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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Clift, Charmian (1923–1969)

by Nadia Wheatley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Charmian Clift (1923-1969), by Ray Crooke

Charmian Clift (1923-1969), by Ray Crooke

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an4060874-1

Charmian Clift (1923-1969), writer, was born on 30 August 1923 at Kiama, New South Wales, third and youngest child of Sydney Clift, a fitter and turner from England, and his native-born wife Amy Lila, née Currie. Although Charmian attended Kiama Public and Wollongong High schools, she attributed her education to her parents' love for books, and to the wild beach and little valley that bounded her home. After passing the Intermediate certificate in 1938, she worked at odd jobs around Kiama. Tall, with an athletic build, Clift was growing into the beauty that would become one of her best-known attributes. In May 1941 she won the New South Wales title in Pix magazine's Beach Girl Quest and escaped to Sydney. There she became an usherette at the Minerva Theatre, Kings Cross.

Enlisting in the Australian Women's Army Service on 27 April 1943, Clift served with the 15th Australian Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery in Sydney. She was commissioned lieutenant in August 1944 and worked as an orderly officer at Land Headquarters, Melbourne. While editing an army magazine, she began to write and publish short stories. Having transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 11 May 1946, she joined the Argus and met the war correspondent George Henry Johnston. Their employers disapproved of their relationship and three months later both were summarily dismissed. Clift and Johnston left for Sydney and, following his divorce, were married on 7 August 1947 at the courthouse, Manly. They collaborated on the novel, High Valley (1949), which won the Sydney Morning Herald's £2000 prize for 1948.

Early in 1951 Charmian, George and their son and daughter went to London where Johnston was in charge of the Associated Newspaper Service's office. Clift completed little in the way of writing until the family moved to the Greek island of Kálimnos late in 1954. She then wrote Mermaid Singing (Indianapolis, 1956), a semi-autobiographical account of life in Greece. In her second travel book, Peel me a Lotus (London, 1959), she described their move to Hydra (Ídhra) and the birth of their second son.

Clift next turned her lyrical talent to the landscape of Kiama in her first solo novel, Walk to the Paradise Gardens (London, 1960). A slow and painstaking writer, she spent the next four years on the romantic novel, Honour's Mimic (London, 1964). While struggling with this book, she began an autobiographical novel about her childhood ('The End of the Morning'), and acted as the sounding-board for Johnston during his writing of My Brother Jack (London, 1964). He returned to Australia in February 1964 for its release; Clift and the children followed in August.

Her four books had received glowing reviews in Britain and the United States of America, but had barely been distributed in Australia. Back in Sydney, Clift was a literary nonentity—or worse, the wife of a literary celebrity. She soon achieved recognition in her own right: her weekly column in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Herald immediately attracted a large and devoted readership. Originally commissioned to produce 'real writing from a woman's point of view', she in fact wrote essays. Although her form was traditional and her style exquisite, her subject matter often included topical issues such as the Vietnam War, conscription, the Greek junta and world hunger. In 1965 thirty-six of these essays were anthologized in Images in Aspic (Sydney). The acclaimed ten-part television series of My Brother Jack, which Clift had scripted for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, went to air in August-October that year. Funding never eventuated, however, for her subsequent film and television projects.

Over the next few years Clift met the deadline for her weekly column. She also carried the main burden of housework and parenting, for Johnston was seriously ill and spent many months in hospital. Little time remained for writing books. Receiving a six-month Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship in late 1968, she again turned to 'The End of the Morning', but it remained a fragment. The combination of work pressure and personal pain had become too great by mid-1969. On the night of 8 July, while considerably affected by alcohol, Charmian Clift took a fatal overdose of sleeping tablets at her Mosman home; survived by her husband and three children, she was cremated. Since her death, her reputation has grown. In 1970 a second anthology of essays, The World of Charmian Clift, was compiled by George and illustrated by their elder son Martin. Her other essays were collected in two volumes, Trouble in Lotus Land (1990) and Being Alone With Oneself (1991), and all her early books were republished in a uniform edition (1989-90). Ray Crooke's portrait of Clift is held by the National Library of Australia, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Clift, Images in Aspic, G. Johnston introduction (Syd, 1965)
  • C. Clift, Trouble in Lotus Land, N. Wheatley editor and introduction (Syd, 1990)
  • D. Foster (compiler and introduction), Self-Portraits (Canb, 1991)
  • Walkabout, Jan 1969
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 3 Sept 1969
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 May 1948
  • Sun (Sydney), 6 July 1966
  • Australian, 23 Nov 1968
  • Charmain Clift papers (National Library of Australia)
  • George Johnston papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Nadia Wheatley, 'Clift, Charmian (1923–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 26 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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