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  ― 9 ―

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).




  ― 10 ―

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


  ― 11 ―



  ― 12 ―
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


  ― 13 ―
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.




  ― 14 ―

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.


  ― 15 ―
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


  ― 16 ―
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


  ― 17 ―
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.

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