“This is how I made the acquaintance of Nyria, slave attendant upon Julia the daughter of Titus, emperor of Rome, 79-81AD”,[i] opened Rosa Praed in her account of how she met her companion, Nancy Harward, in 1899. The Australian novelist was referring to Nancy’s capacity to, under hypnosis, inhabit the personality of a girl who had been dead for nearly two thousand years. From its inception, their relationship was marked by this alliance with the spiritual world, an association which intensified as Rosa turned to it for expression of what she shared with Nancy. In this, her endeavours align with Terry Castle’s ideas in The Apparitional Lesbian, in that the figure of the lesbian “has been ‘ghosted’ — or made to seem invisible — by culture itself”.[ii] However, rather than finding this detrimental, Rosa capitalised on it. As she wrote the story of Nyria into a novel, she came to believe that, if Nancy was the current incarnation of Nyria, then she was Nyria’s beloved friend Valeria. If, as signified by their ghostly counterparts in ancient Rome, their relationship had existed in the past, it existed in the present and would carry on in the future. This is also consistent with Castle’s ideas, as she continues, “in the ghostly figure […] was inevitably a notion of reembodiment: of uncanny return to the flesh”.[iii] Rosa exploited this resurrective capacity when Nancy died, communicating with her spirit through Hester Dowden, a medium. The transcriptions of Rosa’s and Nancy’s conversations through Dowden are a poignant record of Rosa’s longing to be haunted by her companion. They also indicate her belief in writing’s capacity to eliminate the distance between herself and Nancy, a belief which may have been conditioned by her identity as an Australian who used writing to bring her homeland closer. Her use of writing to engender intimacy is also apparent in her collaborative writing with Nancy. A practice underscored by the image of the double that manifests in Rosa’s work, it appears to be the most fitting representation of the love that she and Nancy shared.
If you'd like to read the rest of this essay, you can buy a copy of the journal from Southerly.