Monday musings on Australian literature: Ernestine Hill

Regular readers of my musings will know by now that I sometimes use this spot to explore and share things that I don’t know much about. This post is one such. It was inspired by an article I read a year ago in Inside Story, Swinburne University of Technology’s online journal about current affairs and culture. The article was titled “How American servicemen found Ernestine Hill in their kit bags”, and was written by Anna Johnson, an academic from the University of Tasmania.

My love must wait 2002 cover

Cover for A&R Classics edition

Ernestine Hill (1899-1972) first came to my attention as a teenager with her novel, My love must wait, about Matthew Flinders. Although it was published in 1941, long before my teens, it was still popular at a time when young adult fiction had not come into its own. Primarily a journalist and travel writer, she only wrote that novel. And it’s not, I must clarify, the book that found its way into American servicemen’s kit bags! That book was Australian frontier, published in Australia in 1937 as The great Australian loneliness. Johnson doesn’t spend much time on these kitbags, but the story is that America’s non-profit Council on Books in Wartime, which believed books were “weapons in the war of ideas”, sent “stimulating reading [in Armed Services Editions*] to soldiers so that their leisure time was both educational and enjoyable”. I hadn’t known about this.

Johnson’s focus though is Hill, whom she describes as a “middlebrow” writer. She writes:

Although these so-called middlebrow writers [such as Ion Idriess and Frank Clune] have been frequently scorned by critics and neglected by subsequent Australian literary history, they were very influential cultural brokers who mediated debates about place, race, and culture for the interested general reader.

Hill’s books, says Johnson, were widely popular because they “were perfectly pitched between a sentimental attachment to late nineteenth-century ideas about the bush [..] and great excitement about modern technology and enterprise”. The Great Australian Loneliness, she writes, treads a fine line between lamenting “the passing of the old bushmen and their way of life” and celebrating “pilots and planes whose mail runs ‘have brought the Great Australian Loneliness well on to the map’.” Her writing was often condemned by critics “as romanticised purple prose” but Johnson suggests her books “forged bonds … between people who were geographically, socially and culturally dispersed”.

Hill’s popularity meant that booksellers loved her and promoted her, to the detriment of Australia’s more literary writers. Miles Franklin wrote in her diaries (ed. Paul Brunton) about a dinner held by Ell’s (a Newcastle bookseller) in September 1949:

I was able to note that booksellers, or representatives of publishers know little of the contents of the books they vend. They have not the taste, the ear, or the capacity. Take the case under observation, A & R [Angus and Robertson] boosted Idriess, an old steady, & Timms who is a thruster and insister & whom a person with Dr Mackaness’s literary standards considers an important Australian writer. But they did not bother about my books. I was there because invited by the cultural committee of Newcastle. My book continues to sell steadily though I’ve never had a Christmastide sale, was denied editions during the war boom in favour of E. Hill, who has powerful boosters behind her. I’ve never had a window or even a counter display.

Poor Miles. Hopefully not all booksellers and publishers were the same, but it’s a reminder that being a literary author has never been easy. I wonder how many people read Ion Idriess and EV Timms today?

Anyhow back to Hill. Reflecting her times, she was uneasy about multiculturalism, and wanted more white women, to support white men, in the outback. Johnson writes that her “vision of white Australia was common in the 1930s” and that she was “rarely complimentary to Aboriginal, Chinese, Malay, or Afghan Australians”, although she apparently filled her books with colourful vignettes about the lives of these people. She was, however, more positive about indigenous Australians. Johnson writes that she

attested to violent colonial conditions and lamented the passing of Indigenous lives and histories whose formative role in the nation had largely gone unrecorded. Her books and journalism joined others in modernising attitudes, which eventually saw the liberalisation that benefited Aboriginal people from the late 1960s onwards, even if her ‘modern’ opinions now seem uncomfortably tainted with colonialism.

So, a mixed bunch in terms of her attitudes. Regarding her book being published in America, she was thrilled. Articles by her were also published there. She wrote, in the 1940s, that she was encouraged “to rush my best and most arresting articles on this country to America to make them conscious of what a loss we’d be. Britain has never realised that. We must call Americans here.” Fascinating to see Hill’s vision of the power of literature, and its critical role, as Johnson describes it, in “securing the nation’s geopolitical future”.

