Monday musings on Australian literature: Forgotten writers 2, Eliza Hamilton Dunlop

When I started my Monday Musings sub-series on forgotten Australian writers a couple of months ago, I had a few writers in mind, including the first one I did, Helen Simpson. However, a couple of weeks ago, The Conversation published the latest in their Hidden Women of History series, and the subject was an Irish-Australian poet, Eliza Hamilton Dunlop. I figured that, being a poet, she also qualifies for my Forgotten Writers series. I hadn’t heard of her, but she has become well-known in academic circles, because of … well I’ll let The Conversation explain.

Anna Johnston, co-editor with Elizabeth Webbey, of the recently published collection of essays Eliza Hamilton Dunlop: Writing from the colonial frontier, launches her The Conversation article with

Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s poem The Aboriginal Mother was published in The Australian on December 13, 1838, five days before seven men were hanged for their part in the Myall Creek massacre.

Dunlop, Johnston continues, had arrived in Sydney in February and was “horrified by the violence” she read about in the papers. Her poem was inspired by the evidence given in court about an Indigenous woman and baby who survived the massacre. In it, she condemns “settlers who professed Christianity but murdered and conspired to cover up their crime”.

The poem made Dunlop “locally notorious”, but “she didn’t shrink from the criticism she received in Australia’s colonial press”. She hoped

the poem would awake the sympathies of the English nation for a people who were “rendered desperate and revengeful by continued acts of outrage”.

So, who was this outspoken, confident woman?

She was born in Ireland in 1796. Her father was a lawyer, but her mother died soon after her birth. Soon after, her father moved to India, to be a Supreme Court judge, so she was raised by her paternal grandmother. Johnston writes that she grew up in a “privileged Protestant family with an excellent library”, and “grew up reading writers from the French Revolution and social reformers such as Mary Wollstonecraft”. She started writing at a young age, and had poems published in local magazines in her teens.

These poems reflected her interest in the Irish language and in political campaigns to extend suffrage and education to Catholics. After travelling to India in 1820, she wrote poems about the impact of British colonialism. Then, in 1823 she married book binder and seller David Dunlop, in Scotland. His family history inspired poems about the bloody suppression of Protestant radicals in the 1798 Rebellion.

According to ADB, she had previously married an Irish astronomer in Ireland and had two children, one born in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, in 1816. They don’t mention what happened to this husband, but they concur with Johnston about her marrying Dunlop in 1823. Johnston says that Eliza and David had five children in Coleraine, and that they were engaged there “in political activity seeking to unseat absentee English landlords”. Clearly, Dunlop was politically engaged from an early age.

The family left Ireland in 1837, arriving in Australia, as mentioned above, in February 1838. Husband David worked first as a magistrate in Penrith, before, in 1839, becoming police magistrate and protector of Aborigines at Wollombi and Macdonald River, where he remained until 1847. ADB’s Gunson says that “as a minor poet Mrs Dunlop contributed to the literary life of the Hunter River circle” and that “her acquaintance with the European literary world gave her a place of prestige, and though neither as talented nor radical as, for example, Charles Harpur, her contribution was original”.

Songs of an exile

She may not have been, as “talented” or “radical” as others, but Sydney University Press deems her a worthy subject. Their promo for the above-mentioned book says that, after the publication of “The Aboriginal mother”,

She published more poetry in colonial newspapers during her lifetime, but for the century following her death her work was largely neglected. In recent years, however, critical interest in Dunlop has increased, in Australia and internationally and in a range of fields, including literary studies; settler, postcolonial and imperial studies; and Indigenous studies.

One of those interested is Katie Hansord, who has an essay in the book and who has written about her on the Tinteán online magazine website. Hansord’s article is titled – surprise, surprise – “a forgotten colonial woman poet”. Hansord says that in addition to being a poet she was “a playwright, a writer of short stories, and a passionate advocate of human rights with a keen interest in politics”. She writes that

Dunlop’s poetry reflects her concerns with both gender and nationalism. It should be remembered that in its original publication, ‘The Aboriginal Mother’ was the fourth poem in the series ‘Songs of an Exile’ which Dunlop published in The Australian from October 1838.

The poem is easily found on the web, and has been included in many anthologies, but it is also in Hansord’s article, linked above. The poem was, as were many of Dunlop’s poems, set to music by Isaac Nathan, and performed in concerts at the time.

