Diaries, letters and two creative lives

SCATTERED around the continent during the war years, the Durack sisters and brothers depended more than ever on letters. Nothing stopped the flow of words: the exchange of news, the expressions of self-doubt, the calls for support, the gossip, the need to know that the others were listening. Reg, still a solitary bachelor at Auvergne, wrote by the light of a kerosene lantern under a hurricane-damaged roof. Kim was at Argyle, also alone, planning and dreaming of a new order for Kimberley land. Elizabeth was in Sydney, where she had few friends. She signed her letters to the family as Bet or Bumbles, but she was becoming Elizabeth - a name for a serious artist and the name that Frank always used.

And even though Mary was back in Perth, with a home of her own, she too was lonely. She could not go back to work on The West Australian: like the state schools and the public service, it did not employ married women. More than ever in the war years the Duracks needed one another. Reg could not talk freely to his father; Elizabeth was not at ease with her mother. Exasperation did not extinguish love but it strained their relationships. Mary became their centre, always responsive to their emotional needs. As the family mediator, she urged them to be fair to their parents. Her protest on behalf of their mother drew this reply from Elizabeth:

Yes - I guess I am a bit heartless and don't 'understand' about Mother. The fact is that most, in fact, every human being needs to have someone they can be themselves with. The usually laid out course of affairs is that the daughter confides in the mother but in this case I have you and Reg who understand me dispassionately enough to say anything at all without feeling self-conscious. A mother's love to me was always too defensively protective - it frightened me into complete silence.

Closeness to their brothers - Kim as well as Reg - probably worked against intimacy within the marriages of Mary and Elizabeth. Indeed, Mary seems scarcely to have expected it from Horrie.

On one of his many absences from home she remarked that she was missing him ''despite the fact that we have so little in common''. Their marriage, as Elizabeth remarked acidly, was ''doomed to last'', but its success came to depend on their having separate spheres.

Soon after their marriage in 1938, Mary and Horrie built a house on a corner block in Bellevue Avenue in the Perth suburb of Nedlands. Some family wit called it Mildew, from the combined Miller-Durack names. Nothing could have been less appropriate for a place of constant movement and sociability: ''cosy bedlam'' as their daughter Patsy later described it. Designed by Mary's brother Bill, who had then just graduated in architecture, it must have seemed roomy in 1938, but its four bedrooms would be stretched to accommodate six Miller children and their parents.

Mary wanted children. Whether she wanted them to come so quickly, and so many of them, her natural response was to accept and somehow find ways to manage. Her first baby Patsy, born in August 1939, was ''adorable'', clever, responsive, funny. Mary played with her for hours. Horrie was not enthusiastic about Patsy: she was dark, not like him; Mary thought he was suspicious because the birth came early. Within little more than a year, in September 1940, a second child, Robin, was born. This blonde daughter was more to Horrie's liking; she became his favourite, shamelessly indulged. Perhaps to compensate, Mary was at first cool about Robin, who was ''plainish'' at birth and not as immediately responsive as Patsy to the comedy of life. Julie was born in July 1942, Andy in August 1944 and Marie Rose in October 1949. The birth of a sixth child, Johnnie, in June 1955, completed a family which stretched Mary's capacities, emotional and physical. The strain of motherhood, evident in her letters to Elizabeth, is not reflected in Mary's published writings. Motherhood was a full-time job, especially in the war years, when household help was scarce to non-existent. Horrie, too old for this domestic abundance and unsuited to fatherhood, did not give emotional support. He was by nature a loner, and his work often took him away. There was no place for Mary to write. A table in her bedroom, on which her papers mingled with children's unmended socks, was the best she could do.

Like Elizabeth in Sydney and Reg and Kim in the north, Mary was often alone. Horrie's way of life as a pilot did not change with marriage and for much of the time she was in effect a sole parent. Unlike her mother, Mary had no Nurse Stevens to help look after them and manage the household. Her only sure time for writing was at night, while the children slept, and from these late hours came the letters that held all the Duracks together, as well as articles, stories and poems. Mary had no large projects during the war years, but her output was formidable.

When she married, Mary said that a career would never have been enough for her, but that did not mean she was giving up her ambitions as a writer. If her children were happy and well fed, she was willing to leave some household tasks undone.

Edited extract of True North by Brenda Niall, published by Text Publishing.

This book is one of 10 Victorian titles included in the State Library's Summer Read program. Visit a participating public library and recommend one of the books for your chance to win a prize.

The story Diaries, letters and two creative lives first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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