Woman Eldershaw, Marjorie

Author and Historian
Alternative Names
  • Barnard, Marjorie Faith (Pen name)
  • Eldershaw, Flora Sydney (Pen name)

Written by Susan Foley and Charles Sowerwine, The University of Melbourne

Marjorie Faith (Marjory) Barnard was born on 16 August 1897 at Ashfield, Sydney, only child of Sydney-born parents Oswald Holme Barnard, clerk, and his wife Ethel Frances, née Alford, and was baptised in the Anglican church. A delicate child devoted to her mother, Marjorie was stricken with poliomyelitis and was, at first, educated at home. At age 10, she was enrolled at Florence Hooper's Cambridge School, Hunters Hill. In 1911 she moved to Sydney Girls' High School, where she completed the Leaving certificate, matriculating with a bursary in March 1916. 'In love with learning' (Roe, ADB), she embarked on studies at the University of Sydney. There she made the acquaintance of Flora Eldershaw, who soon became a friend 'of the first importance' (Roe, ADB), as she put it later. Together, collaborating as one writer, they were to show great leadership in writing fiction and history and in the community of Australian authors.

Flora Sydney Eldershaw was born on 16 March 1897 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, the fifth of eight children of native-born parents Henry Sirdefield Eldershaw, station-manager, and his wife Margaret, née McCarroll. Flora was a grand-daughter of Finney Eldershaw, author of Australia as it Really Is (London, 1854), and a cousin of the water-colourist John Ray Eldershaw. She grew up in the Riverina district and boarded at Mount Erin Convent, Wagga Wagga before enrolling at the University of Sydney.

When Barnard met Eldershaw, she was struck by the 'dark-haired, vivacious girl, a fountain of energy, ideas and laughter' (Roe, ADB). Thus the stage was set for what may have been Australia's longest and most successful literary collaboration, the fruits of which did not, however, appear for another decade. At the University of Sydney, the two pursued parallel paths, sharing the intellectual fruits of their studies in long conversations. Both studied history under Professor George Arnold Wood. The more outgoing Eldershaw served as secretary and treasurer of the university women's union from 1917 until 1920. She completed her degree in 1918 and accepted a post at Cremorne Church of England Grammar School for Girls. In 1923 she moved to Presbyterian Ladies' College, Croydon, where she rose to senior English mistress and head of the boarding school. Her Catholic upbringing precluded her promotion to headmistress.

The more intellectual Barnard graduated with first-class honours and the university medal in history. Well regarded by the history professor George Arnold Wood, she was offered a scholarship to the University of Oxford. However her father, now a strict Presbyterian, prevented her from taking it up. In retrospect she thought he resented her abilities, and they were barely reconciled by 1940 when he died.

Barnard finished her degree in 1920 and began work at the Public Library of New South Wales, where she topped library school examinations in 1921. Later she was transferred to Sydney Technical College, where she was librarian-in-charge from 1925. She pursued her writing at night. Her first book, short stories of childhood entitled The Ivory Gate, was published by Henry Champion in 1920.

Barnard and Eldershaw maintained their friendship. On weekends, they met and discussed collaborating on novels. A lucrative prize announced by the Bulletin in 1927 spurred them on. In 1928, using the pseudonym 'M. Barnard Eldershaw' for the first but not the last time, they entered A House is Built (1929), a mercantile saga with a patriarchal theme set in nineteenth-century Sydney. To their astonishment, it was declared joint winner with Katharine Susannah Prichard's Coonardoo (1929). Their book was acclaimed by no less a writer than Arnold Bennett and is now regarded as a minor classic. Barnard would later ruefully recall it as her most successful literary work, 'because it's ordinary' (Roe, ADB). At the time she asserted that the flawless collaboration was really quite simple: library research, agreed themes, allocation and exchange of chapters, and review.

Barnard and Eldershaw immediately embarked on a second novel, Green Memory (1931), with a similar setting and another patriarchal subject. It was less well received. After Green Memory, Barnard and Eldershaw wrote separately under their own names for a few years. Eldershaw published Contemporary Australian Women Writers (1931, an address to the Australian English Association, Sydney) and several articles in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society; she also edited The Australian Writers' Annual (1936) and The Peaceful Army (1938).

A leading figure in Sydney literary circles, in 1935 Eldershaw had become the first woman president of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (FAW), an office she was again to hold in 1943. With Barnard and Frank Dalby Davison, she developed policies on political and cultural issues, and helped to transform the FAW into a vocal and sometimes controversial lobby group. Her literary friends included Jean Devanny, Vance and Nettie Palmer, Tom Inglis Moore, Prichard and Judah Waten. In 1938 Eldershaw helped to persuade the Federal government to expand the Commonwealth Literary Fund (CLF) to include grants (as well as pensions) for writers and funding for university lectures on Australian literature. She was a member (1939-53) of the CLF's advisory board. Vance Palmer described her as being 'passionately devoted' to the interests of the fund and the board's 'most valuable member' (Dever, ADB).

During the same period, Barnard also wrote separately and developed her own persona as an author. Shy but opinionated, she joined the main Sydney literary societies-the Society of Women Writers of New South Wales and the Henry Lawson Literary Society (1929), the Australian English Association (1930), the Sydney PEN Club (1931) and the Fellowship of Australian Writers (mid-1930s). Her heart was set on short-story writing, but she did not initially meet with success. Harrap declined to publish her works, a verdict upheld by her recently acquired mentor Nettie Palmer, and she had no success until 1936, when the first of numerous stories appeared in The Home. In 1933 Barnard had taken six months' leave and travelled overseas with her mother. She wrote 'The Conquest of Europe', an unpublished play, on the way home. In 1935 she resigned her job to write full time; she and Eldershaw resumed their collaboration still under the pen name Marjorie Barnard Eldershaw. Shipboard interactions provided the dynamic for their next novel, The Glasshouse (1936). It was followed by Plaque with Laurel (1937), an acutely observed account of a literary gathering in Canberra.

