by Debbie Robson

“Jean Curlewis (7 February 1898 – 28 March 1930) was an Australian writer. The daughter of Ethel Turner and Herbert Curlewis, she battled tuberculosis for many years before dying at 32 years of age” (wiki). Debbie has written this essay for us about Curlewis’ short life and lost potential.

It was nearly ten years ago I began my research into Sydney as it was during the 1920s. I was particularly interested in reading novels set in the city during that decade but initially all I could find was stories and novels set in the bush. I did discover Jacqueline by Marjorie Clarke (another forgotten novelist) writing as Georgia Rivers, about an office girl in Melbourne. And then I came across Jean Curlewis’s novels set in Sydney and all written in the 1920s. I was in heaven but couldn’t believe she was not more well known.

Early Life

“Ethel Jean Sophia Curlewis was born at Mosman and educated at Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar School, Jean Curlewis grew up in a cultured and literate upper-middle-class family. Her mother was Ethel Turner, the popular author of Seven Little Australians. Her father was Herbert Curlewis, a lawyer. Jean attended Killarney, the Church of England Grammar School in Mosman where the Curlewises lived, and later went to S.C.E.G.G.S. Darlinghurst.”

“Jean served as a Voluntary Aid, relieving overworked nurses during the Spanish ‘flu epidemic that devastated Sydney in 1919. It is likely that during this period, when she was particularly open to infection, Curlewis contracted the tuberculosis that would ultimately claim her life.”

From Maurice Saxby’s excellent essay in the La Trobe Journal:

“Jean Curlewis’s life may have been brief but it was, apart from her illness, a rich, happy and fulfilled one. From her parents, her mother in particular, she gained a love of place — in particular for the Sydney suburb of Mosman where they lived; for Leura and the Blue Mountains where her family owned a holiday home and went frequently, seeking a refuge from the pressures of fame; and for Palm Beach and Pittwater, another family retreat. She shared, too, the enthusiasm of her brother Adrian for surfing and developed a keen knowledge of lifesaving procedures. All of these facets of her life are reflected in her writing.”

And considering she only lived to 32 she managed to do a lot of writing. She began young, “becoming involved when only eighteen with her Aunt Lilian in writing ‘legends and native stuff’ for a new children’s magazine planned for the Mirror.” She also contributed to the serial Sunbeams with her mother, published in book form in 1923 as The Sunshine Family: A Book of Nonsense for Girls and Boys.

Jean Curlewis wrote four very different novels:

The Ship That Never Set Sail (1921)
Drowning Maze (1922)
Beach Beyond (1923)
Dawn Man (1924)

Here are some of my thoughts on all four novels which I read between 2014 and 2017.

The Ship That Never Set Sail: Brenda Paling is fourteen when the novel opens, a very highly imaginative young girl who would love to set sail on a steamer for exotic lands. By the second half of the novel Brenda is 18 and, of course, her world has changed and just how the change has affected Brenda is very sensitively evoked by Curlewis. Here is Darling Harbour in the 1920s:

“The huge funnels towered up right beside them. They could count the cases and barrels and mysterious bulging sacks and great green clusters of bananas scattered on the wharves – gaze down into the dull green water, deep-hued as a peacock’s tail with a film of oil from some passing steamer. All the vast detail of the fifth port of the Empire was spread beneath their eyes.”

Drowning Maze is a lot of fun, a rollicking schoolboy adventure set in an unrecognisable Frenchs Forest, Pittwater and Newport. Never taking itself too seriously Curlewis keeps the reader entertained with quick, deftly written scenes and interesting characters. I love the Cynic and Streaker, both cleverly drawn. More importantly though I am fascinated by glimpses of a much earlier Newport (where I lived for many years): A hotel, a village square, boarding houses and a grassy slope. 

Here’s Palm Beach in the 1920s: “It was the social hour of the little surfing colony when the whole population turned out for their mails and stores. The tiny rickety pier and the deep shady store verandah were alight with girls in Gingham frocks carrying gay Japanese umbrellas, and sunburned, bare legged boys in white shorts and shirts carrying lobsters and billies of milk, and loaves of bread and tins of kerosene. Small children rode down the steep road on ponies; everyone seemed to know everyone else; everyone was laughing…”

Beach Beyond is set in a beach beyond everything else. Palm Beach is mentioned but this mysterious beach is further on again – a wonderful wilderness where a group of wealthy businessmen and their families have gone to relax for the summer. The wives and children stay all week and the husbands drive up for the weekend.

One of the businessman, Mr Massimer, decides to use a member of his staff – the narrator – to act as lifeguard and watchman after strange things start happening at the beach.

Curlewis cleverly maintains the tension and keeps the reader hooked. The characterisation is excellent and the beauty of the place is evoked not so much through paragraphs of descriptions as you would expect from a novel written one hundred years ago but through the reaction of the characters themselves. As Maurice Saxby writes in the La Trobe Journal: “In the guise of a mystery thriller Jean Curlewis writes a novel of ideas that is ahead of its time.”

