A Queensland Reader: Discovering the Queensland Writer

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Author: Raymond Evans
Editor: Michelle Lee
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 110)
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,116 words

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[(essay date 2008) In the following essay, Evans discusses the relative obscurity of Wickham in Australia as a starting point for a more general treatment of the phenomenon of notable authors who have left Queensland and received little critical attention there.]

An old friend, Jim Cleary, working on the monumental Bibliography of Australian Literature at the University of Queensland, recently rang to tell me about the elusive modernist poet Anna Wickham. 'Wickham' is the pen-name of Edith Alice Mary Harper, 'one of the most significant feminist poets of modernism', who published between the 1910s and the 1930s.1 The author of over one thousand poems, covering a remarkable diversity of forms, Wickham was described in the memoir of American publisher Louis Untermeyer as 'a remarkable gypsy of a woman'.2 During her tempestuous life, she mixed with members of the London Chelsea and Bloomsbury sets, plunged into the literary and artistic circles of the Parisian demi-monde, had a brief sexual relationship with pioneer American modernist poet H. D. (Hilda Dolittle), was sexually spurned by lesbian heiress and literary patron Natalie Clifford Barney, and became closely aligned with D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda von Richthofen, as well as Dylan Thomas and Caitlin MacNamara, falling out with the latter couple after throwing a drunken 'Thomas and fellow writer Lawrence Durrell out of the house'.3 She was also close friends with the erratic novelist Malcolm Lowry, whetted the appetites of Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, and helped to mentor the young Stephen Spender. Somewhat like T. S. Eliot's wife Vivien Haigh-Wood, she was incarcerated at one point in a mental institution by her husband, solicitor Patrick Hepburn. And, like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, she died by her own hand, hanging herself in her decaying home on Parliament Hill, London, following the freezing winter of 1947.

Wickham was born at Wimbledon, Sussex in 1883, but her birth as a poet occurred some years later on the streets of Brisbane, Queensland. In 1885-86, at barely eighteen months old, Edith Harper had migrated to Australia with her mother, Alice Whelan Harper, a fin-de-siècle 'New Woman'. After a brief stint in Sydney, they returned to England, but in 1889 sailed again for Queensland to join her father, Geoffrey Harper, an other-worldly piano tuner whose principal desire in life was to enjoy 'empty hours for dreams and a quiet room to write about them'.4 The unstable family was reunited in Maryborough, afterwards moving to Hughenden in 1892 and the following year to Brisbane where her mother's mental difficulties, drug-taking and suicidal depressions worsened. As the years passed, young Edith would compose poetry and recite it to her disconsolate father. In a 'Fragment of an Autobiography', dealing largely with her Australian years, the poet describes the origin of her metamorphosis into the persona of 'Anna Wickham':

On Sunday night, walking on Wickham Terrace, we came to a point equidistant between the Church of England [All Saints] and the Presbyterian Church [St Andrews]. Hymns...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420100930