Barbara Hanrahan (1939–91), writer and artist, was born and raised in Adelaide. After her father’s early death, she and her mother lived in Rose Street, Thebarton, with her grandmother and her great-aunt. She described this upbringing in a household of women in her diary as ‘the backbone upon which I build all my fiction . . . as I build all my life’. Certainly no other writer has so evocatively captured the essence of a suburban Adelaide childhood or written in such detail about the city and the lives of its working-class inhabitants, particularly women.
Hanrahan first achieved success as a printmaker. After three years studying at the South Australian School of Art and a brief period of teaching and exhibiting, she sailed from ‘a little city and the certainties of a neat brick house’ to study art in London, as did her heroine Kate in Sea-green (1974). By 1965 her work had been purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Art Gallery of South Australia. Apart from occasional trips home, she lived in London with her partner, Jo Steele, until 1978, a period covered in Michael and Me and the Sun (1992).
The death of her grandmother stimulated her to begin writing random memories of her Adelaide childhood. These became The Scent of Eucalyptus (1973), a book which, remarkably for Australian literature, remains in print. Many of Hanrahan’s subsequent novels and stories worked and reworked the rich vein of her childhood memories and provoked the accusation that she wrote repetitively about the same people and things. In a review, Peter Ward described her as a ‘Peter Pan [who] wanted never to grow up’, but Hanrahan saw her art as a way of recording and memorialising the lives of family members.
Both her art and her writing are highly individual and personalised. Her best-known prints are those on the covers of her novels – romantic floating girls in sprigged dresses and flowing hair – and she found endless material in Adelaide and what she called the ‘weirdness of suburbia’. Hanrahan’s private face, revealed with the publication of her diaries in 1998, came as a surprise to many.
Hanrahan published 14 novels and short story collections and her art is held in the Australian National Gallery as well as most state galleries. She died of cancer aged 52 and is remembered in the South Australian government’s Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship for local writers of poetry or creative prose.
Carroll, Allison, Barbara Hanrahan, printmaker (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 1986)
Lindsay, Elaine (ed.) The Diaries of Barbara Hanrahan (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1998)
Stewart, Annette, Woman and Herself: A critical study of the works of Barbara Hanrahan (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1998)