at its most powerful. She too had experienced the political compromise of the Labour Party and the inertia of a left liberalism floundering on nationalism. In this context her membership cannot be considered remarkable but it was certainly courageous. Under the Unlawful Association Act, introduced after the 1916 conscription referendum, membership in the I.W.W. was punishable by six months imprisonment with hard labour. The clothing factories took their toll, but for Lesbia Harford six months hard labour could well have been fatal.

In 1916 Lesbia Keogh and Percy Laidler ran a discussion group above Laidler's shop. Among the Wobblies who attended was Norman Jeffery who wrote to Marjorie Pizer about Lesbia in 1964. He was clearly ambivalent about a woman like Lesbia being involved in a revolutionary movement. He described “listening to Lesbia on how to write and discerning good from bad writing. With this was mixed our personal views on the content of the socialist trade union and I.W.W. press … It didn't do any of us much good but it was interesting for a bloke like me.” But, he said, she “was liked by the Melbourne I.W.W. boys who knew her”.note In 1918 she moved to Sydney where she lived with Tom Glynn's wife. Tom Glynn was one of the twelve Wobblies on long sentences in Long Bay gaol. They had been convicted of arson in a case in which most of the evidence against them was on the word of men who later confessed themselves perjurers. Lesbia corresponded with another of the twelve, Bob Besant, also doing ten years, and taught French to another. “We'll mourn each other at prison


  ― 27 ―



  ― 28 ―
gates,” she wrote. “These boys are splendid as mountain eagles,/ But mountain eagles have eagle mates.” (18.7.17.) She continued working in clothing factories, part of the “invisible people” who go to work at seven each day making skirts “for great big women/ Amazons who've fed and slept/ Themselves inhuman”:

There must be tremendous tucks
On those round bellies.
Underneath the limbs will shake
Like wine-soft jellies.
(1917)

In Sydney she also worked in domestic service, including, she said, a job with the Fairfax newspaper family. In a poem entitled “Miss Mary Fairfax” she describes Miss Mary checking the maids' work: “If the table's white, she does not see/ Roughened hands that once were ivory.” (4.7.19.)

At the 1920 N.S.W. state election, the radical labour movement had sufficient strength to make the imprisonings an election issue and force the new Labor government to appoint a royal commission to investigate the charges of perjury. The release of all but two was recommended and on 3 August 1920 Bob Besant and Tom Glynn were among the ten released. It had been thought that Lesbia and Bob would marry, but instead, on 23 November 1920, she married Pat Harford, an unsuccessful artist on the fringe of the I.W.W. and bohemian groups. According to Esmond he could be extremely charming. Norman Jeffery described him as a “cynical sectarian socialist of the old type”. Jeffery didn't like Harford and couldn't understood why Lesbia married him. The source of his antagonism seems to have been that Pat enlisted in the war. He refers to this several times: “He was to debate with me at the Australian Socialist Party hall on a matter relating to interpretation and significance of the class struggle. Night before the debate I met him in uniform at a restaurant … So no debate.”note The Keogh family disapproved of the marriage; Pat Harford was working class, lived in Redfern, was a drunk and prone to violence, factors which seem to have upset them in varying degrees. Guido approved of the marriage, although he admitted Pat had a taste for liquor. She got him out of a “very low state”, he said. “Lesbia said that her two chief achievements in the working class movement were to bring me from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat, and Pat Harford from the proletariat to the bourgeoisie.”note

The marriage seems to have been happy for a while, but within a few years Lesbia returned to Melbourne. In 1925 she was living with her mother and was articled to a firm of solicitors. Most


  ― 29 ―
reports of the marriage say that it foundered on his alcoholism. Esmond and Norman Jeffery both report that he knocked her about. He was “too big and brutal for her, exhausted her and wore her out”, Jeffery said. Pat Harford has left no account of the marriage. Only Winifred Keogh, whose opinions about Lesbia often go against the prevailing grain, thought he was good to her, uncomplaining about the extra housework he had to do as her condition grew worse. He must have had something going for him as Lesbia was no fool and both Esmond and Guido liked him. Most accounts describe him as charming, but alcoholism can destroy charm as well as marriages. Like so much else in Lesbia Harford's biography, her marriage remains a mystery.

