by Elizabeth Lhuede
Finding forgotten and overlooked Australian women writers.
One way I’ve been tracing Australian women writers is by looking at “literary notes”, gossip columns and review pages on Trove; another has been to look at indexes of anthologies. When I check the names I find against the AustLit database, quite often there are comprehensive biographies and lists of “works by”; sometimes, however, the biographical details are scant, and the listed works are few.
Take the case of Isabel Grant.
Grant has six stories listed in the AustLit database, but no birth, marriage or death dates, and no known pseudonyms. There’s also an intriguing gap of a decade between the publication date of the first three of her stories and the rest.
So who was Isabel Grant, and why don’t we know anything about her?
Grant’s entry on the Colonial Popular Fiction Digital Archive, my initial source for many of the entries in the archive, provides no clue. It lists only one of her stories, “A Daughter of Her Country”, anthologised in The Red Kangaroo (1907).
Another trip down the Trove rabbit hole is called for.
An early instance of the name “Isabel Grant” appears in the results for a Sydney Mail story competition in 1904 which mentions “Isabel M’Donald Grant, of Coriemong [sic], The Range, Rockhampton”. This looks promising. The entrant adopted the pen-name of “M’Donald Grant”, and her novella, “The Furnace for Gold”, is described as “a Queensland Mining tale, of considerable strength, showing skill of construction”. The same paragraph states that the author “has also completed the M.S. of another book which has been favourably reported on by English authorities to whom it was recently submitted. It has not yet been published.”
Curiouser and curiouser.
A search for “by M’Donald Grant” (and “McDonald” and “MacDonald”) proves fruitless; but one for “The Furnace of Gold” turns up treasure: the novella, published under the author’s own name, was serialised in The Sydney Morning Herald in 1906. Another item to add to Grant’s list of “works by”.
A different search, for “by Isabel Grant”, uncovers more dross than gold: a story, “A Stolen Game” (1904), has very patchy print; and there is an unreadable poem, “The Two Tides”. Sifting through a promotion for The Sydney Mail Annual in 1906, a few glints come to light: its list of authors include a “Miss Muskett, Marion Steventon, Louisa Lawson, M Forrest, May Kendal” and a “beautiful little story by Isabel Grant” concerning a loyal young American transplanted to Australia”. Is the story autobiographical and Grant was an emigrant from America? I wonder. Is that why I can’t find an entry for Grant’s birth in the usual archival records? The story, I realise, is “A Daughter of Her Country”, already published in the Sydney Mail and the one that appears in Red Kangaroo – already listed on AustLit.
Not the most propitious start.
As I trawl further down the results for later years, however, Trove really does reveal a treasure. More and more stories by Isabel Grant appear that haven’t been previously recorded: “The Archangel Michael” (1909), “High Water Mark” (1910), “The Wife” (1910), “A Cousin from the Back Blocks” (1911), “Fate’s Messenger” (1911), “St Aethelyn’s” (1912), “Pharoah’s Daughter” (1912), “Johnnie or John” (1914), “Sheoak” (1914), “On the Fringe of War” (1916) – even another novel, Windermere, serialised in The Queenslander. More short stories follow: “On Perilous Seas” (1918), “The Five-Mile Billabong” (1920), “St George and the Dragon: A Story for Children with a Lesson for Parents” (1922), “The Chewing-Gum Incident” (1922) – another children’s story? Was Grant a children’s author? Is that why she has been overlooked? – “ An Envoy of Eros” (1923) – scotch the children’s author idea – “A White Carnation (1923), and “Singing Games of Children” (1923). What a find! Some of the early stories, unfortunately, have very faint print, but many others are legible.
In the 1920s, I see that Grant was a regular contributor to The Queenslander, writing a column called “Talks for the Home Circle”, as well as an occasional article. The topics are wide-ranging, including on the subconscious mind, nerves, growing trees, heritage, friendship, sleep, imagination, children, auto-suggestion, and many more.
