Inside Story

A triumph and a burden

“My Country” shadowed the career of poet Dorothea Mackellar

Sylvia Martin Books 30 August 2023 1407 words

Restless spirit: detail from a portrait of Dorothea Mackellar by May Moore. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Like generations of Australian children who went to school in the twentieth century, I can recite these lines from Dorothea Mackellar’s poem “My Country” without a second thought:

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror —
The wide brown land for me!

My memory of the poem is inseparable from the sound of more than a hundred young voices reciting it in unison — as a dirge, with no inflection or rhythmic variation — in the school assembly hall.

It was not until I read Deborah FitzGerald’s Her Sunburnt Country: The Extraordinary Literary Life of Dorothea Mackellar that I discovered these well-known lines are not the first stanza of “My Country” but the second. The poem was inspired, at least partly, by a friend’s reference to England as “home,” common among descendants of white colonial immigrants, and the first verse evokes the “green and shaded lanes,” the “grey-blue distance” and “soft, dim skies” of England. Not only that: another four verses follow the one I am familiar with. Read as a whole, Mackellar’s vivid use of colour, a salient feature of her work, is evident.

Having toyed with the idea for several years, Mackellar composed “My Country” in the first months of 1908 at the drought-gripped family property of Kurrumbede, near Gunnedah in inland New South Wales. The property was her refuge and she was always inspired to write there. Away from the constraints of city life, she could indulge her desire for freedom, roaming the paddocks, riding her horse or lying in the grass on the banks of the Namoi River.

First published in the London Spectator as “Core of My Heart” (a title Mackellar preferred), the poem was reprinted in a number of Australian publications as “Core of My Heart — My Country” and eventually became known under the shorter title. The poet was twenty-two at the time of its first publication and the poem, hailed as a patriotic anthem, would become both “a triumph and a burden,” overshadowing her subsequent work.

Dorothea Mackellar was born in Sydney in 1885, the daughter of prominent surgeon and politician Charles Mackellar (later Sir Charles) and his wife Marion, also a member of a distinguished colonial family. Dorothea and her three brothers grew up at Dunara, a mansion in the exclusive harbourside precinct of Point Piper.

Dorothea’s parents were loving and generous but their benevolence did not stretch to allowing a university education for their precociously intelligent daughter. She did eventually manage to sit in on some university lectures, although not formally enrolled, and became proficient enough in four languages to travel with her father to conferences in Europe as his translator.

Tragedy befell the family when their oldest son and Dorothea’s beloved brother Keith was killed in 1900 during the Boer war. He was not quite twenty years old and his sister’s profound grief at his death lingered for the rest of her life. At around that time she wrote “When It Comes,” a moving tribute that shows a maturity beyond her fifteen years. It concludes:

So should I like to die, but where?
On the open plain, in the open air,
Where the red blood soaks in the thirsty grass,
And the wild things tread my grave as they pass,
There would I die.

A few years later she would begin to experience insomnia, dizziness and heart palpitations, symptoms of an illness that would become chronic yet never diagnosed at a time when women’s mysterious illnesses were often attributed to “nerves.” She also experienced episodes of what we would now call clinical depression.

To write the official biography of Dorothea Mackellar, FitzGerald was allowed access to previously unseen parts of her diaries, some of them written in a code that had been cracked by the editor of other published sections. Unfortunately they lack the wit and verve of the coded diaries of her contemporary, Miles Franklin, which have provided useful information to many literary scholars. Much of the Mackellar diaries is devoted to somewhat repetitive descriptions of rejected suitors. At times her biographer’s engaging prose shifts towards the style of a romance novel:

Dorothea… was delighted to find Captain Hugh Scarlett — the Governor’s aide-de-camp — waiting for her when the train pulled into the railway station. She could not help but notice his handsome face and warm smile as she was ushered into a luxurious Mercedes with red leather interior, and her bags were retrieved from the train. She smiled back at him, holding his gaze a little longer than necessary, and thought this might be an even more enjoyable trip than she had anticipated.

Curiously, Miles Franklin receives no mention in Her Sunburnt Country, although her novel My Brilliant Career, published in 1901 when she was nineteen, also haunted her throughout her career. The two women both published novels with the English publisher Mills & Boon in the 1910s, Franklin’s under a pseudonym.

The other major strand of Mackellar’s hitherto unseen diaries concerns her “unorthodox friendship” with writer Ruth Bedford. After they meet as young adults and share holidays, swimming, lying on the beach and sleeping in a hammock, the tone of Mackellar’s diary is quite different. The young women “play-act” together, creating and fleshing out characters who would later provide the material for two published novels they wrote together.

FitzGerald attempts to grapple with the importance of this relationship in the context of the times, though not entirely convincingly. The extensive work of American scholar Martha Vicinus in the area is reduced to a sentence on how a romantic friendship with another woman was seen at the time as a normal prelude to marriage. The statement by the biographer that “friendships between women that interfered with relationships with men by assuming too much importance were viewed as abnormal” is referenced (to my surprise) by an article of my own, written almost thirty years ago and rendered meaningless without contextualisation.

Mackellar’s relationship with Bedford becomes the steadying raft on the turbulent sea of her emotional life and is also the basis of much of her literary life. Together, they were involved with the Zonta Club and the Sydney chapter of PEN in the 1930s, and that love of “play-acting” led them to the Community Playhouse in Darlinghurst.

Neither woman married. Mackellar published four volumes of verse, but her involvement with writing and the literary scene waned in her fifties and she spent the last ten years of her life in a nursing home. Although Mackellar published no more work, Bedford remained a supportive presence in her life.

Her Sunburnt Country is a curious mix of a biography. Based on a doctoral thesis in which one might expect some rigorous analysis of Mackellar’s literary and personal life, it is clearly aimed at a general readership and packaged as such, with its Barbie-pink dustjacket announcing that it is “the official biography.” Its hyperbolic subtitle is undercut by minimal endnotes, no list of published works and no bibliography or index.

The book is written in the life-and-times mould of biography, but world events often appear primarily as background to Mackellar’s travels and travails, and connections between her life and her times are occasionally strained, as in an awkward segue linking Mackellar’s drinking habit to the effects of the Great Depression. A young Patrick White’s description of her as “pissed” when he meets her on board ship is countered by their exchange of bookplates showing “mutual respect” in later years.

The image of Mackellar’s bookplate is shown in the illustrations section with no explanation or attribution, while White’s is simply described in the text. In fact, both feature wood engravings by the well-known flower painter and bookplate artist Adrian Feint. His bookplate for Mackellar is one of his most enigmatic designs, the central figure depicted as a centaur from Greek mythology — half human and half horse — symbolising duality and paradox.

The androgynous human half with its outstretched arms is a far cry from the tawny-eyed beauty of the biography — a contrast FitzGerald might fruitfully have explored in this charmingly written book that accurately describes its subject’s restless spirit, contradictory nature and longing for freedom. •

Her Sunburnt Country: The Extraordinary Literary Life of Dorothea Mackellar
By Deborah FitzGerald | Simon & Schuster | $55 | 336 pages