Mab by Thea Gardiner

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Social history, which came to prominence in the 1970s as a discipline, sought to document large social changes and reconstruct the experiences of ordinary people through the course of those changes.  There is a subset of Social history which also came to some prominence at the same time – women’s history – which studies the role of women in history with a particular focus on women’s personal achievements.  There is a valid belief that traditional historical recordings minimise the contributions women made to different fields of endeavour.

This new book by Melbourne historian Thea Gardiner ‘belongs to a century-long legacy of attempts to challenge those prevailing narratives by telling the stories of Australian women’ [Introduction p xiii].  The author goes on to say ‘[Mab’s] absence from the historical record reflects the general marginalisation of women in Australian history; where the dominant narratives centre the stories of men and the nation’ [xii].

By means of this beautifully presented hardback, the author addresses this marginalisation of women by revealing the story of Mabel Louise Grimwade [nee Kelly] – an influential Australian philanthropist born into a ‘genteel family of pastoralists and investors’ in 1887 in colonial Victoria.  Her father was George Colman Kelly and her mother Agnes Dalziel Kelly, or ‘Aggie’ as she preferred to be called.  Mabel was named after her paternal third great-grandmother Mabel Kelly and like her ancestor Mabel was always called ‘Mab’.

Mab lived her life within the boundaries set for a woman of her class; and her class allowed her to benefit from all the opportunities available to her which included ‘a large inheritance, private education and frequent travel’ [ix].  But the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century in Australia was a time of significant cultural and historical change encompassing as it did Federation, the Great Depression, war, together with a heightened nationalism and wavering ties to England.  And the story of Mab Grimwade can tell us much about the culture of gender and class – and makes the strong point that Mab was ‘not a passive subject of cultural and social phenomena – she helped to shape the world in which she lived’ [x].

Her story essentially begins in 1908 when, aged 21, Mab met Russell Grimwade – aged 29 – who was a partner in his family’s pharmaceutical business and the director of its new research laboratory.  Their relationship developed to the stage where Russell proposed to Mab and was accepted.  However, in spite of his inherited wealth, the Kellys believed that, as it derived from ‘trade’ rather than from [say] the spectacular success of the Kellys’ wealth from investment in what became BHP, he was not a suitable match for Mab.  Consequently, Mab was persuaded by her father to break the engagement.  Shortly after, and defying the social expectations which defined her gender, Mab and a friend travelled overseas unchaperoned.  Further – and more defiantly – on her return to Australia, she resumed her engagement with Russell Grimwade.  They were married on 12 October 1909.

Mab’s early adult years coincided with Federation and a desire on the part of white settlers to develop a more Australian national identity – some of the more radical settlers even looked to a severance of ties with the British Empire.  Placing Mab firmly in her social milieu was her favouring a more conservative approach to nationalism: celebrating the peculiarity of Australia’s history while at the same time maintaining loyalty to Britain.  Mab’s stance on the question of nationalism is described by the author as a ‘romantic view of Australian exceptionalism extricated from the histories of the First Nations people’ [25] which found expression in the Grimwades’ passion for collecting artefacts of the colonial past.

In sociological terms, there was at the time a dichotomy between the ‘public sphere’ in which men dominate, and the ‘private sphere’ the realm of women and children.  Seen by feminists as a myth masking the subordination of women, the dichotomy was challenged by Mab and her compatriots as they used their homes as avenues where socialising, networking and fundraising occurred which added to their social capital and their broader influence.  As well as the philanthropy, the activities provided opportunities for Mab for the ‘exercise of influence and social power’ and help ‘shape the society of Victoria’ [102].

The social class into which Mab was born saw philanthropy as ‘a social expectation and a duty to those “less fortunate”’ [88] but it is also said that women of Mab’s class saw their involvement in philanthropy as a confirmation of their gentility.  However, it cannot be denied that Mab’s involvement contributed significantly to social welfare programs in Victoria which included the Red Cross, the Victorian Association of Braille Writers and the Victorian Association for the Blind.  Another achievement – and perhaps Mab’s greatest – was serving as president of the Fitzroy Mission Free Kindergarten [later named the Isabel Henderson Kindergarten] from about 1946 to 1955.

In her Conclusion, the author acknowledges that Mab ‘dedicated much of her time to philanthropy and charity work’ driven by a personal sense of responsibility and a ‘broader conservative nationalism which shaped her worldview’ [146].

Little is known, however, of Mab’s inner life and it seems almost that Mab preferred an obscurity about her place in history.  In spite of that, this book brings a deeper understanding of the gender and class distinction prevalent through the later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century period in Australian history and the significant contribution which Mab made.  The book is beautifully written and the extent of the author’s research – well supplemented by many photographs of Mab and her husband and other family members – is evident throughout.  In addition, there are extensive notes and an index – all of which combine to make Mab  a pleasure to read.

Thea Gardiner researches and writes on the place of women in Australian historical memory.  She is a PhD candidate in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne and is a historian at the archaeology and cultural heritage company Dr Vincent Clark and Associates.

The Grimwades’ family home Miegunyah is owned by others now but continues to remain a physical legacy to the world in which Mab and Russell lived.  The name remains as an imprint of books published by the Melbourne University Press [MUP].

Mab: The World of Mab Grimwade

by Thea Gardiner


The Miegunyah Press

ISBN 978 052287 890 5

$45.00; 161pp


🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

Scroll to Top