Inside Story

How American servicemen found Ernestine Hill in their kitbags

Blending journalism, romance and travelogue, The Great Australian Loneliness crossed a different set of borders during the second world war

Anna Johnston 27 June 2014 2216 words

Perfectly pitched: author and journalist Ernestine Hill. National Archives of Australia NAA A1200, L12289

Languishing on a Pacific island during the “long middle years” of the second world war, Lieutenant James A. Michener was bored. An avid reader well before he wrote his vastly popular books – which include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tales of the South Pacific (1947), the basis of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hit musical South Pacific (1949), and Hawaii (1959) – Michener never forgot the boxes of Armed Services Edition books that landed regularly in US military camps. Produced in a peculiar format designed for efficient transport and portability, the oblong books were printed sideways with the text laid out in columns. With the spine along the left-hand short edge, the nine-inch-wide by five-inch-tall books were a bespoke design, published for the exclusive use of men and women serving abroad.

“Books are weapons in the war of ideas,” president Franklin D. Roosevelt had declared, and the Council of Books on Wartime was eager to send stimulating reading to soldiers so that their leisure time was both educational and enjoyable. Michener may or may not have read the Armed Services Edition of Australian Frontier, by Ernestine Hill, but it could well have been in his shipment. Certainly many other servicemen who visited the Pacific region or spent their leave in towns like Brisbane and Sydney would have avidly consumed Hill’s enthralling tale of the “great Australian loneliness” and the wide open spaces of northern Australia with a mixture of curiosity and nostalgia for their own frontier homeland.

Ernestine Hill’s book – first published in Australia and the United Kingdom as The Great Australian Loneliness (1937) – was perfect for readers seeking entertaining and informative stories about Australia’s remote regions. Written in Hill’s distinctive blend of journalism, romance and travelogue, the book resounds with enthusiasm about the potential for northern Australia. By turns boosterish, charming, girlish, and racially blinkered, it lovingly recreates the eccentric and remarkable lives of the white pioneers as they settled far northern Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

What was needed, Hill writes, were “people, people, people” to populate this vast region. The “crying necessity” of the Territory was “more white women, who will share the lives of their own white men… and rear children who understand and love the country for its own sake.” Hill reported with unease on the rich multicultural societies she found in remote Australia, where the white population was needed to hold at bay what she saw as a threatening mixed race populace. It was only the white Australians who could prevent the north from slipping back into “a haunted, homeless loneliness.” Yet exotic pearlers, gold miners, “bearded young stockmen with sombrero hats and concertina leggings; Chinese women in green silk tunic and pantaloons; Malayans, turbaned Afghans, and myalls from central deserts or the swamps of Arnhem Land,” fill her pages, proving that the region was already full of people – even if Hill did not consider them all to be ideal.

Hill’s vision of a white Australia was common in the 1930s and, though rarely complimentary to Aboriginal, Chinese, Malay, or Afghan Australians, she nevertheless captured vignettes of their lives that brought those communities alive in the minds of her readers. So too are the landscape, the flora and fauna, and the harsh beauties of the region lushly and lovingly rendered.

Hill was a professional journalist and travel writer of considerable proficiency. Born in Rockhampton, Queensland in 1899, she moved to Sydney in 1919. Initially working as a secretary to J.F. Archibald, the legendary Bulletin editor now serving as literary editor of Smith’s Weekly, Hill effectively wrote her way out of the secretarial pool and into the burgeoning publishing world of Australian newspapers and magazines. She eventually graduated to an editorial role at Smith’s Weekly, and from the 1930s until her death in 1972 she pursued her writing career as she constantly travelled the remote regions of the continent.

Hill was a regular contributor not only to newspapers but also to widely read magazines such as Walkabout. In many ways her writing was perfectly suited to Walkabout, which shared her enthusiasm for remote Australia. As Charles Lloyd Jones from the Australian National Travel Association declared in the inaugural 1934 edition, “in publishing ‘Walkabout,’ we have embarked on an educational crusade which will enable Australians and the people of other lands to learn more of the romantic Australia that exists beyond the cities and the enchanted South Sea Islands and New Zealand.”