On the marriage certificate she gave her occupation as university coach. By 1921 she started to move into a variety of teaching and clerical jobs. There is no evidence to suggest whether this was a softening of her position that to accept a bourgeois job was class collaboration, or due to her deteriorating health. Probably a bit of each. By 1920 the political conjunctures had changed and despite the releases, the I.W.W. was a spent force. Its social theory had proved inadequate and the practical problems it was faced with proved insurmountable. Although 69,000 went out under the banner of Direct Action, the N.S.W. “general strike” of 1917 had been bitterly lost. There was no coordinated strike organisation. A generalised belief in Direct Action and a spontaneous and fragmented call for a general strike could not withstand the organised strength of the state, greatly increased by the War Precautions Act. Defiant of the state, the I.W.W. had no provision for survival as an illegal organisation when the state moved against them.note The death knell of the Wobblies was, of course, the success of the October revolution in Russia. The Bolsheviks' direct and organised assault on the state was seen to succeed where the I.W.W. call for spontaneous industrial revolution had failed. In 1920, before the I.W.W. men were released, a Communist Party had already been formed and it was the C.P.A. which took over the vanguard position of the radical labour movement during the twenties. The C.P.A. encouraged the Wobblies into its ranks. Some including Norman Jeffery, a founding member, and Guido Baracchi joined and stayed; others joined briefly. Others, like Lesbia Harford, not at all.

To Guido Baracchi, Lesbia Harford was a “romantic revolutionary”. Bob Brodney thought that she was regarded as a “bourgeois radical”note, while Norman Jeffery described her as a “dainty middle class lass” and was puzzled why she joined the I.W.W.:




  ― 30 ―

It became clearer as my own class understanding improved. The I.W.W. attracted, same as did the Communist Party at certain periods, those types from the middle class who saw in the I.W.W. a certain attraction because it appealed to their opposition to authority. Individualistic anarchist ideas appealed to them being quite a characteristic among Petty Bourgeois intellectuals.note

It is not surprising that these men had difficulty in defining her politics or that they used the terms “bourgeois” and “romantic”. Both terms make unconscious reference to her feminism, or at least her gender. For a long time feminism was considered a bourgeois deviation by sections of the C.P.A. and the term “romantic revolutionary” looks back to earlier forms of utopian socialism which, as in the case of the Owenites, gave a central position to gender politics. Lesbia Harford could not be classified as she did not fit existing socialist traditions. Her attempts to create links between women's freedom and class emancipation inevitably created strains given the prevailing separation between feminism and organised working class movements. She did not leave a political assessment of herself and her feminism and socialism speak only in her poetry. There the class and gender politics are inseparable, not divergent struggles as they tended to be viewed in the I.W.W. and, particularly, in the C.P.A. Norman Jeffery saw her attraction to the I.W.W. rather than the C.P.A. as part of her opposition to authority. It may also have been that the I.W.W. gave working women the promise of direct action and control over their situation in a way in which a hierarchical party could not. The C.P.A. did not take feminism as a serious revolutionary issue. The I.W.W.'s looser structure left more room for the reconciliation of class and sexual politics. However, although there was a series of articles on feminism in the I.W.W. paper Direct Action during 1915 and 1916, feminism was clearly a subsidiary struggle. Ultimately neither the C.P.A. nor the I.W.W. offered a social theory which adequately addressed the relationship between class and gender; neither offered a social practice which challenged old patterns of sexual power.

