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  John Lindsay (1900–1990), by Alec T. Bolton, 1985 John Lindsay (1900–1990), by Alec T. Bolton, 1985
Lindsay, John [Jack] (1900–1990), writer, was born on 20 October 1900 in Melbourne, Australia, the son of the artist and author Norman Lindsay (1879–1969) and his wife, Catharine, née Parkinson (1879–1949). Norman Lindsay's work spanned several fields and was filled with ‘lush imagery of ribald satyrs and fleshly nymphs … generally in a Rococo style, executed with great technical skill’ (Dictionary of Art, 19.143), although he is best remembered as the author of a children's classic The Magic Pudding (1918). Having failed to induce a miscarriage when Katie Parkinson became pregnant, Norman had married her reluctantly on 23 May 1900. Jack Lindsay was born two months premature and was named after his uncle, Jack Elkington, the attending physician and a progressive sanitary reformer. By the time Katie had her second child, Ray, in 1903 Norman was shuttling between her and a model called Rose Soady.

Tumultuous early years and education

When Jack was five, Norman left his wife, who repeatedly feigned drowning in response; she desperately attempted to save the marriage by becoming pregnant again, giving birth to a third son, Philip, in 1906. Three years later Norman abandoned his family in order to travel to England to promote his illustrated edition of Casanova's Memoirs; bereft, Katie moved to Brisbane. Norman later returned to Australia but refused to be reconciled with his wife.

Elkington became an occasional father-substitute and enrolled Jack at Bowen House, a school in Sydney. Despite a late start Jack advanced from the infants' class to the lower sixth within a year. From 1913 his mother began drinking heavily, and his childless Aunt Mary took charge, leaving Jack doubly mothered but scarred by resentment. Distressed by his mother's decline into mental illness, he sought refuge in verse. He won scholarships to Brisbane grammar school (1914–17), and Queensland University (1918–21), where he studied classics under Professor James Michie and developed a lifelong interest in the ancient world. He also worked independently with the socialist V. Gordon Childe. The influences upon him were numerous and diverse: the major English poets, socialist thinkers, Plato, Jack London, Jane Harrison, Freud, Whitehead, Bergson, Croce, Gentile, and Hegel.

Rebelling point-for-point against his aunt, Lindsay became active in several social causes, including the anti-war movement and the promotion of aboriginal rights. He also taught for the Workers' Educational Association. It was at this time that his father, who had divorced Katie in 1920, re-established contact with him, sending him his aesthetic gospel, Creative Effort (1920), a book which significantly influenced Jack Lindsay's intellectual and aesthetic development. He endured several thwarted platonic affairs (one girl thought him about to explode), but earned a double first in 1921. He was outraged to lose Queensland's Rhodes scholarship to Eric Partridge and was censured when in retaliation he submitted poems attacking academics as ‘dead and sexless eunuchs’ to Galmahra, a magazine edited by his university contemporary P. R. Stephensen. He subsequently allied himself with his fascist-leaning father, who expected his son to bear his moral aesthetic into all cultural realms. Norman drew a portrait of Jack as an exultant faun astride Pegasus.

First marriage, literary projects, and move to England

In 1921 Lindsay was befriended by the statuesque Janet Beaton (1898–1973), granddaughter of William Dalley, a conservative Catholic and former premier of New South Wales. Over her mother's objections they married in October 1922 and lived in Bondi on Janet's slender income. Lindsay worked with his father and Alfred Beutler on a Wagnerian music drama about Atlantis and Australia, and although the project collapsed, Lindsay learned much about composition from it. He consequently became a critic on the Bulletin, writing under the pseudonyms Panurge and (Miss) Jean Andrade. He went on to collaborate with Ken Slessor and Frank Johnson in publishing the anti-modernist Vision (1923–4), which included contributions from Chris Brennan and R. D. Fitzgerald, among others, and was Australia's first ‘little magazine’. Lindsay and Slessor also edited Poetry in Australia (1923). Lindsay's own Faun and Ladies, heavily influenced by Hugh McCrae, was published by John Kirtley in 1923, and two years later his translation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata was published by Fanfrolico, as Kirtley's hand-press had been renamed.

