Review: Sarah-Jane Burtonon Dymphna Stella Rees

An Intimate History, On Paper

Dymphna Stella Rees is the youngest daughter of Australian writers Coralie Clarke Rees (1908-1972) and Leslie Rees (1905-2000) – and the author of A Paper Inheritance: The Passionate Literary Lives of Leslie Rees and Coralie Clarke Rees. She was christened with the names of her ‘literary godmothers’ Dymphna Cusack and Miles Stella Franklin, which perhaps marked her for entry into the world of literature and strong women. In this work of gentle intimate storytelling, she makes her mark on the genre of memoir and literary biography.

Reflecting on her idyllic upbringing on Sydney’s North Shore, Rees writes of a place of ‘tender memory’, a ‘setting’ which, like the unfolding of a letter, opens A Paper Inheritance with a retrospective of childhood and the most important two people who inhabited hers, her parents – along with her elder sister, Megan.

Rees describes the North Sydney Council heritage marker on the apartment complex where she grew up. It recalls Leslie, ‘who wrote thirty children’s books including the Digit Dick and Shy the Platypus series, and histories of Australian drama’ and Coralie, who ‘collaborated on travel books and radio scripts and wrote Silent His Wings and What Happened After’. So begins the engaging story of two prominent Australian literary figures who have faded from attention in the twenty-first century. The Rees partnership laid the foundations for forms of Australian children’s literature, drama and dramatic reviews, radio plays and broadcasting, travel writing and journalism, with their literary outputs also offering developments in the genres of Australian poetry and general fiction. Coralie and Leslie were enmeshed in some of the most creative and collaborative circles of their time, both at home and abroad. Mostly, however, A Paper Inheritance doesn’t roam far from the North Shore, with the exception of some attention to the family’s time abroad and Coralie and Leslie’s upbringing in Western Australia. Given the family’s connections to writers from many other parts of Australia, Rees’s narrow geographical focus limits the book, preventing a broader engagement with Australian writing across the twentieth century.

‘My father’ and ‘my mother’ are the protagonists of Rees’ story and she often refers to them as such as the book shifts between biography, memoir, archival study and a mild form of literary criticism. Rees brings a privileged point of view and an obvious bias to her evaluation of her parents’ lives and works, but she nevertheless manages to craft a narrative full of depth, on an historical as well as personal level.

Rees is passionate about illustrating, reclaiming and preserving her parents’ lives, relationship and literary legacy. As a work of archival study Rees demonstrates what Maryanne Dever, Sally Newman and Ann Vickery have described in their work The Intimate Archive as the power of archival and physical materials to offer ‘historical explanation’ and the possibility that archival work can ‘reclaim’ lost lives of those in the past for those who live in the present, particularly those figures who have been ‘hidden in history’. Rees is open about her personal connection to her parents’ papers, which does complicate the book. Early on she admits ‘writing about one’s parents can be truly hazardous. One should be careful not to elevate…[them] into sainthood’ or ‘paint them into unreservedly evil. One has to grapple with finding the right emotional distance’.

The back story to A Paper Inheritance is that before her father’s death Rees was appointed the literary executor and manager of the partnership’s joint literary archive. She describes the weighty burden of ‘publishing contracts and manuscripts’ and copyright protection duties. Ultimately though, after initial resentment for the weight of this responsibility Rees realises that she had found herself ‘the recipient of a diverse literary archive reaching back nearly a hundred years’ with unimaginable ‘riches’. This included books, press-cuttings, photographs, manuscripts, radio scripts, notebooks and love letters crammed into cardboard cartons and bookshelves. Rees writes of her reluctance to share what remained of her parents’ literary and private lives – what she ultimately identifies as her ‘paper inheritance’.

This book is about Coral and Les, their writing partnership and literary lives. In my authorial role, I’m looking over their shoulders, observing, narrating. For other parts, I’ve transcribed firsthand accounts faithfully from the faded ink on paper so dry and crackly it almost falls apart at a touch. Every biographer and researcher knows that primary sources are gold. And, given that both my mother and father were highly accomplished wordsmiths, it would be presumptuous of me to assume I could relate their experiences better than they could themselves, particularly the earlier parts of their lives that I did not share. So their story is told – not by one writer or even two – but the three of us.

