Review: Fiona Wrighton Charmian Clift

A Serving of Insurgency with Breakfast

Three years into Charmian Clift’s stint of weekly essays written for the Melbourne Herald and Sydney Morning Herald, there is a piece both startling and telling. It opens with a mea culpa – or something that might almost pass as such, at first glance. ‘A few weeks ago,’ Clift writes:

I wrote in this column my impressions as a migrant three years settled (or unsettled?) in this my country. I said Australia seemed to me to be an untroubled place. I said there was little anger here. I said that most people appeared to be content to leave decisions to Big Daddy. I said other things too of a critical kind, and thought I might be sticking my neck out too far.

Clift continues to explain that she expected these impressions to be met by a flurry of infuriated letters telling her precisely where else she should stick said neck – much as, I suspect, any columnist writing today would anticipate. This kind of thing has always gotten ugly.

But Clift received instead what she describes as ‘a spate’ of letters ‘so overwhelming and so positive’ to make it clear that anger, trouble and discontent are far more prevalent than she had imagined, that many people are conscious and concerned, and have criticism of their own. These are letters full of shared frustrations and dissatisfactions, political conviction and social engagement, and above all else, a great desire for change. What is most remarkable here is that every one of these hopeful, angry, urgent letters are from women.

Clift’s correspondents are from what she calls a ‘varied strata of society’ – that her columns could speak to such a broad readership is one of the main reasons for her success. Clift gives details from the letters, quotes from them, several times at length, and there’s something almost painful in the sense of disclosure they all convey. It is clear, achingly clear, that these women are professing what they are not normally allowed to say.

The essay was published in 1967 – and at that time, women were allowed so little public life that they were often ‘still publicly refer[red] to’ as the ‘good ladies’ of their husbands, and kept to separate, segregated sections of both the public bar and the newspaper (Clift’s pieces ran in the women’s pages, ‘opposite the social notes’). There was one woman MP in the federal parliament, and she was only the third to ever hold a space there.

In writing about these letters, conversing with them and quoting from them, I keep thinking, Clift is giving her letter-writing women, these ordinary, ‘intelligent, responsive’, ‘questioning,’ dissenting and dreaming women a tiny corner of the small piece of public space over which she has such rare command. But she is also giving them a lens by which they might see each other, and might know that they are not alone.

Nadia Wheatley’s new selection of Clift’s essays, Sneaky Little Revolutions, is interested in Clift’s ability to appeal to so large and broad an audience, and in a manner that seemed to encourage dedication and intimacy there. Wheatley argues that this was largely what gave Clift security in her position with these newspapers, and allowed her the freedom to write as broadly and radically as she did – the political work of Clift’s essays is a central concern of this selection.

It’s often easy when reading Clift’s essays, if not exactly to forget their historical context, then to lose a sense of all the time that separates them from this moment, from now. Clift wrote these weekly ‘pieces’ (to use her term) between 1964 and 1969: they begin, that is, at the tail end of the Menzies era (Menzies is the ‘Big Daddy’ she refers to in the essay above, amongst others, because of his autocratic tendencies and policies of censorship), and end only three years, or a single election cycle, before the Whitlam government was elected. They discuss conscription, conscientious objection and the Vietnam War, the referendum on Indigenous rights, the Greek Junta, immigration, women’s rights, the headline-making ‘little blunders’ of politicians. They are news media artefacts, and by definition, therefore, interested in and responsive to the events and concerns of their time. Yet there’s an uncanny currency to Clift’s essays, a foresight, and frequent shocks of relevance; sometimes this seems to entirely unmoor them in time.

Often, this happens because the opinions Clift espouses are so clearly ahead of their time – that Australia should be more aware of Asia ‘as the place where one lives’; that sites like Uluru are due reverence rather than ‘frenzied gaiety’; that criminalising abortion does nothing but ‘condemn women to shame’ and physical danger. Occasionally, it’s because the essays somehow manage a sensitivity and awareness, with very few missteps, when covering material that many writers still find difficult today – her series of travel pieces from Central Australia and the Northern Territory in particular are remarkable for this. Or it happens because Clift relays an anecdote or gives a description (such as in the essay beginning ‘I was asked to write something on Australian men’) that is still so accurate and astute, so timely, that it’s breathtaking. And I’m still not sure if this should be heartening or cause for despair.

