Sunday, April 8, 2018

Seven Little Australians

‘Night started a new story that I shall call Seven Little Australians. I don’t think I’ll let it go in the Illustrated, if I can do without it there, I’ll see if I can get it published in book form.’ This is from a diary kept by Ethel Turner, a much-loved Australian writer of children’s books who died 60 years ago today. She did, in fact, publish the Seven Little Australians in book form, and it went on to become so popular it has never been out of print, and to become a classic of Australian literature.

Ethel Mary Burwell was born in Doncaster, northern England, in 1873. Her father, a commercial traveller, died when she was two and her sister Lillian eight, but her mother, Sarah, soon married Henry Turner, a widow with six children. They had one child, Rose, before Henry died. In 1879, Sarah emigrated to Australia with her own three children, and married for a third time, and gave birth to a son Rex. Ethel, who took her first step-father’s name, Turner, went to the newly-opened Sydney High School, being one of its first pupils. While still in her late teens, she launched, with Lillian, a journal for young people called Parthenon; and she wrote children’s columns for various periodicals. Parthenon lasted for several years, earning the Turners some income, until the printers were sued for libel.

In 1891, the family moved to a large house, Inglewood, in the countryside north of Sydney (though it now stands in an affluent suburb). By this time, Turner had become a highly popular author, penning, for example, Seven Little Australians (1894) which was made into a film and a TV drama, and which is now considered a classic of children’s literature. Indeed, Wikipedia notes that in 1994 it was the only book by an Australian author to have been continuously in print for 100 years. In 1896, Ethel married a lawyer, Herbert Curlewis. They built their own house, Avenal, at nearby Middle Harbour, and had two children.

During the First World War, Ethel organised ambulance and first aid courses, campaigned for conscription and worked for various patriotic causes. She wrote more than 40 books, mostly novels, and received various literary awards. She gave time and money to charities, was a generous friend to less affluent writers, and remains, today, a much loved national author. She died on 8 April 1958. Further information is available from Wikipedia and the Australian Dictionary of Biography. Her son, Adrian Curlewis became a barrister, served as a captain in the WW2, and was later a judge, being knighted in the 1960s.

Turner kept a diary for most of her life, certainly from 1889 to 1952 (if there were earlier diaries, they’ve been lost). These were first compiled by Philippa Poole (Turner’s granddaughter) and published by Ure Smith in Sydney in 1979 as The Diaries of Ethel Turner. In a foreword, Adrian Curlewis explains his decision to allow publication of his mother’s diaries.

‘The decision to publish my mother’s diaries was made after great deliberation and discussion with my family, as they were not written with any idea that they might some day be open to general viewing. During the last twenty years since my mother’s death I have received hundreds of letters asking me for information about her early life - some came from aspiring authors and biographers, some from university students, and others interested in her life’s work. In answering these requests I found myself searching through papers, articles, verses, voluminous correspondence and repeatedly turning to her diaries for the information that they needed.

All these things finally decided me. I felt that words from my mother’s own hand, written at the time when she was young, could best describe life prior to and at the turn of the century. My daughter, by infinitely patient and time-consuming research extending over a long period has by explanatory notes to the diaries, answered nearly all the questions that were asked. She has rediscovered many photographs, articles and manuscripts that for years have remained hidden and forgotten. These give an illuminating insight into the character of Ethel Turner. Our family hope that this book may, in some small way, add to our Australian history.’

Poole, in her introduction says: ‘Reading [the diary] we accompany her through many stages - her entry into the Sydney literary and social scene, a long and turbulent engagement period, her marriage and domesticity, motherhood, an overseas trip, war years and through to the loss of her beloved daughter Jean in 1930. With this tragedy her heart was broken. The thread that binds this story together is her true love of writing and the great gift that she had of expressing her thoughts.’

A second edition of the diary was brought out by Collins in 1987 (from which the following extracts have been taken), and there have been several more editions since - pages of a 2011 ebook can be sampled at Googlebooks.

3 April 1889
‘Practised 1 hour, sang 20 minutes. Cleared out boxes and drawers, cartloads of rubbish and old letters, etc. Addressed Parthenon wrappers and then in afternoon went to town - Lil bought a new dress, I am penniless. At night tried to write a poem and failed, so instead read and idled.’

6 April 1889
‘Went to Newington Sports, took cab to the grounds. The Sports were very poor. I walked with Mr Curlew a little and after with Mr Curnow. We left Annie, then Lil and I hurried off and caught the 5 o’clock train to Picton to stay with the Daintreys.’

25 July 1889
‘Made the drawing room pretty, wrote Aunt Elgitha; corrected proofs, etc. In afternoon Nina Church came up to see us - she is growing really lovely but she is frightfully conceited and drawls dreadfully. Went to dancing lessons, had 2nd and 3rd figures of the Minuet and the Quadrille, Polka and Lancers. Did Parthenon work till 12 o’clock. Kate left, I am so sorry. I never liked a servant so well.’