However, the point I wish to end on concerns the reception of “The Aboriginal mother” because it was, of course, controversial. Leading the negative charge was, apparently, The Sydney Herald, which essentially believed that Dunlop had “given an entirely false idea of the native character”(29 November 1841), that, in effect, the Indigenous people were not capable of such deep feelings.

Hansord says more about this in her article:

Elizabeth Webby has also pointed out that the Sydney Morning Herald* ‘which had strongly opposed the execution of the men involved in Myall Creek was for many years very hostile to her [Dunlop] and her work’ (Blush 45). This hostility seems also to have reflected a growing white masculinist nationalist agenda.

Hansord briefly discusses the construction of “Australianness” during the nineteenth century, a construction that privileged white Australian-born men. For immigrant Irishwoman Dunlop – who was also actively engaged in capturing Indigenous language and translating Indigenous songs – this was clearly not good enough. (You can find an example of an Indigenous poem captured in the original language and translated by Dunlop, in The Band of Hope Journal and Australian Home Companion (5 June 1958)).

Dunlop died in Wollombi in 1880, and is buried in the local Church of England cemetery. There is clearly much more to this woman, but let this be a little introduction to another interesting, independent colonial Australian woman!

* The Sydney Herald, founded in 1831, was renamed The Sydney Morning Herald in 1842.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Forgotten writers 1, Helen Simpson

Do you often wonder how many of the writers we love now will still be read a few decades on? How good are we at identifying those who will continue to be read? So-so, I think you’ll agree if you’ve noticed the many unfamiliar, but well-regarded-at-the time, names amongst the authors mentioned in my various historical posts. It is this that has inspired me to start a new, occasional, Monday Musings sub-series on forgotten Australian writers.

Helen de Guerry Simpson, ca 1935, photographer unknown. (Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

First up, I’ve chosen an interesting one because of her complex relationship with Australia. She’s Helen Simpson, or, more fully, Helen de Guerry Simpson, who was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1897 and died in Worcestershire, England, in 1940.

I’ll start with a brief bio. Simpson was born in Australia and lived here until 1914, when, at 16 years old, she went to England to join her mother who had separated from Simpson’s father several years previously. After that, Simpson spent very little time in Australia, as far as I can tell from the Australian Dictionary of Biography. She returned in 1921 for her brother’s wedding, but was back in England by February 1924. She was in Australia again briefly in 1927, but was back in England that year, as she married there in 1927. Her husband was Australian-born Denis Browne, interesting to us because his uncle was Thomas Alexander Browne (aka Rolf Boldrewood). However, he was significant in his own right as the Father of Pediatric Surgery. Simpson came back to Australia in 1937, to give a series of lectures for the ABC, but was gone again by 1938. Sadly, she died of cancer in 1940.

So, she was Australian, even though Arnold Haskell wrote in 1944 that Katharine Susannah Prichard, Helen Simpson and Henry Handel Richardson “are so well known in England that they are accepted as English writers”! Colin Roderick included her in his 1947 book Twenty Australian novelists, and Zora Cross includes Simpson in her list of writers who started here but then moved abroad.

Starting here is a bit of a moot point. The ADB says that she published several short plays and founded the Oxford Women’s Dramatic Society before her 1921 Australian visit. However, in 1921, Angus and Robertson did publish her Philosophies in little, “a collection of her own verse with her translations from French, Italian and Spanish”. In 1922, ADB also says, she entered a play about Benvenuto Cellini, A man of his time, in the Daily Telegraph literary competition. It was staged the next year by Australian theatrical producer Gregan McMahon. ADB says he only produced four Australian plays between 1920 and 1927, so that’s surely a feather in her cap.


Simpson wrote 13 novels between 1925 (Acquittal) and 1940 (Maid no more). A few were collaborative works, including a couple of detective novels written with Clémence Dane. She also wrote verse, plays, short stories and non-fiction works.

The Oxford companion to Australian literature (2nd ed.) devotes almost a full column to her. It says that two of her novels had Australian content – Boomerang (1932) and Under Capricorn (1937) – and that her “trio of fantastic novellas”, The woman on the beast (1933), includes one set in Australia in 1999! (Links are to Project Gutenberg Australia.) Two of her novels, one being Under Capricorn, were filmed by Alfred Hitchcock.

