Studio Portrait of Charmian Clift, 23 June 1941, by Frederick Stanley Grimes
Recently I discovered the republication of two memoirs by Australian author Charmian Clift, about her time living in Greece in the 1950s. Charmian has been a figure in my imagination for a long time. When I discovered her work during my Melbourne Uni days, she was already out of print and I found her in the pages of her adopted daughter's memoir Searching for Charmian. Suzanne Chick found out she was Charmian’s daughter, long after Charmian’s death at age 49 by suicide. Perhaps it was this in particular that drew me to Charmian. My own mother was still alive then but had attempted suicide a number of times already and I was always curious and searching for the hidden stories of mothers who died that way.
Charmian and her husband George Johnston moved to Greece in the 1950s with their children in an attempt to escape the shackles of the 9 to five life and live off their income as authors. In her book, Peel Me A Lotus, Charmian describes their lives on the island of Hydra and the problems they swapped them for.
Broke after purchasing a house, George is furiously trying to write something that his publisher will buy and Charmian gives birth to a third child and spends most of her days worrying about drains, shopping, cooking and other domestic responsibilities which allows George the time and space to write. The are both trapped in a way, by the domestic grind of life on an island with little modern conveniences and the forces of the book market demanding something more sellable. The scenes Charmian describes sway from the idyllic to the banal. The crying baby that she knows will become a crawler then a toddler, the years ahead chasing a small child again stretching before her. The afternoons swimming in the summer heat, and the nights spent in the bar on the harbour front. Waiting for the boat from Athens to bring royalty cheques and rejection slips.
Last year, author Kerry Hudson, at the time heavily pregnant with her first child, tweeted that people keep telling her to prepare herself not to be able to write. In despair she turned to twitter to reassure herself that this was not true. The resulting thread was a wonder to read. The tales of success of women writers who came into their own after motherhood. My own writing career has been almost entirely post divorce whilst caring for two children, one of whom is disabled. Life changes massively on motherhood. But it doesn’t mean it ends.
This pull and shove of domestic life is constantly on my mind. On the one hand, I am often overwhelmed if I take a moment to take stock of all I must achieve and do in any given week. On the other, I am forever forging forward, driven with an intensity that I never experienced in my younger days. I have to work, I have to make my work pay and the restrictions within which I write have created strangely excellent conditions in which to produce work. Despite what the myths about writing might be, I find a busy life is condusive to writing. But I don’t live on an island that requires I pump water, wash clothes by hand and provide a husband with the ideal conditions in which to work undisturbed. I might be a busy single parent and carer but I also have more freedom than a 1950s wife, whether in London or a bohemian Greek island.
In Peel Me A Lotus, George and Charmian are at the centre of a group of vagabond artist expats, many of whom produce little work despite their incredible freedoms. Time is not always what is lacking when it comes to producing work. Except perhaps, when you are a wife.
The Greek island of Hydra, the bohemian centre for artists and writers in the 1960s.
I believe we have author Polly Samson to thank for this new interest in Charmian’s work, after she published the wonderful novel A Theatre for Dreamers last year – a fictional account of the group of artists and writers on Hydra in 1960 – which examines all that the women must give up in the service of the art their men produce. Polly has written forwards to the new editions of Charmian’s books, describing that pull and shove of her roles as a wife, mother, lover and writer.
For any of us, who are grappling with those roles, the contradictions of them, the push and pull of them, Charmian is a both a beacon and perhaps a warning flare. We have come so far and yet this past year has reminded us, not far enough. Because when it comes down to it, whether forced by a pandemic, or by lack of money on a Greek island, so often the assumption that women will do all the unpaid work prevents us from reaching our full potential.
And yet, it is Charmian’s book that I now hold in my hands 60 years on, not George’s – the husband who was afforded all day to write by his wife who took care of pretty much everything else.
Penny is a Melbourne born, London dwelling, author, speaker, podcaster and freelance photographer. She’s raising two kids on her own, one autistic and one not. Here you will find her writing about work life, raising a neurodiverse family and learning to see the beauty in a life she didn’t know she needed, whilst letting go of the one she assumed she would have.Learn more about Penny Wincer here
Podcast: Not Too Busy To Write
Penny’s first book Tender: The imperfect art of caring available here
You can find Penny’s photography work here.