Primary Sources 50 stories from 50 years of the Archives

Nettie Palmer's European diary

'I want to write today down, not because of anything very astonishing, but because one can't have more than one first day in London ever', wrote Nettie Higgins on 2 April 1910 in the first pages of her diary. She was 24, with a first-class degree in English and modern languages from the University of Melbourne and had arrived in London to study for the diploma of the International Phonetics Association in England, Germany and France. She intended to meet up with Vance Palmer whom she'd met in 1909 and was in love with, although he is never mentioned in the diary.

She observed life on the London streets, attended unemployment rallies, suffragette meetings and heard the leading socialists of the day. The entries, which were often written as verse, reveal an unusually discerning and lively mind, always acutely responsive to her surroundings. In Berlin on 1 March 1911, she wrote:

In the Concert-hall
Who is to blame? The woman
Just for being there, Simple and human?
The man who wants to look at her, And slightly turns his chair,
And when he likes, will watch her faintest stir?
I wonder if he guesses
How his casual stare
Stabs and oppresses!
The woman dreads to raise her eyes
Or even touch her hair:
All seems a pose, to which his gaze replies.

The diary lapsed after she returned to Melbourne in late 1911 but picked up again in 1917, after she and Vance had married and had two little daughters. Then it recorded her great delight in motherhood.

Nettie Palmer became one of Australia's first and foremost literary critics and from the 1920s to the 1950s she wrote criticism, reviews and memoirs and also edited, anthologised, translated and broadcast. She was an ardent and generous champion of local writers and literary endeavours and was equally engaged in the political challenges of the time, notably anti-fascism.

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