Perhaps the explanation for her withdrawal from activist politics is altogether more mundane. With marriage her life changed again. For a while she enjoyed a peaceful domesticity, telling Nettie Palmer in December 1921: “I also fear lately that my friends think I am too married for anything — very stay at home.… It is hard to distinguish fatigue and a narrow purse from an absorbing marital affection.”note She was also more absorbed in her writing. The edition of the literary magazine Birth devoted to her work


  ― 31 ―
appeared in 1921. Interest began to be shown in her poetry by critics like H. M. Green, Percival Serle and her old friend Nettie Palmer. It is probable that she wrote her novel during the early twenties, a project which would have taken a more sustained effort and more time than she had given to her writing until then. She wrote to Frank Wilmot, the poet Furnley Maurice, in an undated letter probably written in 1926, that the novel was finished but she had not been able to get it published: “I think it's good but I have to admit that it's not striking. I think it original but a casual reader would only think it artless.”note In 1939 her mother told Nettie Palmer that she thought it was “beautiful” but that a publisher had ruled “the subject unsympathetic and that it would not have a success on that account”.note She sent the novel with the letter asking for the Palmers' opinion. I have found no further reference to it. My guess is that the novel drew on her experiences in the factories and revolutionary politics, and that it explored sexuality and that relationship between class and gender which she had not been able to settle within the working class movement. In terms of output her poetry tails off in the early twenties just as she seems to have been taking her writing most seriously. Perhaps encouraged by the response to the poems in Birth, she decided to try the broader canvas of a novel. Since 1916 her poetry had been moving away from the early intensely personal poems and was running into problematic questions of form. A novel would have allowed her a space to explore the contradictory experiences of radical politics and feminism in a different and perhaps more settled genre. By 1921 it was clear both that revolutionary politics in Australia could not offer a forum for this debate and that Lesbia Harford was becoming sufficiently confident of herself as a writer to tackle it.




  ― 32 ―

4 So much in life remains unsung/ and so much more than love is sweet

Although Lesbia Harford's writing can be seen within a broad tradition of radical Australian poetry which includes Lawson, Le Gay Brereton, Mary Gilmore, Furnley Maurice and E. J. Brady, her poetry is not entirely at ease in this company. Some of her poetry shares imagery of the feminine with Mary Gilmore's early work: Marri'd and Other Verses was published in 1910 and The Passionate Heart in 1918. Given her interest in feminism and Australian poetry, Lesbia Harford would almost certainly have read these volumes, and her admiration for Furnley Maurice is clear from her letters to him. But by the end of the war her poetry was moving towards popular and proletarian traditions of song and away from the more stylised forms that mark the work of Furnley Maurice and Mary Gilmore. Perhaps in some ways the poet closest to Lesbia Harford is Dick Long, another underrated and barely known but marvellous Australian poet. They share a vernacular poetry, a commitment to working class struggles and the representation of the working conditions and life experiences of the poor and powerless. But it is also very different, for most of all her poetry articulates the problems and the consciousness of the feminine. It is a poetry in which woman is active and the feminine voiced in its own terms. Lesbia Harford's poetry is a far cry from the bulk of verse written by Australian women in the 1910s and 1920s which filled the volumes of such magazines as The Spinner, and which relied on Victorian rhyme and metre, cosy sentiment and hedgerow descriptions. Viewed historically Lesbia Harford's poetry is astonishing.

Lesbia Harford's attitude to her poetry was deeply implicated with her politics and philosophy of life. As Guido Baracchi put it: “she wanted to ditch the bourgeois world altogether. Her way of doing it was to work in the clothing trades, join her union, become a member of the I.W.W.…. She completely ditched that old world that she had grown up in. Even in things like music there was a rejection of the old; she got quite hostile to classical music. There's one of her poems: ‘There's a band in the street,/ There's a band in the street,/ It will play you a tune for a penny.’ Well this was the only sort of music she'd have a bar of, the music that would reach the people.”note And so too with her poetry. It looks to popular traditions of song and lyric poetry rather than to contemporary intellectual or modernist poetry. She was certainly aware of the latter. According to Bernard Smith, Esmond Keogh and Pat Harford were among the first people in Melbourne talking about


  ― 33 ―
modernism in art.note Katie Lush and Nettie Palmer were other sources for discussion about modernist poetry. Despite Nettie Palmer's profound unease with the avant-garde, she made it one of her tasks to introduce Australian writers to contemporary European and American writers.

