by Whispering Gums
Australia has several bookish sisters, and we have featured some of them here, including Louise and Amy Mack, and Ethel and Lilian Turner. Annie and Ida Rentoul are another. Australians of a certain age, particularly those who like fairies, will know Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1888-1960). She was a children’s book illustrator, whose illustrations of fairies and elves were highly popular through the first few decades of the twentieth century. Fewer people know of her sister, Annie Rattray Rentoul (1882-1978) , who was the writer of the two. They collaborated on several stories, starting with the publication of six stories in The New Idea in 1903, and ending with The little green road to Fairyland, which was published in 1922.
Annie and Ida grew up in what sounds like an interesting home. Their father, John Laurence Rentoul (1846-1926), is described in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) as “a clergyman and controversialist”. A Presbyterian minister who migrated to Australia with his wife in 1879, he became involved in the theological arguments of the day. These are not relevant to this post, but it sounds, from Macintyre’s entry on him in the ADB, that his arguments were complex and somewhat contradictory. What is interesting, however, is a reference to the family in Tocsin, an early Australian socialist newspaper. There is a little par from 29 October 1903, which goes like this:
Dr. Rentoul, the brainy little Democrat at Ormond Theological Hall, is just now very proud of his two daughters, Annie and Ida. Miss Annie is a clever writer in prose and verse, while Miss Ida has a genius for decorative drawings dealing with fairy child, and animal subjects. A number of Christmas cards, thoroughly Australian in character, and beautifully drawn by her, have just been issued. Both girls are, like their father, strenuous Democrats.
While their own combined ADB entry does not expand on this aspect of their lives, Annie and Ida certainly made their names in their own fields. Pamela Nutt, in her introduction to Juvenilia Press’s Mollie’s bunyip, and other tales, quotes H.M. Saxby, from A history of Australian children’s literature, who argues that that Annie and Ida “took the writing, and publishing of books for children seriously and … gave a prestige to children’s books which had been slow in coming in Australia”. The sisters were educated at Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne, and excelled, says Nutt, in “Classics and Art”. Annie went to the University of Melbourne, and later became a teacher of Classics at her old school, but she also continued to publish fairyland-set stories with her sister for several years. Ida was an illustrator all her life, and achieved international recognition.
This post will focus on the first decade of the twentieth century when the sisters were just getting started. They featured frequently in newspapers of the day – for personal events like winning prizes, and Ida’s wedding, and, of course, for their publications. The first known published work by Annie was a poem, “The comet and the jook”, which appeared in The Bulletin of 18 May 1901. It presumably refers to the Great Comet of 1901, which, according to Wikipedia, was visible to the naked eye from 12 April to around 20 May that year. Annie was 19. You can see her humour, knowledge, and facility with language in it.
Newspapers praised them – Ida’s illustrations in particular – for being “truly Australian”. Unfortunately, The New Idea has not, as far as I can tell, been digitised for Trove, so we can’t see their contributions. However, Juvenilia Press’ book for the sisters, Mollie’s bunyip, and other tales, includes one of those first six pieces, “How music came to Australia”. Published in October 1903, it was their third contribution. It, and the other stories, are part of a broader history of Australian fairy tales, one reaching back into the nineteenth century, and Nutt discusses this in her introduction to “How music came to Australia”. She identifies features of Australian fairytales that are used by the Rentoul sisters, including presenting a “child-enabled view of the world”, the introduction of bush creatures, and allusion to Indigenous storytelling about “how something came into being”. All these are present in “How music came to Australia”, alongside Classical references from the old world. Nutt suggests that writer Annie may have been “unconscious” of how her story encompasses a sense of being part of two worlds.
The Rentoul sisters’ stories were obviously popular, so that by 1905, says Nutt, The New Idea “was publishing Ida’s illustrations, without any narrative framework, and announcing their presence on the cover of the monthly edition. Nutt focuses on Ida in this comment, but newspapers were also announcing Annie’s part in these contributions. In 1905, the Bowral Free Press announced, as papers often did back then, the newest issue of The New Idea:
The February issue is more than up to standard. Miss Ida Rentoul contracted for the supply of a series of drawings that will cover the first half of the present year. These drawings will be accompanied by stories and verses by Miss Annie Rentoul, who is as clever with her pen as her sister is with her pencil.
In 1904, they published Mollie’s bunyip, a lost-child story, which was a common motif in early Australian literature. In this story, says Nutt, the bunyip, which had hitherto been portrayed as a “monster” in Australian writing, is benevolent and leads Mollie home. Nutt comments that “the construction of Mollie’s Bunyip indicates that the sisters are familiar with the elements of the lost child narrative, even though they are at times, happy to subvert them”.
By 1908, Annie is 26 and Ida 20. In this year they published The lady of the blue beards, and their praises continue to be sung in the Australian press. The Maitland Weekly Mercury (26 December) writes:
It may be that ‘Alice in Wonderland’ suggested Margaret, of the Blue Beards, but the resemblance is only transient, and Margaret’s adventures are told so gaily, and with such buoyant confidence that the story may well achieve its avowed purpose of arresting the present wave of disbelief in the existence of fairies. Margaret receives a communication from two small and dusky inhabitants of Cocoanut-Ice Island, who are not permitted to land in Australia, because they are black; and, accordingly, she set out for the island … and the adventures … on Cocoanut-Ice Island are the theme of the book. Miss Annie Rentoul has caught the fairy manner admirably, both in her verses and her quaint dialogues, and Miss Ida Rentoul, her collaborator, depicts the different characters with a most graceful pencil.
There’s an interesting point worth following up, here, about the “two small and dusky inhabitants of Cocoanut-Ice Island, who are not permitted to land in Australia, because they are black”. It suggests some awareness of race issues, but I found little discussion of this issue regarding the sisters, so is worth further research, For her part, Nutt concludes that the sisters’ early works reveal “what makes them different from Europeans, and also … what they retain of their European heritage”. But, she says, their stories also “mirror adult authors whose privileging of white narrative diminishes indigenous narrative and character”. In other words, these juvenile writers were, like the adults around them, asserting “non-indigenous authority over the land and its stories, imposing their social construct on the vast spaces of Australia”.
That, of course, is something we are aware of now – and is important to recognise and interrogate. For Annie and Ida Rentoul, however, their early works established their place in the history and development of Australian children’s writing, and demonstrate a keen desire to make that writing relevant to the children for whom they were writing.
Diane Langmore, ‘Outhwaite, Ida Sherbourne (1888–1960)‘, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 1988, accessed online 28 November 2023.
Stuart Macintyre, ‘Rentoul, John Laurence (1846–1926)‘, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 1988, accessed online 28 November 2023.
Annie and Ida Rentoul, Mollie’s bunyip, and other tales, ed. by Pamela Nutt (and others), Sydney: Juvenilia Press, 2018
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.