Hello July 2016
Ethel Turner is one of Australia’s most beloved writers for young readers whose debut novel, Seven Little Australians, was written when she was only 21.
July is a month for reading widely, writing wildly and arithmetic – making your choices count.
Ethel Turner was born Ethel Burwell in England in 1870. However, following the early death of both her father and then her stepfather (a Mr Turner), Ethel and her sister Lillian migrated to Australia with their mother in 1879. The writing bug caught Turner early and at Sydney Girls’ High School Ethel and her sister ran a newspaper, the Iris, to rival the Gazette – the school newspaper run by their friend Louise Mack. Paper Giants eat your heart out. After high school Turner established and ran literary journal The Parthenon for three years before taking over the children’s page of the Sydney Illustrated News, and then later the children’s page for the Australian Town and Country Journal.
Turner’s heart lay in writing stories and at 21, after a move from bustling Paddington to the sleepy bushy North Shore suburb of Lindfield, she sketched out the plans for her first novel, originally titled Seven Little Pickles. Luckily her publisher had the nouse to change the title to Seven Little Australians, and in 1894 Australian children’s literature fell permanently under the spell of Meg, Pip and the gang (Judy!) and their adventures in 1880s Sydney.
Turner went on to write 27 novels and a range of short stories and poems, nearly all for young readers. Her literary journey crossed paths with another along the way – May Gibbs debuted her gumnut babies peeping out of the illustration for Turner’s 1913 story The Magic Button, five years before the bestselling Snugglepot and Cuddlepie was published.
Turner’s books had always involved plucky young children pushing the boundaries and saving the day, but during the First World War her writing took on a new nationalistic edge. Fundraising and first aid courses took up much of her time in the war years and she was a vehement pro-conscription campaigner – wearing her wartime politics on her sleeve in her YA series, The Cub, about young John and his BFF Brigid who realise their wartime duty to King and Country. The conscription debate was a highly politicised ‘women’s issue’ during the war and was one of the first times women were actively campaigned to by Australian politicians, and it remains a divisive and somewhat uncomfortable moment in the political history of Australian women. Dorothea Mackellar was also pro-conscription, whilst poet Mary Gilmore and suffragist Vida Goldstein led the anti-conscription charge. Turner wrote a number of rousing thinkpieces about conscription and the early closure movement, including a poem in the Sydney Morning Herald:
Turner married Herbert Curlewis in 1896, although she always wrote under her maiden name, and their daughter Jean also followed in her mother and aunt’s footsteps to become a writer. Turner’s legacy can be seen in today’s emerging writers like Michelle Law, Alison Whittaker and Jane Harper and writers for young audiences like Alice Pung, whose novel Laurinda just won the 2016 Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature.
Whilst Turner’s wartime rhetoric might not be your cup of tea today there’s something admirable about a woman of that time putting her politics so deeply into her work. In these strange post-Brexit days it’s important to remember how valuable your individual choices are – your vote does count, what you choose to read or write is a political act, not to mention what you eat, wear, listen to or buy. Make decisions this month that acknowledge your own political agency and don’t take your choices for granted.
Stay warm, stay kind,
Love Dusty xxx
Australian Women’s Register
Australian Dictionary of Biography
State Library of NSW
Trove – The Sydney Mail
May Gibbs: Mother of the Gumnuts
Trove – Sydney Morning Herald
Image Credits: Ashton Malcolm, Penguin Books, The Sydney Mail, National Portrait Gallery