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Verna Susannah Coleman (1925–2011)

by Ursula Dubosarsky, Tanya Costello and William Coleman

Verna Coleman, c1945

Verna Coleman, c1945

photo supplied by her family

There are two ways of looking at the life of Verna Coleman. In the public domain, she was a biographer of hidden Australian lives, the wife of writer and politician Peter Coleman and the mother-in-law of former treasurer Peter Costello. In private life she was an imaginative, funny, beautiful and modest woman, deeply loved and admired by her family and circle of friends.

She was born Verna Susannah, the second daughter of Ruby and Jack Scott, in Sydney on September 13, 1925. Always an outstandingly clever, yet shy, schoolgirl, she won a scholarship to Our Lady of Mercy College, Parramatta. At 16, she went on to Sydney University, which, because of the absence of men in the war, she later described as a kind of ''superior convent''. She loved student life, making deep friendships and ''happily attending every talk and meeting, from the Labor Club to the Literary Society''.

After graduating, she worked as a librarian in the Mitchell Library. Her mother, to whom she was deeply attached, died of cancer and her older sister, Anita, married a US marine and left for the US. Verna met Peter Coleman in 1949 and the couple decided they, too, would leave Australia, travelling to London, where they married in 1952. Verna worked as a librarian in Essex while Peter completed a masters degree at the London School of Economics.

They spent a year in the Sudan before returning to Australia in 1955, living in Canberra where Verna worked in the library of Canberra University College. Their first daughter, Tanya, was born at this time. In 1957, they returned to Sydney, where Peter eventually became the editor of The Bulletin, and in 1968, with three children, they moved to Hunters Hill following Peter's election to the NSW state Parliament as the Liberal member for Fuller. The next 20 years of Verna's life were dominated by children, travelling, studying Italian and the demands of political life.

By her own admission, she ''came to writing books rather late. I was motivated by the comparatively early death of my friend the Australian poet James McAuley, who encouraged everybody to express any talent they possessed''. Attracted by the research and investigative demands of biography, her first subject was Miles Franklin, whom she had assisted at the Mitchell Library. Verna felt a connection with Franklin, as both families had settled in the same area outside Canberra, and Verna's ancestor Thomas Rowley, of the NSW Corps, arrived in Sydney at the same time as Franklin's forbears in the late 18th century. Miles Franklin in America: Her Unknown (Brilliant) Career, published by Angus & Robertson in 1981, was a biographical breakthrough, covering Franklin's previously largely unknown political career with the feminist and union movements in Chicago.

Unknown or forgotten lives always interested her. The subject of her next biography, The Last Exquisite, was the Australian expatriate poet and novelist Frederic Manning, author of the renowned anti-war novel Her Privates We; and the next, The Wayward Suffragette, was a study of Adela Pankhurst, of the famous Pankhurst family. Adela migrated to Australia in 1914 and led a colourful political life in the Communist Party then the anti-Communist Women's Guild of Empire, and finally the ultra-nationalist Australia First Movement. The books were published by Melbourne University Press and had impressive reviews from critics including Manning Clark and Beatrice Faust.

Her book on Franklin was finished on Norfolk Island, where Peter was administrator. The couple returned to Sydney in 1981, after Peter entered federal Parliament as the member for Wentworth and they moved to Woollahra, where Verna spent the rest of her writing life. Her final work, cut short by illness, was a study of the emergence of modernism in fiction as illustrated by the writing careers of Katherine Mansfield and her Sydney-born cousin Elizabeth von Arnim. This was true to one of her recurring themes — as she put it, ''the problems of isolation experienced by Australian writers … and the attraction of expatriation''.

Verna was a great walker in the city she loved. As a student in the 1940s, she recalled, she and a friend ''walked the darkened streets of our small city until midnight and the last tram … walking, walking, talking, talking.''

She died on November 4 and is survived by her husband, Peter, her brother, John, and her children, Tanya, William and Ursula, and eight grandchildren.

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Citation details

Ursula Dubosarsky, Tanya Costello and William Coleman, 'Coleman, Verna Susannah (1925–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Verna Coleman, c1945

Verna Coleman, c1945

photo supplied by her family

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Scott, Verna Susannah

13 September, 1925
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


4 November, 2011 (aged 86)
Paddington, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.