15. Marjorie Barnard.
Associate Professor Maryanne Dever,
Centre for Women`s Studies & Gender Research
Barnard, Marjorie, 1897-1987.
The persimmon tree and other stories / by Marjorie Barnard. (Sydney : Clarendon Publishing Co., 1943)
The title story of this volume remains one of the most frequently anthologized Australian short stories. The book shows the privations of war-time book production with its thin yellowed pages, plain boards and generally austere design. It has nevertheless managed to survive quite well and copies can still be found in second hand bookshops today. The slightly forlorn look of the book matches in a strangely empathetic way Barnard’s own emotional state around the time many of the stories in the volume were being written and while the collection was being put together.
Marjorie Barnard referred to the short story as ‘the most private sector of my literary output’. She had struggled with the form across the 1930s. Having left paid employment in 1935 to write full-time, Barnard had hoped that short fiction produced for magazine publication might provide her with an income, but her early efforts invariably failed to find favour. As she quipped to Nettie:
I am having a perfect orgy of unsaleableness [sic] and the postal revenue is being benefited by the passage to and fro of my M.S. I might as well start breeding homing pigeons. My father looks at me with jaundiced eye.
She engaged in a spirited correspondence on the subject with Vance Palmer, then probably the nation’s most successful exponent of the short story. Looking to his work in an effort to resolve her own creative dilemmas, Marjorie confessed to him in late 1934 that ‘I’ve positively preyed on your short stories but the secret is unstealable. (I’m not at all bad with the jemmy either)’. But she also sought advice from Frank Dalby Davison whose writing she greatly admired. 'Have been wrestling with some short stories', she relates in a letter to Nettie Palmer, 'but they continue bad. Frank declares that they are "beautifully done", but that every time I write one I "leave life poorer than I found it"’. In fact, the exchange of manuscripts between Barnard and Davison very likely played a part in what became an unfolding ritual of seduction. The two writers were to embark on a secret affair that continued for eight years.
The Persimmon Tree appeared shortly after relations with Davison finally collapsed. Barnard viewed the success of those stories — acknowledged as some of her most accomplished writing — as no small compensation for the hurt that was integral to their production. Stories such as ‘The Persimmon Tree’, ‘The Woman Who Did the Right Thing’ and ‘Beauty is Strength’ take as their themes the consequences of illicit love, rivalry between women and the withdrawal and stoicism sometimes demanded of injured lovers. Barnard later insisted that it was through the pain of the affair that she had ‘learnt to write at least’.
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