Isobel Grant: novelist, some-time poet, short story writer, children’s author and later columnist; a working writer over several decades. Yet still no records of her life have come to light. I read back over that original notice in the Sydney Mail. Grant was from Rockhampton, a regional author: her columns, and most of her stories, I see, were published in The Queenslander. Does that explain it? Was she well known in her local community and nowhere else?
Thanks to the gossipy local regional newspapers of the time, a further exploration does unearth some details about her life. With a few side trips to Queensland historical records, the search reveals more than a few gems.
This is what I have discovered so far.
Isabella Grant was born in Scotland, circa 1870. Her parents, Jessie Margaret MacDonald and William Grant, were both natives of Glen Urquhart, in the shire of Inverness. William Grant had come out to Australia in 1850, but returned to Scotland a few years later to marry and bring his new bride with him to Australia. They lived here until 1867 when they returned to Scotland, where, presumably, Isabella and her five siblings were born. The couple brought their young family to Australia in 1882 and settled in Rockhampton in 1884. That same year, Isabella’s father William died.
Isabella, as she was then known, was a gifted student, a writer of prize-winning essays, and a confident public speaker, chosen to greet both the Governor and a “Lady Musgrave” when they visited her school. Later Isabella became an assistant teacher and rose through the ranks, firstly at the Central State School for Girls at Rockhampton, and later as Head Teacher of the Maryborough Central Infants’ School.
In early 1909, Isabella – now “Isabel” – travelled to Sydney and the nearby Blue Mountains, returning to Rockhampton to retire from teaching and marry Jonathan (“Jack”) Murray. In one wedding notice she is described as being “an authoress of repute”.
Little has been found about her husband Jack Murray, except that he most likely ran a family grocery business. A notice in the Maryborough Chronicle announcing a “Monster Cash Sale” at the retirement of “Mrs Jonathan Murray Senior” was put in by “Jonathan Murray & Son”, but the business name is no doubt a legacy title: Jonathan Murray senior had died years before his son’s wedding.
By this time, Isabel’s siblings all had risen to positions of responsibility, both within the local community and further afield. Her eldest brother, J D Grant, was an officer of the Mount Morgan Gold-mining Company; her second brother, Kenneth Grant, was a member of the Legislative Assembly; a third brother, Hugh Grant, was a solicitor in Rockhampton; and her sister Elizabeth Grant took over Isabel’s duties as Head Mistress. That’s not to say the family wouldn’t still have identified as working class: Kenneth Grant had been elected to the Labour Party, having first worked as a telegraphist (a new technology, for the time), as well as for the Rugby Union Football club.
In 1910, Isabel gave birth to a daughter, Hazel Jessie Margaret Murray, named after Isabel’s mother who had died in 1905, as well as Isabel’s younger sister Jessie, who had been a companion to their mother. In the years following, Jack and Isabel, with the daughter Hazel, regularly visited Jack’s widowed mother at Point Vernon, Pialba. When the First World War hit, Isabel became involved in the war effort, joining the committee of the “Sock Society”, and her contribution of “three parcels magazines, novels and general literature, and 1 pair socks” hints at what she considered were among the soldiers’ primary needs.
Over many years, Isabel helped at the Presbyterian Sunday School and was fundraiser for the Lady Musgrave Hospital, named after it seems the same Lady Musgrave she had once been appointed to welcome to her school in the 1880s. In 1939, the year their daughter Hazel married, Isabel and her husband left Rockhampton for Brisbane, after a lifetime serving their community. The “Farewell Evening” described in the Maryborough Chronicle gives a sense of the esteem the couple was held in. Jack Murray died in 1943; Isabel survived him by nine years, dying in Bundaberg, near where her daughter lived, in 1953.
A couple of private, family notices mark her death on 1 April 1952; no mention is made of Isabel’s writing; The Queenslander, the newspaper to which she had contributed for so many years, had ceased publishing in 1939. It is left to us to make good use of the resources on Trove, to read her work and decide whether her work is worth rediscovering; whether indeed she ever deserved the title, “authoress of repute”.
If the first of her stories I’ve found, “Michael the Archangel”, is anything to go by, the rest of her work is worth exploring. This story will be published as our “stories from the archive” selection on Friday.
