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Beverley Farmer was born in Windsor, Melbourne and educated at Carnegie State School, Gardiner Central School and MacRobertson Girls' High School. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Melbourne in 1960. In her Diploma of Education (Dip.Ed.) year, having broken her Education Department bond and been given a diagnosis of mental illness, shehitchhiked inland before renting a room in Melbourne and looking for work as a waitress. That year, she also met Greek migrant Christos Talihmanidis, whom she married in 1965. From 1964 to 1969, she worked in various suburban high schools as a temporary teacher of French and English. In 1968, her first two stories were published.
The couple moved to Greece in 1969 to live with his parents. Their civil marriage was not recognised, and as a resident alien Farmer was not allowed to work; most of her first book, Alone, was written in those years. In 1972, they returned to Australia for their son to be born, and moved to Lorne, where they ran a seafood cafe. On a visit to the village in 1974, they had an Orthodox wedding and baptised their son, but in 1976, after another Greek summer together, they separated and were later divorced. Farmer taught briefly, then worked as a waitress and started writing again.
In 1980 Alone was published. In 1983 she brought out her first collection of stories, Milk, written on a Literature Board New Writer's Grant, and largely based on her experience of Greece. Later that year, she went back alone to the village. In 1991, she went to Scandinavia to gather material for The Seal Woman, and to Greece to see the family. In 1996, she spent three months in Århus, Denmark, and made another flying visit to Greece. In 2005, she again visited her ex-mother-in-law, then 92 years old, in Greece.
Farmer was at various times Writer-in Residence at the University of Tasmania, Geelong College, Deakin University, the Women's College of the University of Queensland, Flinders University and the University of Århus, Denmark, was a Hawthornden Fellow in Scotland in 2001, and read at festivals and conferences in the UK, Denmark, New Zealand, Canada, Sri Lanka, Spain and India. In 2009, she was awarded the Patrick White Award.
Farmer died after a long struggle with Parkinson's Disease in 2018.
'This is likely to be the last work by Beverley Farmer, one of Australia’s great prose stylists, and a pioneer of women’s writing, in her exploration of feminine concerns, and her use of different literary forms – novel, short story, poetry, essay, journal, myth and fairy tale.
'This Water is a collection of five tales, three of them novella length, each a fragmentary love story with a nameless woman at the centre, and a mythic dimension (Greek or Celtic, folklore or fable) rooted in the power of nature. Water and stone, ice and fire, light and darkness play an important role in all the stories, as do other motifs, closely related to women’s experience, blood, birth, possession and release, marriage and singularity. One tale, set on the south coast of Victoria, is animated by the legend of the Great Silkie, following Sylvia Plath and Joan Baez; another finds its rebellious princess in Lake Annaghmakerrig in Ireland; a third has Clytemnestra as its central figure, mourning the daughter sacrificed by her husband Agamemnon so that he can go to war with Troy. The stories contain and reflect and shadow one other: in each the women speak, act, think for themselves, in opposing or escaping from situations ordained by authority.' (Publication summary)