The state of Lindsay's marriage, marked by mutual infidelities, was reflected in his joyless ‘Joy's confessional’ (September 1925), and he left his wife in February 1926, travelling with Kirtley to England, where the two men hoped to promote Norman Lindsay's notion of a sexually utopian Australian renaissance. They based themselves at 5 Bloomsbury Square, London, and during the general strike Lindsay hectored printers about overthrowing the system. Among the first titles published by the re-established Fanfrolico Press were a reprint of Lysistrata (1926), Lindsay's William Blake (1927), and Loving Mad Tom: Bedlamite Verse (1927), which had annotations by Peter Warlock and a foreword by Robert Graves. P. R. Stephensen took over from Kirtley in September 1927, publishing his own translation of Nietzsche's Antichrist and Homage to Sappho (a collaboration between Norman and Jack Lindsay) in the following year. Jack Lindsay's admirer Brian Penton took Stephensen's place as co-publisher of the Fanfrolico Press in April 1929.

Lindsay's bohemian coterie in London included the shy, Pre-Raphaelitish former wife of Gordon Craig, Elza de Locre, who caused him to contemplate divorcing Janet. Behind Elza's back, however, Lindsay also tangled briefly with a former associate of Aleister Crowley called Betty May, who soon left Lindsay for his fellow poet Edgell Rickword.

Lindsay and Stephensen promoted the ‘third millennium’ in the brash London Aphrodite, which ran from August 1928 to July 1929, and published many former contributors to Vision. The ‘modern consciousness’ espoused by Lindsay combined many facets of his father's philosophy with Spengler, Croce, and Marx and attacked conservatives such as J. C. Squire, Wyndham Lewis, and T. S. Eliot for surrendering to post-war futility. Lindsay extolled lyricism and colour imagery like that of de la Mare, W. H. Davies, and the Sitwells, the painting of Delacroix, Cézanne, and Turner, and the music of Beethoven and Wagner. His egotistical manifesto Dionysus (1928) demonstrated the early influences of Plato and Nietzsche while also displaying the growing importance of Bergson, Freud, and Wagner. He called for man's ‘forcible civilisation’ (p. 22), condemned chastity, and extolled ‘Zarathustra, with … Siegfried as our New Testament’ (p. 242). Aldous Huxley lampooned the 4 feet 9 inches Lindsay in Point Counter-Point as little ‘Willy Weaver … bubbling with good humour and inexhaustible verbiage’ (p. 121).

Lindsay was forced to liquidate Fanfrolico in 1930 when he became bankrupt. Of the press's forty-one volumes he had written six, translated ten, edited many, and hand-printed the last seven. Editions like those of John Eliot and Tourneur contained unique matter; notable figures such as Edmund Gosse added distinction to the list, but Fanfrolico's ultimate legacy was scholarly literary erotica.

Politics and writing

During the depression Lindsay took Elza (whose mental health was becoming precarious) to Cornwall, where they became vegans. Seeking some kind of rebirth, Lindsay fasted during the winter of 1930 and burnt manuscripts and letters. He contemplated suicide when letters he had written to his father chastising him for cutting his mother's allowance went unanswered. During this period he nevertheless collaborated with Elza on the novel Time—Please! (1931) about Essex locals grousing in a pub rebuilt from an old ship and, more crucially, made his own transition to fiction with Rome for Sale (1934), the first of a historical trilogy that also included Caesar is Dead (1934) and Last Days with Cleopatra (1935). These novels sold well and virtually saved his life. He went on to produce two lively translations, Medieval Latin Poets (1934) and I am a Roman (1934), which, like his novel Storm at Sea (1935) and the non-fictional The Romans (1935), emphasized civilizing order. Lindsay admired Mussolini and had sent him a copy of Rome for Sale, but subsequently repudiated his previously held views and wrote the quasi-Marxist study Mark Antony (1936), which opposed the fascism of the Caesars. Under the pseudonym Richard Preston he sifted his Cornish experience in Shadow and Flame (1936), and jumbled Lawrencian romance, murder mystery, and Marxism in End of Cornwall (1937).

