Monday musings on Australian literature: A letter from Mary Gilmore

Gilmore, by May Moore, 1916 State Library of New South Wales (Public Domain)

Mary Gilmore (1865-1962) is, I suspect, not well-known outside of Australia, but she was (is) a significant Australian poet – so significant that she earned herself a dame-hood! Wikipedia describes her as “an Australian writer and journalist known for her prolific contributions to Australian literature and the broader national discourse. She wrote both prose and poetry.” If you are interested in her, check out W.H. Wilde’s excellent entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Given my recent posts featuring AG Stephens, I will share though that Wilde tells us “she had a long-sustained correspondence with Alfred George Stephens of the Bulletin and was delighted to have her life and work featured in the ‘Red Page’ on 3 October 1903″. I have often thought about writing more about her because she was a mover and shaker in the literary world, as well as being politically radical. In fact, she was a member of the Australian Utopian colony that was established in Paraguay in 1893, about which I’ve written a Monday Musings post. I will write more about her – but today’s post is more personal.

As some of you know, I am in the throes of serious downsizing from a large family home to a three-bedroom apartment. With all of our nearest family now in Melbourne, we are making more trips there, so need to simplify our lives here. It’s a painful process, but there are delights along the way – and today I’m sharing one of them.

Way back in the 1990s, when my lovely mother-in-law downsized to a retirement village, we became the custodians of some family papers which included some from her father-in-law, Mr Gums’ grandfather. He was William Farmer Whyte, a journalist and author of some standing in his time. He wrote a biography of the controversial Australian prime minister, William Morris (Billy) Hughes. He was active in the literary scene of the day – and knew Mary Gilmore. Mary Gilmore was, apparently, a prodigious correspondent, and we have a letter from her to him. I read this letter when those papers were passed to us, but it came to light again during my current sorting. I thought I’d share it with you.

Hotel Wellington
Canberra, F.C.T.

Dear Mr Farmer Whyte,

How kind of you! And what’s more the article is a good one. I hate the sloppy or the feeble, and there is so much of that. Consequently, yours is doubly appreciated.

While I think of it I would like you to see Mr Watt’s letter on Hugh McCrae in the “S.M.H”. If you wanted a good subject Hugh is one indeed. We are pushing him forward into lectures of remembrances of other writers. So it might serve you something if you were to cut out Watt’s or any other letter on him just now. I have just posted one to the “S.M.H” which shd appear in a few days – unless they sit down on it. I had suggested to the Literature Society here that Hugh be asked up as their guest speaker, as they asked Brereton and me. They ought to ask you to give a pressman’s talk! I will suggest it if you will let me – or whether or no, as you can only refuse if you do not want to talk.

Am just awaiting Mrs Scullin and must hurry to end or be unpunctual.

Again thanking you

Yours gratefully

Mary Gilmore

A poem was also included with the letter, but I’ll save that for another time. I have tried to find the (non-sloppy, non-feeble) “article” Farmer Whyte wrote but so far no luck, even though the date is presumably late 1929.

Notes on names in the letter:

  • S.M.H.: The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.
  • Hugh McCrae: Australian poet, 1876-1958.
  • Literature Society: possibly refers to the Fellowship of Australian Writers of which she was a co-founder in 1928 (see my Monday Musings on that).
  • (John Le Gay) Brereton: Australian poet, critic and Professor of English (1871-1933).
  • Mrs Scullin: wife (1880-1962) of Australian Labor Prime Minister, James Scullin.

The reference to Mrs Scullin is interesting but not surprising. Less than two months before Mary Gilmore wrote this letter, James Scullin had led the Labor Party into power, and Gilmore was a Labor Party stalwart. Regarding her dame-hood, Wikipedia says that “in spite of her somewhat controversial politics, Gilmore accepted appointment as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1937, becoming Dame Mary Gilmore. She was the first person to be granted the award for services to literature.”

A significant person and one I will return to.

Meanwhile, do any of you have any knowledge or experience of Mary Gilmore? Or, any letter treasures you’d like to share?

29 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: A letter from Mary Gilmore

  1. I have Anne Brooksbank’s novel based on Gilmore’s relationship with Henry Lawson. I have probably run into her in other reading about Lawson, but haven’t noted it. Lucky you to have such a letter.

    • Is it an interesting novel, Bill. I read about it in the bios.

      I guess the letter will have to join Farmer Whyte’s papers at the NLA eventually but I have hung onto it since 1994 because it’s a treasure.

  2. You’re not going to like this, because I don’t either, but I’ve just checked W M Smyth’s A Book of Poetry which was our text in Leaving Blue, and she’s not included. I don’t think it was any kind of judgment on her: his antennae were not tuned to Australian poetry anyway so only Kenneth Slessor, Flexmore Hudson and John Streeter Masefield get a mention, nor to women poets apart from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson , Emily Bronte , Christina Rossetti, Marjorie Pickthall and Edith Sitwell. Still, I did like the poems he chose, so he wasn’t all bad!
    Anyway I didn’t encounter Mary Gilmore — not even as a name to be aware of — until I acquired The Penguin Book of Australian Verse… and that wasn’t at uni because we didn’t do Australian poetry, we did the English Romantics and modernists like TS Eliot.

