Rediscovering the life and work of forgotten Tasmanian author, Evelyn R Blackett (1863-1943)
AS Christmas drew near in 1887, parishioners of the Church of England, at Buckland, on the east coast of Tasmania, enjoyed the novel thrill of a literary sensation. Their own rector’s wife (and the school teacher) had written a book; it would be out for Christmas.
Very soon the news was the sensation, or the centre of gossip, of the township and the district. Many folk knew that Mrs. Tranmar and Miss Blackett wrote stories for the paper. Nice stories Mrs. Tranmar; nice stories Miss Blackett too, though so sad.
This, however, was to be a book, a real book, by Mrs. Tranmar and Miss Blackett. (ref)
So begins the article by Hilda Bridges, herself a novelist, published in the Australian Women’s Mirror in December 1950, entitled, “The Rectory Novelist: Women in Australian History”. The brief biography of Mrs Tranmar that appears in the AustLit database states she was “a writer and school teacher in Tasmania. She married the Reverend Herbert Tennant Tranmar, an Anglican clergyman and headmaster of Burnie High School.” The two stories listed for Tranmar are from the “real book” Hodges refers to, The Chinese Interpreter and Other stories. The volume contains another two stories, both by an Evelyn R Blackett; but for Blackett there is no biography.
So who was Evelyn Blackett, how did she end up being published with Mrs Tranmar,and, and what were these “nice stories … though so sad” she penned for the newspaper?
Off to the archives I go to do some research.
Evelyn Blackett, I discover, was born Evelyn Rosina Blackett, one of numerous children – one heritage records states there were 14 in all – of William and Margaret (nee Madden) Blackett, who married in Victoria in 1858. William was apparently a native of Montreal, Canada, and Margaret of Sydney, New South Wales. Victorian records for the Blackett family give the following births: Clara (born 1859), Annie (1861, who died a year later), Evelyn (1863), William Alexander (1865), Amelia (1867), Mary Ellen (1871, “Nellie”), Margaret Rosetta (1873), and Francis Arthur (1876). Sometime after this date, the family moved from Victoria to Tasmania, where other children appear to have followed (one, “Staff-nurse Alice Blackett”, is mentioned as having visited the by-then married author in 1918).
In a newspaper article in 1885 Evelyn’s father William Blackett is described as a “Wesleyan Home Missionary”, involved with the temperance society, “Band of Hope”. He was evidently well-loved by his church group, working in the Mersey area before leaving to go “along the coast as an evangelist”. In the 1899 obituary of his daughter Nellie – who died of typhoid at the age of 24 – he is described as having been the “first bush missionary in connection with the Wesleyan Church”.
William’s predilection for lecturing and performance was evidently shared by his children. His farewell from Mersey states that he gave the attendees “another of his very interesting lectures, and in addition brought his family with him. We had an excellent recitation from the Misses Blackett, setting our children an example, which they will no doubt follow. This species of education is much wanted for our children and young people.”
Local newspaper reports show the Blacketts were active in their community, organising community events to raise funds for the local church, and participating in numerous concerts and recitals over several decades. While some of her sisters sang, Evelyn evidently preferred to read, but whether she was reading her own work remains open to speculation.
Either through their father’s influence, or the necessity to earn a living, several of the Blackett children became schoolteachers, including Clara, Evelyn, William, Margaret and Howard. An early appointment for Evelyn was to Irish Town when she was barely eighteen; and she later taught at Margate, St Michael’s, Glen Dhu and Wattle Hill. In 1895, she was described as a “Smith exhibitioner”, among the early recipients of a training program for Tasmania teachers. By then, she had also been writing and publishing stories for several years.
