Academic journal article Hecate

'Signed Up in a Rebel Band': Lesbia Harford Re-Viewed

Academic journal article Hecate

'Signed Up in a Rebel Band': Lesbia Harford Re-Viewed

Article excerpt

How funny it would be if dreamy I

Should leave one book behind me when I die

And that a book of Law - this silly thing

Just written for the money it will bring.

I do hope, when it's finished, I'll have time

For other books and better spurts of rhyme.1

This, one of Lesbia Harford's saddest poems, commemorates the publication of her pamphlet The law relating to hire purchase in Australia and New Zealand in 1923.2 Time, of course, was precisely what Harford lacked. Born with a heart problem that prevented her blood oxygenating, she died in 1927, aged just thirty-six, with only a few published poems to her name. Her reputation today rests primarily on two sets of posthumous publications: Nettie Palmer's 1941 collection The Poems of Lesbia Harford and then, in the eighties, Drusilla Modjeska and Marjorie Pizer's expanded edition of the Poems (1985) and Richard Nile and Robert Darby's edition of her lost novel, The Invaluable Mystery (1987).3

These 'spurts' of publication, separated by forty years, presented Harford in quite different ways. In 1941, Nettie Palmer's Introduction consciously downplayed Harford's politics, locating the poems merely in a time of 'passionate vows and struggles for a better world after the war'.4 Drusilla Modjeska's elegant and scholarly introduction to the revised Poems (still the most important resource about Harford), by contrast, deliberately foregrounded the poet's life and politics, to make a case for her relevance to contemporary readers. 'By grappling with poetry as a form of protest as well as expression,' Modjeska writes, 'and by voicing the politics of sexuality and women's experience, Lesbia Harford's clear and honest poetry speaks to contradictions that are still central to Australian feminism and writing.'5 In their introduction to The Invaluable Mystery, Nile and Darby followed Modjeska's approach. As they put it, 'the publication of [Harford's] novel raises the questions as to why it was overlooked in its own time and why it is readily acceptable today.'6

These questions are posed even more sharply with the perspective of twenty years - especially since Harford has been most recently republished, not by a feminist or a socialist, but the Quadrant editor and poet Les Murray, in his collection Hell and After: Four Early English-Language Poets of Australia.7 Indeed, a further query might be added: can a relationship be identified between the way Harford was rediscovered in the eighties, and her apparent assimilation by the radical Right in the form of Murray today?

The Harford revival of the eighties took place in the context of a Left - at that point, still hegemonic within the humanities undergoing a profound ideological crisis. That crisis suited a particular presentation of the poet's life and work, with the mounting disarray of official communism, already apparent before the fall of the Berlin Wall, provoking a renewed interest in alternative radical traditions. Harford's organisational affiliations and her attitudes to sexuality and gender seemed to offer a clean break from a communist tradition that many associated entirely with Stalinism.

In an earlier period, Lesbia Harford's association with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) almost certainly contributed to her long neglect, since Stalinist historians dismissed the IWW as an ill-disciplined assortment of anarchosyndicalists, and their accounts of it privileged those IWW members who found their way into the communist movement.8 Harford did not join the CPA after its formation in 1920; she could not be celebrated as a Party poet, nor even as a fellow traveller.

As the decline of Stalinism became terminal, different assessments of the IWW gained credence. Verity Burgmann in her Revolutionary Industrial Unionism (1995), for instance, hailed IWWism as a viable alternative tradition, representing:

a truly different form of working-class politics: more democratic than the Communist and Labor Parties in its disavowal of hierarchy and bureaucracy, its insistence on the self-emancipation of the working class through its own direct action; more modern in its internationalism and vehement anti-racism, its belief in equal pay for women workers, its interest in civil liberties, its concern for the waifs and strays of society such as recent immigrants and the unemployed; more relevant in its trenchant critique of the wasted benefits of new technology, as widespread unemployment continues because reduction of working hours has been waived in favour of preserving profits; and, funnier by far than the Old Left, with a better singing voice and a greater flair for entertainment. …

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