Monday musings on Australian literature: Louise Mack

I promised in my Reading Highlights post that my first review of the year would be for a book from my TBR pile, and so it will be – hopefully in a couple of days. However, I suspect that the book, and maybe even the author, will be unknown to most of my readers here so I’ve decided to use my first Monday Musings of the year to introduce the author, Louise Mack.

Louise Mack, 1890s

Louise Mack, by Kerry & Co, 1890s (Photo:
National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23474744, via ADB)

I’ve had Mack’s first novel, The world is round, on my TBR since the mid 1990s when I found it on a remainder table. It had been published under Imprint Classics by Angus & Robertson in 1993, and although it’s only 93 pages, I somehow didn’t read it then, and kept not reading it – until now. But, more on it later this week.

Louise Mack was born in Tasmania in 1870, the seventh child and first daughter of a family which ended up numbering 13! Her father was a Wesleyan minister, and they moved around, ending up in Sydney by the time Mack was in high school. She went to Sydney Girls’ High where she met and became friendly with Ethel Turner (who was also born in 1870). I wrote in my post on Ethel Turner’s juvenilia that Ethel and her sister, Lilian, established a magazine Iris when the school’s newspaper, Gazette, which was edited by Louise Mack, rejected Ethel’s contributions! However, I understand that they were very good friends and, in fact, Turner apparently met her husband at the Mack family home.

Australian author Nancy Phelan, who was Mack’s niece, wrote the entry about her in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), and also the introduction to the novel I’ve read. I don’t want to reiterate what you can read in the ADB, but here’s a potted history. After school she worked as a governess before being becoming “a regular contributor to the Bulletin in the late 1880s”, with the encouragement of owner-editor J. F. Archibald and editor A. G. Stephens. Phelan suggests that Mack perhaps received too much attention and praise, implying that it impacted the development of her talent. She married, but it failed and she went to England, around 1900, where she wrote novels and serials, travelled, and worked as a journalist, including as a war correspondent. She returned to Australia in 1915 and became a touring speaker or lecturer, something she did right through to the 1930s. During this time back in Australis, she wrote more novels and married a second time (more happily), before dying in 1935, “possessionless”.

“little lady”

They’re the dry facts. She was quite a colourful character, with Phelan describing her as “fair, pretty, extroverted, audacious, unpredictable, a genuine Bohemian who chose a life of adventure and insecurity”. Phelan writes in my novel’s introduction that Mack “grew up in a series of large, shabby, untidy parsonages, with no luxuries but plenty of books … books, as necessary as bread, were constantly discussed”. I found an article in Trove which announces her as a rising literary star. It suggests that:

Miss Mack owes much of her development to her mother’s literary tastes, and the varied training that an intellectual father can bestow on his children. (The Methodist, 23 Nov 1895)

My Trove search retrieved pages and pages of hits on her name, many of them from newspapers all around Australia – from Dubbo to Perth – announcing her lecture tour on her war experience, which included experiencing German occupation and bombardment in Belgium and going behind German lines. In her mid to late 40s at the time of the tour, she is, patronisingly to our modern ears, described in these announcements/reports, as “this charming little lady” or “the pretty and charming little lady”. This is the woman who, one of these articles says, was asked by Scotland Yard to report on a meeting of spies with Germans in Antwerp to which she’d been an eye-witness. This article’s writer also calls her a “little lady” but a bit later describes her more appropriately as “this daring and travelled lady”. S/he reports on an interview with Mack:

“I just love lecturing,” Miss Mack said; “it is the most fascinating work I have ever taken up. Indeed, I may say that I just live for the moment when 8 o’clock strikes, and I and my pictures begin to tell the story of a Woman’s Experience in the Greatest War this world has ever known.” (Western Mail, 17 September 1915)

Mack, you see, went the whole hog and illustrated her talks with moving pictures. Reports suggest that she was an excellent and engaging speaker. Some of these talks were given under the auspices of, and raised money for, the Red Cross. Her book, A woman’s experiences in the Great War, was published in 1915

I’m not going to discuss her writing in any detail here, because I’ll do that in my review post. Instead I’ll share a couple of columns that she wrote in the 1930s in the Australian Womens Weekly, for whom I’m guessing she must have been a columnist. These columns –  Louise Mack’s Diary and Louise Mack Advises – provide some insight into her values and sense of humour.