Hill was a complex woman. She was also a friend of Daisy Bates, and, according the Australian Dictionary of Biography (link above), there was some controversy over Hill’s contribution to some of Bates’ writing.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any e-texts of Hill’s books, but once again Trove came to the rescue. Here is an excerpt of the foreword from The great Australian loneliness:

It was in July 1930 that I first set out, a wandering ‘copy-boy’ with swag and typewriter, to find what lay beyond the railway lines. Across the painted desert and the pearling seas, by aeroplanes and camel and coastal ship, by truck and lugger and packhorse and private yacht, the trail has led me on across five years and 50,000 miles, a trail of infinite surprises. I have interviewed men living in wurlies of paperbark who read Gibbon and wrote Greek and danced in corroboree, witch-doctors of the Warramunga, lepers and the dying, deep sea divers and prospectors for gold. I have attended Japanese feasts of lanterns, Chinese banquets, black fellow burials, and Greek weddings. Many of the notes have been taken by the flickering of the camp fire—the typewriter has always been with me, dangling from a camel-saddle jingling on a truck, covered with a camp sheet in the rains.” (The Shepparton Adviser, 31/3/1937)

Another book to add to the TBR list.

* A complete list of the 1322 titles is available online.

27 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Ernestine Hill

    • Thanks Galavanting Gran! That book was certainly popular for a few decades wasn’t it. She was clearly an adventurous and driven woman. I read some of her journalistic prices in Trove, such as a description of Darwin. Fascinating insight as you say.

  1. Hill was uncompromising about the mistreatment of Aboriginals and referred to the kidnapping of inland men to be pearl divers as slavery leading to almost certain death. Not a popular opinion at the time. Also I imagine she did most of the work putting together The Passing of the Aborigines from Bates’ notes and old newspaper articles.

    • Thanks Bill, I was hoping you’d comment. I like the fact that although she may have not have been understanding about other ethnic groups being in Australia, that she recognised the rights of the original inhabitants.

      It would be interesting to research more the Hill-Bates story as I’m sure others have already done. I know there are biographies of Bates out there but I haven’t read them.

      • I find Bates fascinating, she spent a number of years camped with Noongar people near present day Carousel shopping centre in Perth and I would like to know more about that. There is controversy about her early life but I incline to the view that her father was relatively well off, as Bates had money even after the crash of the 90s

  2. A friend of mine is collecting Idress’ books; he probably does read them but it’s more the chase of Australiana he’s interested in. Some Idress’ books are rare and valuable

    • Thanks crlbth59, I don’t think I’ve ever read any Idriess books, but I remember some on my parents shelves and always thought I should. Loved hearing about your friend chasing Australiana. I’m not surprised that some of his are valuable. He had quite a name inches time didn’t he?

  3. What fun. You might be interested in a fairly recent book called When books went to war. It’s all about the program that created the American Service Editions, how they made decisions on what to print, and of course the response from the troops. You probably won;t be surprised to learn that the official program took over from one created by librarians who held books drives across the country and shipped the donated books to the troops.

  4. I am away at the moment in Queensland house sitting, but I do know I do have My Love Must Wait and another one of Ernestine Hill books at home. The only book of hers the library had was Territory. I am really enjoying the prose and find it all very engaging. Hill not only has empathy with the Aborigines but also with the Makassan (the sea cucumber collectors). When I get back to Melbourne I will try to buy the book, it is much more than a history book. I have many Ion Idriess books and Frank Clune’s books at home.

    • Oh lucky you, Meg. Queensland would be perfect right now! I’ve been reading some of her journalism and also find it engaging, but I love the fact that you can report on her books. Thanks!

  5. I have a copy ofLoneliness — she travels, she looks around, and then she locks onto a scene and describes it like a tragedy or a sentimental miracle. (The paragraph I keep repeating — I’m positive I’ve quoted it more than once on Pykk, or here — is the one about the hundreds of cattle standing and sitting around a borehole in the middle of the dry countryside; the mob looks alive from a distance but every animal is a desiccated skin.)

    • That’s a good description DKS of that sort of emotional, purple-prose, type of writing. The journalistic pieces I’ve read aren’t always that extreme but I can see elements.

  6. Pingback: My Love Must Wait | Ernestine Hill #AWW

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