Lists of Isabel Grant’s works can be found on our archives pages for 1900s, 1910s, 1920s and 1930s.
Advertisement, Maryborough Chronical, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser, 2 Dec 1912.
AustLit entry for Isabel Grant (access by subscription or via library membership)
“Australia’s Most Artistic Publication”, promotion for Sydney Mail Annual, in The Sydney Mail and NSW Advertiser, 10 Oct 1906.
Colonial Australian Popular Fiction: Digital Archive
“Death of Mrs William Grant”, Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 28 Dec 1905.
Death notice for Isabel Murray The Courier-Mail, 2 Apr 1952.
Death notice for Isabel Murray, Maryborough Chronicle, 3 Apr 1952
“Farewell Evening”, Maryborough Chronical, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser, 22 Apr 1939.
“The Mail Competition Again”, (9 Nov 1904: 1158.
Murray, Isabel, “A Daughter of Her Country”, Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (13 Oct 1906); also anthologised in The Red kangaroo and other Australian short stories, ed. W. R. Charleton, Sydney: John Fairfax and Sons, 1907, pp. 106-113
“Sock Society”, Maryborough Chronical, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser, 22 Mar 1916.
“Telegraphists Elected to Parliament”, Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 5 Apr 1902.
Wedding notice in “Rockhampton”, Maryborough Chronical, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser 10 Dec 1909 : 4.
Elizabeth Lhuede published poems and short fiction in the 1990s while working at Macquarie University as a tutor and research assistant. She took a break after completing her PhD, and returned to Macquarie later to teach English and Creative Writing. More recently, Elizabeth instigated the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge and, under the pen-name Lizzy Chandler, has had two e-novellas published with Harper Collin’s Escape imprint (romance and romantic suspense), one of which has been anthologised in print.
You’ve researched this woman’s life so well; it’s a story in itself. Reminds me that the best stories reflect real people and their challenges. ‘Reflect’ to me means that the art of writing fiction is to bring characters to the reader who seem real and ensuring that their situations are similar to those living in that particular time period. History is fascinating. Thank you for telling us about the authoress of repute, Isabel Murray (nee Grant).
Thanks, Jill. History is fascinating and I agree about fiction reflecting real people and their challenges. Do you write historical fiction? I think the stories in our archive list would be a great resource.
How wonderful … I love doing this sort of research in Trove but often don’t have quite the time you’ve been able to put into it (though I admit I often get caught up going down the editing path – fixing those articles).
Will you provide all this info to AustLit? Will they accept it? (I’ve been meaning to ask whether you’ve been providing any updates to them.)
This is such exciting work to be doing isn’t it.
And, you know, this is a bit interesting for me because I was born in the Lady Musgrave Hospital in the 1950s. (Also, I love that her daughter’s middle names include Jessie. My Queenslander mother, born in 1929, had two grandmothers named Jessie. Our son has given his daughter the middle name of Jessie.)
Oh and I forgot to say, that because both my mothers’ grandmothers were named Jessie, so was she!
I love your connection with Lady Musgrave, Sue! That does make it special. ((And I love the name Jessie.)
Regarding the research, it can be absorbing, but I wish all my efforts to fill in our authors’ lives were as fruitful as this one has been.
As for notifying AustLit, that’s a good idea. I wonder if I should wait till I’ve posted about other authors? And I’d need a good edit to get the biography right.
I love the name Jessie too, funnily enough. BTW my father was a staunch Presbyterian too. So many links.
Do you think you should wait or is it worth letting them know what you … we … are doing? I’ll leave it to you.
Fascinating detective work Elizabeth. I can’t claim the same level of connection as WG, but my great-grandfather was the same age as Isabel and was Mining Warden in a number of Qld towns, mostly north of Rockhampton. I keep hoping that one of the authors you discover is a rello.
Thanks, Bill. Your family’s background is fascinating in itself. I’m convinced a wealth of stories lies in our own family histories. So often we only get curious when it’s too late to ask. Maybe we will uncover a connection?