Not only was Walkabout’s remit ideal for the travelling non-fiction writer, but it paid well, and the magazine was widely read. By building a loyal readership through this kind of syndicated publication, Hill became extraordinarily popular. Readers could follow her dispatches following “In the Wake of the Willy-Willies” across the coast into Broome in Walkabout in November 1935, and later find a longer version of the story, more permanently packaged, in The Great Australian Loneliness.

A raft of other Australian writers joined Hill in writing for the new magazines that blossomed from the 1930s onwards. In Walkabout, Art in Australia, and Man, among others, writers such as Ion Idriess, Frank Clune, and J.K. Ewers gripped the reading public’s attention with tales of Australia’s wild and remote locations and the Pacific region. Writing journalistically with a flair for narrative and description, they appealed to an audience of eager readers who were curious about their world, yet who might not have read the more “literary” end of Australian writing. So while Miles Franklin, Katharine Susannah Prichard and Christina Stead were writing the books that would end up on the university English syllabus, Hill and these other professional writers were producing the books and articles that found their way into the homes of the rapidly expanding suburbs from the 1930s on. My own plastic-covered copies belonged to my great-grandparents and grandparents, and have neat pencil ticks in the margins of Frank Clune’s Journey to Kosciusko (1964) recording the travels of Mrs Ivy Norma Tickle as she dutifully followed Clune’s travels through the Snowy Mountains.

Although these so-called middlebrow writers have been frequently scorned by critics and neglected by subsequent Australian literary history, they were very influential cultural brokers who mediated debates about place, race, and culture for the interested general reader. Their magazine articles and books provided many Australians with an opportunity to grapple with stories and ideas about the modern nation and to participate in discussions about emerging social formations and national identities. The enormous sales figures of their books prove just how interested that public was in ideas about modern Australia. By 1948, Hill’s publisher Angus & Robertson had sold almost 100,000 copies of her only novel, My Love Must Wait (1941), based on the life of Matthew Flinders, setting a sales record at the time for a novel written by an Australian author and printed in Australia.

Hill’s books were widely popular because they were perfectly pitched between a sentimental attachment to late nineteenth-century ideas about the bush – children who learnt to recite A.B. Paterson and Henry Lawson from their school readers had this national story embedded deep in their psyche – and great excitement about modern technology and enterprise. Although The Great Australian Loneliness often laments the passing of the old bushmen and their way of life – just as the Aboriginal populations of the north are assumed also to be declining – it celebrates the pilots and planes whose mail runs “have brought the Great Australian Loneliness well on to the map.” Hill went on to write a similar paean of praise in her book Flying Doctor Calling (1947), about that critical innovation in aviation and medicine that opened the bush for development and population expansion.

Oscillating between colonial nostalgia and exhilarating modernism, Hill’s writing spoke to the many anxieties of the post–first world war, post-Depression generation that made the mid-century such an unsettling time. These included the heightened awareness of geopolitical threats, which would culminate in Japanese attacks on Darwin in 1942–43; changing ideas and sympathies about Indigenous Australians, which saw increased paternalism and government intervention at the same time as the Aborigines Progressive Association (1937) was established; and the economic shifts in the wake of the Depression that pitched agricultural production against city-based manufacturing. Visionary rhetoric like Hill’s appealed to those seeking certainty that the new world order would still account for their trusted ways of understanding Australia and their place in it. Her vivid, emotionally charged stories – frequently condemned as romanticised purple prose by critics – were precisely the right register to forge bonds of understanding and national sentiment between people who were geographically, socially, and culturally dispersed.

