Winner, non-fiction, ACT Writing and Publishing Awards 2018

Canberra from Red Hill

'A rich and rewarding read': that's reviewer Sylvia Marchant's description, in the Canberra Historical Journal, of this 'warm, newsy account of the life of the indefatigable Verity Hewitt'. Among highlights: the book's 'thorough and minutely absorbing' account of her 'incredible' solo travels in Afghanistan and the Soviet Union in 1966.

Canberra's population hadn't yet reached 10,000 when 21-year-old Verity arrived in 1930, and the view she admired from Red Hill was of isolated clumps of buildings scattered over the plains. Letters she wrote to her boyfriend, her future husband the historian Laurie Fitzhardinge, over the next four years paint a fascinating picture of the fledgling capital in the Depression years. These are just a small part of the rich collection of letters and diaries that the book draws on to tell the story of a passionate, generous woman who lived life to the full.

Verity was a teacher (one pupil was Gough Whitlam), a bookseller (in 1938 she established Canberra's fondly remembered Verity Hewitt bookshop), an orchardist and then cattle farmer (she started a Devon stud), a left-wing activist (in, for example, the 1950s peace movement and Vietnam War protests of the '60s and '70s), a linguist (she became fluent in Russian) and a pioneering historian. In one major historical project, she put her language skills to good use in Soviet libraries to research Czarist Russian contacts with colonial Australia; one find was a delightful descriptive piece about Sydney in 1863 by a Russian Navy midshipman. She followed this up with landmark research on the fixing of the Russia/Afghanistan border in the 1880s. This involved fieldwork in India, the USSR, Iran and, most notably, Afghanistan where, travelling alone to far corners of the country, she had many unforgettable experiences, which she described in letters home. As Sylvia Marchant wrote, it was 'a fantastic journey'.

The letters and diaries Verity left behind illuminate all stages of her life. They also document a moving love story, which she revealed in a book written in her old age that, sadly, did not appear until after her death in 1986. She had fallen in love with Laurie Fitzhardinge at Sydney University in 1928, but was having second thoughts about their expected marriage by the time he returned from studies at Oxford in 1934. Stretching her wings, she met a fellow romantic and booklover, George Lacey Lee, on a ship to New Zealand in 1935, and after 18 months' emotional turmoil accepted his marriage proposal. Then she changed her mind and married Laurie. Lacey died in North Africa in World War II, but lived on in Verity's dreams. As she put it in the foreword of her memoir of Lacey, 'I filled up my life with varied and hard occupations to hide the grief which welled up into tears if I so much as looked at the familiar writing of his letters and notebooks ...'

Verity can be obtained from the publisher, Australian Scholarly Publishing, or booksellers.