    • Thanks Lisa! I think her reputation as a poet is mixed, but I also think gender plays a role. She was widely read in her time. I can’t remember when I first heard of her but it seems that I’ve known of DAME Mary Gilmore for a long time. She wasn’t (isn’t) in my first year high school anthology (first pub. 1962) which features McCrae for example. It also features several women …Mary Hannah Foott, Judith Wright (several poems), Nancy Cato, Rosemary Dobson, someone called Val Vallis, Dorothea Mackellar (of course), Nan McDonald. A curious omission, it feels.

    • It could be Bill. I did wonder, because she capitalised LS. I couldn’t find reference to her involvement in it in the bios I read but that doesn’t necessarily mean she wasn’t.

  3. I think the absolute hardest part about moving or a loved one passing is the papers. You never know why they were kept, what they meant, if they are significant or nostalgia, etc. It took my grandma ages to go through her mother’s papers, many of which were letters. I don’t know that it was a treat to do so much as life telling her she must learn how to process and keep track of data, let it get tossed out or end up in another box for the next generation to find and worry over.

    • It is Melanie. I have paper from both my parents as well as my ma-in-law (on top of my own, which I have sorted and culled quite a bit.) They are being put aside to sort until after the move! We are lucky having technology that enables us to scan things like letters, but it takes time as your grandmother clearly found. There will always be stuff for the next generation to process, but our aim is to keep it to a minimum for our kids.

  4. What a wonderful letter. I love the way people wrote their thoughts in letters. If only that practice hadn’t disappeared. I’ll let you know if we cover Australian poets in my poetry group at the bookstore. 🌻

  5. Hi Sue, I do envy you downsizing, but not the problems on deciding what must go. I do have a letter to my Dad, for thanking him for saving a person from drowning. In 1967, when I was do my Leaving Certificate, I read the Progress of Poetry, and there is one poem by Dame Mary Gilmore -Nurse No Long Grief. (Though I do prefer her other poems).

    • I’m sort of glad someone envies me Meg because it sort of validates what we are doing! It’s really painful but we do think it will be good in the end.

      What a wonderful letter to have.

      I’m impressed that you had a poem by Gilmore in your Leaving Certificate. I did Voss for the HSC but I don’t remember doing any Aussie poets.

  6. My father included not one but seven Mary Gilmore poems in his WWI anthology Dark Somme Flowing (1987)
    The Satin of the Bee
    These Fellowing Men
    The Measure
    The Woman of Five Fields

    He died a hero’s death/They said/When they came to tell me/My boy was dead
    But out in the street/A dead dog lies/Flies in his mouth/Ants in his eyes (echoing the opening lines, which describe the dead soldier)

  7. Pingback: ≫ Reflexiones de los lunes sobre la literatura australiana: una carta de Mary Gilmore

  8. Thanks for an informative post. I admit I know nothing about Australian poets. So this is a good intro. for me. On another note, I noticed your comment on my Banshees of Inisherin review post a few days ago. Just when I’m trying to reply your comment now I can’t find it anymore. So strange.

        • Has it gone into moderation? I’ve just tried commenting again, and it’s nowhere to be seen, so I tried again and it said it was a “duplicate comment”. Here is what I wrote: “Where did my comment go? Strange that you saw it and then it went? I wish I could remember what I said. Part of it was that I really liked your review. Another was that I really liked the film. I think I may have said that I liked the role of Dominic. The dialogue is exquisite, the melancholy tone so Irish. I probably didn’t say, but will add now, the lack of a sentimental ending is great too.”

  9. This is so strange! I hope other comments haven’t been blocked. I remember your comment saying, I’m paraphrasing just from memory, that Dominic, the fool, is actually a wise guy… I just don’t know why WordPress would say it’s duplicating since in your second comment the wording is different from the first, as you didn’t just cut and paste from the first. This is so distressing!
    Anyway, thanks for your comment, maybe in a future post try to leave a comment to see if they will allow it to come in.
    Will you be watching the Oscars? I’m afraid Banshees might not have a chance to win maybe except for Martin M’s original screenplay. Although I think the Daniels might win on this one for EEAAO.

    • Haha, yes, I did say that about Dominic!

      I often do watch, but this year is a bit challenging busy-wise. My plan is to watch it if I can. (I still haven’t see Tár – wah! – but have seen a few including Banshees and EEAAO!)

  10. Found your comment! Have brought it back to the post and replied as follows:
    WG, I found your comment! It was in the Spam box! Simply ludicrous, as you’ve been commenting all these years. Anyway, now it’s back here. Thanks for your thoughts. Yes, Dominic, the Shakespearean Fool, is the one with much clarity… remember he said, “Not friend anymore? Is he 12?”
    And I’m ‘surprised’ you have watched EEAAO! Haha! I’ll be writing a post-Oscar review on it for Asian American Press. Will send you a link to it or may repost it on Ripple.

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