Ethel Turner, Tales from the “Parthenon” (Review)

Ethel Turner, Tales from the Parthenon

Courtesy: Juvenilia Press

Hands up if you’re an Aussie and didn’t read Ethel Turner’s Seven little Australians in your childhood. Surely no hands have gone up? Seven little Australians, her first novel, was published in 1894 when she was 24, and was an instant hit, eventually becoming a classic. According to Wikipedia, it was, in 1994 (and may still be), “the only book by an Australian author to have been continuously in print for 100 years”. It seemed only right then that I should choose Ethel Turner‘s Tales from the “Parthenon” for my third foray into the bundle of juvenilia books I bought back in April from Juvenilia Press.

Like Juvenilia Press’ other publications that I’ve read to date, Tales from the “Parthenon” contains a wealth of supporting material besides the actual juvenilia, including an in-depth introduction, notes on the text, endnotes and footnotes, an appendix, and a list of references.

Ethel Turner (1870-1958) and Mary Grant Bruce (1878 – 1958), whose juvenilia was the first I wrote on, were contemporaries, and, according to the Introduction, “dominated the market for children’s fiction in Australia”. However, while Bruce focused on the bush, and the national character as exemplified by bush living, Turner, whose career started earlier, had, says the Introduction, “already moved away from that tradition and firmly established her fiction in suburban Sydney”. The Introduction also tells us a little about Turner’s early writing career, at school and then immediately post-school. At school she and her sister, Lilian, established a magazine Iris when the school’s newspaper, Gazette, which was edited by another Australian writer-in-training, Louise Mack, rejected Ethel’s contributions!

Turner left school in 1888, and in 1889 she and her sister established another magazine, the Parthenon, which ran from 1 January 1889 to 4 April 1892. An impressive effort methinks for two young women. As you will have now gathered from the title of this volume, it is from this magazine that Pamela Nutt and her team have chosen works to represent Turner’s youthful writing.

While the focus on urban/suburban life and settings is one point of interest in Turner’s writing, another is her awareness of gender issues (though she wouldn’t of course have used such language). This is made clear in the Parthenon’s first issue in which they identified their goals. They wrote that their great grandmothers had learnt to write and spell, and their grandmothers had added “French, the harp and pianoforte, and the use of globes”, but

now the desire for knowledge in rapidly growing: deeper and deeper, woman goes into the mazy labyrinth, untrodden before by any but men’s footsteps,—culling the flowers of knowledge,—yes, and enjoying them, and appreciating them even as much as men do.

Ethel Turner was active during the first wave of feminism in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. While this early wave didn’t reject women’s domestic role and function, it did argue for women’s rights and recognition of intellectual equality. Turner fits within this paradigm. The Introduction suggests that her novel Miss Bobbie, of which an earlier serialised version appeared in Parthenon, promotes “vigour and independence” in young women but situates this within a world still framed by “patriarchal expectations”.

The Introduction mentions a third way in which Turner contributes to Australia’s literary tradition: incorporating Australian elements into traditional English fantasy. The pieces in this volume have been well-chosen to reflect all these aspects of her writing. They are all children’s pieces – “Gladys and the fairies” (in 2 chapters), “A dreadful pickle” (in 3 chapters), both published in 1889, and chapter 3 of “Bobbie” from 1890. And all feature spirited if not naughty girls. Jane Gleeson-White, in her Australian classics: 50 great writers and their celebrated works, quotes Turner’s opening to Seven little Australians:

Before you fairly start this story, I should give you just a word of warning. If you think you are going to read of model children, with perhaps a naughtily inclined one to point a moral, you had better lay down the book immediately … Not one of the seven is really good, for the very excellent reason that Australian children never are.

Gleeson-White’s point is that Turner may have been called Australia’s Louisa May Alcott, but her children are very different. And these juvenilia pieces show her moving down that path. Gladys is “dreadfully spoilt” and behaves tyrannically. However, time in Shadowland and Fairyland, forces her to rethink her ways, though not before she collapses in a typical Victorian faint! It is here we find English fairies in a new environment. Turner’s fairy queen rides in a chariot comprising “part of an emu’s egg, wondrously carved” with elfs* following, “dressed in yellow and riding locusts”.

Midge, the protagonist of “A dreadful pickle”, is also spoilt, and, like Gladys, treats her governess badly. However, she has a kind heart along with her independent spirit, and “wants to help poor people like those in London”. The story takes a Dickensian turn when Midge finds herself out of her depth and alone with some of these poor people. There’s some fun wordplay in this story – and I was intrigued by the note on the word “pallor” telling us that Turner used the American spelling that was popular in Australia at the time. The things you learn!

Then there’s Bobbie. We only have one chapter of her story. Bobbie, like Gladys and Midge, is in a household of boys, but in her case she’s been left there by her father who is travelling in Europe with his new wife. From the little excerpt we have, she seems to be a more developed character than Gladys and Midge, that is, less the typical spoilt child, but she too gets in a pickle when her perverse behaviour brings on teasing from one of the boys, with disastrous results. The notes on this story point out that Turner and Mary Grant Bruce “created strong female characters who challenged the Victorian stereotype of the submissive female”.

So, once again, I’ve enjoyed reading a well-known writer’s juvenilia, not just for evidence of the writer to come, but also for the insight provided into Turner’s times and the role her work plays in the development of Australian literature. These may be stories for children, written by girls, but the value of material like this for students of literature shouldn’t be underestimated.