In a Diary column I found this on Mrs Bradfield, wife of Australian engineer and designer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, John Bradfield:

I’VE always been wondering what would happen if Dr. Bradfield got his title, and dear Mrs. Bradfield became Lady Bradfield, and somehow, between myself and my diary, I must confess I’m glad that Mrs. Bradfield is still there. Dozens of times coming back from hospital, getting out of the train at Gordon, I would find my suitcase seized, or my parcels grabbed, and there’d be Mrs. Bradfield trotting along besides me, coming out of her way so that she could help carry someone’s burdens.

Could Lady Bradfield have done that? Ah, yes! Title or no title, this little simple, pale, absolutely natural woman, all kindness, with a quite remarkable craze for carrying other people’s parcels, would always have been Mrs. Bradfield. That’s her real title, her many friends think.

I like her focus on kindness, on the unimportance of “titles”, and her light humorous touch.

And, one of the advice columns. It’s called “The gentle art of giving” and asks “Do you give? Or Do you grab? The commonest way of giving is to give what you can spare. But that’s not giving at all, ethically speaking”. Fascinating. It made me think of Australian ethicist Peter Singer and his views on giving. However, let’s not get sidetracked by that now. Mack goes on to suggest that giving is good for your looks! She suggests getting on a tram and looking around:

Can’t you tell at a glance who hoards and who gives? It is written on their faces. It is graven around their lips. It is mirrored in their eyes, giving, or grabbing. The face that gives has a better complexion because the blood flows happily through capillaries kept open by the light-heartedness of generous doings. The face that gives has brighter eyes and sweeter lips. Oh, particularly about the lips does the will to give reveal itself in its full beauty.

She then gives examples of women who give and don’t give, ending with Myrtle who has almost no food left, when in comes her brother. Mack writes:

And there before my eyes took place a metamorphosis. Ovid wasn’t in it. One moment Myrtle was a grey woman with a quarter of a loaf of bread and a cold chop, and now she turned into a gracious creature, all wealth and possessions, that she was handing away to Tom. She whisked a bit of tea into one parcel, a quarter loaf into another, two potatoes and an onion into another, a cold chop out of her safe, two apples for the children, then pressed threepence into poor old Tom’s hand, with, “It’s pouring; take a tram.”

That was giving, indeed.

Giving is when you press your thumb down, down on the indicator of your heart—and, pressing still, and yet again pressing, send your will to give up, up, up, to the very highest storey of your soul.

Louise Mack sounds like a woman worth knowing … and yet is, I believe, unknown to most Australians. Such is life!

15 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Louise Mack

  1. I’m putting up a post in a few hours about books published in the first half of the C20th, but no Louise Mack, sorry! The Annals doesn’t seem to include any Mack novels, just A Woman’s Experiences in the Great War. I don’t have her on my TBR shelves (as far as I can see) so I look forward to your review.

    • Interesting, Bill. She’s not in Debra Adelaide’s A bright and fiery troop, which may be because most of her publication is 20th century, but she is in Adelaide’s A bibliographic guide. The Oxford companion to Australian literature with a decent length article. I meant to check the Annals but as I had enough info for my needs I didn’t.

      I’ll plan my review for Wednesday if I can.

  2. Ah, but she appears in the Victorian Sixth Reader. This goes back a long way! One of my favourite stories by Louise Mack appears in this reader – Sunrise in the Blue Mountains. Girls, billy tea and sandwiches. Her name rang a bell because when I was about 11 I did a hike with the Brownies to One Tree Lookout in the Dandenong Ranges. The same year I read her story at school.

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