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Monday musings on Australian literature: Capel Boake

January 14, 2019

This week Bill (The Australian Legend) is following up last January’s Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week with a Gen 2 Week, this one highlighting Australian women writers from 1890 to 1918. He takes his inspiration from HM Green’s A history of Australian literature, which characterises 1890-1923 as a period of “Self-conscious Nationalism”, the time of “bush realism”.

Anyhow, I will, of course, be contributing a review for this, but later in the week. In the meantime, as I did last year, I’m devoting a Monday Musings to a writer of the period, though unlike last year, not for the writer I’m reviewing. That’s because she, Louise Mack, already has a Monday Musings to her name. Today’s featured writer, then, is the unusually named Capel Boake.

Who was Capel Boake?

Capel Boake, no date, presumed public domainLike last year’s Tasma, Capel Boake is a pseudonym. Her real name was Doris Boake Kerr. She was born in Sydney in 1889, to Australian-born parents, and died in Victoria in 1944. She wrote under two pseudonyms, Capel Boake and Stephen Grey (the latter for collaborative works with poet, Bernard Cronin).

Although born in Sydney, she apparently spent most of her life – including most of her childhood – in Melbourne. She left school early, and worked as a shop assistant, secretary, librarian and book-keeper. Arnold in the Australian dictionary of biography, quotes Boake as saying that she was “self-educated at the Prahran Public Library”.

Her uncle was the respected poet, Barcroft Boake, who committed suicide in 1892 at the age of 26. His father, and Boake’s grandfather, was Barcroft Capel Boake, the Capel apparently reflecting their Welsh heritage.

Boake never married, and lived in the family home in Caulfield. The Australasian article, cited under Sources below, says that she liked swimming, fires and grilled chops on the beach, billy tea, and gardening.

Most relevant to us though is that, as another article says, she was “well-known in literary circles.” This included being active in P.E.N. International, the Fellowship of Australian Writers, and a foundation member of the Society of Australian Authors. She worked at one stage as a secretary to J. K. Moir about whom I’ve written before: he founded Melbourne’s Bread and Cheese Club, and was an impressive book-collector who created “one of the finest private libraries of Australian literature ever assembled”.

What did she write?

There is far less written about Boake, than there was about last year’s Tasma, but I did find some info in Trove, particularly in The Australasian’s Australian Writers Series (cited below). It reports that

Writing has always been in her blood, and from her earliest years she has felt the urge to express herself through the written word. But she remembers her first published story, which appeared in “The Australasian” in 1917. From then on she wrote a number of stories and poems for “The Australasian.”

So, she wrote short stories, poetry, and articles, but her favourite medium was apparently the novel. Her first, Painted clay, brought her “definite recognition as a serious writer”. Yet, she only wrote four novels, one of which was published posthumously:

  • Painted clay (1917, reprinted by Virago, 1986)
  • The Romany mark (1923)
  • The dark thread (1936)
  • The twig is bent (Sydney, 1946, posthumous)

Wikipedia says that her “subject matter included the options available to women in the early twentieth century, circus life, and early Melbourne history.” What Wikipedia doesn’t say, but The Australasian does, is that The dark thread 

tells of the growth of Jewish national feeling in a boy, the son of a Jewish father and Christian mother, who, living in Australia but going to the war and later learning of the establishment of the Jews in Palestine, felt the urge to go there as a unit of the Jewish nation. The idea of the theme came to Capel Boake when staying in the country, in hearing from a Jewish hawker some of his hopes and aspirations.

Interesting, huh?

Painted clay

Capel Boake, Painted clayGiven Painted clay is the only novel that officially falls within Bill’s Gen 2 period, I’ll conclude with two contemporary comments on it. The Western Mail describes it thus:

It is a sex story created on conventional lines. If there be still a demand for this type of fiction, this new nation under the Southern Cross may as well make its contribution. This is a story of city life, every word of which might well be true. It is original only in the sense that every individual life is original, and a bringing together of a number of lives in a novel may be done without either much originality or imagination. Neither of these qualities are conspicuous, yet the story is well written and suggests talent for better things. Helen is a really fine character, and capable of better things than the author gave her to do.

Positive, but not completely so. Interestingly, the article seems to pretty much tell the whole story. No worries about spoilers then?