My previous Juvenilia Press posts are on Mary Grant Bruce and Eleanor Dark.

awwchallenge2014Ethel Turner
(ed. Pamela Nutt, with students from Year 11, the Presbyterian Ladies College Sydney)
Tales from the “Parthenon”
Sydney: Juvenilia Press, 2014
ISBN: 9780733433740

* Turner’s plural form, not mine!

25 thoughts on “Ethel Turner, Tales from the “Parthenon” (Review)

  1. Of course I’ve read Seven Little Australians – my grandmother’s copy. How I cried! But I’m ashamed to say I haven’t passed it onto my kids, not even my daughter..

    I didn’t realise it was published when Turner was twenty-four. Bravo!

    • Oh Catherine! It’s not too late though for your daughter. As a schoolgirl in Sydney I’d heard that she’d written it in school behind her teacher’s backs instead of doing schoolwork. That clearly wasn’t so though she may have done other writing that way. I was rather sorry to read the truth. She was 24! LOL.

  2. Thanks for the information on Tales from the Parthenon, I must try to obtain it. I have read Seven Little Australians and other novels by Ethel Turner. I have some of them on my book shelves, and also some by her sister Lilian. My daughter has read a few, but I don’t think she loved them as much as I did.

    • Thanks Meg. My daughter did too but ditto I think. She seemed to love Laura Ingalls Wilder more than Turner or Alcott. Hmm .. Rural stuff not urban, I’ve just realised, even though she’s an urban girl through and through. Maybe something to do with the TV series, though I don’t recollect ever watching it as a family.

      • Have not read Seven Little Australians. I was wondering if Ethel Turner had been influenced by the children’s stories of E Nesbit but her book came out a few years before The Treasure Seekers (1899) or The Wouldbegoods (1901), perhaps Turner inflenced Nesbit.

        • Ah nice pick up Ian. I wouldn’t have thought of that because I’ve only read one or two Nesbits (The railway children and Five children and it) and that a long time ago. I’d pretty much forgotten her. It’s interesting to think about who was working around the world at the same time isn’t it? Nesbit was somewhat older than Turner according to Wikipedia but as you say started writing children’s novels later. I had no idea she’d written so much. I may have read more as a child as I read a lot, but I don’t recollect them now.

  3. Afraid I must raise my hand in shame – I’ve never read Seven Little Australians. Does that mean my Aussie citizenship might now be revoked…? Always a huge fan of Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong books, though, and very much appreciate your pointing us towards these wonderful examples from Juvenilia Press.

    • Billabong books but not Seven Little Australians? What were you thinking MST! It’s not too late to rectify this, though not having read it for a long long time I don’t know how it would stand up to an adult read. All I can say is that my memories of it are more vivid than of the Billabong books.

      • I know – a shocking confession to have to make. Perhaps, as penance, I can vow to read it over the summer? And blog about how I find it, as an adult reader? I know how it ends, though, so I can’t promise that I’m going to sob like I did when poor Bobs died…

  4. Pingback: November 2014 Roundup: Classics and Literary | Australian Women Writers Challenge

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  6. Pingback: Ethel Turner

  7. I suspect I didn’t read Seven Little Australians, nor the Billabong series, and not much of Mary Grant Bruce as a child. We didn’t have television, and I’d been reading from such an early age that maybe they slipped me by. However, I still plan to rectify that!

    What brought me to this older post of yours was looking up Juvenilia Press. Just last week I bumped into editor Pamela Nutt at NSW State Library (there is currently an exhibition of Turner’s memorabilia), and as it was the monthly meeting of the Society Women Writers also held there, Pamela came along and gave us the most fascinating impromptu talk! We were very privileged, and now I must go off and order some books from Juvenilia.

    • Love your name Gwendoline … that was my grandma’s name (not the garrulous part!) I’ve got a few of their books snd recently bought more. It’s a great project. I’ve heard Christine Alexander speak about it … Pamela has commented on this blog before.

      • Thank you. The name came down from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest. It was my (beloved) aunt’s second name. My mum, her sister, obviously didn’t exercise her head too much over individuality 🙂

        The most current Juvenilia project is playwright David Williamson.
        Just as well no one has my juvenilia. Desperate for money, I wrote short stories that I would flog to my schoolmates. Inspired by their own exploits but combined into one girl, they mimicked the style of those trashy True Confession magazines that we so popular in the 70s. No one ever recognised themselves and were quite shocked (titillated?) at what she got up to. Dearie, dearie me.

        • A name could come from worse sources than Wilde. I gave it as a middle name to my daughter … my gran was so delightful.

          Williamson! Excellent … I’ll watch out for that. Sounds like you were were not only inventive but clever in making your sources.

        • No wonder you responded positively to it 🙂
          Just getting back to Ethel Turner for a moment. I read Brenda Niall’s Friends & Rivals. Turner is one of the authors discussed in that. I see you have reviewed another of her work (Durack) and I recommend this one to you also.

        • I had a false start with it. But when I got back into it the second time, I found that what I learned outweighed the denseness of the style.
          It didn’t hurt that I had recently read Henry Handel Richardson’s Fortunes of Richard Mahoney trilogy.

        • Thanks for the advice and encouragement! (I haven’t read Fortunes – though it’s been in my life since I was a child and my parents had it. I really really should read it!

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