by Whispering Gums
Louise Mack is one of Australia’s lesser known women writers from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, but, like so many others, she deserves to be better known. She was quite something, and another example of what women could and did achieve in those times.
Louise Mack was born in Tasmania in 1870, the seventh child and first daughter of a family which ended up numbering 13. Her father was a Wesleyan minister, and they moved around, ending up in Sydney by the time Mack was in high school. She went to Sydney Girls’ High where she met and became friendly with Ethel Turner (who was also born in 1870). I wrote in my post on Ethel Turner’s juvenilia that Ethel and her sister, Lilian, established a magazine Iris when the school’s newspaper, Gazette, which was edited by Louise Mack, rejected Ethel’s contributions. Notwithstanding this, it appears that they were good friends and, in fact, Turner apparently met her husband at the Mack family home.
Australian author Nancy Phelan, who was Mack’s niece, wrote the entry about her in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), and also the introduction to a new edition of Mack’s debut novel, The world is round. I don’t want to reiterate what you can read in the ADB, but here’s a potted history. After school she worked as a governess before being becoming “a regular contributor to the Bulletin in the late 1880s”, with the encouragement of owner-editor J. F. Archibald and editor A. G. Stephens. She also wrote regularly for The Sydney Morning Herald and other newspapers and periodicals. Phelan suggests that Mack perhaps received too much attention and praise, implying that it impacted the development of her talent. She married, but it failed and she went to England, around 1900, where she wrote novels and serials, travelled, and worked as a journalist, including as a war correspondent. During this time she lived in Florence for six years, and from 1904 to 1907, she edited the Italian Gazette.
She returned to Australia in 1915 and became a touring speaker or lecturer, something she did right through to the 1930s. During this time back in Australis, she wrote more novels and married a second time (more happily), before dying in 1935, “possessionless”. Her life was often not easy, but it seems she was a survivor. As niece Phelan writes – perhaps with a bit of subjectivity – in the ADB, “she met misfortune with … courage and vitality”.
Overall, Mack wrote over fifteen novels, and a memoir of some of her war experiences, as well as poetry, short stories and her journalism. Her Wikipedia article provides a list of her writing. Her younger sister, Amy Eleanor Mack, was also a writer of children’s books, journalist and editor.
Those are the dry facts, but the more interesting truth is that she was quite a colourful character, with Phelan describing her as “fair, pretty, extroverted, audacious, unpredictable, a genuine Bohemian who chose a life of adventure and insecurity”. Phelan writes in her introduction to a 1993 edition of Mack’s 1896 novel The world is round, that Mack “grew up in a series of large, shabby, untidy parsonages, with no luxuries but plenty of books … books, as necessary as bread, were constantly discussed”. Of course, I searched Trove and there I found an article from 1895 which announced her as a rising literary star. It suggests that:
Miss Mack owes much of her development to her mother’s literary tastes, and the varied training that an intellectual father can bestow on his children. (The Methodist, 23 Nov 1895)
Indeed, my Trove search retrieved pages and pages of hits on her name, from newspapers from all around Australia, from small country towns in the east like Dubbo right across the continent to that remote capital city of Perth. Many of these were announcing her lecture tour on her war experience, which included experiencing German occupation and bombardment in Belgium and going behind German lines. In her mid to late 40s at the time of the tour, she was, patronisingly to our modern ears, described in these announcements/reports, as “this charming little lady” or “the pretty and charming little lady”. This is the woman who, one of these articles says, was asked by Scotland Yard to report on a meeting of spies with Germans in Antwerp to which she’d been an eye-witness. This article’s writer also calls her a “little lady” but a bit later describes her more appropriately as “this daring and travelled lady”. S/he reports on an interview with Mack:
“I just love lecturing,” Miss Mack said; “it is the most fascinating work I have ever taken up. Indeed, I may say that I just live for the moment when 8 o’clock strikes, and I and my pictures begin to tell the story of a Woman’s Experience in the Greatest War this world has ever known.” (Western Mail, 17 September 1915)
Mack, you see, went the whole hog and illustrated her talks with moving pictures. Reports suggest that she was an excellent and engaging speaker. Some of these talks were given under the auspices of, and raised money for, the Red Cross. Her book, A woman’s experiences in the Great War, was published in 1915.