As the world situation worsened, Barnard and then Eldershaw became more politically active. Barnard joined the Women's Club, and on occasion wrote speeches of feminist import for Eldershaw, for example 'Contemporary Australian Women Voters'. When Barnard first met Frank Dalby Davison, in 1934, she surprised him with her sharp remarks. In 1935 Barnard and Davison began a secret affair, but this did not affect Barnard's friendship with Eldershaw: they were soon known as 'the triumvirate', hosting literary soirées in a flat in King's Cross. Together with other dedicated writers, notably Jean Devanny and Miles Franklin, they vigorously promoted writers' rights and opposed censorship.

The late 1930s were a very fruitful period for Eldershaw and Barnard. They produced a critical study of Australian literature, Essays in Australian Fiction (1938), and three historical works: Phillip of Australia: an account of the settlement at Sydney Cove, 1788-92 (1938); My Australia (1939) and The Life and Times of Captain John Piper (1939), which was commissioned by the Australian Limited Editions Society. In 1939, they contributed an essay on peace to the FAW's shelved 'Writers in Defence of Freedom'.

The onset of World War II caused Barnard 'horror and grief' (Roe, ADB). She wrote a manifesto, 'The Case for the Future', for the Australian Peace Pledge Union, which she joined in 1939. She also contributed to the local Council for the Unemployed's newsletter. These show that an alleged indifference to politics has little basis in fact. In 1940 she joined the Australian Labor Party. But as a pacifist she was at odds with the times and, worse, with the Palmers.

Tired of teaching, in 1941 Eldershaw joined the Department of Labour and National Service; she worked for the division of post-war reconstruction in Canberra and later transferred to the division of industrial welfare in Melbourne. She gave advice on women's legal rights, working conditions and equal pay, and extended her interests to the welfare of Aboriginal and migrant women.

In the meantime, Barnard published several historical works as sole author. In 1941 came Macquarie's World, dedicated to Davison. The book, several times republished, was a delight to generations of history students but displeasing to Malcolm Ellis, whose charge of plagiarism was dismissed by the publisher. Australian Outline (1943), a striking miniature history, was also successful.

It had been thought that the collaboration flagged with World War II, but recent research has revealed that it continued despite emergent ideological differences and Eldershaw's move to Canberra. Together they wrote several short stories, critical and historical essays, a radio drama, The Watch on the Headland (published in Australian Radio Plays, 1946), and they edited a collection of short stories, Coast to Coast 1946 (1947). In 1945, they jointly delivered the Commonwealth Literary Fund lectures at the University of Sydney.

Most importantly, however, from 1941 through 1943 they were engaged in writing what would be their last novel. Censored in 1944 and published in expurgated form in 1947 as Tomorrow and Tomorrow, this complex and challenging work of futurist fiction fell flat, due to the cuts and to the changed circumstances: fear of invasion had been dominant when they were writing, but had evaporated by the end of the war. The novel's political content was exploited by William Wentworth in 1952 to support his allegation that Eldershaw and other prominent members of the CLF advisory board were communist sympathisers. Its reception marked the end of Barnard and Eldershaw's collaboration and thus the death of the pen name under which they wrote, Marjorie Barnard Eldershaw. When reissued in full by Virago in 1983 under its original title, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow was instantly recognised as a masterwork.

Failing on grounds of health to gain permanent appointment in the public service, Eldershaw became a private industrial consultant in 1948 and a fellow of the Australian Institute of Management in 1950, but gradually withdrew from public affairs and by 1955 had retired to her sister Mary's property at Forest Hill. She died of cerebral thrombosis on 20 September 1956 in hospital at Wagga Wagga and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Barnard continued to write, turning to history and producing her magnum opus, A History of Australia (1962). But the History was another disappointment to her, due to drab presentation and grudging reviews; the extraordinary leadership she demonstrated as the first Australian woman to meet the challenge of general history passed unnoticed. She was ahead of her times in highlighting social history and biography, and outstanding among the first generation of women historians trained in Australia.

After Barnard's mother's death in 1949, a friend, Vera Murdoch, came to live with her in the family home at Longueville. Marjorie had met 'Vee' aboard ship in 1933 and they shared a passion for travel. Following Barnard's resignation from work in 1950, they embarked on extended and increasingly venturesome trips abroad, which punctuated sustained periods of research and writing. Barnard's last major work, a commissioned biography of Miles Franklin, appeared in 1967. Written with misgivings and before the release of Franklin's voluminous papers, it exhibited characteristic virtues, with insight and style making up for ambivalence and inevitable error.

In 1973 the State branch of the Society of Women Writers (Australia) gave Barnard a seventy-sixth birthday party and in 1989 it instituted a triennial award in her name for a published book. She had been appointed OAM in 1980. Three years later she received the Patrick White award and, the following year, a New South Wales premier's special award. In 1985 the Lane Cove Library created the Marjorie Barnard local studies room to acknowledge her association with the area. The University of Sydney conferred on her an honorary D.Litt. (1986). She died on 8 May 1987 at North Gosford and was cremated. A posthumous collection of stories by Barnard and by M. Barnard Eldershaw, But Not for Love, appeared in 1988.

Published Resources


  • Rorabacher, Louise E, Marjorie Barnard and M. Barnard Eldershaw, Twayne Publishers, New York, United States of America, 1973. Details

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