by Elizabeth Lhuede
Rediscovering Jessie Urquhart (1890-1948), another of our forgotten Australian women writers.
In 1935, Zora Cross published an article, “Australian women who write”, in which she refers to many whose names will be familiar to readers of Australian literature, including Ethel Turner, Miles Franklin, Louise Mack and Katherine Susannah Prichard, as well as many others whose names have all but been forgotten. Among the latter is Jessie Urquhart, journalist, short story writer and novelist – and daughter of one-time Comptroller-General of NSW prisons.
Jessie Urquhart is among the few forgotten Australian women writers for whom an entry appears both in Wikipedia and in the AustLit database. The substance of both entries is the same.
Urquhart was born in Sydney in 1890, the younger daughter of William and Elizabeth Barsby Urquhart. Her father, a jail administrator, had emigrated from Scotland in 1884, while her mother hailed from Leicester, England. Jessie had an older sister, Elizabeth (known as Eliza) with whom, in later life, she was to emigrate to England. She joined the Society of Women Writers and was secretary for 1932-33. She departed for England in 1934, and, as far as I’m aware, never returned to Australia.
Apart from this brief sketch of Urquhart’s life, little else has come to light.
Her father’s obituary in 1931 states that his wife had predeceased him by 16 years, making Jessie only 25 when she lost her mother. It further states that William Urquhart was a mason and prominent in religious circles. After his retirement, he travelled to England – with his daughters? – then lived in Woollahra, an eastern suburb of Sydney, until his death; he was buried in Waverly cemetery. Both his daughters, the obituary notes, were unmarried.
A brief biographical note on Urquhart in 1932 fleshes out a little more of her father’s career, from which we can infer the context of her upbringing:
Miss Jessie Urquhart … probably knows more about the interior of N.S.W. gaols than any other girl [sic] in the State. Her father, at one time Comptroller-General of Prisons, in turn was superintendent of such noted penitentiaries as Darlinghurst, Goulburn, Berrima, Bathurst and Long Bay, and Miss Urquhart narrowly escaped being born in one of them. Miss Urquhart started writing very young, and in her teens had a novel, Wayside, published; she is now a Sydney journalist. Short stories and articles from her pen have appeared in the Mirror, her latest contribution being “The Woman Prisoner” (W.M. 8/3/32), based on her knowledge of the Long Bay women’s reformatory.
While Urquart may have been a teen when she started writing, her first publications actually appeared when she was in her twenties. In 1917 – when she was 26 or 27 – she had a series of sketches published in The Scottish Australasian. This feat was notable enough to feature as news in the Goulburn penny post, perhaps because of her father’s prominence in the community:
The Scottish Australasian (a monthly) is publishing a series of Australian sketches, entitled ‘Gum Leaves,’ by Miss Jessie Urquhart, a daughter of the Governor of the Goulburn Gaol. In an introductory note the editor states:- “‘Barbara Arrives’ is the first of a series of sketches of a wayside township in Australia, written by a young Scottish Australian, Miss Jessie Urquhart. The sketches represent her initial effort, and indicate that she has the gift of vivid description and the art of storytelling in a marked degree. All the delineations show power and a creative facility which promises well. Some are indeed gems. [The author shows] promise of a successful literary career.” After their publication in the magazine sketches will, we understand, be issued in book form.
In 1919, her novel Wayside appeared, published by Angus and Robertson, and the above description of a “wayside township” suggests this was the promised book based on Gum leaves. Both the journal and the novel are held at the State Library of NSW (SLNSW).
In the 1920s, Urquhart turned to short story writing and journalism, with a dozen pieces appearing during this decade, including several stories for children. Most were published in The Sydney mail, a few in The Sydney morning herald, a couple in The Australian woman’s mirror and The Australian women’s weekly, and the odd one in The sun and Queensland figaro; the ones for children, some of which were reprints, appeared in School magazine. These stories cover a broad range of settings and topics, giving glimpses into the lives of modern Australian urban and rural women and men, encompassing the adventures of spies, adulterers, thieves and deserters; the faithful and unfaithful alike. I found them a lot of fun to read.
Sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s, Urquhart had “a year’s study abroad”, and on her return “wrote numerous descriptive articles for Australian and New Zealand papers”, including one called “The history of the drama in NSW”, which I haven’t been able to track down. Living in Bellevue Hill, Sydney, she continued to publish her quirky short fiction, and once again turned her hand to writing novels.
In 1932, Urquart’s Giving Amber a chance appeared in serialised form in The Australian women’s mirror (with interesting illustrations by G K Townshend). This story of sibling rivalry was followed in 1933 by The Hebridean, also serialised. However, whereas Giving Amber was accepted for publication in book form, and released in 1934 by Endeavour Press (Sydney), The Hebridean wasn’t taken up, despite arguably being the better novel. Set near the coast not far from Sydney, it deals with the mixed class heritage of a Sydney family, well-to-do on one side and working-class Scottish on the other. It’s an interesting novel, both for its setting and its depiction of class tensions, and deserves to be more widely read.
In 1934, Urquhart had another novel accepted for publication, Maryplace: the story of three women and three men (also available at SLNSW). It was released in London by Nicholson and Watson and, unfortunately for us and our online archive, doesn’t appear first to have been published in serial form.
A contemporary review of Maryplace, with the heading, “Frustrations and repressions of small town life”, gives a sense of the debates surrounding Australian writing at this time, with a reading public “mistrustful of its own novelists”. The author of the review, unhelpfully identified only as “RNC”, makes great claims for Urquhart’s novel:
In ‘Maryplace’ we have from the pen of the Australian Woman writer, Jessie Urquhart, a story which takes the art of the Australian novel to a new plane of modernity of treatment and universality of appeal.
In style, in theme, and in the power of characterisation and analysis this book is far above the work of the average of our novelists. It is deserving of the highest recommendation. Despite the fact that the scenes of ‘Maryplace,’ with the exception of one period, are laid in a New South Wales country town, the story will be of equal interest to any reader of novels anywhere. That, after all, is the real art of the novel, and it is one which is not so frequently cultivated by our writers that we can afford to ignore it when we encounter it.
The reviewer goes on to argue:
It is all very well to talk glibly of an Australian story-art, but we have had far too much of that self-consciousness in our work for far too long. All literature must be a reflex of the country which produces it and the life and times in which it is produced. All stories have their roots in the soil. They will be true of a nation and be part of a national contribution to art without ceaseless striving to label them and brand them as ‘Australian’ on every page and in every paragraph. Miss Urquhart’s story has this unselfconsciousness that gives her book a real Australian atmosphere and setting and yet leaves it that appeal which makes it a story of absorbing human interest and power so as to be a world novel for the world.
Evidently the novel deals with the class tensions also apparent in The Hebridean:
The families that have been the dominant note of country towns live to see the security of place and power pass like the sands before the succeeding tides. Where once the local butcher or grocer came to the backdoor the proud and stiff-necked live to see him enter through the drawing room doors, or if they fight their fate, find that everybody in the town enters the newly gilded portals of his. That is life to any fast changing democracy, and Miss Urquhart in her ‘Maryplace’ has drawn it with pitiless detachment, giving to her theme sympathy and understanding but the touch of irony and satire which it demands.
Sounds like a book worthy of pulling from the library stacks.
After Urquhart left for England in 1934, her stories continued to appear in the Australian press, but it’s unclear whether she also published in the UK or elsewhere. In 1941, she was still active in writing circles, chosen to be Australia’s delegate to the PEN conference in London. This came after having survived a bombing raid in 1940; a report of the incident in The bulletin gives us a glimpse of Urquhart’s ordeal:
Sydney novelist Jessie Urquhart, who has been living in England with sister Elizabeth, was bombed out of house and home the other day. The two sisters were living in a big block of flats in London, and during a raid were sheltering in the basement. Just as the all-clear sounded and they were preparing to return to normal living for a space, a warden rushed in and ordered them to hurry to the nearest shelter as a time bomb had fallen on the house opposite.
At time of writing Jessie was staying in a lovely old manor house in Buckinghamshire with Mrs. Roscoe, of the London Society of Women Writers, who has visited Sydney twice.
Urquhart survived the end of the war by only a few years, dying in a nursing home in St John’s Wood, London, in April 1948, a year when she would have turned 58. Her sister Eliza survived her by 24 years.
I debated which of Jessie Urquhart’s stories should feature this week, and initially thought of publishing “Puss-in-boots”, a cosy mystery/spy thriller from the early 1920s set in the Blue Mountains, but it’s a little long (nearly 7000 words), so I’ve opted for a shorter piece instead. Urqhart’s 1930 rural short story, “Hodden Grey,” will appear here on Friday.
A woman’s letter, Bulletin, 25 Dec 1940: 30.
Cross, Zora, Australian women who write, Sydney morning herald, 4 Apr 1935: 12.
Family notices, Sydney morning herald, 14 Apr 1948: 20.
Jessie Urquhart, AustLit: discover Australian stories.
Jessie Urquhart, Wikipedia.
The Late Mr W Urquhart, Sydney morning herald, 24 Jan 1931: 14.
News from London, Argus, 2 Sep 1941: 6.
Personal, Goulburn evening penny post, 1 Feb 1917.
Probate notice, 16 Jun 1972.
R.N.C. Australian woman’s powerful novel, Sunday mail, 30 Dec 1934: 6.
Versatile Australian Writer, Australian women’s weekly, 17 Jun 1933: 39
Women in the world, Australian woman’s mirror, 5 Apr 1932: 20 – also source of photograph by unnamed photographer.
Elizabeth Lhuede first published poems and short fiction in the 1990s while working at Macquarie University as a tutor and research assistant. After completing a PhD in Australian poetry, she taught English and Creative Writing, initially 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, she has had two e-novellas published with Harper Collin’s Escape imprint (romance and romantic suspense), one of which has been anthologised in print.