I don’t know how I came across the name of Norah Skeffington Carroll. At some point during my many excursions into Trove, her name was scrawled on the back of an envelope where I put my mug of tea. Perhaps I saw it in a contents list for The Observer (Adelaide), or some other newspaper of the early 1900s. It was the author’s middle name, “Skeffington”, that drew my attention. It’s an easy one to search for. A cursory search comes up with several titles by the author published over a period of four years in the first decade of the 1900s. They are mostly in South Australia, with one appearing in New South Wales.
After entering the titles in our “Stories from the archives” list, I begin my hunt for the author’s biography.
There’s no entry for Norah Skeffington Carroll on the AustLit database, so I’m out of luck there. No luck either with the author most likely having been born in South Australia: there are no online Births, Deaths and Marriages records there. However, her one story published in New South Wales gives me hope of finding something, perhaps a marriage or death record, and I always have trusty Trove to trawl.
Sure enough, the “Skeffington Carroll” name crops up on a Trove search, but not for our author. It’s a hit for the man who was most likely her father, Frank Skeffington Carroll, a journalist and publisher with a chequered career. I get annoyed when biographies of female writers concentrate on their better-known male relatives, so forgive me for reporting some of his history here.
Newspaper accounts of the day report that a Frank Skeffington Carroll was “the second son of the late Bernard Carroll, Esq., Dublin, Ireland”, who, in 1878, married an Emma Hogarth of Adelaide. In 1878, he was elected to the South Australian parliament, a surprising eventuality, given his past. A sketch writer for the Hobart Town Mercury gives a flavour of his notoriety and the double life he’d evidently led till then:
Those of my friends who may be anxious to know who Mr Carroll is will probably be surprised to learn that he is none other than the ‘gay and festive’ Lieutenant O’Reilly who visited this city a few years ago as a map agent. Many of my readers will remember the rapidity with which the genial-tempered ‘lieutenant’ became ingratiated in the good graces of the best society, played whist with members of Parliament, drank whisky today with the aldermen of the city, and borrowed coin from all and sundry with all the apparent ease and nonchalance of one who in his peregrinations through the Emerald Isle had not omitted the duty of kissing the ‘blarney’ stone. But the day of reckoning came, and the jovial O’Reilly was not forthcoming to balance the accounts and satisfy the gulled subscribers to his mythical ‘map of Tasmania’. Many friends fondly hoped that he was ‘not lost but gone before,’ and that the course of time would witness the publication of his map, and the payment of small amounts which had probably slipped his memory in the forced hurry of his departure. Such hopes, however, proved vain, and the gallant ‘lieutenant’ turned up in Adelaide as the proprietor of the Lantern, a well-got-up comic illustrated paper. The Lantern progressed in public favor, and Mr Frank Skeffington Carroll, alias O’Reilly, became, by the force of his genial temperament and good social qualities, a popular man. Ambition, which, like jealousy, feeds upon itself, appears to have prompted Mr Carroll to hope for still further distinction, and at the recent general election in South Australia he entered the political arena, and was successful in being elected for the district of Light. (Reported in “A Gay Adventurer”, Geelong Advertiser 20 May 1878: 3)
Accounts of a legal case the following year show Frank Skeffington Carroll, as proprietor of the Lantern, being successfully sued for slander. The case arose when a Mr James Hurst, Secretary of the Mutual Trade Protection Association, had been described in an article as having been linked with “some very ugly rumours in which bigamy, abduction, sewing-machine operatives, the expelling of a would-be Lothario from a respectable married woman’s house, and other choice morsels”. (“The case of James Hurst v. Frank Skeffington Carroll”, South Australian Register, 7 Nov 1879: 6.)
Clearly Carroll’s taste in journalism was anything but high-brow.
In 1882, Carroll was in trouble again, this time for breach of copyright. (“Police-Court-Adelaide” South Australian Weekly Chronicle, 2 Sep 1882: 12). By 1883, he applied for insolvency (“Insolvencies”, Evening Journal 28 Sep 1883: 2); in 1884, he was charged with assault (“This Day”, Evening Journal, 26 Sep 1884: 2); and by 1887 he’d suffered a severe decline from which he was never to recover. As one journalist reported:
I saw poor Frank Skeffington Carroll in the street on Friday, or (more correctly speaking) the thinnest ghost, the merest shadow of the man. Doctor Way has told him, so he says, that he can live only a month or two more at most, and the poor fellow resigns himself to his doom with some cheerfulness; but the devil-may-care Carroll of five years ago is seen no more. The people of Light, who once elected him to the Assembly, would not know him now. (“Scratchings in the city”, Kapunda Herald, 1 Feb 1887: 3)
By the following June, Carroll was dead “of phthisis” – or consumption – at the relatively young age of 50. (“Deaths: Family notices,” South Australian Advertiser, 27 Jun 1887: 4.)
