Sunday, January 14, 2018

I love a sunburnt country

‘Lay and read Ailsa Paige and thought of ideas for plays . . . Norman Pilcher came to supper I don’t know if we are getting into deep water or not, but I rather suspect it. He stayed very late.’ This is from the diary of Dorothy Mackellar, an Australian poet who died half a century ago today. She was famous among Australians for a poem published just before WWI - My Country - which appealed strongly to a sense of national patriotism. She kept a private diary for much of her life, which was only published in 1990 once the editor had deciphered many passages that Mackellar had written in a secret code - the deciphered passages being then presented in bold font.

Mackellar was born in 1885 at Point Piper, Sydney to a doctor and his wife. She was the third of four children, and the only daughter. Although privately educated at home, the family travelled widely, and she was able to learn several foreign languages. She also attended some lectures at Sydney university, and took to writing poetry. In 1908, she had a first poem Core of My Heart (later called My Country) published in the Spectator, a British magazine. Within weeks, it had been reprinted in an Australian nationalist publication, and it was then included in her first book of poems The Closed Door, and Other Verses (1911). During the years of WWI, My Country resonated strongly with nationalist and patriotic feelings among Australians, and was included in various anthologies.

Mackellar published several more volumes of poetry, a novel set in Argentina, and two other novels written with Ruth Bedford, a childhood friend. Although she formed attachments and was engaged twice, she never married. She became responsible for looking after her parents; and, after her father died in 1926, she seems to have stopped writing. She was honorary treasurer of the Bush Book Club of New South Wales and helped launch the Sydney P.E.N. Club in 1931. Her mother died in 1933, and thereafter she herself was often unwell, spending many years in a nursing home. She was appointed O.B.E. for her contribution to Australian literature just before she died on 14 January 1968. A little further information can be found at Wikipedia, the official Dorothea Mackellar website, the the Australian Dictionary of Biography, and My Poetic Side.

Mackellar kept private diaries for much of her life. These were discovered by Jyoti Brunsdon when, in 1987, she began researching Mackellar’s life at the Mitchell Library part of the State Library of New South Wales (the oldest library in Australia). Her research was sparked by a commission to write a libretto for Alan Holley’s operate about Mackellar, but she was also being encouraged to consider a biography. However, on discovering the diaries, she realised that they would make a better book than any she could hope to write. The diaries she found covered much of the period from 1910 to 1920, 1927 and 1930-1955. Some of the entries in the diaries were written in code, Brunsdon soon found, but, in time, she was able to decipher them. On reading the coded passages it became obvious they were of a more intimate and private nature. Australian publisher, Angus & Robertson published the diaries as edited by Brunsdon in 1990 under the title I Love a Sunburnt Country (one of the lines from My Country) with the decoded passages highlighted in bold font.

4 January 1910
‘Worked a little (“Vespers” - it won't come straight) . . . Cooked with the chafing dish - only salted almonds, but they are very successful. Tailor and dressmaker. Very hot . . . Rested in the Domain . . .’

17 February 1910
‘Bathed, had another lesson. I think I’m getting the hang of it. Wrote to D.O. (It’s uphill work nowadays) . . . It was a hot night, but I’m not feeling it at all. It makes one seem rather heartless when others do so much.’

25 February 1910
‘Went with Ruth to bathe at Bondi and couldn’t till 12.30 - the surf was so glorious too! So we paddled, and R. was nearly swept away and drenched from top to toe. We dried ourselves on a hot flat rock and we acted the Prevost Play! I think it was so courageous in cold blood on a salt morning. Really rather successful . . . Afternoon: Shopping, and I discovered my Boggabri story going the rounds of the American magazines, and they had illustrated it with a black bushman attired in leaves! - lovely. Evening: Wrote “The Lie”.’

28 February 1910
‘Ruth came and we acted. I have never been fuller of electricity. We did her Barbara and my Japanese girl - on the roof. It was good.’