As the popular front coalesced, Lindsay wavered about converting to communism, although his pioneering agit-prop declamation Who are the English? (1936) supported the party's co-option of England's diverse traditions of revolt with a litany of rebels from John Ball to the general strikers. Lindsay also promoted ‘mass-declamation poems’ during this period, once appearing before a crowd of several thousand in Trafalgar Square. When in April 1937 the Unity Theatre players performed On Guard for Spain, the Daily Worker ignored Lindsay's authorship and Stephen Spender skewered the play's falsity. Other works of this period, such as Adam of a New World (1936) and its spin-off Anatomy of Spirit (1937) demonstrate an attempt to synthesize Marx with Freud.

During the phoney war, at Rickword's request, Lindsay wrote England, my England (1939), surveying the country's heterogeneous radicalism, and both men gathered documentation for Handbook of Freedom (1939). Lindsay's other works of both fiction and non-fiction at this time demonstrate a constant concern with radical and revolutionary movements.

When Germany invaded Russia in 1941, Lindsay was drafted to the signals corps, but, tone-deaf, was recalled to the barracks at Trowbridge, Wiltshire, where he illegally joined the Communist Party. In that same year the schizophrenic Elza, who had been placed in medical care, died of cancer. Distraught, Lindsay nevertheless became absorbed in work, writing the epic poem Into Action: the Battle of Dieppe (1942) and the novels We Shall Return (1942), which viewed Dunkirk through the eyes of a communist would-be hero, and Beyond Terror (1943), which described British resistance to the airborne invasion of Crete. In 1943 he was reassigned to the War Office in London as a scriptwriter for the Army Bureau of Current Affairs theatre. Here he met , who became his common-law wife. He went on to produce Second Front (1944), which propagandized for the relief of Russia, and Hullo Stranger (1945), about women in the aircraft industry. Overall, he felt that the war years marked a ‘cultural upsurge’, a thesis developed in his British Achievement in Art and Music (1945).

The period from 1945 to 1956 can best be viewed in the light of Lindsay's attempts to sustain this upsurge. His immediate post-war work included editing (with Maurice Carpenter and Honor Arundel) New Lyrical Ballads (1945), a stage production of his novel The Subtle Knot (1945), and a revised Men of Forty-Eight (1948). The latter concluded a trilogy on radical movements (1649 and Lost Birthright). His ambitious symbolist poem Clue of Darkness (1949) tried, unsuccessfully, to surpass The Waste Land. His heretical updating of Marx–Engels dialectic led to his Marxism and Contemporary Science (1949) being condemned, and almost resulted in his expulsion from the Communist Party for deviationism.

Three Letters to Nikolai Tikhonov (1950) overlooked the starvation resulting from the ‘Lysenkoist transformation’ of Ukraine, but Lindsay was a visionary who consistently failed to penetrate Stalinist fronts. His Marxist psychobiography Dickens was criticized for discussing Ellen Ternan. Byzantium into Europe (1952) attempted to summarize the cultural influences that nearly united East and West, but defined feudalism as expropriation, ignoring mutuality, and was panned in the Times Literary Supplement as Soviet propaganda.

Lindsay would not give up his political agenda, however, and in his next project turned his attention to contemporary British troubles in a trilogy of propagandistic ‘novels of the British way’. Betrayed Spring (1953), Rising Tide (1953), and Moment of Choice (1955) dramatized the consequences of Labour's inaction between September 1946 and March 1947 and dealt with such topics as London squatters, Lancashire miners during the nationalization of the coal industry, the dockers' strike of 1949, and the problems caused by Yorkshire's antiquated textile mills. These novels were followed by Civil War in England in 1954 and a study of George Meredith in 1956.

