Lesbia Harford’s Homefront Warrior and Women’s World War I Writing

Sometime during the early 1920s, Lesbia Harford wrote The Invaluable Mystery, a novel which concerns Sally, an urban working-class woman, and her struggle to survive on her own when her German-born father, Mr Putman, and brother, Max, are interned as enemy aliens during the Great War. To a contemporary reader, the plot seems conventional, but the novel failed to find a publisher until1987, after it was accidentally discovered by researchers Richard Nile and Robert Darby in the Australian Archives in Canberra. In their Introduction, Nile and Darby provide a history of this delay and, along with Helen Garner, speculate on why it was suppressed. In her Foreword, Garner suggests that the book's radical subject matter, 'the grotesque internment and maltreatment of foreign nationals in Australia during the First World War' (1), may have prevented its publication. But this is to misread the text, for the Germans (including the Putman men) who are imprisoned are not treated badly; their gaolers are strict and intolerant, but never abusive or cruel, and several of the Australian officers who capture them are affable, even kindly.

Nile and Darby suggest a number of possibilities as to why the book did not get into print. They propose that English publishers, who dominated the industry, preferred bush, not urban novels (13), and that the Australian publishing enterprise was 'controlled by conservative men' who gave little credence to women writers (9). They further surmise that Harford was 'critical of Australian attitudes to the war effort and particularly government "precautions" such as censorship and the removal of civil rights' (15), but this notion is unsubstantiated by the text. On the one hand, Harford makes it clear that the arrest of harmless and innocent foreign nationals like the Putman men is unwarranted, as one of the neighbours remarks that Mr Putman is an old chap who "wasn't doing no harm to anybody"' (128). But on the other hand, Harford also establishes that the Putman men occasionally behave unwisely, taking risks in what they know to be a volatile political climate. Both are outspoken in their hatred of the English and get into public rows over issues of nationality, thereby drawing attention to themselves unnecessarily. Harford thus captures the tenor of the paranoia and prejudice which existed on the Australian homefront during the early days of the war, but she does not take sides.

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Published 1 May 1995 in Volume 17 No. 1. Subjects: Australian literature and writers, Australian war literature, Australian women writers, Effects of war, Gender - Literary portrayal, Publishing, World War I.

Cite as: Coates, Donna. ‘Lesbia Harford’s Homefront Warrior and Women’s World War I Writing.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 17, no. 1, 1995, doi: 10.20314/als.8193f4e020.