16 March 1910
‘. . . Shopping. Saw nice three-cornered hat, black with a gold quill, and wanted it very much. Evening: Theatre with the girls and Mr Bean. It was great fun and two rats made a diversion in the gallery. I love Oscar Asche - N.B. The marriage customs of the Greeks are: each man has only one wife and this is called Monotony.’

17 March 1910
‘Lili, I’m sorry to say, went away by the morning train. I wrastled with the Customs, quite successfully, and then had a fitting. The English dress is a pretty dull green and dull silver thing, with Ninon paniers, very soft, and a silver rose.
I love it. . . Evening: Yarned and read and yarned. Read some of Moratin’s comedies. They are awfully good. He must have been considered such a daring modernist in what he says about women.’

18 March 1910
‘. . . Ruth and I went out to Diamond Bay, picnicking. It was a heavenly day and there were heaps of mauve and white violets. I told her about Pearl and Charlie, then we acted Kid Prevost’s saga for hours. The landscape did fit in! It was too good for words. The feeling is on me still, I can’t think myself free of the play. It went awfully well. Oh that sun-soaked caƱon! She loved it too. Evening: Sleepy and happy. Early bed.’

5 October 1910
‘Mother got the Doctor worry out of me . . . Doctor Skirving came in the afternoon and poked me and said I was altogether run-down, but not organically wrong, and I needed more clay, and R.S.D. came, very worried, and we all talked. He came to my room and said the bed should be moved, so he and Mac moved it and I felt limp and fairly calm. Evening: Just reading. Read books of sonnets that he brought and The Story of the Guides (Younghusband) and A Comer of Spain and Wilde’s Ideal Husband.’

7 October 1910
‘Dr Skirving came and said I was better (which was true), but would not let me get up, and Babs - and R.S.D. - arrived. She looked so sweet. After lunch she and Mother went out for a drive and Bertha came, and they stayed, and we had a good talk, and he went away to Queensland and I miss him so and Babs and I yarned. He has frightened her so that she will not let me exert myself at all - it’s funny . . .’

26 March 1911
‘Lay and read Ailsa Paige and thought of ideas for plays . . . Norman Pilcher came to supper I don’t know if we are getting into deep water or not, but I rather suspect it. He stayed very late.’

27 March 1911
‘. . . R. came and we had a short but very successful spurt of acting the Remington play. I have been either Remington or Rags ever since - the former very angry and troubled, the latter in a passion of fear and shame. Most uncomfortable! Afternoon: Lots of shopping, got 2 nice hats. One, a darling - black straw with yellowy brown roses . . . Evening: Wrote L.B.D. Slept badly. Remington!’

11 August 1911
‘Got up earlier than usual. .. Felt quite reasonably well. Evening: Mrs Arthur Feez’s and Mrs W. Collins’ dance. A very nice one, and I loved it - what I had of it. Broke down at the 12th dance. Rather a stirring night. He was upset because I love him and it upset me, and I nearly kissed him, which would have startled things a good deal. I never felt like that before - rather desperate - and yet not miserable. Only he wouldn’t believe me when I told him so.’

14 August 1911
Stayed in bed with hot bottles and talked to Robin, which was strange and made me feel shy. In the evening Mr Dods came home to his two invalids, and as Mrs Dods could eat nothing, he had dinner in my room, at her suggestion - and to the scandalization of Florence. Read heaps of poetry, heaps and he-eaps.’

29 January 1912
‘. . . Stewards’ concert at night. “Our motto is Comicality without Vulgarity.” Help! They didn’t leave much to the imagination . . . The Bishop got Nina, Edith Anderson and me to the front row, where I sat with my legs coiled up. and my head in Nina’s lap at the startling bits. At the end it came on to rain- soaking, pouring rain . . .

The Rajah follows me round with his soft, black eyes and his soft oily voice -  but no doubt he is very nice.’

8 July 1912
‘Exeter - Plymouth. Got up late and crawled around the Cathedral. . . Then we went to Plymouth. Another wet cold day, else it would have been a prettier journey. But I always
love motoring, even in the rain. On arriving I promptly went to bed. We none of us were to sleep much that night, for the rooms were light as day and the town unbelievably noisy. . .’

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