A Life Evolving: David O’Sullivan Reviews ‘First Things First, Selected Letters of Kate Llewellyn’

First Things First: Selected Letters By Kate Llewellyn 1977-2004 edited by Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill, Wakefield Press 2015

first things firstI enjoy reading the correspondence from leading authors and thinkers. I love the insight provided by seeing a glimpse of famous people’s personal lives and thoughts. Examples include Franz Kafka’s letters which reveal his inner turmoil and love, and Vladimir Nabokov’s letters to his wife, examining their enchantment and connection. First Things First, Selected Letters of Kate Llewellyn is no exception. Published here for the first time are a selection of Kate Llewellyn’s personal correspondence from 1977-2004. Writers of this quality are fascinating to read; you get to experience their skill with the written word. The guard that artists build so carefully, so often held up, is rarely penetrated, but here we get a rare chance to see a famous life examined. The reader is able to see what thoughts, doubts, and struggles exist in the mind of Kate Llewellyn.

We see Kate Llewellyn the thinker:

We drove to the wetlands twenty kilometres away and saw the trees standing dead in it with pink galahs decorating them like bows of ribbon.

The person

I am stiff in the limbs as I helped haul in two tonnes (or is it ton) of salmon this afternoon. A great day. A great haul. I wandered along for about four kilometres to get my mail from a small P.O. store on the beach. When I got back I saw a fisherman running to his boat parked on the beach. I said, “Do you know something I don’t?” He said… “a big mob of salmon up at Sellicks Beach. Hop in if you want to come.” I leapt into the four-wheel drive (an old wreck) and at the top of the ramp, in leapt his elderly cousin Colin with a big dog… I was in my bathers squashed between men, dog, gear and binoculars in my lap.

And, of course, the artist

I’ve always said I will write anywhere. You could throw me into prison, cut off my arms and legs and you will find me in the morning with a pen in my mouth writing on the floor.

This book provides a record of activities and actions taken by the author over a significant period of her life in a way a biography could not. We feel her happiness, frustration, and joy. We see the sad and exciting. Time moves by and as she ages gracefully, we see a life evolve.

The letters reflect the love, intelligence, shortcomings and kindness of Llewellyn. From her everyday experiences:

Jack sitting here eating poached eggs and gravy on toast, a thing Hugh and I love…

to the difficulties of travelling to book fairs “three hours each way” only to “only sell three books.” We also see reflected the history of Australia and the effect it had on Llewellyn:

13th March 1993

Dear Bob and Mandy,

Well labor won… thank god… a modern miracle… until the last week I thought they were gone goslings as Wendy would say. All, or many artists will be heaving sighs of relief.

These letters brim with the personality of the poet and prose master; they reflect her power to transfer images from her mind to the mind of the reader with skill and ease. These selected letters are a must read for fans of Llewellyn, the insights provided into the life of an author. The experiences of travelling, writing, perfecting her craft may also appeal to people who are attracted to art and artists. The journey that we follow is one into a genuine life well lived.

On the other side of this, I must issue a warning. At times this journey can be rather dull. At times, the book can be like reading the letters from your grandmother’s long gone and unfamiliar friends, after your grandmother has passed away. There were pages I skimmed, there were life events, that although interesting for those connected at the time, I felt more like an outsider who could not care less. But for each of these times, as I read on, glimpses of genius would flare up and reignite my interest.

Editors Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill have read through decades of correspondence to bring what they consider to be the most poignant and revealing notes. This book is like getting to know a new lover, you dip into the intimate side of their lives, amusing and touching moments are revealed, you live through the dry and dull moments and you are left with the memory of truly knowing another living human.

 – David O’Sullivan


David O’Sullivan is a writer and an academic literacy and learning adviser at Charles Sturt University. David is the author of two novels The Bomber and Anvil Soul. You can follow David’s writing blog at www.davidgosullivan.com

First Things First: Selected Letters By Kate Llewellyn 1977-2004 is available from http://www.wakefieldpress.com.au/product.php?productid=1210&cat=0&page=&featured=Y

Kerryn Goldsworthy’s launch speech for First Things First: Selected Letters By Kate Llewellyn can be found at https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2015/05/25/living-the-life-of-a-writer-kerryn-goldsworthy-launches-first-things-first-selected-letters-by-kate-llewellyn-1977-2004/


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