Perhaps Frederick Sinclaire's greatest influence on Lesbia Harford was not in religious philosophy but in language. One of his central tenets was that religion should speak the language of “ordinary people”, that it be easily accessible. This was the case with Lesbia Harford's poetry which combined the familiarity of rhyme and lyric traditions with the accessibility of vernacular language. But while many of her poems are about the workplace and the daily experience of women, she was never a polemicist in her poetry. She told Percival Serle in 1926 that she was not “a Bolshevist in verse”. She did not like Anna Wickham's polemically feminist poetry which she considered “spoilt as much by its slovenliness as by its propaganda aspect”. She preferred “the old forms”.note The radicalism of her verse did not rely on polemic but on the power of the female voice that does not apologise. The simplicity of her poetry is deceptive; its accessibility is constructed in carefully metred lines. It was not easy to meld the vernacular with traditional lyric forms: “Into old rhyme/ The new words come but shyly.” (1.9.17.) The attempt resulted in a move away from the lyric and a poetic tradition which celebrates self-expression towards poetic forms such as the ballad and popular song which express the viewpoint and life experience of a group. This shift came slowly and tentatively, and her poetry should be read as transitional, making rather than completing a move in this direction. Nor was the transition straightforward: on the one hand her impulse towards the vernacular and the representation of the working experience of women led her away from the lyric; on the other hand the connection between feminism and the expression of the personal maintained strong links to that tradition. Her own attitude was dialectical, embracing these contradictions. Nevertheless it was a shift, however difficult, from an emphasis on the individual imagination to a more proletarian and also feminist concept of a poetry which could be spoken or sung, addressed to a larger audience than a small specialised poetry reading public. Another influence in this, of course, were the I.W.W. songs and ballads which had a wide popular following in America.

But Lesbia Harford's poems and songs were never taken up by the I.W.W. in Australia as Joe Hill's were in America. They do not appear in the pages of Direct Action although there was poetry in most issues between 1914 and 1917. Most of it was, of course, by men, a lot reprinted from America. Most of the poetry was Victorian


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in form, often satirical and sometimes in ballad form. In contrast Lesbia Harford's poetry was modern, witty and uncompromisingly female. It was much too concerned with women's experience to become part of a male dominated urban working class culture as the proletarian ballads of the thirties were to do. Nor did it fit the tradition of the bush ballad with its rural and masculine orientation. Besides, she never had the confidence or the strength of voice that would have been necessary to establish herself as a singer/writer. The proletarian ballad is a tradition that needs singers. Right to the end she was shy about her poetry. She might speak from a soap box, but not sing. Guido describes her singing her poems for him on the Manly ferry. She sang for her friends and wrote her own music, but her singing was informal and when she died the music died with her; no record of it remains. In any case her move towards proletarian song was never a denial of lyric. Her feminism and her articulation of the invisible realities of women's lives resulted in songs that were different from the tough tradition of urban working class popular songs. Hers were not songs to be belted out on street corners. And so she did not make a comfortable fit with that tradition any more than she did with a more bourgeois tradition. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that her poetry foreshadows a form of protest singing and poetry that developed several decades later when shifts in education and class structure gave a more lyric style of protest song a popular following. But in the 1920s the conditions for this did not exist in Australia. When she was published it was as a lyric poet in small circulation poetry publications which never had a large, let alone a mass audience. Where she was taken up it was within the literary groups she had always shied away from. Like that of many other marginalised poets — black, female, working class — her work challenges literary historiography, the categorisation of forms, and the division of writing into literary and popular, major and minor.

Even as a lyric poet Lesbia Harford has been inadequately read; but then Australian criticism has never been comfortable with the metaphors of the feminine and the discourses of women's writing. Every lyric poet inherits the metaphors of lyric poetry, the language within which poetic meaning is constructed; it is an inheritance which can be highly problematic for women. The curve of female sexuality, for example, has been spoken in lyric poetry for several centuries through imagery from nature and the language of flowers. As Cora Kaplan points out “the analogy is not always hostile to women, nor is it sexist in obvious ways. Male poets also mourn the decline of their own youth and freshness — though they tend to see themselves not as flowers but as more phallic objects like trees, or to image their decline as part of the seasonal cycle — a


