Capel Boake: Three short stories

Capel Boake, no date, presumed public domainHaving written about Capel Boake in my last Monday Musings, I couldn’t resist checking out some of her short stories. Bill’s AWW Gen 2 Week concluded yesterday, but I hope he’ll accept this post as a contribution.

Boake’s stories are easily accessible in Trove. In fact, I was spoilt for choice, so just picked three at random. By the time I’d edited three – that is, corrected the multiple OCR errors* – I felt I’d done my bit for a while and so stopped there. I can’t say whether my three chosen stories are representative of her whole output – she wrote many short stories and poems – but I’m assuming they are. All appear in newspapers – in the days when newspapers published short stories – and most were syndicated. This means the version I edited is not necessarily the original publication, but I decided not to spend time identifying this.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeThe three stories (linked to their newspaper text) are:

  • The brothers (Canowindra Star and Eugowra News, 9 January 1920): a brother returns from the war, under a cloud, having been accused by his father, before leaving, of stealing money from the family farm business. He hadn’t, but he’s not going to dob in who did.
  • The necessary third (The Australasian, 28 August 1926): a wealthy young man meets, on a steamship trip from South Africa to Melbourne, a not so well-heeled young woman, and her mother, who is ambitious for a good marriage for her daughter.
  • Jenny (Weekly Times, 21 June 1930): a poorer young woman, “a State child”, is helped by a young man to make her career as a world-famous dancer.

A propos my point above re syndication, “The brothers”, for example, was first published, according to the subscriber-only AustLit database, in The Australasian in 1919.

These are generally straightforward stories, which is not surprising given they were published in newspapers and therefore intended for a broad audience. They lack the punch of, say, Barbara Baynton’s turn-of-the-century stories, but they make interesting reading nonetheless.

Two of them are romances – or, what the Western Mail reviewer I quoted in Monday Musings called “sex stor[ies] created on conventional lines”. They draw on traditional tropes – the poor young woman with the pushy mother, and the poor young woman who becomes a star thought the assistance of a young man who loves her. And yet, these young women are not pawns, and they do exercise some agency. Paula (“The necessary third”) takes things into her own hands to protect her self-respect, while Jenny (“Jenny”) takes action to ensure that she gets what she really wants (even if what she really wants is traditional!)

The stories also provide some insight into the times. I was particularly intrigued by this comment in “Jenny”. It’s told through the eyes of the young man, and here he is watching her, now a world-renowned star, dance on her home stage:

Glancing at the absorbed faces around him, their parted lips and shining eyes, he saw she had the same effect on them. Release . . . release . . . their spirits were free for once from the tyranny of the mechanised age that had gripped the world with relentless fingers.

This, then, is not “bush realism”, but a commentary on the modern urban world. However, it was also written in 1930 – Capel Boake straddling Bill’s Gen 2 and Gen 3 periods.

A neglected woman writer

Capel Boake has been identified as one of three neglected women writers of the 1930s by Gavin De Lacy in the La Trobe Journal (vol. 83, 2009), the other two being Jean Campbell and ‘Georgia Rivers’ (pseudonym for Marjorie Clark). De Lacy says that while they were all prominent in the Melbourne literary scene in the 1930s, they have been, with the odd exception, overlooked in significant studies of Australian literature. (He’s right. I found little about Boake in my little collection of books.)

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, Boake did not write many novels. Painted clay (1917) was highly praised, but only two more novels were published in her lifetime – The Romany mark in 1923 and, 13 years later in 1936, The dark thread. De Lacy quotes a contemporary critic as saying The dark thread had some shortcomings which “constant practice in the novelist’s art might have been expected to overcome.” Another critic, Frank Wilmot (writing as Furnley Maurice), compared it with Dreiser’s An American tragedy. Nettie Palmer, however, said that it wasn’t “quite a Dreiser, as Furnley suggested … but it’s very respectable.” More interesting to us, though, is contemporary critic Susan Sheridan who argued that it

provides a salutary corrective to the bourgeois family sagas of the period.

Another reason for revisiting Boake in Gen 3!

De Lacy notes that Boake, Campbell and Clarke haven’t been revived as “forgotten authors despite the recent interest in Australian women writers”. Not only are most of their books long out of print, but are “virtually unprocurable in second-hand bookshops”. An option for Text Publishing perhaps”?

He offers various reasons for this, including publishing practices at the times, but he also says that the 1930s was a “radical literary and political decade” and these three women’s novels don’t quite fit “the prevailing orthodoxy and literary preoccupations and myths of the ’30s.” Also, he says, the writers who have been remembered were mostly Sydney-oriented and associated with the New South Wales section of the Fellowship of Australia Writers. Kerr, Campbell, and Clark belong to the same period, but they

were Melbourne authors, setting their novels in that city. They were among the earliest prewar Australian writers to fictionalise an urban environment, ignoring the bush as a theme, and preceding most of their better known contemporaries in writing about the city.

Including them in our study of the era would, as he says, deepen our understanding of the history of women writers (and, thence, I’d argue, of Australian literature.) Gen 3, here we come.

* The original image of “The brothers” is so bad that I was unable to fix all the errors – that happens sometimes in Trove, newsprint not being the best quality medium for preservation.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Capel Boake

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.


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.