Sincerely, Ethel Malley by Stephen Orr

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

In the vanishing setting of the independent bookshop, Sincerely, Ethel Malley would catch the browser’s eye. Not just for the infamous name, Malley, but for the cover itself. Against a black background, there is a rigidly seated figure, dressed in a frumpy frock, strong, manly hands resting loosely in her lap. It is headless. This intriguing image provokes the question of the identity and substance of Ethel Malley.

Stephen Orr’s remarkable book has constructed a new angle to the hoax that was the poet Ern Malley. In the mid twentieth century, he was reputed to be a brilliant poet, surreal and modern in style and feted not just here but internationally. Later he was revealed to be a hoax. The poems, constructed from sources such as the tropical diseases handbook, were written by two young soldiers in their Sydney barracks.

They aimed at mocking Max Harris, who strongly advocated such work, as editor of ‘The Angry Penguins’ journal in Adelaide.  Before the exposure, Orson Welles had done recitations, jazz pianists composed to the lyrics!  The works are still available, even studied, today.

Sincerely, Ethel Malley is a brilliantly imagined account of Ernest Malley’s life related by his adoring sister, Ethel. After his untimely death, she discovers the poems amongst his effects. She sends them to Max Harris whom she knew was an ardent supporter of modern poetry.

The book then cleverly stitches together episodes of Ern’s life as Ethel recalls them. Initially she is loyal, faithful to his memory, pragmatic, but becomes increasingly aggressive in supporting his greatness as a poet. When the query is raised that a man with little education, raised in humble surroundings, could not possibly write the poems, she cheekily suggests that Shakespeare, too, has a misty unsubstantiated history.

Stephen Orr is very skilled in the manner in which he entwines fact and fiction. While admitting the Stewart and McAuley’s protests – the pair who composed the works to deride surrealist poetry as espoused by Harris, its most prominent promoter – the book is rich in anecdotes about the ‘dead’ poet. He maintains interest as details, even a scandal, are almost casually divulged. There is an intimation that Ern was dishonourably discharged from the army for a homosexual liaison ‘in the jungle’.

He tantalises the reader with small asides. A washed-up soccer ball on a Sydney beach had the Spanish word FARSA (fake) on it.

Ethel’s daring theft from the SA museum of the crystal skull was her striking a blow for authenticity as she thought its provenance was wrong.

The book is not exclusively focused on the Malleys. It gives a vibrant picture of Australian life in the mid-twentieth century. Life, then, was ‘full of awkward angles and uncomfortable bits’. Dunk, a Professor of Literature, cringed at the Malley poetry and derisively suggests that poets ‘should stick to sunburnt countries and rolling plains’.

Only a few welcomed Ern’s work as a reaction against the condescending English attitude to Australia literary efforts. There is a hilarious scene when the plain-speaking Ethel confronts Dunk.

The book of Malley’s poems, The Darkening Ecliptic, published by Harris with a cover by Sydney Nolan, was targeted for indecency and a trial ensued in Adelaide. The repartee between the judge and prosecution is rich in humour. At the same time, the conservatism, ignorance and narrow-mindedness of many in the community are exposed.

Max Harris is entranced by the gradual ‘pulling back of the layers of Ern’s life’. He desperately wants to believe Ethel’s construction of her brother’s life – a gifted poet emerging from a mundane existence. His belief is strengthened by the English lecturer, Roy McDonald, writing a letter mentioning art forgery. Perfect fakes require experts to expose them. Ultimately, what makes a valuable and truly fine work of Art? The name of its creator, or the intrinsic work….

So strong and plausible is Ethel’s case for the existence of Ernest Malley that the thought occurs that perhaps Stewart and McAuley are really the fakes?

Many of the leading intelligentsia of the day admired and praised the work, including the Reeds, Nolan and other prominent artists. They recognised a quality that those who appreciated the avant-garde could not dispute.

The final pages of Sincerely, Ethel Malley are enigmatic and sad. Ethel dies, decades later, back in Sydney, and alone.

However, a stunning denouement at the very end shatters much that precedes. All that remains, in truth, are the poems. The rest is the product of the imagination of a writer at the height of his powers.

While Max bemoans the way the country ‘is becoming less Australian every day because of overseas influence,’ cinema etc., ultimately the Stephen Orr version of the lives of Ern and Ethel Malley is a quintessential Australia that has now disappeared.

Sincerely, Ethel Malley


by Stephen Orr

Wakefield Press

ISBN 978 17430 5808 4

$34.95; 450pp


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