Academic journal article Hecate

From Caloundra to Barcelona: Aileen Palmer's Sense of Place

Academic journal article Hecate

From Caloundra to Barcelona: Aileen Palmer's Sense of Place

Article excerpt


The Palmers were all writers. A close-knit family, Nettie and Vance instilled their passion for words in their two daughters from an early age--through poetry, songs and stories, and through their own example. Wherever they were--and they were travellers--they observed the environment they were in (from Caloundra in Queensland to Barcelona in Spain) and with a keen sense of place recorded their impressions in diaries, correspondence, articles and literary prose or poetry.

Aileen, their eldest daughter, born in 1915 in London during wartime, is the least known of the Palmers, as the brilliant potential she showed as a child and young adult became overshadowed by her "breakdowns" from her early thirties and her subsequent periods of institutionalisation in Melbourne. She was to find her parents' emphasis on the importance of the written word oppressive as well as inspiring and wrote ruefully in later life: "As a family, we have all been rather too much in love with words, in our own ways." (1)

A poet and linguist like her mother, Aileen published a small oeuvre of original poetry and translations, but much of her writing is fragmented and remains in the archives of the National Library of Australia. In my forthcoming biography, "Ink in Her Veins: the troubled life of Aileen Palmer," I have drawn extensively from these writings--her diaries, her vivid correspondence to her parents during her nine years in European war zones fighting fascism, her autobiographical "novel" fragments, even her personal writings about mental illness. In this way, I hope her distinctive voice will be heard and she will be remembered for more than her characterisation as the Palmers' "tragic daughter." (2)

As a sample here are Chapter Four, "Caloundra," and Chapter Nine, "Barcelona--No Pasaran!"


Aileen made her first venture into autobiography on her thirteenth birthday, three years after the family's move to Queensland. This simple account of her life covered a mere eight pages of her diary, short by the standards of the girl who filled exercise books with multi-volumed historical "novels." (3) In it she recalls her childhood years at Emerald with delight: being taught by her mother, riding the ponies, especially small mouse-like, shaggy and brown Dolly, for whom she held a devoted affection. Well-schooled by Nettie, she sketches the landscape in the Dandenongs with a determined effort at poetic description: Wet, dewy, cool green, surrounded by high trees that shut out the sun; little gullies with tinkling falls; fronds of tree-ferns dipping in them; gushing cataracts. Her reaction to the decision to move to Queensland when she was ten is more direct: We were sent down to Killenna, Malvern, to stay with Aunt Ina, while Mater and Pater sold the horses and packed up. I won't say much about that time. I don't think Aunt Ina was as nice as she might have been, and I'm certain I wasn't. Those times were very troublesome.

Despite Aileen's misgivings, the move to Caloundra, north of Brisbane, proved to be an inspired one. Vance's eldest sister Emily had married into the Bulcock family, well-known in the district, her father-in-law Robert Bulcock being described by Aileen as having been the Lord of Caloundra once. (4) The first cottage the Palmers rented in the little fishing village was a small red and white house "with four rooms and no passages,"s perched high on Lighthouse Hill and with a superb view of the ocean, the Passage and the Glasshouse Mountains. Transplanted from bush to seaside and from a southern winter to the bright sunshine of Queensland's early spring, the children set about exploring their new environment with delight, swimming in the surf, collecting shells and playing in the rock pools. Aileen described Caloundra as a beautiful place. The passage--still, crystalline and reflecting everything at dawn and sunset, opalescent by day; the surf here gorgeous, sweeping, bordered with white foam: the rocks, with their pools in which grow seaweed, anamones[sic] and wild sea-things of marvellous beauty; the Dickie Beach, with three lagoons; the inland plains, often bedecked with wildflowers; Bribie Island, to which we travel by boat--it is gorgeous! …

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