In 1888, the year The Chinese Interpreter appeared, the names of Tranmar and Blackett were linked in the local newspaper, with Mrs Tranmar and a “Miss Blackett” having been involved in arranging entertainment for both the Sunday and day schools in the Buckland area. That this “Miss Blackett” is Evelyn, rather than her older sister Clara, is suggested by a record showing Miss E R Blackett appointed to a teaching post in Buckland in 1883. At the end of 1891, a farewell to “Miss Blackett” is reported, as she leaves Buckland for Wattle Hill, another place where Evelyn taught. The report of her departure states: “Undoubtedly Miss Blackett’s qualifications fit her for something better than the position of a country state school teacher”. That this was Evelyn, rather than Clara, is suggested by a reference in The Mercury that same month, to a prize-winning story by “Evelyn R Blackett” of Wattle Hill. Evelyn had long been yearning for better things, as a piece in Table Talk attests, suggesting she had contemplated moving to Melbourne:
Miss Evelyn Blackett, the talented young Tasmanian writer, is expected to take up her residence in Melbourne, and add one more to the throng of those who forswear the needle for the pen. Miss Blackett is a constant contributor to the Tasmanian Mail and Hobart Mercury, having twice gained the prize for competitive stories annually offered by The Mail. She also published in conjunction with Mrs. Tranmar (who, by the way, has been confined to her room with sickness for nearly two months), a clever book of Christmas stories, which had such a successful run that it is now out of print. (ref)
Her dreams of relocating to Melbourne however, appear not to have been realised. But what were the “constant” contributions she had made to the Tasmanian Mail and Hobart Mercury? And what of those prize-winning stories? The AustLit database mentions only two stories written by Blackett, both of which appeared in The Chinese Interpreter.
A further search is called for, and back to Trove I go.
Unfortunately, the wonderful people behind the digitisation of colonial newspapers haven’t yet scanned the Tasmanian Mail. The Mercury is available, but no stories by Blacket come up via my usual searches. In other publications, however, two stories do appear: a novella serialised in the Colonist in 1888, entitled Paul Thorncroft; and A Federation Episode, serialised in The Examiner in 1900. The latter had originally been reported as having won a prize in a competition, its author given as “Pro Publica”. That this was indeed Blackett is left in no doubt: the first instalment is attributed to “Pro Publica” while all latter episodes are given as “by Evelyn R Blackett”. Could this explain the missing stories in the Mercury? Had Blackett published under a pseudonym? If so, the pen-name used wasn’t “Pro Publica”. That nom-de-plume was used by several others around the time of Federation, but none appears for the late 1880s or early 1890s when Blackett was considered a “constant contributor” to the Mercury.
While searches of the Mercury have yet to unearth any actual stories by Blackett, thankfully its advertisements give us further clues as to what may be found in the pages of the Tasmanian Mail. So far, I’ve found the following references:
- “The Unbidden Guest” by Evelyn R Blackett, Christmas number of the Tasmanian Mail, 1887.
- “Easter Tale: The Fallen Idol” (The Tasmania Mail, Sat Mar 24 1888)
- “Nellie Glenn’s Token: An Incident in the Early History of Tasmania” (The Tasmania Mail, Sat Mar 7 1891)
- “One By Himself” (The Tasmania Mail, Christmas edition, 1891)
- “The Sins of the Fathers” (a temperance story The Tasmania Mail Sat 6 May 1893)
- “The Whartons” (“a story of love and heroism in three parts”, The Tasmania Mail, Sat Jan 6 1894)
These stories evidently all won prizes in the annual competition. A note attached to the reference to “One By Himself” states:
“ONE BY HIMSELF,” has been unanimously awarded first place. This is a capital Christmas Yarn, of original design and story crisply told. General readers will, we believe, be as unanimous in their verdict in its favour as ever the Committee of Judges to whom the task of choice was entrusted. (ref)
Another story, “Chickweed”, won a Christmas competition for The Launceston Examiner in 1898, but so far there is no evidence this was ever published. This distinctively-named tale is especially of note because in 1907 it won a second competition, this time penned by “Evelyn R Reid of Abemore, Irish Town”. While the ethics of submitting the same story twice for a competition may be debated, its second success does fortuitously give us Evelyn R Blackett’s married name, allowing us to sketch in a little of Blackett/Reid’s personal history.
Evelyn Rosina Blackett married William John Coombs Reid, JP and later coroner, on 11 Nov 1901. William, twelve or thirteen years her senior, was a widower with four children, and the couple went on to have at least three more children, including Howard, Roma and Winifred.
Sadly, to date I’ve discovered no stories published under the name “Evelyn R Reid”. The illustration accompanying Hodge’s article suggests one explanation for this: it shows a woman wiping up dishes while her manuscript, ink pot and pen lie idle on the kitchen table, its caption reading, “She was writing for the support of her family. The novel was not written.” While we are no doubt meant to infer that, as a mother, the author no longer had time to write, she did, however, make time to teach: in 1911 she applied once more for her teaching licence, stating she was already teaching her two daughters and two others. Judging by the values evinced in her stories, I’d suggest Blackett saw it as her duty to forgo her own personal ambitions for the sake of her husband, children and community.
