Review by Amanda Hickey
Edited By Robyn Cadwallader
Verity Fitzhardinge (née Hewitt) was a woman of all seasons: as a writer she crafted poems, articles, letters, book reviews, books and theses; as a farmer she ran properties where she managed everything from breeding cattle to growing apples; she was a linguist (mastering Russian); a much-loved high school teacher; a passionate woman with two great loves in her life, and a mother of two fine sons.
For people such as myself who grew up in Canberra during the 60s and 70s it was impossible not to have known of Verity Hewitt. She had established the national capital’s most eminent bookshop and for some decades it was a cherished business among Canberra’s academics, politicians and citizens. Finally, long overdue, her biography, Verity: A Remarkable Woman’s Journey, has been written by Robert Lehane and it makes for fascinating reading.
Born into a farming family from New England, as a young girl Verity had always desired to travel to wild and exotic places — a wish that finally came true in her fifties whilst conducting research for her PhD.
Verity first revealed her talent for writing at age fifteen, when the Sydney Morning Herald published one of her poems and soon after, when she won a writing competition run by the Australasian.
She was accepted into Sydney University where she earned distinctions in English and History, and also where she would meet her future husband, Laurie Fitzhardinge. They shared a mutual love of letters and history. Lehane writes:
Laurie was editor of the Arts Journal in 1928, and found space for stories and poems by Verity in both the year’s editions. Interviewed in 1983, he recalled the pair “drifted together” — meeting in the old Gothic-revival Fisher library in the quadrangle, a building “very conducive to dreaming”.[i] [p.21]
In her first story for the journal Verity used the locale of the Fisher library, capturing a snapshot of a student’s life which remains universally true: ‘We have worked there; we have slept there, head on desk; we have fought out our inner battles there; above all, we have talked there where talking is sweet with the spice of things contraband.’ [p.22]
But earning a reasonable living as a writer seemed unlikely so she completed a Dip Ed and was sent to work as a high school teacher at Telopea Park High in Canberra. The population at that time was just nine thousand. ‘It had been home to Federal Parliament for just three years and most Commonwealth public servants were still in Melbourne, the temporary capital after Federation.’
At Telopea she came to know well one stellar adolescent — Gough Whitlam — and encouraged him to publish in the school newsletter a tongue-in-cheek poem he had written.
These do I love:
My studied conversation’s dulcet sounds,
The noble platitudes which I expound;
The way I eat and sleep and sing and stand,
My well-proportioned foot and shapely hand;
My aristocratic and exalted air,
My deep blue optics and my nut-brown hair;
My upright morals and receptive mind,
How I am doted on by womankind [p. 44]
She was a good teacher remembered fondly by her many students, although admitted she was never an expert at classroom management.
Verity loved Canberra and found its setting ‘one of the most beautiful I have ever seen — a fair wide valley with picturesque hills all round it, some peaked and wooded, some table top and bare.’ [p. 34] It did have a small basic bookshop in the Canberra Book Club at Manuka, but she thought it needed an alternative with a much grander scope.
‘On 1 April 1938,’ Lehane writes, ‘she opened Verity Hewitt’s Bookshop in a room rented for 10 shillings a week above a popular meeting and eating spot, Leo’s Café, in the Civic Centre.’ [p.124]
The timing was right, on the eve of World War 2, with so many Australians keen to expand their knowledge of the world beyond these shores.
The bookshop became a social gathering spot for book-lovers. ‘She was happy for customers to browse, not bothering them until they wanted help,’ writes Lehane, and it was no ordinary bookshop. [p.125] For example, as The Canberra Times noted in a 1940 article, it had a picture and reading room added which was ‘available for public use with no sense of obligation to purchase either books or pictures.’ [p. 133] And interestingly her work with new post-war refugees from Europe, many of whom she employed to help on the farm, also led her to stock foreign language books, a real first for Canberra. Indeed, I still have a Russian poetry book my Latvian mother bought there at that time.
