Ethel Turner

Ethel Sibyl Turner (1872-1958), writer, was born on 24 January 1872 at Doncaster Yorkshire, England, younger of two daughters of Sarah Jane (born Shaw) and George Watnell Burwell, merchant. George Burwell died while she was an infant and her mother married Henry Turner, a widower with six children. The only child of the marriage, Jeannie Rose, was born in 1876 and Sarah was widowed again before 1879, when she emigrated with her three daughters to Sydney. On 31 December 1880 she married Charles Cope, clerk in the Department of Lands. Their son Rex was born in 1881.

Ethel was educated at Sydney Girls' High School where she began a literary magazine, Iris. She was determined on a literary career and with her sister Lilian published the Parthenon which brought her some favourable attention. She read papers to the Literary Society and mixed with undergraduates from the University. In April 1891 she talked to 'C' (Herbert Curlewis): 'I am going to be his friend, it can't hurt me and it helps him he says'. She did not marry him until 1896 when he was an established barrister and she was already a successful writer of children's stories. Later in 1891 when her stepfather moved the family to Lindfield she named it the 'Sepulchre': 'It will be like being buried alive to live in a quiet little country place after the bustle and excitement of town life'. However she became a devotee of suburban life and after her marriage built a home at Mosman, then a rather isolated outer suburb.

She wrote stories, sent a 'Sydney letter' to the Tasmanian Mail and contributed to the children's column of the Illustrated News. The Bulletin accepted her first story in 1892 and she published her first book Seven Little Australians in 1894. Though it attracted some criticism, mainly for not conforming to nineteenth century conventions for children's literature whereby 'good' in the end was 'rewarded', the book was and long remained very successful. Over 40 editions were published; it was translated into 10 languages, made into a stage play in 1915, a film in 1939 and televised in Britain in 1953 and by the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1973 and 1975.

Ethel was as assiduous writer, producing in most years at least one book as well as a considerable quantity of shorter pieces. She eventually published 27 full-length novels as well as numerous collections of short stories and anthologies of verse and fiction. In her children's books her empathy with young characters was notable: her children were active, able to take responsibility, competitive, at times greedy and demanding. Often they were left to take the initiative where a parent (especially the mother) was absent or in other ways unsatisfactory. Embedded in her stories were the 'moral' lessons appropriate to her time and class, but she also had the facility to depict the give and take in family relationships.

Ethel Turner was astute in her business negotiations with publishers securing favourable contracts. By December 1895 she had made 818 pounds 'by my pen', and had financially assisted her future husband in securing chambers. They were married on 22 April 1896. On her first anniversary her diary refers to 'greater happiness' and 'H. will not mind now we have had one year alone'. Her daughter Jean was born in 1898 and her son Adrian in l901. The marriage was very happy; but the death of her daughter in 1930 deeply distressed Ethel. Her last book was Judy and Punch (1928). She continued to keep a diary until 1952, from which extracts have been published by Phillippa Poole, her granddaughter, as The Diaries of Ethel Turner (1978) and in Of Love and War: the Letters and Diaries of Captain Adrian Curlewis and his Family 1939-1945 (1982). The diaries reveal Ethel as an intelligent and affectionate parent. They also are a valuable social record of the domestic circumstances of a successful professional woman in early twentieth century Australia. Ethel Curlewis died in 1958.

Heather Radi

Brenda Niall Seven Little Billabongs 1979.