Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Deborah FitzGerald, senior journalist, editor and writer who had worked across major media organisations was asked by the Mackellar family to undertake the project of providing the first definitive biography of Australian poet and writer Dorothea Mackellar. This undertaking led to the author’s Doctor of Arts thesis and then this book. Deborah FitzGerald was to discover, through her access to private journals and other primary sources, that Dorothea Mackellar was a sophisticated, intelligent, and talented woman who spoke five languages; wrote poetry, plays and novels; sketched and painted; rode horses, drove motor cars, and swam and surfed (ix).
This was a remarkable achievement for a woman born in the 19th Century and probably only possible because of the wealth and position her family held in Colonial Sydney. From their property at Point Piper on the edge of Sydney Harbour and time spent at their country retreat, Dorothea developed a very strong appreciation and love for the Australian landscape which even her many travels to other parts of the world could not diminish.
During her lifetime she was to experience the limitations placed on women of her time as well as the turmoil of political and social upheavals of Australia’s Federation, the fight for women’s suffrage and two world wars. She was also to lose her much loved older brother during the Boer War. All of these events would shape her character, health and writing.
In this book, the author has used all the material available to her to provide a very comprehensive life story of this esteemed Australian poet, covering her family life, love life, social life, health and extensive travel. Much has been mentioned of Mackellar’s lifelong friendship with Ruth Bedford with whom there were many literary collaborations.
FitzGerald has skilfully linked these events to Mackellar’s literary works. The dust jacket on this hard covered book has been influenced by the poet’s words. In Dorothea’s poem Colour the following words appear:
If I am tired I call on these to help me
To dream –and dawn-lit skies,
Lemon and pink, or faintest, coolest lilac,
Float on my soothed eyes.
The dominant colours on the cover of this book, which also shows an elegant portrayal of Dorothea c 1910, are pink and lemon. FitzGerald’s book has been divided into two parts, the first titled ‘My Country’ and the second ‘Colour’. Sixteen pages of photos are provided near the middle of the book and thirteen pages of notes are found at the back attesting to the amount of work required to produce a thesis and a book of this calibre.
Once published the poem, ‘My Country’ (which was not the Mackellar’s title), would become both a blessing and a curse for the author. It certainly resonated with the Australian people and may have been the reason for her literary longevity, but it also became a roadblock to her ambition (78). The most intense creative period of Dorothea’s life would be during the years 1910-1914, with five publications: two books of verse and three novels. Her poetry was described as manifesting a national self-consciousness and that she was bringing something fresh – an Australian voice so different from that of English and American poets.
All her life, the reader is told, Dorothea wrote daily and was unwavering in her commitment to her creative pursuits. As her reputation grew, her name would often grace newspaper articles about Australian literature. Her global reach was also quite extraordinary. However, at the time of The Great Depression, when she returned from several years living in England, she sometimes felt that the literary world was moving on without her, especially with the trend towards the new Modernist Movement.
After both her parents had died, she opted for a quieter life. The last poem recorded in her verse books was in 1942 when she was fifty-seven. With her health declining, there would be no more overseas trips. She died in 1968, not long after receiving an Order of the British Empire (OBE).
She has continued to be honoured in various ways long after her death including having the manuscript of ‘My Country’ and notebook verses 1907-1908 included in the Australian Memory of the World register in 2017, making her the first Australian woman writer to be recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
Dorother Mackellar, according to the author Deborah FitzGerald, was like two sides of a coin, both a humble country girl and the sophisticated city dweller and world traveller. She was a woman who longed for love, but struggled with her sexuality and found it hard to commit to those who came in and out of her life. She was an ambitious poet who first courted extraordinary fame and then shrank from it (302).
This book contains an in-depth look into the life of an extraordinary Australian literary figure. It is informative in its revelation of Dorothea Mackellar’s other works which have been so over-shadowed by the poem, ‘My Country’, which made her such a well-known household name.
Her Sunburnt Country
by Deborah FitzGerald
Simon & Schuster Australia
ISBN: 978 176085 540 6