Vance was born in Bundaberg, Queensland, and passed up the chance to go to university so that he could experience "real life" on a sheep station in western Queensland. From his early years he was determined to be a writer, and in 1905 and again in 1910 he went to London, then the centre of Australia's cultural universe, to learn his craft and advance his prospects. He failed to break into the inner circle of London literary life, but his association with Alfred Orage and other guild socialists greatly influenced his political outlook.
Nettie Higgins was born in Bendigo, Victoria, the niece of Henry Bournes Higgins, a leading Victorian radical political figure and later a federal minister and justice of the High Court of Australia. A brilliant scholar and linguist, she graduated from the University of Melbourne and studied literature in Germany and France. Her brother Esmonde Higgins was a prominent early Australian Communist, but her own politics, greatly influenced by her uncle, were always liberal and tolerant.
Vance and Nettie met in 1908 and married in London in 1914. When World War I broke out they returned to Australia, where their daughters Aileen and Helen were born in 1915 and 1917. In 1918 Vance joined the Australian Army, but the war ended before he saw service. Vance, Nettie and Esmonde all campaigned against the Hughes government's attempt to introduce conscription into Australia.
Both Vance and Nettie had begun to publish poetry, short stories, criticism and journalism before the war, but in the 1920s, living in the fishing village of Caloundra, Queensland to save money, they dedicated themselves to literature full-time. Vance published his first novel in 1920, and a well-received play, The Black Horse, in 1924. His best novels of this period were The Man Hamilton (1928), The Passage (1930) and The Swayne Family (1934).
Nettie did not pursue fiction, partly to avoid any appearance of competition with her husband. In 1924 she published Modern Australian Fiction, at that time the most important academic study of Australian literature. In 1931 she published an important biography of her uncle, Henry Bournes Higgins. She also became the centre of a network of correspondence with many other writers, mainly women.
In 1935 the Palmers travelled to Europe, and they were holidaying near Barcelona when the Spanish Civil War broke out. Aileen and Helen had both joined the Communist Party as students, and Aileen stayed behind to volunteer for service with the International Brigades in Spain when the rest of the family returned to Australia. On their return to Melbourne Nettie devoted herself to supporting the Spanish Republic.
During World War II Vance and Nettie did what they could for the war effort, although both were in declining health. Vance published a series of historical and biographical works: National Portraits (1941), A G Stephens: His Life and Work (1941), Frank Wilmot (1942) and Louis Esson and the Australian Theatre (1948). Nettie published The Memoirs of Alice Henry (1944) and Fourteen Years: Extracts from a Private Journal (1948), perhaps her best work.
Vance was determined to write "the Great Australian Novel," and in the postwar years he published a trilogy - Golconda (1948), Seedtime (1957 and The Big Fellow (1959), based loosely on the life of the Queensland politician Ted Theodore. The trilogy met a poor critical reception, and today Vance's novels are out of print, but many of his short stories are still read and reissued.
In 1954 Vance published The Legend of the Nineties, a critical study of the development of the nationalist tradition in Australian literature usually associated with The Bulletin. This is perhaps his best-remembered work. Nettie published Henry Handel Richardson: A Study, which did a great deal to establish reputation of Henry Handel Richardson (the pen name of Ethel Richardson) and her monumental trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney. It was a sad irony that this was the "great Australian novel" that Vance had not been able to write.
Vance and Nettie's last years were clouded by their own ill health and by worry about their daughter Aileen, who suffered a mental breakdown in 1948 and became an alcoholic. They suffered great anxiety when Vance was attacked as a Communist "fellow traveller" (which to some extent he was) during the McCarthyist period of the 1950s. His death from heart disease in 1959 was probably hastened by this. Nettie died in 1964, universally mourned by Australian writers and readers.