To a scholar experienced in working with archival materials Rees’s forthright ownership of the story, her self-presentation as an ‘author’ and her framing of the story she offers as an inheritance seems counterintuitive, especially as she also states that her mission is truth-telling and wants to let her parents ‘tell their own stories’. Rees is reluctant to pass on her parents’ papers to institutions of preservation, or to allow scholarly access to them, despite her father having an established archive at the Mitchell Library in Sydney. This makes the reader wonder how selective she has been in regards to this biography. Neither Coralie Clarke or Leslie Rees have been the subject of previous biographies and there remains little to no critical scholarship on their work. A more scholarly or distanced approach may have licensed the inclusion of material left out of A Paper Inheritance.

Indeed, Rees admits to finding ‘jewels of discovery’ that left her ‘questioning or digging for answers’ but it’s never quite clear whether these questions are fully answered in the narrative. As has been demonstrated in so many other contexts, by scholars as wide-ranging as Jacques Derrida and Archille Mbembe, archives are powerful. Although Rees does quote extensively from her parents’ archive, she’s also careful with her paper inheritance.

That North Sydney heritage marker at the beginning of the book gives us an understanding of how Rees will proceed, taking her memories and experiences as a starting point as she engages with the archive. She identifies a distinct difference in the way the two writers are memorialised. In the marker Coralie Clarke Rees is only briefly described as writing two works and ‘collaborating’ on travel books and radio scripts, placing her, in the partnership and in physical history, as the secondary figure. Her works Silent His Wings and What Happened After are not even classified by genre. In comparison her husband’s more detailed description tells passers-by that he ‘wrote thirty children’s books including the Digit Dick and Shy the Platypus series, and histories of Australian drama’. The plaque is, in a gently nuanced way, indicative of the subjugation of Clarke Rees, whose support for her husband domestically and creatively helped maintain his prolific literary output. One of the strengths of A Paper Inheritance is the way Rees brings her mother into the light, presenting a portrait of a powerful and creative woman and a life lived in a time where women writing, and indeed women in general, faced many barriers to professional success.

She explains that her father’s ‘greatest blessing was finding a partner who could share his passion for literature, theatre, travel and family life – who would be his devoted lover, critic, champion and “word friend”’. She continues, describing how ‘my mother’s support, belief and generosity of spirit played no small part in the life he devoted to the written word’. In audio recordings of Coralie Clarke Rees in the National Library of Australia, we discover that Coralie didn’t quite share her daughter’s perspective. Despite being, even as a very young woman, a proponent of feminist thought, a 1968 oral history captured by prolific Australian audio historian and interviewer Hazel de Berg, sees Clarke Rees describing herself first and foremost as the wife of her celebrated husband and recalling stories from their life together using this fact as her primary touchstone. Similarly, in a biographical entry of Clarke Rees written by Leslie Rees and published in the 2002 Australian Dictionary of Biography she is described as Mrs Rees. The entry also features an early reference to the fact that she was ‘a strikingly attractive woman, with ‘masses of curly hair’, ‘a broad brow and wideset, large greeny-grey eyes’’; her physical appearance is deemed inseparable from her successes and accomplishments.

In A Paper Inheritance Rees describes a different woman. Immediately after graduating from the University of Western Australia with a degree in English and history, her mother edited the Dawn, a monthly feminist magazine published in Perth. Rees recounts this time in a 26- page typescript entitled ‘Coralie Clarke edits “The Dawn”: a chapter in the life – history of Coralie Clarke Rees’. Published in 1978 and now housed at the Library of Western Australia, this was Rees’s first foray into a practice of memorialising her mother. Further illustrating her mother’s feminist ideals Rees describes in A Paper Inheritance how Clarke Rees had written directly to Virginia Woolf to discuss matters of feminism. While she didn’t receive a response, this courageous spirit and determination defines the character of Clarke Rees in her daughter’s telling.

