Review: Passionate Friends by Sylvia Martin

Mary Fullerton was an Australian poet and writer active in the early 20th century. She wrote poetry that was compared to Emily Dickinson and nationalistic novels that strove to create a new ideal for Australians in the years after Federation. She was also, as this warm and erudite biography by Sylvia Martin shows, queer, forming a lifelong partnership with another woman, Mabel Singleton.

Sylvia Martin’s biography, first published in 2001 and updated with a new introduction in 2021, grew from her Phd thesis. There is some fascinating queer, political and literary history, alongside what is a fairly straightforward biography. Fullerton was born in 1868 in Gippsland, Victoria, and spent a hard childhood in the bush. Her first poem was published when she was just 12 and she moved to Melbourne in the 1890s. It was while working for the Women’s Political Association in the 1900s that she met Mabel Singleton, a England-born woman married to a much older Australian man. When Mabel separated from her husband she and Mary moved to London with Mabel’s young son Denis; Mary played an equal role in his upbringing. While in England, they were joined by the precocious Stella Miles Franklin, whose blockbuster novel My Brilliant Career had been published when she was just 18.

So much for the outlines. Martin’s biography sings because it provides a glimpse of the inner worlds of these women, brought to life through Mary’s unpublished memoirs and poetry, and letters written between the women, although notably not between Mabel and Mary herself. Yes, it is voyeuristic and the women feared their lives being “raked over”, but what a thrill to feel some of the ecstasy and pain that they shared with each other – the triumphs of friendship and success, the burdens of death, ill-health and patriarchy. A particularly delightful chapter sees Mary, Mabel, Miles and Mabel’s secretary Jean (whose own journey to London via Tierra del Fuego deserves a movie) forming a household in London for some 18 months; you can feel the sparks and prickles flying between their minds and personalities as they trade complaints and love for each other. Miles describe Jean and Mabel in a letter to Mabel:

Jean has the pluck to shoot off into space after opportunity and you have the courage of Britannia to storm the citadel.

There are plenty of interesting tidbits. Mabel and Mary go to know each other while campaigning for Vida Goldstein, one of the first woman to make a tilt at Federal parliament in Australia, whose namesake electorate has for the first time been taken by a woman in 2022. It is fascinating to learn about the nerve and gumption of the women fighting for political representation and legal equality, although as Martin notes, these politics were to elevate only Anglo women. Miles’s and Mary’s writing served the same ends, “the development of a nationalistic Australian literature in which being white or British background was paramount”. Their views on Aboriginal people and other people of colour were sadly apiece with the politics that birthed the White Australia policy, although Martin glances over Miles’s transformation into avowed fascist later in her life.

Equally fascinating are the women’s view of their own sexuality, and Martin provides a concise history of the state of the thinking of the time. Sexology, derived from evolutionary theory, had recently sorted sex into normal and deviant, with people who had same-sex desire seen as “inverts” of their gender (later this would transform into “perverts”). Mary rejected such labels, as well as the moves towards the more political identity of “lesbian”. In an amusing letter to Miles, Mary writes:

expect … any day to hear that MEF [Mary] is a pervert invert or any other vert.

Instead, she carved a space for her own desire for women that elevated chastity and friendship. Martin conceives of this as embracing the ambiguity between “identification and separateness”, or the age-old gay question of whether you want to be them or with them. Although labels are common today, there’s something compelling about what Martin describes as Mary’s:

fascination with dualities, her recognition that contradiction and paradox are not necessarily negative [that] goes beyond a mere ‘tolerance’ of ambivalence to a celebration of it.

Martin is personally invested in these questions too, describing how on embarking on her Phd she was “curious to explore how past women who loved women might have understood their feelings”.

Mary’s writing was praised only lightly and often back-handedly in its time (like Miles, much was also published pseudonymously). Although Mary’s literary career is not Martin’s main focus, the inclusion of some of Mary’s unpublished poetry paints a portrait of a writer and poet striving to articulate her ideals and desires. I was drawn particularly to her poems with imagery of violets, which Martin explains have been linked to woman-love since Sappho:

You say that violets fade upon your breast

I’d rather dearest that mine perished there

Quick on your passionate heart than otherwhere.

Or a poem Mary wrote on joining Mabel in England after a separation, meeting on the Sussex coast:

Though thought is free

Mine roams not farther than this beach tonight

Glad prisoner of the chalk cliff guardian’s white

I lie and hear the waves’ soft ministry.

“The years were kind that hid you till I grew/wiser when to parallel/our roads came quietly”, Mary wrote for Mabel, reflecting on finding partnership in the middle of her life. This is lovely, intimate poetry, the kind that’s whispered for few to hear. Martin has sensitively and quite movingly brought it to life along with the women who lived it.

Gay rating: 5/5 for queer themes and relationships.

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