TEXT review

Dear (not) you: reading Kate Llewellyn’s letters

review by Natalie Kon-yu


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First Things First: Selected Letters of Kate Llewellyn 1977-2004
Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill (eds)
Wakefield Press, Adelaide 2015
ISBN 9781743053645
Pb 320pp AUD29.95


It’s a curious thing to read a letter that has not been written to you – it’s akin to eavesdropping on a conversation; an uncomfortable sensation of trespass. When those letters have been written by a person who is still alive, about other people who are still alive, then the uneasiness deepens. As I read First Things First I couldn’t quite shake the discomfort in reading the letters of a still-living person. This selection, edited by Barbara Hill and Ruth Bacchus, is only a small portion of Llewellyn’s letters, which are housed at the Australian Defence Force Academy; a collection which contains ‘over one hundred folders containing over two thousand letters’ (xii), and which dates back to 1957. Kate Llewellyn is a prolific writer; she has published twenty books, primarily poetry collections and memoir or autobiographical novels, and has a huge volume of written correspondence to her name.

First Things First begins with letters written in 1977, a time chosen by the editors as it coincides with Llewellyn’s leaving her job to take up writing full time. This first section of letters is interesting; there are all kinds of salacious details of Llewellyn’s affairs, as well as the affairs of her friends. The editors have included the full names of both the correspondents and the people to whom Llewellyn refers in her letters, which is, I think, a curious decision. The Australian writing scene is not a large one and many of the people Llewellyn talks about would be well-known in these circles, both professionally and personally. It is not clear whether permission has been granted by the correspondents or subjects of these letters. And thus, the problem in reviewing such a work: there is a slipperiness in writing about the personal letters of a still-living author, in which she discusses people that are known to you. I was embedded uncomfortably within the work in a way that I would not have been if the collection had been published posthumously.
The accounts of Llewellyn-as-writer sustain the most interest in the book. For those of us engaged in the writing profession, the documentation of Llewellyn’s struggles and triumphs  – to make ends meet as a full-time writer, and to have her work accepted and well-reviewed  – is the most intriguing. In a letter to close friends, Llewellyn states that

work in structured places, the law, bureaucracy and places like that is really a killer to art in many ways. You must have a daily struggle against it. I think it’s perhaps why it looks so self indulgent and eccentric to others sometimes to see artists refusing to take other jobs. But deep in their hearts I think the artists know the work is so vulnerable that it needs to be protected like a newly hatched chicken, and before that, is a hatching egg so easily killed. (224-225)

There are times when Llewellyn’s prose soars, and times when the book is riveting. I found the first few sections where there are many letters crammed into a small period of time to be the most satisfying. Here we get the strongest sense of not only Llewellyn, but also of the other characters in this book; her correspondents and the people with whom Llewellyn has strong relationships. As the book goes on the letters change; certain correspondents are dropped and new ones taken up without explanation from the editors or through the letters, which makes the book much more difficult to read. The letters become more spaced out chronologically, which gives us only partial glimpses into Llewellyn’s life at this time. There are apologies given to close friends for events that remain a mystery to the reader, but have obviously had an unsettling effect on Llewellyn. Or dramatic situations which are only described in cursory details and never tied up within the book. In a letter to Bob and Mandy, for instance, Llewellyn states

Scenes of unbelievable intensity took part in the sale of this essay book. Nick Hudson went into a frenzy and with letters, faxes and phone calls daily I got tired of him . . . it was not for me to say anyway . . . it is up to Tim. It ended with Nick threatening to have a publisher come out in public and support him in his grievance case. (225)

The reader receives no indication of what this grievance might be. Another example is a letter to Ian North, in which Llewellyn writes ‘But what can one make of it. “She has gone,” Bob said on Sunday when I called him. Gulled and gutted . . . that’s my darling Robert . . . my heart sank . . .’ (244-245). “She” remains nameless, and when Llewellyn describes her as ‘behaving in a demented way’ (245), the reader has no idea what has transpired. Events which are obvious to the correspondent remain murky to the reader. Because of the personal nature of the letters, and because there are too many dropped threads, hints, innuendo and speculation, I found myself wanting the book to be briefer, and for the letters contained to have a stronger unifying theme – either by a smaller list of correspondents or a condensed time frame.

Bacchus and Hill state that they have ‘tried in our selection to concentrate on those letters that bear some relation to Kate’s writerly concerns or illuminate her role as one of Australia’s prolific writers’ (xiii). In this sense the book is bound to resonate most with fans of Llewellyn’s writing, or devotees of letter collections. For the rest of us the impression we get is scattered, containing, to borrow a phrase from the book ‘oddities, eccentricities, failures, luck and queerness that makes a life’ (208).



Dr Natalie Kon-yu is a lecturer at Victoria University and her critical and creative work has been published nationally and internationally. She is a contributor and commissioning editor of both Just between Us: Australian Writers Tell the Truth about Female Friendship (2013) and Mothers and Others: Why not all Women are Mothers and not all Mothers are the Same (2015).  Natalie is currently researching gender bias in the publishing industry.


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Vol 19 No 2 October 2015
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste