ETHEL TURNER: CREATIONS & LEGACIES – INCLUDING JEAN CURLEWIS
By Matthew Curlewis
I’d like to commence by acknowledging all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Custodians of Country, and I recognise their continuing connection to land, sea, culture and community. I pay my respects to Elders past and present.
On a day like this it is tempting to wonder – should she be alive today – what Ethel Turner would make of all this attention – a NSW Premier’s Award literary prize in her name, the fragile pages of her Seven Little Australians handwritten manuscript being declared part of UNESCO’s World Heritage, a Sydney ferry boat ploughing the Harbour’s blue waters while bearing her name, and now another blue – a plaque being bestowed upon this beautiful home, Woodlands, Killara, to mark that Ethel Turner lived and worked here.
Hello. My name is Matthew Curlewis; I’m one of Ethel’s eight great-grandchildren, and personally I think that wherever she is, my great grandmother is simply taking all of this in her stride. Ethel was a career writer, a working writer who earned an enviable income and was pretty self-aware about her fame and her degree of influence, to the degree that she even wrote about her path towards fame at one point. It’s a passage I’d like to share in a moment as a way into talking about some of the creations and legacies that exist in addition to the many volumes of written works that Ethel Turner produced during her lifetime.
Firstly, I’d like to discuss some of Ethel’s creations of both sense of place, and of literal places themselves. Where better to start than right here at Woodlands, and what better way to take a glimpse at how this place was, back in the 1890s, than through the author’s own words. The following comes from an article Ethel wrote in about 1930 entitled ‘Seven Little Australians – The True Story about this Story’. It is written in second person, and begins by talking about how daunted the author is by the giants of literature, while being only a midget herself, then continues:
“She would write a little book about fun and children first – she loved fun and children. And then later on she would write the great, big books.
She flung herself at the task.
Sometimes she scribbled away at it lying faced downward on the hearthrug in the drawing room with a cushion for a desk.
Sometimes she wrote away at it in the middle of the night, arms spread out, shoulders hunched, at the roomy marble washstand in her bedroom. When this happened she had to work by the light of a candle for the gas was turned off at the metre by ten o’clock in her home. Her penny red pen, her candle, the ink-splashed marble, — ah, the happiness of it!
But many chapters ran off her pen in an apple tree in the orchard. She sat in a low branch, exercise book on her knee, penny bottle of ink held by a forked twig, penny red pen flying. Sometimes she stopped, pulled an apple from the nearest branch and, munching, thought out fresh mischief for her scapegoat characters.”
To read her words thus, we see that this very place of Woodlands helped Ethel create some of her works. Would she have written the same stories if she’d been cooped up in a poorly lit, grimy dwelling in Sydney’s inner city? Instead of freely perched in a tree, crunching into crisp apples while dreaming up mischief? Ethel Turner’s depictions of Australia; its bush, farmlands, cities, beaches and inhabitants helped people in other countries, and Australians ourselves, start to see an Australia that had its own identity, beyond that of being simply an English colony. However, this was not always to the likings of Ethel’s publishers – her books at this time were printed in England, and then shipped out to Australia – her publishers even went so far as to censor her rendering of place, by omitting for one hundred years of its publishing, an aboriginal tale from the very pages of Seven Little Australians, a topic I have written about elsewhere.
I believe that Ethel wrote about what she saw. She saw that indigenous peoples had inhabited this country long before the white man’s arrival. She heard and listened to their stories and legends of place, and respectfully wove one of their stories into her own. She also saw that the treatment of these people had been unjust, but when one of her characters commented upon this situation, clearly this meant that the young authoress was stepping outside the bounds of what her British publisher deemed fit to print. The punishment for her actions? Censorship. The offending passage of the aboriginal legend is prefaced in the book by way of Ethel’s character Mr Gillett saying to the children:
“Once upon a time, when this young land was still younger, and incomparably more beautiful, when Tettawonga’s ancestors were brave and strong and happy as careless children, when their worst nightmare had never shown them so evil a time as the white man would bring their race…”
The trouble with free speech is it’s never really free – especially in today’s world where the likes of Elon Musk are willing to spend 44 billion dollars on trying to own ‘free’ speech.