Soon after opening, the shop also served as the office of a notable monthly magazine, the Australian National Review,
with the ambitious goal of fostering debate on politics, economics, the arts and, generally, matters of the mind. It also published poetry and short fiction, and attracted a galaxy of notable contributors ranging from public figures such as Sir Isaac Isaacs and Sir Robert Garran to the poets Mary Gilmore and Judith Wright. [p.126]
Verity, too, had poems published in it.
About their endeavours she and Laurie had a clear purpose of what they were doing with the shop, as she would later explain in a BBC interview:
[W]ith the development of our national life and culture and the growing consciousness of our historical we would like to see our historical records in our own land — especially, and ultimately, in our permanent nationally-owned historical collections. [p.155]
Lehane sums up her motives: ‘She felt that booksellers and collectors had a role to play in making a contribution to national collections’.
By the late 1940s Verity had come under the spell of Russian literature and embarked on the study of the language. With her Socialist bent, she may have also been curious about the great experiment of Communism that was being conducted in the Soviet Union. She started a group of like-minded people called the Pushkin Circle. However, this was the era of the Cold War and her fascination with all things Russian also brought her to the attention of ASIO, which would follow her activities for the next few decades.
Biographer Robert Lehane has carefully studied those ASIO files on Verity and has come to the following conclusion: ‘there was little to substantiate the notion that she was pro-Communist; “the mere fact” of her membership of the Pushkin Circle in Sydney was no proof’. Her bookshop had a ‘reputation for good taste in the selection of books, prints, paintings and curios in which she dealt’. The ASIO report noted its ‘atmosphere’ was ‘one of propriety with a slight whimsical note’. [p. 170] It went on to say the Pushkin Circle could just have a genuine interest in Russian literature, particularly Pushkin.
However, Verity soon made her political views patently clear when, in 1957, she joined the Labor party, as a member of the new Canberra South branch.
Verity, not planning to be a passive party member, won a place on its credentials committee; her council colleagues included secretary Fin Crisp, professor of political science at Canberra University College, and assistant secretary 27 year old Bob Hawke, then a doctoral student at the ANU. [p.185]
Lehane notes that her copy of the party’s rules and constitution is heavily annotated and that ‘She underlined references to the ALP’s “intense abhorrence of war” and desire for all international disputes to be settled by “reference to what is just and right, and not to what is merely expedient”’. Included was a clause — a call for ‘a total prohibition of the export of privately owned arms and munitions of war’. [p.186] I can only imagine what Verity would think now that advertising billboards at Canberra airport have recently been used to sell Australian-made arms and that we have (at the time of writing) a special minister, Christopher Pyne, dedicated to defence industry.
Certainly right through the 1950s Verity was an active member of the peace movement. Her anti-war sentiments were not just ideological but also deeply emotional. While still involved with Laurie, as a young woman she had fallen head over heels in love with George Lacey, a bright young Englishman who, at the outbreak of WW2, joined up and, for a while, agonised over which of the two suitors she should marry. Perhaps he sensed that he would not survive the war for ‘Lacey wrote from North Africa in November 1940, a year before he was mortally wounded, asking if she would write a reminiscence of him — a man, as he put it, “full of vanity and weakness, of morbid fear, timidity and fickleness … but he loved beauty”’. [p. 305]
It would take her a few decades before she got around to it, but she would finally honour that promise to Lacey by writing the memoir and biography titled A Man’s Man, based on letters, recollections and interviews with as many of his fellow soldiers as she could locate.
Verity believed that war was futile and during the Vietnam war, joined many protests, for example, on Oct 20, 1966 outside the Canberra Rex Hotel where LBJ was reportedly staying for a night. ASIO reported on her clothes; it seems she had dressed with true demonstration flair: ‘She wore an old plastic raincoat with anti-Government and Vietnam slogans attached to it, and carried a placard over her head. It did not appear that she was with any special group but walked up and down all evening’. [p. 262]
Yet it wasn’t just war that made her protest. In 1964 she took up a more local environmental cause — campaigning against sand and gravel mining in the Molonglo River near her property. She organised protest letters, invited journalists, and then in 1967 as ‘work began on a new pit, she staged a protest that was reported on the front page of The Times and in Sydney’s The Sun-Herald — both pieces with photos of Verity on an imposing horse’. [p. 237]
Robert Lehane’s biography is well-researched and finely written. He has managed to not only graphically describe Verity’s multi-faceted character but also produced an engaging account of Canberra, even Australia, as it was during her lifetime.