9 August 1889
‘This morning I made myself a black lace hat. Idled in afternoon. At night went to Articled Clerks dance and wore my white liberty again, this time with crimson flowers and snowdrops. M. Backhouse asked me for a dance and then did not account for it. I shall never notice him again. He was a bit intoxicated last night I think, it is a pity, he might be such a very nice boy. I’m awfully sorry for him.’

14 August 1889
‘We all went to Bondi for a picnic. It was a lovely day bin Lil and I had so much writing to do we really ought not to have gone. A second letter came from Mr McKinney requesting us to apologise and pay costs one guinea. Of course we refused to do either so I suppose they will lake proceedings.’

27 September 1889
‘Went with solicitor to the Supreme Court, it was all so strange; we had the paper registered. Then Lil and I went to see Mr William Cope and he said the same as he always does. I don’t like him much
now. Then Lil, Mother and I went shopping to David Jones. Bought Rex two suits, etc. a lovely little drawing-room chair, new door mats, stair cloth, liberty silk, etc. etc. At night I corrected proofs and did Parthenon work. Lottie our new servant came, she is a bright English girl.’

4 October 1889
‘Lil and I did some shopping at Farmers, I bought a brown parasol for myself and a red one for Rosie. Then we went to lavender Bay and I had a bathe and Lil watched me but did not get in. I read this afternoon and sent the rest of the Parthenons. Played a practical joke on Mr Cope by sending him a letter containing a formal proposal for ‘my own hand’.’

29 October 1889
‘Got a letter from Press Association asking me to call. I went and the editor Mr Astley was very nice - he said he liked my style of writing and offered me the position of fashion writer and warehouse noter (about £60 a year). I refused for I should not like to go to the places taking notes. He told me to write him a specimen leader - Women’s College Bill.’

4 December 1889
‘Lil and I went to Bronte for a bathe. I think I shall take some lessons, I can't swim well and can’t dive properly. In afternoon did some cooking. Mother went to a meeting to Naval Home Bazaar and had a long talk with Indy Scott, who she says is very nice and unaffected.’

18 December 1889
‘Went to Cope and King and saw our barrister Mr G. W. Reid -— the brief is an immense one, about twenty huge closely written sheets. He asked us a good many questions. Then shopping, I bought a song, my first, Only a Year Ago by Claribel. Afternoon we went house hunting to Glebe. Mother and Mr Cope are still rowing about moving. He is awfully selfish about it.’

27 January 1893
‘Night started a new story that I shall call Seven Little Australians. I don’t think I’ll let it go in the Illustrated, if I can do without it there, I’ll see if I can get it published in book form.’

17 February 1893
‘Went to town by the 8 am, straight out to Dr Quaife, he examined my ear again and then sent me to his brother who is a specialist. I put in rather a rough time, it is a very unpleasant kind of operation and the worst is I have to go again a few times. Night wrote to H., a very personal letter and told him he was terribly careless about his appearance.’

5 April 1893
‘There is the dearest old lady here, she is 86 and her husband was Colonel Otterly of the Royal Engineers. She has lived the most wonderful life, was brought up in St James Palace where her father was a favourite courtier in George IV’s time, went to India, was attacked by pirates, shot a tiger, and did wonderful things in India. I sat in her room all the evening and she told me hundreds of stories. I am really fond of the girls, they are very nice - I think they reciprocate it too. They quarrel for the last kiss from me at night, who is to sit next to me, etc. etc.’

25 December 1893
‘H. went down by the 10 am. had an unChristmassy Christmas, nothing to mark it but goose, pudding and almonds. In afternoon read Some Emotions and A Moral. Night Lil, Rose, Rex and I went to church.’

1 January 1894
‘A day of one thousand hours. Mother and I lay limp and unlovely in our berths till after 4, we simply hadn’t strength to crawl out. Then I had some ice and a biscuit and went on deck to watch the Tasmanian coast scenery - simply grand, only we were past Nature. Mr Taylor was there to meet us at Hobart - never were two feeble creatures so fervently thankful. He took us to the Coffee Palace for the night and we had coffee bread and butter and enjoyed it mightily. For 58 hours I’ve had nothing but one small biscuit and a drink of beef tea. Mother ate things but I couldn’t.’

7 November 1929
‘To Jean taking her an armful of almond blossom sent by Mrs Phillip, the pretty bed jacket I have been embroidering, and also a letter from Dorothea Mackellar sent from England. She was wheeled out onto the balcony in the sun for a time. Not a good day though as she was in pain from strain of coughing. Then back to her flat and spent a couple of hours fixing things up.’

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