Having spent a number of formative years at Woodlands, Ethel clearly carried some of the favourite aspects of this place, to the home called Avenel that she created with her husband Herbert Curlewis in 1900/1901 in Mosman. This is where their two children, Jean and Adrian, who was my grandfather, grew up. It’s where my father Ian and my aunt Philippa spent many happy times in their childhoods. And along with Dad, my Mum Beverley, and my siblings Amanda, Luisa and Tony, it’s where I also grew up until the age of six. My memories of the place are pretty fuzzy, and certainly not as eloquent as this description by the journalist / managing editor Gwen Spencer who, in an article about Jean Curlewis, talks about Avenel, which I’d definitely describe as one of Ethel’s ‘creations’. Gwen writes:
“When I saw the setting of the home that had been Jean’s dwelling place from the time she was three years old until her marriage, I realised how her sense of beauty had been fed and stimulated through her life. A darling house it is – lovable and friendly, with wide low windows looking out on scenes so beautiful that the pen falters in attempting to describe them. The house is set in a stretch of green lawns and bright-flowering garden, which suddenly drops away down terraced levels to the blue reach of Middle Harbour. Looking from the many windows or from the deep verandah one sees a foreground of shapely trees with a half-moon of white sandy beach at the foot of the hill on the sea’s edge. Rising on the far side of the sunlit waterway is a gracious slope of wooded hills. The garden itself is a delight of unexpected paths, rustic stone steps and delicious little hidden beds of flowers and shrubs that reward the stroller through these little byways. A garden with personality. A place to dream in – to be happy in – to loiter in while vague ideas take their shape and grow to their full stature. A tennis court, set picturesquely half-way down the slope, was the setting for youthful tennis parties before the two children married and set up homes of their own.
Within the house there is an atmosphere of warm hospitality, and the well-ordered household diffuses a sense of peace and restfulness. Books abound in every room, magazines lie about invitingly, and writing desks have a well-used look. A home where every side could be developed. A place for dreams, for the growth of a sense of beauty, for literary stimulus and activity, and for happy social fellowship. With this for setting it was not strange that Jean Curlewis should have grown up to such a complete and well-rounded personality.”
I feel tremendously blessed that some of my youngest formative years were spent in this home, as well.
What these writings bring me to is another very specific creation of Ethel Turner’s, her daughter Jean Curlewis. Ethel wrote a poem for three-year-old Jean in 1901 entitled, ‘A Boat On The Sea’.
A boat on the sea. My boat
Eager and frail
Sweet skies smile as you look
On that fairy sail.
Waves, great waves—many years
You have worked your will.
Just while she passes through,
Kind waves, be still.
Winds—ah, I may not ask
That you never blow
But spare her the moaning note
That the old boats know.
But as the fates would have it, Jean wasn’t really spared those moaning notes, and may have created a more extensive legacy of her own, had she not died in 1930, at the tragically young age of 32. This death had a profound effect on my great grandmother. She attempted to write a biography of her young daughter, but never managed to complete it, and in fact, having published thirty-four volumes of fiction, short stories and poems at that point, essentially put her pen down and did not publish anything subsequent, for the remaining 27 years of her life, spent between Avenel and Ethel and Herbert’s cottage at Leura, in the Blue Mountains.
This is the sad version of events that has unfortunately stuck in the record of Australia’s literary past – that poor young Jean Curlewis only managed to publish four novels before her untimely death, and that her potential as a writer was largely unfulfilled. I would like to present today however, a much happier picture, and one I’m sure Ethel would approve of, that Jean was in fact an incredibly accomplished writer of the 1920s – one to whom we owe a great deal of thanks for her clear-eyed depictions both of the world, and of Australia at that time because, like her mother, Jean was a tremendously active, working writer of articles, essays, stories, interviews, book reviews and columns, across a wide array of subjects. And through these pieces I would argue created a far greater legacy than that attributed to her. The fact that she did not achieve the international literary fame of her mother, does not mean that Jean Curlewis was not a highly successful and influential, Australian woman writer of the early 20th Century.
And thanks to the digital search facility of Trove at the National Library, I’d like to share with you a few snippets of why I’m not the only one who is an admirer of Jean’s works, a writer for whom Sydney Ure Smith, the hugely successful writer, editor and publisher gave the following accolades in his Jean Curlewis obituary. “(Jean’s) work was the very essence of simplicity and she took infinite pains to eliminate everything which had no important part in the structure of her argument. I do not know of any other writer in Australia who could so simply and vividly control the presentation of her impressions of a scene or situation.”
Like her mother, Jean wrote about this place, and its inhabitants, by simply writing what she saw. For example, here in this extract from a piece entitled Four Gardens, published in the popular journal The HOME:
“About the low dark coast and bright blue-dyed waters of Port Stephens there is something essentially aboriginal. Those hills and islands with their rustling-sounded native names – Boandabah, Eereereepa – those matted gullies, those shores shouting in sunsets before rain with the wild laughing of kookaburras – all seem indelibly printed with the memory of the race whose hunting ground it was, and which still lingers in the camps along the beaches.
But there is one slope where the corroboree of eucalyptus melts suddenly, and yet with the most natural air in the world, into the terraces and lawns, the balustrades and geranium-trailing stone vases of an English garden.”
She goes on to describe this particular garden for a few paragraphs, before ending with, “And then, as suddenly and easily as it emerged from the wild hillside, the garden melts, in a mist of mignonette and lavender, into the bright ferocious waters of the Port.”
Jean knew how to capture the light, the sparkle, the laughter, but also the danger of Australia as per example in this extract from her standalone story, ‘Christmas in Australia’, published as a mini-book by Art in Australia in 1928:
“Christmas dawn on the beaches, the curving beaches. Beaches like flower-beds packed with moving flowers. Scarlet, jade, orange, turquoise swimming suits, sunshades, mandarin coats, like parrot flowers on the dazzle-sanded beaches. Arrowy boys darting erect on surf boards through the foam smother; jade-suited girls riding curly dolphins, curly sea-dragons made of tinted rubber. Out beyond the breakers, out beyond the laughter, in the surf boat, bronzed, immobile, a life-saver with a spear, a black and savage shark-spear, at his feet.”
Ethel Turner was a conscriptionist, but other than that didn’t really get involved with political causes like the women’s movement, and was not overly enamoured of so-called literary circles. She simply got on and created a place for herself in what was largely a man’s world. I love the spirit she showed when shopping around her manuscript of Seven Little Australians. Not knowing what she could reasonably charge for her work, she sought advice from several male newspaper and magazine editors she’d already worked with. These men recommended that in consideration of her gender and her unpublished literary status, she should ask for 20 pounds, with royalties. Her diary entry records that she listened to their advice, and promptly asked for 30 pounds, with royalties. And then five months later when her new publishers Ward and Lock tried to buy her out for a flat fee of 50 pounds, Ethel stood her ground, insisted on keeping royalties as part of her contract. I truly hope that Ethel’s spirit knows her amazing little book has remained continuously in print, ever since.
Like mother like daughter, Jean also got on with the business of being a working writer. Of course she had connections, and easier access to the industry, by being the daughter of the illustrious Ethel Turner. But connections get you only so far. It is writing talent and an engaging, amenable personality that keep the writing assignments coming. And Jean knew how to marry what she wanted to comment upon, with her keen eye for observation, sprinkled with just the right amounts of wit and humour to keep readers coming back for more. Plus The Home publishers Sydney Ure Smith and Leon Gellert knew they were on to a good thing with their employment of Jean, because they frequently paired her writings with works from the top painter, illustrator and bookplate engraver, Adrian Feint, or Australia’s most modern, and busiest working photographer of the time, Harold Cazneaux. During two years in the mid-1920s when Jean and her newly-wed husband Doctor Leonard Charlton lived in London, Jean contributed columns regularly for both the Sydney Morning Herald and The Home. An advertisement for the June, 1925 edition of The Home proclaimed, “E.G. Theodore makes a suggestion for saving Australia. Fritz Kreisler talks of the World’s Music. Judge Beeby tells another Story. And everybody listens in to Jean Curlewis of London.”
It is no doubt a combination of her upbringing and education, her international experience and her own personality that enabled her to make such wry social commentaries as the following, from a page full of short pieces she contributed to The Home in 1927, all under the heading ‘From a Sydney Sketch Book – A Marine Miscellany Suitable for the Sailing Season’ – pieces that today would perhaps be called flash fiction, or creative nonfiction. This short piece is entitled, ‘The Yacht Squadron Takes Tea’.
“He is a member of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron. He has an expensive home but he is generally to be found on his yacht. “No comfort in houses,” he grumbles. “If you knock your pipe out your wife looks like a martyr and wails, ‘Mind my carpet.’ If you put your feet up on the sofa she moans, ‘Men are so thoughtless.’ Give me a boat and a camp up Middle Harbour where I can do as I like.”
Today the Squadron is having a gala day. Dressed with fluttering flags all the most famous yachts are riding off the green lawns of the club house. The dancing water throws a patter of flickering shadows on the smooth, white hulls. A band is playing among the palms. Bright dresses blow on the jetty as wives of members embark to take afternoon tea on the yachts.
Our member hands his wife on board. As she steps out of the dinghy he catches sight of her high-heeled shoes. A look of acute anguish comes on his face.
“Mind my paint,” he wails. “For the love of Mike mind my paint. Gods in heaven, would you think women could be so thoughtless?”
Another role Jean was given, which was rarely accorded women, was that of book reviewer, and over the years she wrote many of these for The HOME. Her reviews efficiently appraise the contents of each book and always give credit where credit is due, but occasionally, she can’t quite seem to stop herself from saying what she really thinks. In her review of An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser – which goes on to inspire the six-time Academy Award winning film, A Place in the Sun, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift – after describing the heavy subject matter of the book, Jean rounds out with, “A great book, probably, but no more to be read for pleasure than a rabbit is to be watched trying – and failing – to fight its way out of a trap.”