Ann Davies died of cancer in 1954, and was mourned alongside Dylan Thomas and Alexander Fadayev in Lindsay's Three Elegies (1956). Visiting Amsterdam in 1955, Lindsay became the lover of Meta Waterdrinker (b. 1921), a potter and a communist member of the Dutch resistance, daughter of Peter Waterdrinker, a farmer, and his wife, Tryntge Slik. They confirmed the relationship at an informal ceremony in June 1958. They had two children, and the marriage was legally certified in 1974, a year after the death of Janet Lindsay. Living in straitened circumstances and dealing with Lindsay's obsessions created strains within the marriage, but the family was held together by Meta's steadfast, caring character.

Lindsay's critical look at the novel in Britain, After the Thirties (1956), advocated socialist realism, while his novel A Local Habitation (1957), set in the East End and Essex, expressed a less doctrinaire view of getting by. Jack's alcoholic brother Phil, a novelist and screenwriter, with whom he had an off-and-on creative rivalry, died just as Jack's multi-volume autobiography was published. The first volume, Life Rarely Tells, appeared in 1958; Roaring Twenties (1960) disclosed Norman Lindsay's spiritualism and led to a much-regretted breach between father and son; Fanfrolico and After (1962) memorialized Elza. Lindsay was awarded the gold medal of the Australian Society of Literature in 1960 and was proclaimed by his old friend Stephensen ‘the finest classical scholar and the most accomplished and versatile author Australia has produced’ (Chaplin, 75).

Lindsay continued to analyse the Communist Party's contemporary problems with several more ‘British way’ novels, of which All on the Never Never (1961) was filmed as Live Now, Pay Later (1962) from a script by Jack Trevor Story. Lindsay continued to work with classical elements and themes in Death of the Hero, about the painter Jacques David; Writing on the Wall (1960), an evocation of Pompeii; and Ribaldry of Ancient Greece (1961) and Ribaldry of Ancient Rome (1961). Thunder Underground (1965) examined Neronian Rome; The Clashing Rocks psychoanalysed an Argonaut castration rite; and Roman Egypt was dissected in two studies of the period's daily life and leisure habits. His Short History of Culture (1962) and Ancient World (1968) were fine condensations of such interests. Personally most significant, however, was his publication of J. M. W. Turner: his Life and Work (1966), as it resulted in a reconciliation with his father; Norman Lindsay had admired Turner and resumed a correspondence with Lindsay about the biography.

Later years and reputation

Meetings with Poets (1968) amplified his relationships with Dylan Thomas, Edith Sitwell, and various poet-partisans. The Soviets awarded Lindsay the order of Znak Pocheta in 1968, an honour of which he was proud until they invaded Czechoslovakia shortly afterwards; this led him to move politically slightly to the right, as is evident in his literary output from 1968 to 1982. He produced further books about the ancient world and began a critique of science with Origins of Alchemy (1970) and Origins of Astrology (1971). In 1973 he was awarded an honorary DLitt degree by his alma mater, Queensland University. In the following year his Blast Power and Ballistics, intended as a summa of his opposition to violence, occasionally slipped into pseudoscience.

The Normans and their World (1974) was Lindsay's most even-handed work of history. He now accepted that class struggle could be balanced by social concord, and went on to investigate Norman musical culture in The Troubadors (1976). His multifaceted biographies William Morris (1975) and William Blake (1978) proved politically unexpectedly tame, while he displayed an excellent understanding of the artist in Hogarth: his Art and his World (1977), to which Monster City: Defoe's London (1978) provided an interesting background.

Crisis in Marxism (1981) is a key to understanding the shift in Lindsay's political beliefs. He felt that Lévi-Straussian structuralism had to be overcome, but that a kind of Althusserian idealism was not the answer. The theorists that he found most useful were Whyte, Gramsci, and (as always) Lukács, but he also found Ernest Bloch's hopeful utopianism inspiring. Convinced of the ultimate worth of Marxism, but disillusioned by communist leadership, Lindsay now described himself as a social democrat.