So, how good was her writing? Let’s start with Miles Franklin who mentions her in her diaries. She writes in August 1936:

Helen Simpson: one of the giants. Perhaps she would have wiped Brent [of Bin Bin, or Miles herself] out of his field had she not relinquished it. The lively vitality and inherent understanding of the Australian scene in Boomerang show what we lost, what England has gained. Again, in the third division of The woman on the beast in a sketchy, impressionistic effort, she indicates what she could have done to take Australia by the back of the collar and shake her to a sense of her asininity, her pathetic enslavement to an old sectarian controversy–a worse importation than the foxes and other noxious weeds. But H.S. left her country for her own great literary success.

Australian writer Coralie Clarke Rees, in an extensive article in The Sydney Morning Herald (1 June 1937), agrees, calling this “third division”

an imaginative “tour de force,” showing Australia, as the last stronghold of the old order of religion and politics, being invaded by a woman evangelist of the new totalitarian order, whose character seems an ingenious compound of that of Aimee Semple MacPherson and Mary Baker Eddy.

However, Miles Franklin later (around March 1940) modified her view of Boomerang, noting its “melodrama and disjointedness”, and Katharine Susannah Prichard, writing to Miles Franklin on 1 July 1932, says that

HM Green [see my recent Monday Musings post], of Sydney, writing to me the other day, said he liked it [Back to Bool-Bool] much better than Boomerang

Now, here I’m going to share the opening of Boomerang, which won the 1932 James Tait Black Memorial Prize:

Life can afford extravagance, books cannot; for this reason nobody will dream of believing in my two grandfathers. They are too true to be good–good fiction, at any rate; if I try to give some kind of picture of them, it is because they frame between them a vision of a golden age, which could only have existed in brand-new countries, among brand-new circumstances and laws. It was not a golden age for everybody, wives or servants for instance, but for these two it was; they were, to use a word which is almost dead, characters.

I am sorry to think what would happen to these two old gentlemen if they had the misfortune to live now; it would be something legal, that is certain, falling heavily to crush their magnificent egotism and eccentricity. Their wives, who in the ‘seventies put up with them with the uncomprehending patience accorded by Insurance Companies to Acts of God, would nowadays divorce them. Servants would bring, and win, actions against them for assault. As for their families, these would scatter immediately after the first row or two, and go forth to earn their livings with all the horrid freedom that the post-war period accords …

I love this cheeky tone, and her reference here (and in the Foreword) to the fact that fiction cannot be as “extravagant” as life! The Oxford companion says that Boomerang and Under Capricorn “have involved, highly coloured plots, lightly sketched but credible characters, and a lively, humorous and sophisticated narrative style”. This, in fact, summarises what I found in Trove.

So, for example, The Sydney Morning Herald reviewing (16 February 1932) Boomerang describes its rather wild episodic plot and thinks its characters are not particularly well-drawn, but argues that:

It can safely be said that no Australian novelist for many years has provided such an exciting tale, or handled separate scenes and episodes with such liveliness and wit.

I particularly enjoyed respected academic of the time T. Inglis Moore who wrote that:

it is in the romances, Boomerang and The woman on the beast in particular, that Helen Simpson has found her metier. In them she stands out amongst Australian writers as a witty romantic, a teller of vivid tales spiced with satire, tinged with wit.

His article (linked on his name above) in the Sydney Morning Herald (7 August 1937) offers a thoughtful, even-handed analysis of her, and is well worth reading. He recognises that she can be “romantically theatrical, artificial, escapist”, but, assessing her place in Australian literature, he says:

Amongst the contemporary novel-writers one stands supreme. No other Australian comes within cooee of Henry Handel Richardson. Then comes, well, Katharine Prichard, shall we say, along with Brent of Bin Bin? And here, somewhere, must come Helen Simpson.

He concludes with:

Taking her all in all, she is perhaps the most “intelligent” of contemporary Australian novelists in the sophisticated sense, and, along with Christina Stead, the wittiest.

This is strong praise. So what happened? Where did she go? Was her style not strong enough overall to overcome her plots and characters? Or, is it just a matter of fashion? Whatever, I have greatly enjoyed reading about this woman, and may very well share a bit more about her in the future because she was quite a character.

Printed sources

Brunton, Paul (ed.) The diaries of Miles Franklin (2004)

Ferrier, Carole (ed.) As good as a yarn with you (1992)

The Oxford companion to Australian literature, 2nd ed. (1994)