by Whispering Gums
For most Australians, Ethel Turner (1870-1958) is best known as the author of the classic children’s novel, Seven little Australians, which was published in 1894 when she was 24 years old. It was an instant hit. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, it was, in 1994 (and may still be), “the only book by an Australian author to have been continuously in print for 100 years”. It was an impressive debut, but it was not her first piece of writing, as Turner had been writing since her childhood.
Juvenilia, which the Collins Dictionary defines as “works of art, literature, or music produced in youth or adolescence, before the artist, author, or composer has formed a mature style”, doesn’t appeal to everyone. However, it can, says specialist publisher Juvenilia Press, “provide a window on the writer’s development and engaging glimpses of the young genius at work”. For this reason, if juvenilia is available – and there are some famous examples – it tends to be of most interest to researchers and fans of loved and admired authors. It is fortunate for those interested in Australian literary culture that some is available for Ethel Turner.
Given her fame, stories about Turner frequently appeared in newspapers during her lifetime, which provides some useful first-person information about her literary origins. In an interview reported in The Queenslander (14 May 1889), she says that her writing was probably “the outcome of childish games”. She and her sister, she said, “lived in a perpetual story” with “Let’s pretend’ being their first words in the morning. The first time she wrote something was when she was 11 and had “suddenly discovered what it meant for words to rhyme”. She wrote some poetry, but when she showed them to her mother, “the best and most sympathetic mother in the world”, she laughed, so Turner gave up writing for “a very long time”. And then, when she was around 14, she wrote her first serious work:
“It was very serious. I wrote it in my French exercise book, which was half empty, and gave it to my dearest school-mate, who thought it was indeed a noble and stirring work. It was all about grown-up people. I would have scorned to write of children then. There was no one in it of lower rank than a marquis, unless, perhaps, some ancient retainer. There was a villain in it and a magnificent hero, a starry-eyed heroine always dressed in pure white. There was a duel, of course, and equally, of course, the starry-eyed heroine flung herself on the corpse of her lover, the Duke, and died, too—a beautiful, drawn-out death scene that I revelled in darkly through about twelve closely-written pages.”
Juvenilia Press’ edition of selected pieces of Turner’s juvenilia, Tales from the ‘Parthenon’, commences with an introduction to her work, and includes some information about her early writing career. They explain that at Sydney Girls’ High School, Ethel and her older sister, Lilian, established a magazine Iris when the school’s newspaper, Gazette, which was edited by another Australian writer-in-training, Louise Mack, rejected Ethel’s contributions. Ethel Turner described it this way in a letter about her “Literary Beginnings” quoted by The Queenslander (18 August 1900):
The editor of the school paper proper evidently considered the aspiring contributions I used to drop into her box as beneath contempt, so in a wrathful moment I rallied my particular friends around me and started a rival paper, that ran an exciting course until I left.
But then, as she continued in this letter,
what a blank in my life! No more ” editorials” to write ; no more chances of print for my starry-eyed heroines and proud, cynical heroes; for my highly moral essays on “Friendship” and “Ambition ;” for my beautiful verses, “To a Moss Rose,” and ‘Sea Whispers,” and “Songs of Spring.” There was nothing left to do but attack an editor of a real paper. I sat me down, and, just out of school, and with my hair still in a plait, I wrote an article that would have occupied four pages of a daily paper if it had been printed. At this distance of time I do not remember the subject, but it was probably on “The Hidden Meaning of Pagan Myths,” or ” The Great Ideals of Modern Thought.”
Her manuscript wasn’t picked up by any editors, and she didn’t even receive a “declined with thanks”.
Turner had left school in 1888. In 1889, she and her sister established another magazine, the Parthenon. She explains its origins, again in the 1900 letter:
We repeated the school experiences, my sister and I. Since no “real paper” would print us, we resolved to print ourselves, and started a monthly magazine, which, our classics fresh in our mind, we called by the high-sounding title of the “Parthenon,” and found one had to explain, even to our well-read friends, that it meant “Of the Virgins.”
Parthenon ran from 1 January 1889 to 4 April 1892, so was written when Turner was 19 to 22 years old. It was quite an impressive effort for two young women, because they had to fund it from donations and advertising, and write much of the copy themselves.