The Dawn Man is Jean Curlewis’s last novel and is a thriller in the old sense of the word. Two very different men – good and evil as it turns out, race against time to be the first to discover a skull that could change current thinking about the earliest human inhabitants of earth. The skull lies somewhere in the Blue Mountains at the bottom of a gully.

And the reader is off on an adventure, the sort that no-one writes anymore and I think we, readers, are the poorer for that fact.

Overview: I summed up my feelings about all four novels in my review of her last. “But more than anything what I value now, looking back on each of the novels (wishing she hadn’t died so young) is the way Curlewis evokes place. In Beach Beyond, it is a mysterious beach beyond Palm Beach, completely wild where a little holiday community has set up camp and spend several weeks there undisturbed, with just the bush behind them and the crashing waves in front.

In The Ship That Never Set Sail there is the cave that our heroine Brenda hides in near Bradley’s Head, there are sailing ships at Darling Harbour, the White City Theme Park now demolished and more sights that are unrecognisable today.

In Drowning Maze Curlewis takes us to a very different Newport and Palm Beach, the latter with a tiny rickety pier and the deep shady store verandah. But in The Dawn Man, the landscape of the Blue Mountains really comes into its own:

“Here was a world unmarred by picknickers. Here tiny bush creatures – frogs, lizards – hopped and scuttled unafraid. A crayfish, straying in dull red armour from his home at the foot of a slim waterfall, waved solemn claws. A parakeet flashed within a yard of him, rock orchids clung with tenacious fingers to the bare boulders, lianas looped from tree to tree with the profusion of the illustrations to jungle tales of his youth. Staghorns clustered in every forked tree, and just before noon he saw, without particular wonder, since all was so strange, the rarest sight of the mountains – a large bird, with burnished breast and lyre-shaped tail, which bounded easily form stone to stone ahead of him.”

Maurice Saxby speculates that with the skill she showed in just her first four novels that she may have become a very famous and much-loved novelist if she hadn’t died so young. “As it is, she has left us four highly readable novels that not only document life as it was for upper middle-class, cultured Sydney families in the 1920s but also express something of the idealism and the concerns of caring young people in every age.”

But Jean Curlewis wrote more than just four novels. She wrote book reviews, poems, short stories, interviews and essays for newspaper columns and journals.

Marriage and London

Jean married Dr Leo Charlton in 1923 and the couple spent two years in London while Leo was engaged in postgraduate studies. During this time Jean wrote articles about London for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Home. In one essay featured in the Lights O’ London Sydney Morning Herald column Curlewis compares two very different marches happening nearby on the same Sunday in London – the Hunger March and the church parade:

“In Trafalgar Square the Hunger March – here in Hyde Park the March of the Fed. These people have eaten. They have eaten caviar and fois gras and have diamonds and Crepe de Chine, and yachts and motor cars and orchids and Deauville. A sweet food, a rich food. …”Oh, sad grey Sunday of 1925. The tragic content in the eyes of the hungry, the still more tragic hunger in the eyes of the Fed.”

One of my favourite pieces in her London Calling column for The Home is about a London nightclub:

“Breathless and excited, we leave at last about half-past one, though the club is still in full swing. Putting on our cloaks, we glance out through the cloak-room window, which gives on to the fire escape. As we look the club’s French chef steps out on to it from the kitchen for a breath of air between relays of bacon and eggs. He is about fifty, tall and sturdy – the light from the window touches his rugged face, brown and droll, beneath his high snowy cap. As the music throbs out to him his brown eyes light up with a charming and child-like pleasure, the spoon in his hand begins to beat time, his shoulders to jog, his feet to shuffle – a minute more and he is dancing an ecstatic pas seul.

            Oh oh! It was fun inside. Great fun. But if ever in a dreary moment I want to call up a picture of the whole joy of life concentrated into a single figure – then I shall think not of the dancers inside the club, but of you dear Frenchman, dancing and laughing alone there on a fire escape under the stars.”

Return to Australia

On the couple’s return to Australia, Curlewis continued to write. Some of her later articles for The Home are entitled From an Australian Sketchbook – being further notes from the pages of a Philosophic Diarist. One of her last publications (if not the last) that can be found on Trove is a poem entitled The World Lover published in Art in Australia. It is a sad poem about lost love.

“Jean Curlewis’s later years were spent in a family cottage at the Blue Mountains and in private hospitals where she died from the disease she had fought for almost a decade.” When I read about Brenda (from The Ship That Never Set Sail) walking the streets late at night in the Blue Mountains with her brother and her friend Lloyd, I wondered if Jean thought about her too, back in the Blue Mountains too ill to leave her bed.

Her early death was such a loss to Australian literature. I can’t help wondering, still, what other novels she might have gone on to write.


Debbie Robson lives on the NSW Central Coast. She is the the author of Tomaree, a WWII love story set in Port Stephens, New South Wales, Australia and Crossing Paths: the BookCrossing novel.