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grander process altogether. But if we consider how vulnerable, passive, fragile and silent flowers are, we see that the metaphor is always subliminally degrading.”note The problem for the woman poet is the negotiation of this inherited language in her attempt to image herself. Lesbia Harford is conscious and even ironic in her rejection of the rose as metaphor for her female self. Where she is less conscious and rather more interesting is in her use of lilac and the lily. Lilac is not a flower that is traditionally used for the female; the lily is. As a flower lilac is highly perfumed, signifying itself in large and obvious sprays, in no way modest or demure. Yet it is also a tree and is strong against storms: “A branch of lilac and a storm of hail/ On the same afternoon! Indeed I know/ Here in the south it always happens so,/ That lilac is companioned by the gale.” The poem speaks ambivalently of the poet's relationship to the lilac; she sees herself not as the lilac but in critical relationship to it. The storms of female experience keep her from any easy identification with the flower:

I took some hailstones from the window sill
And swallowed them in a communion feast.
Their transitory joy is mine at least,
The lilac's loveliness escapes me still.
Mine are the storms of spring, but not the sweets.
   (11.10.23)

For Australians, of course, the problem is accentuated by imagery that comes always from Europe; “Pink eucalyptus flowers/ (The flowers are out)/ Are fair as any rose/ For us to sing about.” (29.3.18.) The lily is a common European flower which in romantic poetry signifies the purity and passivity of the feminine. But of course there are also native Australian lilies. Lesbia Harford's first poem which uses the image of the lily is dated December 1913; it is a poem that becomes inert under the weight of that traditional imagery. The image cannot free itself of its history:

Ay, ay, ay, the lilies of the garden
With red threads binding them and stars about,
These shall be her symbols, for she is high and holy,
Holy in her maidenhood and very full of doubt.
   (December 1913)

Compare this to another poem, written five years later, in which the image is transcended and made both active and Australian, yet relies for its meaning on its unspoken defiance of that old stereotypic association:




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I went to see
A friend last night and on her mantelself
I saw some lilies,
Image of myself,
And most unlike your dream of purity.

They had been small green lilies, never white
For man's delight
In their most blissful hours.
But now the flowers
Had shrivelled and instead
Shone spikes of seeds,
Burned spikes of seeds,
Burned red
As love and death and fierce futurity.

There's this much of the lily left in me.
   (9.3.18)

The language her poetry uses to negotiate that contradictory set of relationships between independence, love and sexual passion also holds ghosts within its meanings. Her poetry breaks with earlier feminisms which resolved the conflict between love and independence in a denial of sexuality. Miles Franklin's early writings voice the tension of this resolution and the pain of her staunchly chaste independence. Lesbia Harford's attempt to know sexual passion and still take charge of her own destiny was no less painful and her poetry speaks the tension in balancing — or failing to balance — freedom of mind and spirit with freedom of the body and the heart. The sub-text of her poetry is exactly this negotiation, and the acceptance of struggle and change as a condition of life. The problem remains that of being active rather than passive, of speaking as a poet in a culture in which woman is spoken through the language of poetic metaphor. Her writing grapples with this in poems which are frank, vernacular and attempt to resist traditional meanings.

One resolution of the conflict between love and independence was to articulate it in poetry: to break the silence of women's isolated and painful experience. Increasingly this merged into her identification with broader based struggles of class and gender as another resolution, however partial, and as a way of broaching the essentially individualistic pain of private love and romantic poetry. The imagery of personal consciousness merges with and gives way to poetry which addresses the narrative of a more collective (female) experience. Her poems become strike songs and a later


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love lyric is addressed to revolution as a female lover: “She is not of the fireside,/ My lovely love” (12.2.18). If her poetry is contradictory it is not that it is illogical, but that it voices in its contradictions the essential realities of those who are poor, who struggle and who dare to hope in a society divided by class and by gender. By grappling with poetry as a form of protest as well as of expression, and by voicing the politics of sexuality and women's experience, Lesbia Harford's clear and honest poetry speaks to contradictions that are still central to Australian feminism and writing today.

   Drusilla Modjeska

   Sydney, 1984

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