A Garland for Jack Lindsay was published in 1980, with contributions from novelists such as Doris Lessing and Naomi Mitchison and poets such as Roy Fuller and David Holbrook. Lindsay was awarded the Order of Australia in 1981, the year in which his Collected Poems appeared. Life Rarely Tells was republished in 1982 in three volumes, with significant annotation. A heftier volume of essays in Lindsay's honour, edited by Bernard Smith and including contributions from Christopher Hill and Bernard Miles, was published in 1984 as Culture and History.

By now Lindsay's health was declining and he withdrew into himself, occasionally fretting about his children or the demise of communism. He transferred his archive to Canberra, and he and Meta moved to Maid's Causeway, Cambridge, where he died on 8 March 1990, partly as a result of excessive fasting.

Jack Lindsay has been described as English-speaking communism's ‘most distinguished man of letters and scholar’ (private information, Jack Beeching), and was recognized as such during his lifetime, but his works (of which a good number remain unpublished) are little read now. This neglect can be attributed to Lindsay's uprooted cosmopolitanism, variety, fugitive imprints, and idiosyncratic politics. As an imagist he wrote opalescent, rhythmic, technically accomplished verse. His translations retain vitality, although the same cannot really be said of his verse dramas such as Hereward (1929). Characterized by both breadth and density, his erudite historical fiction, histories, and biographies re-examined social crises, but also suffered spasmodically from projections, jejune emotions, data manipulation, reprehensible footnoting practices, and ideological blinkering. Overall he created fascinating syntheses throughout his works, but left a magnificent ruin. Doris Lessing found him ‘perhaps the purest example I know of a good writer done in by the Party’ (D. Lessing, Walking in the Shade, 92). Nevertheless, the contributions of this prolific polymath to the field of literature remain highly significant.

James M. Borg


J. Lindsay, Life rarely tells (1982) · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004) [Helen Lindsay, daughter; Jack Beeching] · B. Smith, ed., Culture and history: essays presented to Jack Lindsay (Sydney, 1984) · N. Lindsay, My mask: an autobiography (Sydney, 1970) · H. F. Chaplin, The Fanfrolico press: a survey (Sydney, 1976) · O. Anderson, ‘Jack Lindsay’, Dictionary of literary biography yearbook, ed. J. W. Ross (1984), 294–307 · Letters of Norman Lindsay, ed. R. G. Howarth and A. W. Barker (Sydney, 1979) · L. Bloomfield, ed., The world of Norman Lindsay (Sydney, 1995) · P. Lindsay, I'd live the same life over (1941) · R. Lindsay, Model wife: my life with Norman Lindsay (Sydney, 1967) · E. Rickword and J. Lindsay, Nothing is lost: Ann Lindsay, 1914–1954, London: Writers Group of the Communist Party (1954) · J. Arnold, ed., Ray Lindsay: a letter from Sydney (Melbourne, 1983) · A. West, Mountain in the sunlight (1958) · O. Anderson, ‘The more perfect hunt: Jack Lindsay unchained’, 1980 · D. Lessing, E. Rickword, and others, A garland for Jack Lindsay (1980) · L. Lindsay, Comedy of life: an autobiography (Sydney, 1967) · D. Lindsay, The leafy tree: my family (Melbourne, 1965) · J. Lindsay, Portrait of PA: Norman Lindsay at Springwood (1973) · J. Turner, ed., The dictionary of art, 34 vols. (1996)


NL Aus., papers, MS 7168 · priv. coll., books, letters, film · Ransom HRC, letters and MSS |  priv. coll. · U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to Sir E. W. Gosse · U. Reading L., letters to Bodley Head Ltd · University of Victoria, British Columbia, McPherson Library, letters to F. Muller  



priv. coll., ‘A day in the life of Jack Lindsay’, James Borg, 1981




James Borg audio, ‘A day in the life of Jack Lindsay’


K. Hutton and H. Magee, photograph, 1949, Hult. Arch. · J. Borg, photographs, 1980–89, priv. coll. · A. T. Bolton, photograph, 1985, NL Aus. [see illus.] · photographs, priv. coll. · photographs, priv. coll. · studies, priv. coll.

Wealth at death  

Cambridge townhouse