'Taking the flowery bed back to Australia': The Repatriation of Charmian Clift and George Johnston



Since coming to national attention in the immediate post-World War II years Charmian Clift and George Johnston have remained an enigmatic and almost ‘mythical’ Australian literary couple. At the heart of their shared biographies is the near-decade they spent on the Aegean island of Hydra between 1955 and 1964 where they were at the centre of an international community of writers and artists, and their eventual repatriation to Australia when their years abroad culminated in the triumphant publication of Johnston’s classic novel My Brother Jack. This paper examines aspects of these years on Hydra, exploring the co-dependent but often difficult relationship the Clift and Johnston shared with other expatriates at the same time as their own marriage endured many crises amid the struggle to write fiction of lasting importance.

In particular the paper draws upon Clift’s memoir Peel Me a Lotus for its account of the couple’s arrival on Hydra and the establishment of the expatriate colony, and the recently available correspondence, diaries and unpublished fiction of New Zealander Redmond ‘Bim’ Wallis that provides new insight into the deteriorating conditions between the Hydra expatriates that made Clift and Johnston’s position on the island increasingly fraught.

Australian authors have, since at least the nineteenth century, positioned themselves in relation to increasingly cosmopolitan and transnational communities of writers, readers and publishing. As a result, scholars have continued to unpick the various strands of expatriation alongside other forms of international exchange (migration, travel, tourism, trade, diplomacy) that have shaped Australian literary and cultural production. Notable mid-century authors and expatriates Charmian Clift and George Johnston have frequently figured in (or been excluded from) accounts of Australian literary expatriation due to the singular nature of their destination. The couple’s decision to leave firstly Sydney, and then London, to live on remote islands in the Aegean, fascinated Australians in the mid-1950s, at a time when literary and cultural expatriation were dominated by the great metropolitan and imperial centres of Europe, in particular London. Clift and Johnston’s choice to reject such destinations remains relevant in the twenty-first century at a time when…

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Published 1 June 2016 in Volume 31 No. 3. Subjects: Australian expatriate writers, Cosmopolitanism.

Cite as: Dalziell, Tanya and Paul Genoni. ‘'Taking the flowery bed back to Australia': The Repatriation of Charmian Clift and George Johnston.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 31, no. 3, 2016. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.e558c2aff9.