What did they write about? Juvenilia Press’ Introduction argues that Turner moved away from the bush or rural tradition practised by her peer Mary Grant Bruce, and “firmly established her fiction in suburban Sydney”. She was also aware of gender issues (though she wouldn’t have used this terminology). This is made clear in the Parthenon’s first issue in which Ethel and Lilian identified their goals. Their great grandmothers, they wrote, had learnt to write and spell, and their grandmothers had added “French, the harp and pianoforte, and the use of globes”, but
now the desire for knowledge is rapidly growing: deeper and deeper, woman goes into the mazy labyrinth, untrodden before by any but men’s footsteps,—culling the flowers of knowledge,—yes, and enjoying them, and appreciating them even as much as men do.
Ethel Turner was active during the first wave of feminism in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. While this early wave didn’t reject women’s domestic role and function, it did argue for women’s rights and for recognition of their intellectual equality. Turner fits within this paradigm. The Introduction suggests that her novel Miss Bobbie, of which an earlier serialised version appeared in Parthenon, promotes “vigour and independence” in young women but situates this within a world still framed by “patriarchal expectations”.
The Introduction mentions a third way in which Turner contributed to Australia’s literary tradition: incorporating Australian elements into traditional English fantasy. The pieces in Tales from the ‘Parthenon’ have been well-chosen to reflect all these aspects of her writing. They are all children’s pieces – “Gladys and the fairies” (in 2 chapters), “A dreadful pickle” (in 3 chapters), both published in 1889, and chapter 3 of “Bobbie” from 1890. All feature spirited if not naughty girls. Jane Gleeson-White, in her Australian classics: 50 great writers and their celebrated works, quotes Turner’s opening to Seven little Australians:
Before you fairly start this story, I should give you just a word of warning. If you think you are going to read of model children, with perhaps a naughtily inclined one to point a moral, you had better lay down the book immediately … Not one of the seven is really good, for the very excellent reason that Australian children never are.
Gleeson-White’s point is that Turner may have been called Australia’s Louisa May Alcott, but her children are very different. And her juvenilia pieces show her moving down that path. Gladys is “dreadfully spoilt” and behaves tyrannically. However, time in Shadowland and Fairyland forces her to rethink her ways, though not before she collapses in a typical Victorian faint! It is here we find English fairies in a new environment. Turner’s fairy queen rides in a chariot comprising “part of an emu’s egg, wondrously carved” followed by “elfs, dressed in yellow and riding locusts”.
Midge, the protagonist of “A dreadful pickle”, is also spoilt, and, like Gladys, treats her governess badly. However, she has a kind heart along with her independent spirit, and “wants to help poor people like those in London”. The story takes a Dickensian turn when Midge finds herself out of her depth and alone with some of these poor people. There’s some fun wordplay in this story. And Juvenilia’s Explanatory Notes explains that the word “pallor” shows Turner using the American spelling that was popular in Australia at the time.
Juvenilia Press includes one chapter from Bobbie. Bobbie, like Gladys and Midge, is living in a household of boys, having been left there by her father who is travelling in Europe with his new wife. From the little excerpt provided, she seems to be a more developed character than Gladys and Midge, that is, she is less the typical spoilt child, but she too gets in a pickle when her perverse behaviour brings on teasing from one of the boys, with disastrous results. The notes on this story point out that both Turner and Mary Grant Bruce “created strong female characters who challenged the Victorian stereotype of the submissive female”.
Turner’s juvenilia, then, not only provides a sense of the writer to come, but gives insight into Turner’s times and the place of her work in the development of Australian literature. Hers may be stories for children, written by a girl, but material like this is immensely valuable for students of literature.
Brenda Niall Douglas. “Turner, Ethel Mary (1870–1958)”. Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 1990 (2006 online ed.)
“Ethel Turner at Home“. The Queenslander, 14 May 1898
Jane Gleeson-White. Australian classics: 50 great writers and their celebrated works. Allen and Unwin, 2007
“Literary beginnings“. The Queenslander, 18 August 1900 )
Pamela Nutt, with students from Year 11, the Presbyterian Ladies College Sydney (ed). Ethel Turner: Tales from the Parthenon. Juvenilia Press, Sydney, 2014
Whispering Gums, aka Sue T, majored in English Literature, before completing her Graduate Diploma in Librarianship, but she spent the majority of her career as an audio-visual archivist. Taking early retirement, she engaged actively in Wikipedia, writing and editing articles about Australian women writers, before turning to litblogging in 2009. Australian women writers have been her main reading interest since the 1980s.