The Australasian’s reviewer was a little more expansive, albeit also noting faults. S/he starts, however, by mentioning that the novel is wholly a product of Australia and says that its typography and format are “a credit to its publishers”. S/he then continues:

As might be expected in a first effort of the kind, the story is not free from certain crudities of thought and occasional lapses in craftsmanship, but it has, on the other hand, decided merits which raise it far above the average of Australian novels, and justify one in expecting much from Miss Boake in the days to come. It is a real attempt to present a faithful picture of life in a Melbourne setting. The authoress has not made the mistake, very common with our writers, of painting in the “local colour” so heavily that the human element in the picture is lost in what we may call a superficial provincialism of incident and characterisation. [my emphasis] In other words, while rightly choosing for her story a setting with which she is familiar, she uses the setting merely as a medium for explaining general truths of the interaction of human nature and life experiences as she understands them. It follows, therefore, that the interest of her story does not lie in sensational happenings or in the surface peculiarities of habits or manners on this continent or any particular part of it, but in the quality of her characters and the manner in which they react to their environment. The defects in her work are obviously the result of her own as yet somewhat restricted experience of life, and not of wrong method of attack, or misguided imagination, or a striving after meretricious effects. Their cause is consequently one that time should cure.

Such a lovely detailed analysis.

Anyhow, it sounds like Boake is worth checking out. How great that Virago reissued her, choosing this novel, I presume, because, as ADB’s John Arnold writes, it’s about “a shop assistant’s fight for independence in a period when menial work or marriage were the only choices for a majority of young women.” Not all Gen 2 writers were about “bush realism” it seems.

Sources

Arnold, John. ‘Kerr, Doris Boake (1889–1944)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 2000.

‘Australian Writers Series: Doris Kerr, as “Capel Boake,” adds lustre to a name already known in literature’, The Australasian, 27 May 1939.

 

13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 14, 2019 11:39 pm

    I’m intrigued by the comment that circus life was among the topics that women could write about. Where did that come from, I wonder?

    • January 14, 2019 11:58 pm

      I didn’t read it quite that way Lisa. I read it as saying she wrote about three separate things – options for women, circus life, and early Melbourne history. Does that make sense?

      • January 15, 2019 10:41 am

        Yes, I see what you mean, but it’s still interesting, because Katharine Susannah Prichard also wrote, just a short while later, about circus life in Haxby’s Circus (1930). Maybe because it was a working world that they could access?

        • January 15, 2019 3:26 pm

          Well, you made me research a little more (!) – because I didn’t spend much time looking at this later novel for my post – and I found this from a 1936 newspaper article: ‘THAT successful Melbourne authoress, Capel Boake, who, off the book cover, is Doris Boake Kerr, is a versatile novelist for she not only confesses to being the author of a mystery story called “The Romany Mark,” a travelling circus tale, but also to having travelled with the circus for the foundation of her plot. She acted in the honorary capacity of ticket-seller and sometimes, suitably disguised, as a fortune-telling sibyl.’

          Did KSP do this too? I haven’t read Haxby’s Circus.

        • January 16, 2019 8:49 am

          I don’t know about KSP. Nathan Hobby is the one to ask about that!
          I know of a muso who ‘ran off to join the circus’ not so long ago. Musically, a dead end since they just play the same old hack stuff night after night, but a great way to travel round Australia and get paid for it, I suppose…

        • January 16, 2019 9:55 am

          Haha, Lisa. Hannah had a friend who we used to say ran off with the circus – Cirque du soleil! She was just tickeyselling etc! But what an experience… And she did travel a bit with them.

          I suppose for the muso too it’s paid work!

  2. January 15, 2019 12:51 am

    Thank you for that Sue, sounds a bit like Capel Boake was making a flying start at Gen 3. Yesterday I was reading an essay on 1900-1925 by Nettie Palmer in which she wrote that early writers added ‘local colour’ because British readers expected it, but in the 90s writers became comfortable about writing where they lived, and it seems from what you say that that was true of Capel Boake.

    • January 15, 2019 9:25 am

      Yes, that’s the article I think I quoted from on your previous post, Bill, where she discusses the different forms of literature. It’s good isn’t it.

      But haha, yes, you are probably right about Boake and Gen 3.

  3. January 15, 2019 6:37 am

    I like it when writers from the past, who are not that well known are highlighted and and thier books reissued in our present day. Boark does indeed sound like she is worth reading. I also like how the reviewer explained how a good writer explores general truths in familiar settings. That is indeed a path to quality storytelling.

    • January 15, 2019 8:32 am

      Yes, Brian, I thought it was an excellent newspaper review. A bit of analysis there, eh?

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