I won’t discuss her fiction writing in any detail here, because my next post will comprise a combined review of two of her novels. Instead I’ll share a couple of columns that she wrote in the 1930s in the Australian Womens Weekly, for whom she appears to have been a columnist. These columns – Louise Mack’s Diary and Louise Mack Advises – provide some insight into her values and sense of humour.
In a Diary column, Mack wrote this on Mrs Bradfield, wife of Australian engineer and designer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, John Bradfield:
I’VE always been wondering what would happen if Dr. Bradfield got his title, and dear Mrs. Bradfield became Lady Bradfield, and somehow, between myself and my diary, I must confess I’m glad that Mrs. Bradfield is still there. Dozens of times coming back from hospital, getting out of the train at Gordon, I would find my suitcase seized, or my parcels grabbed, and there’d be Mrs. Bradfield trotting along besides me, coming out of her way so that she could help carry someone’s burdens.
Could Lady Bradfield have done that? Ah, yes! Title or no title, this little simple, pale, absolutely natural woman, all kindness, with a quite remarkable craze for carrying other people’s parcels, would always have been Mrs. Bradfield. That’s her real title, her many friends think.
Her focus on kindness, on the unimportance of “titles”, and her light humorous touch tell us something about her, I’d say.
And, by contrast, here is one of the advice columns. It’s called “The gentle art of giving” and asks “Do you give? Or Do you grab? The commonest way of giving is to give what you can spare. But that’s not giving at all, ethically speaking”. Fascinating. It brings to mind Australian ethicist Peter Singer and his views on giving, but that’s another tangent. Mack goes on to suggest that giving is good for your looks! She suggests getting on a tram and looking around:
Can’t you tell at a glance who hoards and who gives? It is written on their faces. It is graven around their lips. It is mirrored in their eyes, giving, or grabbing. The face that gives has a better complexion because the blood flows happily through capillaries kept open by the light-heartedness of generous doings. The face that gives has brighter eyes and sweeter lips. Oh, particularly about the lips does the will to give reveal itself in its full beauty.
She then gives examples of women who give and don’t give, ending with Myrtle who has almost no food left, when in comes her brother. Mack writes:
And there before my eyes took place a metamorphosis. Ovid wasn’t in it. One moment Myrtle was a grey woman with a quarter of a loaf of bread and a cold chop, and now she turned into a gracious creature, all wealth and possessions, that she was handing away to Tom. She whisked a bit of tea into one parcel, a quarter loaf into another, two potatoes and an onion into another, a cold chop out of her safe, two apples for the children, then pressed threepence into poor old Tom’s hand, with, “It’s pouring; take a tram.”
That was giving, indeed.
Giving is when you press your thumb down, down on the indicator of your heart—and, pressing still, and yet again pressing, send your will to give up, up, up, to the very highest storey of your soul.
Craig Munro’s brief bio of Mack in the AustLit database, seems to have drawn heavily from Nancy Phelan’s book, The romantic lives of Louise Mack, published in 1991. He concludes the bio by saying that “always a larger-than-life raconteuse, Mack embroidered her life as she did her many works of fiction.” Mack led a peripatetic, adventurous and often challenging life, but still managed to make a significant contribution to Australian letters. She is surely ripe for a comprehensive biography.
“Death of Louise Mack” in The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 November 1935
Craig Munro, Mack, Marie Louise Hamilton (1870–1935), AustLit, 2014
Nancy Phelan, “Introduction”, The world is round by Louise Mack, Pymble, Angus & Robertson, 1993
Nancy Phelan, ‘Mack, Marie Louise (1870–1935)‘, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1986
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