Susan Sheridan reviews 'Call of the Outback' by Marianne van Velzen

Susan Sheridan reviews 'Call of the Outback' by Marianne van Velzen


by Marianne van Velzen

Allen & Unwin, $32.99 pb, 320 pp, 9781760290597

The long subtitle of this biography says it all. Hill was an immensely popular and influential travel writer in the 1930s and 1940s. Her books The Great Australian Loneliness (1937) and The Territory (1951) gathered together and built on the many stories she had written for city newspapers. She also published histories of the flying doctor medical service (Flying Doctor Calling, 1947) and of the dried fruit industry along the Murray River (Water into Gold, 1937). Her novel based on the life of Matthew Flinders, My Love Must Wait (1941), sold more than 100,000 copies, a record at the time for an Australian-authored book published in Australia.

Marianne van Velzen is less interested in exploring her subject as a writer than in recounting Hill's celebrity as a wandering journalist who went 'into the outback to seek true stories and tall'. Can tall stories also be true stories? Ernestine Hill believed hers were both. She was deeply invested in the idea of the outback as the locale of real Australia, and committed to communicating to her city readers the stories of the colourful characters she met on her travels. Hill never let a good story go unadorned. Her style was romantic, as was her evocation of a rapidly disappearing heroic past for both indigenous and settler inhabitants of the 'outback' and her vision of its future possibilities. The Northern Territory, subject of her 1951 history, she characterised as:

Black men wandering and white men riding in a world without time, where sons do not inherit, and money goes mouldy in the pocket, where ambition is wax melted in the sun, and those who sow may not reap ... problem child of empire, land of an ever-shadowed past and an ever-shining future, of eternal promise that never comes true.

But if we feel like mocking the romanticised view of empire and race relations couched in this rhythmic purple prose, we might at the same time notice that the shining future Hill envisaged for the Northern Territory was uncannily like that of the 2015 White Paper, 'Our North, Our Future', recommending the damming of the rivers to enable an increase of fifty per cent in Australia's food production capacity. Myths and tall stories persist because they contain the truth of a long-held desire or fear.

Van Velzen draws freely on Hill's books and many of the newspaper articles on which they were based, but apart from mentioning that her style was florid and her attitudes to race outdated, the biographer does not confront the myriad problems of constructing the life story of a mythologiser. On the other hand, she rarely quotes more than a phrase of Hill's, so that a reader gets little sense of the seductiveness of her writing. Regrettably, none of Hill's own photographs is reproduced in the book. However, the photographs that do appear are intriguing. They are: a single photo portrait of Hill in 1949, looking anxious, and a familiar one of Daisy Bates in full Edwardian rig in Adelaide in 1935; portraits of Mary Gilmore and of J.F. Archibald, neither of whom plays a significant role in Hill's story; two photos provided by the family of Gool Mahomet and his French wife, Adrienne, about whom Hill wrote briefly in Loneliness; one of Eleanor Smith, a Perth woman who made a journey with Hill to the goldfields in 1952; and one of writer Mary Durack in Perth when her four daughters were small (you will have to read Call of the Outback yourself to find out why she is there).

Cultural historians have recently found Hill's work a mine rich in resources on settler Australian attitudes to indigeneity, racial difference, and 'development' at mid-century. She also presents an intriguing figure of the travelling journalist equipped with swag, typewriter, and camera, hitching rides 'across the painted deserts and the pearling seas, by aeroplane and camel and coastal-ship, by truck and lugger and pack-horse team and private yacht', as she put it in the foreword to The Great Australian Loneliness. She makes much of her use of modern technologies in primitive circumstances:

Many of the notes have been taken by the flickering of a camp-fire; many of the pictures developed by the port light of a lugger, or with a bit of blackfellow's turkey red wrapped around a hurricane lamp in the bush, the films washed in a billabong or hung to dry on a tree. ... I have posted special magazine features with a passing blackboy, or a pearling lugger, or a donkey wagon. I have wired and wirelessed front pages ... to the five capitals from post offices ... that were nothing but a couple of rubber stamps kept in a biscuit tin in a bough shed.

Hill appeals as one of those larger-than-life Australian women who led unconventional lives at a time when the social constraints of gender were even harsher than they are now. Born in North Queensland in 1899, she was brought up in Brisbane by her widowed mother, a school teacher, and her aunt Kit. Her first journalism job was in Sydney at Smith's Weekly, newly established by Robert Clyde Packer. At the age of twenty-four she found herself pregnant to the older, married Packer, whereupon her resourceful mother and aunt took her off to Melbourne for the birth of her child, Robert. Together or singly, these two remarkable women made up a family with Ernestine and Robert throughout his childhood and all his mother's travelling. Ernestine's first job as a single mother was as editor of the women's pages at the Launceston Examiner. In 1929 she was appointed to write features on remote Australia by the Sunday Sun, one of Packer's papers (though Packer never acknowledged Robert as his son). After a brief stay in Melbourne, the family moved to Perth, which was the base for Ernestine's journeys north and east, which she recounts in Loneliness.

The late 1930s found her in Adelaide, working for the Advertiser and, among other things, collaborating with Daisy Bates, whom she had visited at her camp at Ooldea in the far north west of the state.

As Hill's books were published, she became so well known that in 1942 she was the first woman appointed to the Australian Broadcasting Commission. After the war, she drove with her son in their own jeep from Mount Isa to the Western Australian coast. During her last twenty years, still travelling restlessly, she suffered from ill health and anxiety, and found it difficult to finish anything. The posthumously published Kabbarli: A Personal Memoir of Daisy Bates (1973) restored Ernestine Hill's name briefly to the media spotlight along with that of her legendary friend; but she has been largely forgotten. This biography should begin to bring her back into Australia's historical imagination

Published in April 2016, no. 380
Susan Sheridan

Susan Sheridan

Susan Sheridan FAHA is Emeritus Professor in the School of Humanities at Flinders University in Adelaide. Her latest book is The Fiction of Thea Astley (2016). Earlier books include: Nine Lives: Postwar Women Writers Making Their Mark (2011), Christina Stead (1988), Along the Faultlines: Sex, Race and Nation in Australian Women’s Writing 1880s to 1930s (1995), and Who Was That Woman? The Australian Women’s Weekly in the Postwar Years (2002); as editor, Grafts: Feminist Cultural Criticism (1988), Debutante Nation: Feminism Contests the 1890s (1993) with Sue Rowley and Susan Magarey, and Thea Astley’s Fictional Worlds (2006), with Paul Genoni.

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