Ethel Turner was world famous in her time, and by many measures is still pretty famous today. One of the last Jean pieces I’d like to share with you is about fame of a much more stratospheric nature. Perhaps some of you have heard of the painter, Vincent van Gogh? A ridiculous question no, in this day and age? But as hard as it might be to imagine, there was a time when only a handful of people, especially in the English-speaking world, had heard anything of van Gogh. Fewer still had seen or could describe his paintings. But as fate would have it, my great aunt happened to be in London in 1925, and also happened to visit the Tate Museum, barely a month after they had put their very first van Gogh purchase on display. This was one of the very few van Goghs that could actually be viewed, publicly, outside of Continental Europe at that time. And lucky for all of us, Jean wrote about her experience, in an easy-to-miss small column published in the Sydney Morning Herald, that same year. As I read this piece, feel free to close your eyes to see if you can erase from your mind any knowledge of having ever seen a van Gogh.
“Drifting along the galleries of the Tate, dazed with the sight of too many pictures at once, you will probably find you have unconsciously stopped short before a small new canvas. You stare, you turn impatiently to go on, for there is Sargent’s Lady Macbeth to see, and battle scenes, and Turner sunsets, and this picture is merely a small greenish-yellow rush chair set at a curious angle against a yellowish-green background. But you don’t move on. You stay staring and feeling – jolted.
Then you go home and wonder about it until this week you read the newly published “Tragic Life of Vincent van Gogh,” by Piérard. It is the story of a moody Dutch boy who came to London to sell pictures for Goupil. A girl in a doll shop jilted him; he became a schoolmaster at Ramsgate; he got a religious frenzy and felt ill of overpraying. He read Dickens, and was stimulated by him to go as a missionary to the miners. He gave them nearly all his clothes, his food, even his soap. But his stumbling ineloquence was of no value to his church – he was a failure. He began to wander about Flanders, sleeping under hayricks, exchanging a drawing for a meal. He met Gaugin, and began to paint in strange bright colours. He terrified Gaugin with his frenzy, and Gaugin fled. He began to be terrified himself of many things – even of blackbirds. He gave himself up to a madhouse where, in one of his fits he swallowed his paints. And then, aged 37, he shot himself, with the words “I think I have bungled it. What do you say?”
Sir Michael Sadler wrote of him: “Van Gogh is the Dostoyevsky of painters. With the passion that makes men martyrs, he has the heart of a child.” The ‘Daily Graphic’ says: “We can think of no artist who fed his art with his blood and heart as much as he did. His life helps us to understand the greatness of his genius.” And that is what arrests you before the picture, even knowing nothing of van Gogh. Believe it or not, they are all there – the passion, the child’s heart, the frenzy, the genius – in that picture of a little rush chair.”
Feel free to open your eyes. How’s your mind’s-eye image of van Gogh looking, now? I hope subtly different, having heard this account from someone who had never contemplated, let alone seen a van Gogh painting, before one actually, physically, stopped her in her tracks.
Fame seems an appropriate subject to close out this talk about Ethel Turner with, but even though a young Ethel Turner wrote in her diaries, “I do want fame – plenty of it!”, I’m pretty sure that once she had it, it became less of an interest for her. She loved doing the work of writing, which sometimes led to fame, but what mattered most was living a fully engaged, passionate life. And so on the subject of living a passionate life, I’d like to close instead with a tiny, perfect sentence from Jean. As Ethel has achieved plenty of her own fame, I think she would actually love that I’m trying to widen her spotlight these days, to also include the works of her perhaps under-appreciated daughter.
I’d particularly like to thank Albert Lim and his family, and Tracy Fiertl and Susannah Fullerton and everyone else who have managed to transform this former house of Ethel Turner into something much more than a thing of the past, into being actually a place for the future as well – something my dear aunt Philippa and my father Ian would both have been very proud of, had they been able to stay with us just a few more years. But I can still thank you all from my generation. It’s a wonderful and extraordinary thing that Ethel Turner and this house will now receive a blue plaque of commemoration.
So! What could be a tiny, perfect sentence of Jean’s? To me it is the following, written in a letter to her brother Adrian who was in Melbourne at the time and had missed Jean’s Christmas and New Year holiday period spent at the beach with friends. To describe this time, Jean wrote:
“Used to get up, turn on the gramophone, surf in the morning, surf in the afternoon, verandah-dance in the evening, turn off the gramophone, go to bed.”
Albert and Eva, thank you so much for sharing your house with everyone during this weekend. I wish I could be there, in the place where Ethel Turner first stepped on to her path of creation, to indulge in a spot of verandah dancing with all of you. Failing that, I simply wish you all a good rest once you finally turn off your gramophones, and go to bed!