When I first read Clift’s essays I was still young enough to be seduced, entirely, by the romance of her life. The romance of its narrative, I’d call it now, but couldn’t then: before that year, I had never met a single writer, nor an artist of any stripe. I had no means of imagining what a writing life might look like: even the wildest of imaginations can only build from the information at hand. It was no less fantastical to me than a romance, or the romance was no less plausible; either way there was a thrilling magic to it all, and enough magic that it was easy to forget the writer herself, there at the heart of it.

The romance of Clift’s life is still compelling, and still brings readers to her work, even as it’s obvious, now, how much the narrative elides. Most important of these elisions is the fact that the years Clift and her husband, the novellist George Johnston, spent living on the Greek island of Hydra were only possible because of the island’s devastated economy and the couple’s comparative wealth. It ignores personal tensions – the jealousies and infidelities and rivalries between Clift and Johnston and their circle – and it ignores domestic labour, and how much more difficult and time-consuming this could be in a house without hot water or appliances. But there’s still something about it that persists, that vision of Clift and Johnston living simply and freely and in full bohemian splendour on Hydra; of their partnership, both creative and loving (if not exactly equal); all of it soaked in sun and salt and bread and olives and wine.

What’s fascinating to me now, though, is how aware of her own mythology Clift seems to be in this series of weekly essays. She doesn’t quite embrace it, but certainly makes no attempt to disavow it – and on occasion very clearly uses it to her advantage or for her own particular purposes. Clift always positions herself within these columns as someone both insider and outsider – and any small nod towards that mythology is enough to bring the latter into play.

When Clift draws herself as an insider, she is comfortably domestic, in both senses of the word: a local, and a suburban mother and wife; writing columns about catching buses, washing laundry, furnishing a home, and jostling for space between the demands and detritus of children and chores and care. Simultaneously, as an outsider, she is thrillingly exotic – rebellious, adventurous, creative – and an expat artist and a ‘migrant’ (she uses this word often, sometimes modified as ‘home-grown migrant’, ‘unsettled’ migrant, ‘half-’ or ‘ex-’ or ‘un-’ ). In this mode, she writes about ecstatic festivals on Hydra, friendships with artists, travel. Neither position is disingenuous or untrue, of course, but it’s fascinating to see how carefully and cleverly Clift balances them, or allows one to offset the other. Because what this positioning means is that Clift can get away with the political commentary, direct opinion and those ‘things…of a critical kind’ that she so often offers –insiderness makes her unthreatening and familiar, just as outsiderness means she can be forgiven her excesses and discontent. It’s a strategy, too, very much in keeping with Clift’s own description of these pieces: it is she who first described them as ‘sneaky little revolutions’, in a letter to her London agent, a year into their publication. Clift considered these essays a means by which small subversions and suggestions of dissent might be delivered directly into suburban homes, a serving of insurgency with breakfast.

Clift’s quiet revolutions are foregrounded in Wheatley’s selection– the title alone makes this clear – partly because Wheatley is making a claim for their ground-breaking, radical nature across literary and political domains. There’s an emphasis too on their intersections with what Clift refers to as ‘imminence’ – her sense of a brewing or a ferment, tangible but not quite solid, somewhere just on the horizon. It’s an idea that recurs quite frequently across the essays, and is described in Clift’s very first column, where she sees it evident in ‘all manner of signs and portents that indicate a mustering of forces’, all readying for change.

This imminence carries Clift’s great hope, and great belief, too, in her fellow citizens and what they may yet dream and do.

Despair, it must have been that I had read, then: we were still in the middle of all the election campaigning while I was reading Sneaky Little Revolutions. I’d had the book with me in a waiting room in an office in a suburb almost directly opposite the one in which Clift lived, there on the other shore of the harbour; I walked back to Edgecliff station afterwards and three separate leafleteers tried to give me a dog bandana printed with their candidate’s name and a scattering of cartoon bones. (I can’t believe you didn’t take them, my girlfriend later chided me, they’re going to be worth a fortune.) I’d had it with me in the beer garden of a battered old pub while I was waiting for a friend; had looked up at the exact moment that one of the many wall-mounted TVs cut to footage of Scott Morrison dog whistling his ‘definition of a woman’; and I’d had it with me in a park when a passing woman said into her phone, look the anti-vaxxer stuff is crazy, but he’s been good for the electorate, you know?

What I’m saying is this: I didn’t have Clift’s faith. And because of that I didn’t, at the time, recognise the importance of the hope embedded in every one of her essays. Their uncanny timeliness so overshadowed their active optimism, their insistent imagining of a change that did then happen in a very real way, and only a few years later (that Clift was so ahead of her time, and died before seeing this, Wheatley describes as her ‘part of her tragedy’). I didn’t have Clift’s faith and I didn’t even think to hope, and on the morning after the election I felt dazed, and I was delighted to have been so very wrong. Of course I know that a change in government is not change, not in and of itself. But it felt like a start, and a startling reminder that imminence is always imminent. How terrible a thing that is to forget.