And what of those stories available online, are they worth reading?
Of the two published in The Chinese Interpreter (1888), A Tangled Skein is notable for its setting in a mining town in Victoria, “L—”, perhaps based on Linton, the township of her birth. Its sensational premise involves the murder of a young girl, and the wrongful imprisonment of her erstwhile lover – hardly an obvious theme for a “Christmas story”. In it Blackett touches on themes she revisits in other stories: the problem of good and evil, and the risks and temptations of idolising one’s beloved over-and-above one’s allegiance to God. For the Sake of Scalby, in the same volume, depicts a young woman who sacrifices her personal happiness for the sake of her family, and, through suffering and fidelity, ultimately reaps the reward of happiness. Paul Thorncroft, serialised in The Colonist (1888), touches on similar themes: idolatory, patience and redemption. This latter novel is also notable in that it portrays two very different kinds of preaching: the fire and brimstone variety of Thorncroft’s father, and the more loving, more forgiving variety exemplified by Thorncroft himself. It also shows the title character wrestling with a loss of faith in an age when science fails to come up with proof of the existence of God. Finally, A Federation Tale, serialised in The Examiner in 1900, again touches on themes of crossed love and the rewards of fidelity.
Are these the “sad stories” referred to in Hodges article? Perhaps. Life in Blackett’s stories does seem to be full of challenges, suffering and betrayals, with the temptations to folly and sin awaiting the unwary at every turn, and the rewards of duty, devotion, patience and fidelity often a long time in coming. Whether those printed in the Tasmanian Mail expand on or divert from those themes remains to be seen.
Postscript: During all my searches of Tasmanian newspapers, I never came up with a death notice for Evelyn Reid/Blackett, and again lamented that Tasmanian death records are yet to be made available online. At the last moment, however, I remembered one of Blackett/Reid’s sisters, a Mrs N Thrum, had moved to Brighton, Victoria, where Blackett’s schoolteacher daughter Roma visited her in 1940. I looked up the Victorian records and there I discovered an entry for Evelyn R Reid: the record shows she was born at Ballarat and died in 1943 at St Kilda, aged 70. Another forgotten Australian woman author.
The incidental information supplied above is sourced from articles in Trove too numerous to be listed here; they can be found via the usual searches, including for Evelyn Blackett.
Advertisement [for “One By Himself”], The Mercury, 8 Dec 1891.
Advertisement [for “The Whartons”], The Mercury, 5 Jan 1894.
Blackett, Evelyn R, A Federation Episode. (1900): ch1; ch2; ch3; ch4; ch5; ch6; ch7; ch8; ch9; ch10 (final).
—. with Ellie Tranmar, The Chinese Interpreter and Other Christmas Stories J. Walch & Sons, Hobart (1881), including: “A Tangled Skein” and “For the Sake of Scalby“.
—. Paul Thornton/Thorncroft (1888, novella of 20K words) serialised in The Colonist: ch1; ch2-3; ch3 (cont.); ch5 (final).
Bridges, Hilda, “The Rectory Novelist: women in Australian history“, The Australian Women’s Mirror, Vol 27, no. 2 (6 Dec 1950): 23, 49.
“Buckland” [report on Miss Blackett’s departure from the area], The Tasmanian 7 Nov 1891: 30.
Image sourced from the Bridges article.
Jones, Betty, “The Smith Exhibitioners“, Tasmanian Family History Society Vol 30, no. 1 (2009) [reference to Evelyn Blackett on p249].
“Northdown“, Daily Telegraph 4 Apr 1885: 2.
Reid, Evelyn, “Application for Registration as Teacher”, Tasmanian archives.
[Untitled and unattributed snippet], Table Talk, 17 Jun 1891: 4.
Victorian birth record for Evelyn Rosina Blackett: 8743/1863
Victorian death record for Evelyn Rosina Reid (nee Blackett): 11213/1943
Elizabeth Lhuede first published poems and short fiction in the 1990s while working at Macquarie University as a tutor and research assistant. After completing her PhD, she took a break before returning to Macquarie 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.