by Whispering Gums
An article on the Sydney-born writer of short stories, poems, articles and novels, Capel Boake. Having moved to Melbourne while still a child, she was active in literary circles, there as well as developing her own writing career.
Who was Capel Boake?
Capel Boake is a pseudonym, her real name being Doris Boake Kerr. She was born in Sydney in 1889, to Australian-born parents, and died in Victoria in 1944. She wrote under two pseudonyms, Capel Boake and Stephen Grey (the latter being used for collaborative works with poet, Bernard Cronin).
Although born in Sydney, she apparently spent most of her life – including most of her childhood – in Melbourne. She left school early, and worked as a shop assistant, secretary, librarian and book-keeper. Arnold in the Australian dictionary of biography, quotes Boake as saying that she was “self-educated at the Prahran Public Library”.
Her uncle was the respected poet, Barcroft Boake, who committed suicide in 1892 at the age of 26. His father, and Boake’s grandfather, was the Australian photographer, Barcroft Capel Boake, the Capel apparently reflecting their Irish heritage.
Boake never married, and lived in the family home in Caulfield. The Australasian article, cited under Sources below, says that she liked swimming, fires and grilled chops on the beach, billy tea, and gardening.
Most relevant to us though is that, as The Katoomba Daily says, she was “well-known in literary circles.” This included being active in P.E.N. International, the Fellowship of Australian Writers, and a foundation member of the Society of Australian Authors. She worked at one stage as a secretary to J. K. Moir who founded Melbourne’s Bread and Cheese Club and was an impressive book-collector.
What did she write?
There is far less written about Boake, than there is about other writers of her time, like Tasma (or Jessie Courveur), but I did find some information in Trove, particularly in The Australasian’s Australian Writers Series. It reports that
Writing has always been in her blood, and from her earliest years she has felt the urge to express herself through the written word. But she remembers her first published story, which appeared in “The Australasian” in 1917. From then on she wrote a number of stories and poems for “The Australasian.”
So, she wrote short stories, poetry, and articles, but her favourite medium was apparently the novel. Her first, Painted clay, brought her “definite recognition as a serious writer”. Yet, she only wrote four novels, one of which was published posthumously:
- Painted clay (1917, reprinted by Virago, 1986)
- The Romany mark (1923)
- The dark thread (1936)
- The twig is bent (1946, posthumous)
Wikipedia says that her “subject matter included the options available to women in the early twentieth century, circus life, and early Melbourne history.” These Melbourne stories are wide-ranging. The Australasian writes that The dark thread
tells of the growth of Jewish national feeling in a boy, the son of a Jewish father and Christian mother, who, living in Australia but going to the war and later learning of the establishment of the Jews in Palestine, felt the urge to go there as a unit of the Jewish nation. The idea of the theme came to Capel Boake when staying in the country, in hearing from a Jewish hawker some of his hopes and aspirations.
“Annette” writing Melbourne’s The Herald reports that Boake travelled with the circus to research her novel The Romany mark, acting ‘in the honorary capacity of ticket-seller and sometimes, suitably disguised, as a fortune-telling sibyl” and that for The dark thread, she went “to Port Melbourne for her background” even though the plot was inspired by meeting with that Jewish hawker in a western District town. She apparently told Annette that she went “so far afield from the Western District to Port Melbourne for her setting” because she loved the sea and ships. She also told Annette that the novel was written “on a battered typewriter tied up with string in its essential parts”.
Boake was clearly an enterprising writer.
Given Painted clay is her best known novel, I’ll conclude with two contemporary comments on it. First, though, it’s worth noting that Virago reissued her, which suggests some relevance to modern readers’ understanding of women’s lives and history. ADB’s John Arnold provides some sense of this, writing that it’s about “a shop assistant’s fight for independence in a period when menial work or marriage were the only choices for a majority of young women.”
Here is how two newspapers at the time saw it …
The Western Mail describes it thus:
It is a sex story created on conventional lines. If there be still a demand for this type of fiction, this new nation under the Southern Cross may as well make its contribution. This is a story of city life, every word of which might well be true. It is original only in the sense that every individual life is original, and a bringing together of a number of lives in a novel may be done without either much originality or imagination. Neither of these qualities are conspicuous, yet the story is well written and suggests talent for better things. Helen is a really fine character, and capable of better things than the author gave her to do.
Positive, but not completely so. Interestingly, the article seems to pretty much tell the whole story. No worries about spoilers, it seems, in reviews then.
The Australasian’s reviewer was a little more expansive, albeit also noting faults. S/he starts, however, by mentioning that the novel is wholly a product of Australia and says that its typography and format are “a credit to its publishers”. S/he then continues:
As might be expected in a first effort of the kind, the story is not free from certain crudities of thought and occasional lapses in craftsmanship, but it has, on the other hand, decided merits which raise it far above the average of Australian novels, and justify one in expecting much from Miss Boake in the days to come. It is a real attempt to present a faithful picture of life in a Melbourne setting. The authoress has not made the mistake, very common with our writers, of painting in the “local colour” so heavily that the human element in the picture is lost in what we may call a superficial provincialism of incident and characterisation. [my emphasis] In other words, while rightly choosing for her story a setting with which she is familiar, she uses the setting merely as a medium for explaining general truths of the interaction of human nature and life experiences as she understands them. It follows, therefore, that the interest of her story does not lie in sensational happenings or in the surface peculiarities of habits or manners on this continent or any particular part of it, but in the quality of her characters and the manner in which they react to their environment. The defects in her work are obviously the result of her own as yet somewhat restricted experience of life, and not of wrong method of attack, or misguided imagination, or a striving after meretricious effects. Their cause is consequently one that time should cure.
Such a lovely detailed analysis.
Boake is clearly worth checking out.
About our authors. The Katoomba Daily, 31 March 1936,p. 4.
Annette. ‘While I Remember‘, The Herald, 13 June 1936, p. 25
John Arnold. ‘Kerr, Doris Boake (1889–1944)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 2000.
‘Australian Writers Series: Doris Kerr, as “Capel Boake,” adds lustre to a name already known in literature‘. The Australasian, 27 May 1939, p.44.
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.