In her restless travel throughout Australia – accompanied by her adored son Robert, whose father was probably newspaper magnate Robert Clyde Packer – Hill herself was a perpetual seeker after the geographic heartland that would create a strong basis for a national identity. It was in remote places such as Fitzroy Crossing that she declared she had found “the distilled essence of the real Australia.” Hill travelled “hoping for a thrill and a story.” She gathered tales from people wandering the Kimberley and from carved boab trees “scrawled and re-scrawled with names that have become famous and names forgotten” sitting in “dim shanties” or around campfires or during “Arabian days and quartpot nights” as she travelled the Finke River with the camel-mail. Visiting Hill and Robert at Coolgardie in 1947, Katharine Susannah Prichard remarked on Hill’s evident enjoyment of rough camp life and provided a succinct physical description and character sketch: “She’s a strange, otherwhereish creature with big, beautiful eyes, a hoarse voice & curious incapacity to argue logically about anything.”

Hill found in these remote regions a way to escape the conventions that restricted city-based women. She had, for example, an ongoing, if stormy, friendship with Daisy Bates, an earlier eccentric who also found in remote Australia a place and way to create a unique role for herself. (The relationship between the two continued posthumously: in Hill’s final book Kabbarli (1973) she reiterated her claim to have ghostwritten Bates’ The Passing of the Aborigines (1938).) Hill’s generation – we might consider her alongside others who made a name for themselves around Aboriginal affairs such as Ursula McConnel, Olive Pink, and Camilla Wedgewood – ventured into places, both geographic and intellectual, where women had previously been scarce.

Hill’s writing about race relations was more informed by popular prejudice than anthropology, science, missionary zeal, or interest in Aboriginal welfare, yet she nevertheless attested to violent colonial conditions and lamented the passing of Indigenous lives and histories whose formative role in the nation had largely gone unrecorded. Her books and journalism joined others in modernising attitudes, which eventually saw the liberalisation that benefited Aboriginal people from the late 1960s onwards, even if her “modern” opinions now seem uncomfortably tainted with colonialism. Creating the modern nation in the 1930s meant somehow accommodating a recognition of ancient Aboriginal cultures with the ambitions of settler Australians newly engaged, through world wars, trade, and travel, with their region and beyond.

Sydney in the early 1940s was full of American soldiers and talk about the United States of America, and Hill was not immune. Writing to her family from her editorial desk at the magazine A.B.C. Weekly, Hill expressed her thrill at learning that The Great Australian Loneliness was going into a US edition. “It is a grand thing to be known in America, especially through Doubledays,” she enthused. Writing was the most important war-work Hill could do, and she was encouraged “to rush my best and most arresting articles on this country to America to make them conscious of what a loss we’d be. Britain has never realised that. We must call Americans here.”

Hill’s vision for writing as critical in securing the nation’s geopolitical future confirms her commitment to the pivotal role of accessible, educational, and informative literature, not only for her fellow Australians but for an international reading public. Her perspective from within journalism and the publishing industry reveals another side to the America’s entry into the Pacific War – the demand for Australian writing. In 1943, Hill wrote, “There never was such a year in books in Australia, particularly in Australian books. The Americans order 80,000 at a time for camp libraries.”

In the same year, she received her author’s copies of Australian Frontier, the renamed large, handsome hardback US edition of The Great Australian Loneliness. Reviews in the New York Times and the Herald Tribune were very gratifying. Hill mused that “they are making Australia, through my little book – a wonderful story.” Like other successful Australian writers – Henry Handel Richardson, G.B. Lancaster, Eleanor Dark and others – she hoped for the massive readership guaranteed by inclusion on the lists of the US Book-of-the-Month Club and public libraries.

Michener read Dark’s The Timeless Land (1941), probably the Club edition, and called it a masterpiece: indeed, he later reflected that it was from reading Dark that he acquired the skills that he would use to write his blockbuster historical novels. The Armed Services Edition of Hill’s Australian Frontier – among the 123 million books in the series distributed to the US Armed Services overseas during wartime – similarly shows the multiple ways in which Australian writing operated outside national borders, offering authors careers that expanded across very different readerships, publishing venues, and geographic regions. •