In her fifties Verity embarked on a PhD examining Afghanistan’s frontiers, particularly the Anglo-Russian construction in the 1880s of the border between Afghanistan and the Russian Empire. The PhD allowed her to travel adventurously and this she did with great gusto.
She was an inveterate letter writer documenting the challenges and delights of her travels and research in long letters home to family. These have now been carefully edited by her son, Geoff Fitzhardinge, and published in the volume A Nice Quiet Tourist: Letters From A Journey To Afghanistan.
This published collection of her letters is timely because they provide a stunning description of Afghanistan during a time of peace, a time that’s been almost forgotten in the last decades of conflict and invasion.
She meets with all kinds of Afghans such as: the first Afghan woman who was allowed to study overseas without a chaperone; Professor Mohammed Ali, an elderly author of many books on Afghanistan’s history who lent her an ‘armful of books’,[ii] and the young wife of a hotel manager (‘he asked searchingly if I thought she was pretty’) who had bought her from her impoverished parents. [p. 113] She visits markets, libraries, heritage sites and harems, fascinated by it all and along with her journals and interviews, takes photos of all kinds of workers.
Verity was known for being a kind and compassionate soul and this is seen in one incident near Herat, just as she had stopped to take a photograph.
A young man leading a donkey carrying a burka-clad woman came slowly along the road and just as I was about to move on, the woman fell out of the saddle into the young man’s arms and he put her down prone on the side of the road and bent over her. She seemed in a bad way …[p. 57]
Verity then spent a day organising for the severely malnourished woman to get to a local hospital where she could receive treatment. At the hospital she heard that in this stratified world it was not uncommon for the women to be under-nourished, as sacrificing their share of food to other family members was the norm.
Her descriptions of the landscape’s harsh beauty are visually arresting; mountains are ‘beautiful shaped sharp ranges’ and ‘rocks lie like the spiny backs of armadillos across the ranges’. [p. 40]
In Herat she watches two men digging into the barren earth.
I found he was digging out with a mattock by the roots the small plants which are used for kindling, which at this time of year are nearly all root, the green above being only an inch or so high. No wonder these hills are so barren if for all Herat’s long history the land has been so denuded by man the destroyer, for his immediate comfort. [p. 51]
In his foreword, Professor Amin Saikal speaks of this volume as a ‘treasure’. He writes that ‘Afghanistan and the scholars of its history owe an enormous gratitude to Verity’, and that ‘it should be read by all those who want to know about life and society in Afghanistan at the time, as eye-witnessed by Dr Verity Fitzhardinge.’ [p. ix]
A Nice Quiet Tourist makes for a lovely companion book to the elegantly written yet comprehensive biography Robert Lehane has written about this remarkable woman who was, in so many ways, ahead of her times.
[ii] Fitzhardinge, Verity, A Nice Quiet Tourist: Letters From A Journey To Afghanistan, ed. by Geoffrey Fitzhardinge, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2017, p 190. All subsequent quotations are from this work.
Amanda Hickey is a writer, by day, and has just published a WW2 history book Tobruk to Labuan: the life and letters of letters of Brig. Colin ‘Hugh’ Boyd Norman. By night she is an ESL teacher. She has worked with words all her adult life across many mediums — documentaries, journalism, blogging, short films and books. Her first documentary, King of Hearts, (Writer and Director) on heart surgeon Victor Chang, won an award for SBS TV. Her latest documentary (Co-Producer, Australia) We Are Many, is currently available on I-Tunes. Amanda also writes for her own blog, reviews for Verity La and is currently working on a memoir about her mother’s experience in World War 2 and migration to Australia.