Eve Maria Langley was born Ethel Jane Langley in Forbes, New South Wales, Australia, on 1 September 1904, to Arthur Alexander Langley, a carpenter, and his wife, Myra Davidson. She left school at 14 and worked in various jobs before following her mother and younger sister Lilian May (known as June) to Paekakariki, New Zealand, in 1932. She worked as a journalist, a travelling bookseller, and then a gardener and housemaid at a hostel in Wanganui. Around 1934 she moved to Carterton, where she met Luigi Rinaldi, a car salesman. In 1935 at Auckland she had his child (who died shortly after birth). Afterwards she met an art student, Hilary Roy Clark, whom she married at the Registrar’s Office, Auckland, on 6 January 1937. Although 32, she gave her age as 28; he was 22. The couple were to have three children.
During the 1930s Eve Langley had begun writing poetry and short stories, and these were widely published in New Zealand periodicals. In 1938 Robin Hyde wrote, ‘Eve Langley … has colour and a swift imagery, which changes shape in her exotic mind without effort or strain’. In 1940, while living in extreme poverty with two small children on Auckland’s North Shore (her husband often stayed away in the city), she wrote her first novel, The pea pickers. It won the 1940 Australian S. H. Prior Memorial Prize, was published in 1942, and has become a minor classic of Australian literature. It is based on her and her sister June’s experiences as cross-dressing itinerant farm labourers (Steve and Blue) in Gippsland in the late 1920s. It is an unusual blend of realism, humour, irony and rhapsodic evocations of the Australian land and the mateship of subsistence life.
The family’s poverty, Hilary’s absences and her increasing difficulty in finding the opportunity to write led to Eve’s suffering from depression. In 1942 she was committed by her husband, who placed their children in orphanages; he divorced her in 1952. She spent seven years in Auckland Mental Hospital, where she was diagnosed as schizophrenic. After her release she worked from 1950 to 1955 in the bindery at the Auckland Public Library. She went back to Australia in 1957, returning briefly to live in Laingholm, Auckland, in 1958. After this she lived penuriously in Australia in a series of huts, getting by on royalties, the invalid pension and occasional seasonal picking.
In 1954 Angus and Robertson, the Australian publishers of The pea pickers, published its sequel, White topee. In a short episode Eve/Steve tells an Italian cobber that she is really Oscar Wilde reborn as a woman. That year Langley claimed that she had changed her name by deed poll to Oscar Wilde. Angus and Robertson refused to publish her next novel, ‘Wild Australia’, where a Wilde narrative takes over the last third of the novel. This intriguing obsession dominates Joy L. Thwaite’s 1989 biography.
After the rejection of ‘Wild Australia’, Langley set two more novels in Australia and based her others on the journals she had kept since her arrival in New Zealand. They are, like The pea pickers, first-person narratives beginning with Eve/Steve’s arrival in New Zealand and ending in 1941 when she has two children and is pregnant again. The readers for Angus and Robertson rejected the 10 novels written by Langley in the 1950s and 1960s as ‘purely personal’ and as showing a ‘most insensitive lack of reticence in her private affairs’.
This, however, gives them a powerful and fascinating insight into a disastrous marriage and the conflict Langley experienced between her responsibilities as a wife and mother and her attempted career as a writer. A friend of Robin Hyde and Gloria Rawlinson, and an observer of the Elam art scene, she provides glimpses in her unpublished novels of the bohemian literary and artistic fringes of Auckland, as well as vivid portrayals of places and buildings, such as Partington’s mill, where as a student her lover, Hilary, had a room. The typescripts are held in the Mitchell Library, Sydney.
Eve Langley died alone, sometime between 1 and 13 June 1974, in a cottage at North Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, where her body was found about a month later. Ruth Park in her 1992 autobiography, A fence around the cuckoo, writes of meeting Eve Langley in 1940: ‘a dazzling autodidact with a head full of classical literature, other languages, and uncontrollable creativity the frustration of which was eventually to drive her mad; … to me she was a living example of all that was rapturous, exciting, literary’.