― 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.

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.