Jacquelyn Baker reviews Nadia Wheatley (ed), Sneaky Little Revolutions: Selected Essays of Charmian Clift (Sydney: NewSouth, 2022).


When I was an undergraduate student, I was enrolled in a unit called Australian Literature. The three novels that were discussed in this subject were Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1901), Tim Winton’s Breath (2008) and Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda (2013). While these books had been written by seminal authors of Australian literature, I couldn’t help but feel as though we had skipped over a number of significant writers that characterised Australian literature during the 20th Century—writers such as Christina Stead, John O’Grady, Patrick White, Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette, and Minjerribah woman Oodgeroo Noonuccal. Indeed, my first introduction to Charmian Clift was inadvertently through my postgraduate archival research into feminist periodicals produced by the Women’s Liberation Movement in Melbourne.

Image via State Library of Victoria, H38849/785 http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/76391

In her lifetime, Clift published five novels, two memoirs, a collection of essays and had written a television script. Upon her return to Australia from Greece in 1964, Clift started writing a weekly column that was published in the Herald (Melbourne) and the Sydney Morning Herald until her death in 1969. The essays in the new edition of Sneaky Little Revolutions: Selected Essays of Charmian Clift—first published by HarperCollins in 2001—have been hand-picked and (re)introduced by Clift’s biographer Nadia Wheatley. The essays in the collection cover themes and topics that combine both the personal and the political, such as aging; protest and dissent; conscription and the Vietnam War; everyday Australian life; and motherhood and family.

Wheatley has taken on a mammoth task as editor. She has selected 80 out of a total 225 essays for this collection. In doing so, she has attempted to ‘give a representative sample of’ Clift’s ‘concerns and interests’, which have, for the most part, been arranged chronologically.[1] However, I found Wheatley’s attempts to convey the relevance of Clift’s essays and her attempts to connect to a contemporary audience heavy-handed. Wheatley begins her introduction by asking the reader to imagine Australia in August 1964 with ‘no internet, no email, no social media’; she likened Clift’s correspondence from readers to a blog ‘three decades before blogging became a “thing”’; and concludes by asking the reader to imagine Clift’s response to the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements.[2] While I appreciate Wheatley’s attempts to speak to a number of generations that have had no first-hand experience of the time-period in which Clift is writing, the way that the point was laboured was inadvertently patronising and I felt at a distance from Clift’s essays.

While the themes of Clift’s essays continue to resonate (such as her observations about the ‘maddeningly dreary cycle’ of housework in the essay, ‘Second Class Citizen’), what interested me most of all was the way in which Clift was very much of her time and the way her essays offer glimpses into 1960s Australia.[3] Clift had left Australia for England with her husband, journalist and writer George Johnston, and their children in 1952; travelled to Greece in 1954; and returned to Australia in 1964. Her observations as an insider-outsider or, as she described, a ‘home-grown migrant’ offer interesting comparisons between her idyllic life in Greece and her fast-paced life in Australia. In addition, her essays offer fascinating glimpses into the everyday life of the suburban middle-class and show an Australia on the brink of women’s liberation and whose citizens were increasingly questioning its involvement in the Vietnam War.[4] However, providing the publication dates at the end of the book, rather than formatted as footnotes, disrupted the potential immersive reading experience that the book could have offered. For example, in the essay, ‘Social Drinking’, Clift criticised the separate, gendered spaces of the pub and advocated for the establishment of places where men and women could eat, drink and talk together.[5] Flipping to the back of the book, I read that this essay was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 26 November 1964.[6] This date is significant as it demonstrates that ‘Social Drinking’ was published four months before women’s liberationists Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bogner chained themselves to the bar rail of the Regatta Pub to protest the exclusion of women from the public bar. While providing this information as endnotes may be a convention of the genre, having to turn to the back of the book to find the date of publication, or to read any additional editors notes, for each essay took me out of the time and place of 1960s Australia and made for an interrupted reading experience.

Image via State Library of Victoria, H38849/787 http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/214657

A particular highlight was ‘On Lucky Dips’ (1964). This essay began with Clift narrating her son’s seventeenth birthday. Conversation between parents soon turned to the upcoming lotteries, also known as the Birthday Ballot—a process which involved men of a certain age being selectively conscripted to serve in the Australian army if their date of birth was randomly chosen from a barrel. Clift summarised the views of the parents: they were angry at the fact that they, as citizens, had not been consulted about the process and believed that Australian honour and the legend of the Anzac had been insulted. She concluded that the whole process was psychologically damaging and degrading to the men who were to be subjected to this “lucky dip” lottery. This essay epitomised the way in which Clift’s column combined both the personal and political. By beginning her essay with a narration of her son’s birthday party and by describing the views of other parents (whom she described as prosperous, middle-aged, middle-class and mostly conservative), she ensured that her criticisms of the Birthday Ballot were palatable to the suburban housewives who made up the bulk of her readership.[7] Thus, through her weekly column, Clift really was sneakily staging little revolutions.

Sneaky Little Revolutions demonstrates that Clift is both a writer of her time and a prolific thinker whose ideas continue to have relevance. Wheatley should be commended for (re)introducing Clift’s essays to a contemporary audience.



[1] N. Wheatly, ‘Editor’s Note’ in N. Wheatley, ed., Sneaky Little Revolutions: Selected Writings of Charmian Clift (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2022), 18.

[2] N. Wheatley, ‘Introduction’, in N. Wheatley, ed., Sneaky Little Revolutions: Selected Writings of Charmian Clift (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2022), 1, 10, 16.

[3] C. Clift, ‘Second Class Citizens’, in N. Wheatley, ed., Sneaky Little Revolutions: Selected Writings of Charmian Clift (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2022), 37.

[4] C. Clift, ‘On Being a Home-Grown Migrant’, in N. Wheatley, ed., Sneaky Little Revolutions: Selected Writings of Charmian Clift (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2022), 142.

[5] C. Clift, ‘Social Drinking’, in N. Wheatley, ed., Sneaky Little Revolutions: Selected Writings of Charmian Clift (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2022), 31, 32.

[6] N. Wheatley, ‘Publication Dates and Sources’, in N. Wheatley, ed., Sneaky Little Revolutions: Selected Writings of Charmian Clift (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2022), 419.

[7] Wheatley, ‘Introduction’, 9. Clift, ‘Social Drinking’, 56.

Jacquelyn Baker
Jacquelyn Baker

Jacquelyn Baker is a PhD Candidate who recently submitted her thesis which examines the history of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Melbourne through the lens of place and space. She is currently on a career pathways placement as a researcher at Kim barne thaliyu/Geelong Heritage Centre. Jacquelyn also volunteers as a fills presenter on community radio and has a particular interest in talks and interview based radio.