So is Frank Skeffington Carroll, alias O’Reilly, the notorious Irishman and fraudster, our author’s father and literary antecedent? If it’s true that a woman is inclined to marry a man like her father, then there’s evidence to suggest Norah is Frank’s daughter. But first to the little of what I’ve found about the author herself, scant as it is.
From Norah Skeffington Carroll’s 1954 NSW death record, we can deduce Carroll was born around 1886, a year before her father’s demise. It seems her mother, Emma Carroll, was left to raise at least two young children on her own, Norah and a sister, Florence (mentioned in her mother’s death notice in 1921). Emma Carroll earned a living by teaching at Fulham Public School in Adelaide, retiring in 1909 (“Education Department”, Observer, 27 Mar 1909: 43). In 1902 and 1904, as “Mrs F S Carroll”, she is referred to as being “head teacher”, while from 1896, a “Miss N S Carroll” is mentioned as having been appointed school monitor. Later “N. S.” is referred to as an assistant at Fulham Public, and, in 1904, as having acted as stage manager for a school concert with a sketch titled “Paid in his own coin”. (“Fulham public school”, The register 1 Aug 1904: 3.)
Carroll’s first known short story was published in 1904, while she was still a teenager. Her last known, “The elopement and the other man”, was published in 1907 and syndicated in nearly a dozen newspapers. The only other possible reference to the author I’ve found appears in 1911 in the Cootamundra herald, a newspaper in rural NSW. Here an article mentions correspondence relating to the School of Arts, with a “Miss N S Carroll” “suggesting the institution subscribe to the Town and Country Journal and ‘Women’s Budget’”. (“School of arts”, Cootamundra Herald 14 Mar 1911: 4.) Whether this was our author, I don’t know. In 1914, we know Nora Skeffington Carroll was in Sydney, NSW, because there she married Mr Bartolomeo Giovanni Dardanelli, a man who, like her father, had a chequered past.
Again, given the paucity of information about Norah herself, I’m indulging by quoting a little of her husband’s history. In 1904, Dardanelli had made the news for embezzling, brought on, it seems, by a taste for gambling. The article, titled “Betting on horse races – a young man’s defalcations”, appears in the Evening news (Sydney) in November 1904:
Bartholomew Giovanni Dardanelli pleaded guilty, at the Darlinghurst Sessions, to-day, to three charges of embezzling money belonging to his master, John Alexander Duff Gibson. Mr. Alex. Thomson, counsel for Dardanelli, asked that he be treated as a first offender. He explained that the accused had for the past 18 years been employed as a traveller in the tea trade; 11 of which he was in the employ of Messrs. Atcherley and Dawson, during which time over £20,000 had been collected by him.
In 1897, he entered the employ of Mr. Gibson, at a salary of £5 a week and a prospective partnership in the business. In 1900 he got into difficulties and embezzled about £200 of his employer’s money. He went to Mr. Gibson, and made a clean breast of his defalcations, and the names of the persons from whom he had collected the money, agreeing, at the same time, to allow his salary to be reduced to £3 per week, the balance to be devoted to paying off the amount of his defalcations. In January last, he again made certain defalcations, and in order to meet the deficiency he went in for betting on horse races. He again confessed to Mr. Gibson, who, while retaining him in his employ, to be terminable at a week’s notice, told him he would have to make restitution. Certain defalcations were made in July, August, and October last, and he was subsequently arrested. Judge Backhouse said he considered the accused had been treated with extreme leniency; another person would have been prosecuted long before this. Twice he had been forgiven by his employer, and he returned to the offence a third time. If that were his first offence he would deal with him under the First Offenders Act without the slightest hesitation, but he had been given two chances without good effect. A man who took his employers’ money and put it on horse races was not deserving of much consideration. He was remanded for sentence.
In 1912, Dardanelli was again in the news, this time petitioning for the dissolution of his marriage to actress Sarah Agnes Dardanelli (née Morrison), on the grounds of desertion. It seems his English-born wife had gone back to England on the pretext of ill-health and never returned to Australia. (“Her old love: back to the stage; the wife who didn’t like Australia”, Sun, 2 Jul 1912: 6)
It was this man, a gambler, embezzler and someone perhaps old enough to be her father, that Norah married less than two years after his divorce. They stayed together until 1928, the wife apparently devoted to her husband, when Dardanelli died “after a long and painful illness” (Family notices, Sydney morning herald, 20 Mar 1928: 10.) It would seem from a search of the NSW records for births, the couple had no children.
