Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Department of English


The Charmian Clift Phenomenon occurred in Australia from 1964 to 1969 when, as a syndicated weekly columnist, Charmian Clift, with committed, highly personal, communicative writing returned the essay form 'to the Australian newspaper reading public'. She captured the hearts, imagination and loyalty of readers to an unprecedented extent and her memory is still widely revered today. Yet, seemingly at the height of her powers, this talented woman took her own life.

I examine the phenomenon, what it was and how it came about, following Clift from her birthplace Kiama, through prize-winning joint authorship with her husband George Johnston, to Kalymnos and Hydra and back to Australia. Here she found her voices in the weekly essays she produced over four years for The Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Herald, giving her a significant influence on Australian reading and thinking.

Many writers, particularly in Australia, progress from journalist to novelist. In this thesis I argue that Clift's development was the reverse of this model and that the Charmian Clift Phenomenon occurred because of this change. I examine Cliffs works from the prize-winning joint novel High Valley, through the other joint novels, her personal experience books, individual novels and the My Brother Jack television series to the essays. Clift can be seen in her writing to be experimenting with different genres and these works are examined in their own right and as mines for the themes and obsessions which were to reappear in the essays.

Interviews with Margaret Vaile, J.D. Pringle and Richard Walsh illuminate the charter Clift was given in the media and the level of success she achieved. I examine the essays for form, content, style and impact and look particularly at her writing in the last year of her life, for any hint of the tragedy that was to follow. In an appendix I examine the possible reasons for this remarkable woman taking her own life. As her husband said, 'Both as a woman and as a writer Charmian Clift is worth remembering'.



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.