Clift circles back to the idea of imminence often across these essays, and always names it explicitly, when she glimpses it. She is deliberately attentive to it, which is itself remarkable – but all the more so because this attention sits alongside another, to what I can’t help but think of as immanence. The present and the everyday are vital materials in these essays too, and Clift delights the in the small luxuries and absurdities of ordinary daily life, the pockets of beauty and emotion and deep meaning that can be found there. One column describes the discovery of ‘a jungle’, old and wild and half-enchanted, hidden between houses on the next street; another, the tattered soles of a pair of stockings, and the abandon of dancing without shoes that left them in that state. There are seasons and storms, lush and heady, the heightened senses of a wakeful night, an empty house, a country train station in the small, cold hours – all of these rich in detail, full of fragile magic. Others look to the ordinary world with wry but affectionate humour, occasionally a wonderful sense of farce, such as when detailing the extravagant rituals of council curb-side collection week, the indignities (and chaos) of raising children, the careful cultivation of bad habits.

Wheatley claims, in the book’s introduction, that the ‘unexpectedness’ of Clift’s weekly column – the fact that ‘readers opening their newspapers…would not know whether they would get the political, the domestic or the pastoral’ was also part of their revolutionary nature (and ‘part of their appeal’). This unexpectedness, that is, is another tactic of sneakiness, but also one of combining material from disparate domains in order to give equal weight to all. Clift pays the same careful attention and engagement to the domestic and the political, and invests both with hope and heart; and she was doing this at a time when these two spheres in particular were considered, and constructed as, entirely separate worlds. Very few people, and especially few women, were able to move easily between them: here too Clift was at once inside and outside.

It’s possible to argue that Clift’s essays about the immanent support her more political writing and critiques, that their engagement with the world and the social, their obvious love of landscape and place, are concrete reminders of exactly what it is at stake within politics’ broader abstractions, what stands to be lost, or needn’t be this way. I don’t think this is untrue; in fact, it’s an argument I do make, and often, about how personal essays might operate in the world, their importance – but I don’t want to risk devaluing Clift’s domestic and pastoral pieces for what they are and what they do, on their own terms alone. They are what I loved about Clift’s work when I first read it and are still the greatest pleasure of it to me now: these are essays unabashed in their sensuality and liveliness, keenly curious and attuned to mystery and marvel, and they are almost always full of joy.

Joy, I keep thinking, isn’t quite the corollary of hope, not quite a precondition or precursor, either. But they share an orientation towards the world, an openness, and it takes work to maintain them over time.

The joy Clift captures is often fleeting – a single uplifted moment – but she is capable of finding it in the corners of her living room, her suburb, her street, as much as in her memories of Hydra. And it’s when she writes about joy that the sensuality of her writing, her playful slides into and out of excess – both distinctive elements of her style – really come in their own. In an essay about cities, for example, Clift writes:

I love first nights, last nights, shady bars, sooty spires, glittering parties, stalls of flowers, overheard conversations, beggars who play music, balloon sellers, the backstage of every theatre, delicatessens, subways, the new beauty of TV towers, students’ demonstrations, mouldy museums, lights smeared on wet pavements, brass nameplates, glass offices, air terminals, famous people glimpsed in hotel foyers, sailors’ pubs, art openings, pretentious intellectuals, tarts in tight dresses, lovers in parks, and in parks, too, the Sunday soapboxes, empty early morning streets, eccentrics, brass bands, ambulances, police cars, fire engines.

Only in cities can one live in daily expectation of the unprecedented.

There are echoes here of Kenneth Slessor’s ‘William Street’ (‘You find this ugly/ I find it lovely’), itself a re-envisioning of the modern city – Clift too is making a claim for Sydney and against her era’s prevailing cultural cringe. But what I love about this passage, and others like it, is the breathlessness of the description, the details that layer the sooty with the glittering, the famous with the sailors, the new with the old, and how this tumbling together almost enacts a giddy kind of joy. What it might mean to find this within a newspaper, and regularly, I can’t quite fathom – but it must have been a remarkable thing.

Published August 1, 2022
Part of Juncture: JUNCTURE is a fellowship program presenting a series of new essays on Australian and international literature by leading critics.  All Juncture essays →
Fiona Wright

Fiona Wright is a writer, editor and critic. Her book of essays Small Acts...

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