Apart from the short stories penned in her youth, Carroll appears not to have published more, with no titles appearing in Trove under her married name or various combinations of her initials. Her contribution to our archive is as follows:
— “Platonics: a story in one chapter” (1904)
— “Checkmated” (1905)
— “In retrospect: a story in letters” (1905)
— “Hearts are trumps” (1906)
— “Love o’ Liz” (1906)
— “The conversion of a celibate” (1906) and
— “The elopement and the other man” (1907)
So are these stories worthy of our attention?
Five of the stories fall into the category of we might now think of as “popular romantic fiction”, while one, “Checkmated”, is more of a comedy. Common to most is a kind of conceit.
“Checkmated” gives an account of a turnabout game between practical jokesters. In “Platonics”, a girl determined not to marry falls in love with her “Platonic” friend. In “Hearts are trumps”, a girl rails against a marriage arranged by her grandfather. In “The conversion of a celibate”, the one I’ve chosen for our Friday story this week, a working journalist interviews a confirmed bachelor financier, with predictable results. (One wonders, given the heroine’s career, whether Carroll herself adopted her father’s profession and went into journalism?)
Stylistically, both “The love of Liz” and “In retrospect” are of some interest, the first for the author’s ability to capture a working-class rural idiom, the latter for taking the form of a series of one-sided letters. On the whole, however, there is little to capture the imagination of a twenty-first-century reader. As for any success the young author might have enjoyed, it is her story “The elopement and the other man” which seems to have caught readers’ attention. In this widely-syndicated piece, a neglected wife prepares to run off with a suitor, and the rejected husband mounts a counter-manoeuvre to win her back, a story scenario which, although ultimately marriage-affirming, was probably risqué for the time.
It is the less-than-traditional morality displayed in this narrative, and the behavioural freedom shown by female characters in Carroll’s other stories, which might be of greatest interest to contemporary readers and researchers. Carroll’s fiction give us a glimpse of the “new woman” of Australia in the early 1900s – emancipated, working for a living, morally more risk-taking – akin to, though not as skilfully rendered as what we’ve seen in other writings of the time. Her romantic happy endings, however, the obligatory fulfilment of women’s aspirations in matrimony, suggest Carroll’s view that women’s new-found freedoms only go so far.
“A Gay Adventurer”, Geelong Advertiser 20 May 1878: 3.
Australian Cemeteries Index: Rookwood Catholic Cemeteries and Crematoria, NSW, inscription ID 10348666; Sect. M2 Row 13 Plot 808.
“Betting on horse races: A young man’s defalcations” 7 Nov 1904: 4.
“Deaths: Family notices,” South Australian Advertiser, 27 Jun 1887: 4.
“Family notices“, Observer, 8 Oct 1921: 27.
“Family notices“, Sydney morning herald, 20 Mar 1928: 10.
“Fulham public school”, The register 1 Aug 1904: 3.
“Her old love: back to the stage; the wife who didn’t like Australia”, Sun, 2 Jul 1912: 6.
NSW Death record 150/1954 : Dardanelli, Nora 68 years, Darlinghurst, Sydney
NSW Marriage record: 64/1914: Dardanelli, Bartolemeo G and Carroll, Norah Skeffington, Sydney.
“Police-Court-Adelaide” South Australian Weekly Chronicle, 2 Sep 1882: 12.
“School of arts”, Cootamundra Herald 14 Mar 1911: 4.
“Scratchings in the city”, Kapunda Herald, 1 Feb 1887: 3.
“The case of James Hurst v. Frank Skeffington Carroll”, South Australian Register, 7 Nov 1879: 6.
“This Day”, Evening Journal, 26 Sep 1884: 2.
Elizabeth Lhuede was first published in the 1990s while working at Macquarie University as a tutor and research assistant. After completing her PhD in Australian poetry, she taught English and Creative Writing, firstly at Macquarie and later at TAFE (NSW). In 2011-12, Elizabeth instigated the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge, and has continued supporting the project in some capacity ever since. Under the pen-name Lizzy Chandler, Lhuede has had two e-novellas published with Harper Collin’s Escape imprint (romance and romantic suspense), one of which has been anthologised in print.
Well researched as usual Elizabeth. I wonder what chance there is that Nora was Frank’s granddaughter. If you are ever in Adelaide I hope you look up her birth record.
I wonder if ‘Skeffington’ is a clue, there doesn’t seem to be any explanation for it. (My father and his mother both had Clare as a middle name to commemorate the birthplace of a great grandmother. I don’t know why, there was nothing else the least bit Irish about either of them).
Thanks, Bill. I didn’t think of the grandfather option. I wonder if the SA records will ever come online. I hope so!