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Lesbia Harford (1891 – 1927)

Lesbia Harford was born Lesbia Venner Keogh at Brighton, Melbourne, on 9 April 1891. The daughter of Edmund Keogh, a financial agent, and his wife Helen (née Moore), she was born with a congenital heart defect that affected her health throughout her short life. The family’s comfortable existence was shattered when Edmund Keogh became bankrupt about 1900. According to the later account of Lesbia’s younger brother Esmond, their father then took to drink and deserted the family, leaving their mother with four young children. Lesbia was educated at convent schools in Melbourne and Ballarat, but gave up her Catholic faith at a young age, and in her teenage years took part in meetings of the socialist Unitarian minister Frederick Sinclaire’s Free Religious Fellowship.

In 1912 she began a law degree at the University of Melbourne, supporting herself through her studies by tutoring and teaching art, and graduated in 1916. While a student, she became heavily involved in radical politics, forming important, long-lasting relationships with other young socialist activists and intellectuals, including Guido Barrachi and Katie Lush. After graduating Harford went to work in a clothing factory, where she became involved in unionism and joined the Industrial Workers of the World organization. She moved briefly to Sydney, where in 1920 she married Patrick Harford, an artist and fellow I.W.W. member, before the couple returned to Melbourne. From 1921 to 1924, she worked on a novel, but did not publish it. She attempted to complete her law qualifications and in 1926 became an articled clerk to a Melbourne barrister but, suffering from tuberculosis in addition to her heart condition, her health deteriorated and she died on 5 July 1927.

Little of Harford’s poetry was published during her lifetime; she claimed late in life that she was ‘in no hurry to be read’, and preserved her work in hand-written exercise books. Her poetry is mainly known through the posthumous collections edited by Nettie Palmer (1941) and by Marjorie Pizer and Drusilla Modjeska (1985). Her novel The Invaluable Mystery was eventually published in 1987. Much of Harford’s early work was written in a straightforward lyric style, though with some modernist elements, and was often passionate and intense love poetry. Her interest in social justice issues became a strong theme in her later work, and some of her later poems resemble protest songs, intended to be sung rather than read, and were written in a simple style for a wide audience.

Poetry Collections
  • The Poems of Lesbia Harford, Nettie Palmer, ed. (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1941).
  • The Poems of Lesbia Harford, Marjorie Pizer and Drusilla Modjeska, eds. (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1985).
Suggested Further Reading
  • Drusilla Modjeska, ‘Introduction,’ The Poems of Lesbia Harford (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1985), pp. 1–38.
  • Nettie Palmer, ‘Foreword,’ The Poems of Lesbia Harford (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1941), pp. [2]–[3].
  • Jeff Sparrow, ‘ “Signed Up in a Rebel Band”: Lesbia Harford Re-Viewed,’ Hecate 32.1 (2006): pp. 8–35.
  • Ann Vickery, ‘Lesbia Harford: Writing Revolution,’ Stressing the Modern: Cultural Politics in Australian Women’s Poetry (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2007).