Ethel Turner, Tales from the “Parthenon” (Review)
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.
(ed. Pamela Nutt, with students from Year 11, the Presbyterian Ladies College Sydney)
Tales from the “Parthenon”
Sydney: Juvenilia Press, 2014
* Turner’s plural form, not mine!