Throughout their prolific careers both Coralie and Leslie developed astute interviewing skills, with Clarke Rees counting high profile figures like Lady Astor and AA Milne as subjects. In a rather remarkable moment in the book the duo collaboratively interview James Joyce and the recreation of this interaction is a joy to read. A Paper Inheritance would have been strengthened by the integration of interviews with other people in her parents’ lives, or at the very least, broader engagement with archives of other writers. A large part of the book is devoted to her mother’s experience travel as the secretary to the touring concert pianist Eileen Joyce in the mid-1930s and the extensive nature of this section seems slightly redundant. There are many characters encountered by the Rees duo who would offer rich secondary material and more interesting tales. This may have made the book, again, a more comprehensive literary history.

Instead, it’s an intimate history. Love letters are used to show the reader a unique relationship which while shaped by many social and cultural conventions, bypasses in its most personal moments any male dominance or entitlement over the life lived by this family. While Rees hints at how historical attention is often skewed towards her more prolific father, she says, ‘[M]y mother’s style was quite different from my father’s. He was a narrative writer…a teller of tales. My mother’s writing had more psychological depth, with subtlety and sensitivity, though she was also capable of flashes of showy brilliance. I sometimes thought she was the better writer.’

Rees presents a portrait of her parents in deep partnership, and their correspondence reveals a respect and admiration for each other which at times seems revolutionary. The reader occasionally feels like a voyeur to be let into this private world in this way. A point of interest however is that Rees has constructed her book as a reflection of a literary partnership. Rather than presenting her parents as individuals she centralises their relationship as essential to their literary careers. Individual biographies may have been more illuminating but the source materials she quotes from extensively is so reliant on “paper” interchange and interaction that the partnership reigns supreme and Rees continues the historical tendency to present her parents as a duo.

This isn’t necessarily negative, Rees describes how her parents, even in their early courtship were adept in the ‘language of love’ and this was so important to them as writers. She describes how their study of literature had included ‘deconstructing other writers’ notions of love’, explaining what she knew to be her mother’s philosophy on what fuelled her marriage.

From the time she first came upon it, Coral embraced Shakespeare’s sonnet ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments’, and she went on quoting it all through her life. This became her ideal: a marriage of true minds, an intellectual as well as an emotional partnership that rides out the storms and endures – ‘even to the edge of doom’.

Through the book Clarke Rees and Rees themselves tell and show us the stories of their lives, as quotes and extracts from primary source materials are abundant. Rees bookends her work with assertions of love towards her family as a whole, her sister specifically and parents more generally. In her eulogy for her sister, extracted in the book as yet another example of the intimate archive, Rees exposes her family having their own special language, again illustrating how a life of letters could not be removed from the personal life of her family:

a patois, a complex creole studded with quotations from literature, phrases in French and Latin, names of characters in our father’s books, witty sayings, colourful coinages and our mother’s penchant for a play on words…whenever we talked or spoke to each other, Megan and I would revert to this form of exchange.

While at times conflicted about her parents and their frequent absences, Rees ultimately adored her parents in what was known to their family as ‘fp – filial piety’. Her filial piety which ‘honours the knowledge, skills and values’ passed down as the ‘essential parental gift’ is ever present in her framing of the story of her parents. Rees valorises the relationship of her parents, despite her father living almost thirty years longer than her mother. Coralie Clarke Rees died in 1972 at age 63 after a long journey with the debilitating autoimmune disease and spinal condition Ankylosing spondylitis which she battled for almost half her lifetime, the pain of which is captured in Rees’ narrative as she mourns her mother, sister and father – while celebrating their lives together. In a powerful and moving part of the book Rees shares the moment when her mother’s heart stopped as she alone, sat reading poetry beside her in the silence. A theme carried throughout the book is Rees’ sense of responsibility, that she must tell her whole family’s story as the last remaining member.

In this book Rees achieves a kind of literary subgenre. It is a memoir of her own life and an intimate biography of two Australian writers, one that draws on the archive as much as it draws on her own reminiscences and assumptions. And in doing so, she captures grief, struggle and love.

Published August 8, 2022
Part of Emerging Critics 2021: Essays by the 2021 CA-SRB Emerging Critics cohort: Gemma Betros, Sarah-Jane Burton, Dan Dixon, Ursula Robinson-Shaw, Isabella Trimboli. Our Emerging Critics Fellowship Program is generously funded by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. All Emerging Critics 2021 essays →
Sarah-Jane Burton

Sarah-Jane is an academic in the English discipline at the Australian National University. A...

Essays by Sarah-Jane Burton →