State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 60 Spring 1997


Ethel's Daughter: The Writings of Jean Curlewis

It is hardly surprising that Jean Curlewis should have become a writer. It is sad that her long battle with tuberculosis, contracted when she was in her twenties, and her death at thirty-two on 27 March 1930 prevented her writing more than four novels.
Just prior to Jean's birth on 7 February 1898 her mother, Ethel Turner, wife of Herbert Curlewis (later Judge Curlewis), recorded in her diary a visit from her doctor when they ‘talked Shakespeare’ — an indication of the culture into which her daughter was to be born. Ethel not only traced Jean's intellectual, literary, social and personal development in her diaries but also recorded her daughter's progress in a Writing Album, a Baby Book, in which she refers constantly to Jean's prettiness (confirmed in the many photos of her growing up), her charm, her intelligence and her social graces. From the time that Jean came under the care of a Kindergarten Governess, Wynifred Evans, then went on to Killarney, the Church of England Grammar School in Mosman where the Curlewises lived, and later to S.C.E.G.G.S. Darlinghurst, she ‘worked consistently at a high level and showed imaginative and literary capacities of a high order’ (Yarwood 1994:184). There is little doubt that the close bond between mother and daughter, the cultured lifestyle of her parents and the society in which she was raised helped Jean to develop into a highly literate, socially aware and articulate young woman. When she was only four and a half her mother records:
She has a very good memory and a good store of miscellaneous information. Her chief delight though is stories. Stories, stories all the day. Grimm, Alice in Wonderland, The Water Babies are her chiefest friends. I am also introducing her to Tennyson and her appreciation is great of ‘The Lady of Shalott,’ the ‘Revenge,’ etc. (Poole 1979: 214)
The mother's claim was borne out eight years later when the Curlewis family travelled abroad, and Ethel and Jean stayed for the weekend with Lord and Lady Tennyson; Ethel records:
Lord Tennyson drew Jean out and she chatted away back to him in a way he seemed to like very much. He told me afterwards she had quite a wonderful knowledge of books. (Poole 1979: 235)
This broad knowledge of literature was to be evident in the many literary references in the novels of Jean Curlewis. Reflected in those novels also is her wide general knowledge, for which she received special mention when she became dux of her school, and also a deep concern with social issues and a pursuit of philosophical ideas. For Jean was brought up in a household and a social group that valued not
only the arts and a rich cultural life but was also genuinely concerned with issues of social welfare. (Henry Lawson was visitor to the family home.) This social awareness is attested in novels such as Ethel's wartime trilogy, The Cub (1915), Captain Cub (1917), Brigid and the Cub (1919). Her commitment to the welfare of others led Jean to serve as a Voluntary Aid, relieving overworked nurses during the Spanish ‘flu epidemic that devastated Sydney in 1919. It is likely that this period, when she was particularly open to infection, brought on the tuberculosis that was to have Jean spend the last years of her life in nursing homes in the Blue Mountains and in a private hospital in Sydney. She married Dr Leo Charlton in 1923 and the couple spent two years in London while Leo was engaged in postgraduate studies. Even then, her mother was worried about the state of Jean's health.
Jean Curlewis's life may have been brief but it was, apart from her illness, a rich, happy and fulfilled one. From her parents, her mother in particular, she gained a love of place — in particular for the Sydney suburb of Mosman where they lived; for Leura and the Blue Mountains where her family owned a holiday home and went frequently, seeking a refuge from the pressures of fame; and for Palm Beach and Pittwater, another family retreat. She shared, too, the enthusiasm of her brother Adrian for surfing and developed a keen knowledge of lifesaving procedures. All of these facets of her life are reflected in her writing.
One of Jean's early literary mentors was the poet, Dorothea Mackellar, who encouraged her writing of poetry and who, after Jean's death, wrote an article for Art in Australia in which she labelled Jean ‘the best kind of Australian’ because of her clear-sightedness, her sense of style and force of emotion.
Her love of life, her sane and humorous outlook, and her quick, warm power of observation were reflected in all she wrote, in the surfing stories that she laughed at and that are such good fun to read, as well as the vivid articles written in England, whither she went after her marriage. (Poole 1979: 282)
Like her illustrious mother Jean began her literary career early in life, becoming involved when only eighteen with her Aunt Lilian in writing ‘legends and native stuff’ for a new children's magazine planned for the Mirror. ‘So she is to grow independent early — as I did', Ethel wrote in her diary (Yarwood 1994: 245). Later, after her return from England, Jean wrote articles for newspapers, the Home magazine and Australia Beautiful. A piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald (9 January 1926) entitled ‘Lights of London: Harvest Moon’ in which she examines the concepts of socialism and capitalism with reference to John Hampden, the English parliamentary leader of the 17th century, is an indication of the serious thought that went into Jean's occasional writing and which is intrinsic to her novels, even when she is writing high adventure.
Yet she also contributed largely to ‘Sunbeams', a children's supplement to The Sunday Sun, begun in 1921 and edited by her mother. A serial from ‘Sunbeams’ on
which mother and daughter collaborated was published in book form in 1923 as The Sunshine Family: A Book of Nonsense for Girls and Boys, illustrated by D. H. Souter and H. Bancks and introducing a family that was the forerunner to the Meggs family. (H. Bancks was actually J.C. Bancks, the creator of ‘Ginger Meggs’.) Encouraged by Dorothea Mackellar who had great faith in her ability as a poet, Jean also wrote occasional verse which was published in newspapers and magazines, and in 1924 she produced a little handbook for aspiring poets, entitled Verse Writing for Beginners.
Like her mother, Jean's deepest ambition was to become a respected novelist, and despite her contribution to the light-hearted The Sunshine Family she was most interested in novels which had serious themes embedded in well-paced stories. Primarily a storyteller, though she lacked her mother's ability to create comic situations, Jean Curlewis wrote in her short life four quite different novels which despite their inherent philosophical exploration are light-hearted and never ‘earnest'. Each springs from the author's own deep interest in ideas, her wide reading and her love of place — for the settings and social background, in each book, are wonderfully well realised and recreate those aspects of Australian society in the 1920s which were part of the writer's own experience.
The title of Jean Curlewis's first novel, The Ship that Never Set Sail (1921), turned out to be a foreboding reference to Jean's own life, in that she died so young and before she had time to develop her talent. But the title also refers to a recurring theme in her stories, for ‘the ship that never set sail’ is a symbol, in that first novel, of youth's romantic idealism forced to come to terms with the realities of life and the pressures of society — a theme to be found in the writings of Ethel Turner and even more obviously in those of Ethel's sister, Jean's Aunt Lilian, in novels such as An Australian Lassie (1901) and Betty the Scribe (1906). In the latter the young Betty, longing to be a creative writer and aglow with romanticism, is forced by the circumstances of her position in the family to curb her inner longings: ‘The impossibility of belonging even for separate hours to the two worlds — the world of romance and the world of reality — struck her tragically’ (Betty the Scribe).
Professor Morris Miller, the Australian literary historian (1940: 481), claims that Jean Curlewis
wrote with the zeal of a mental explorer … The harbour, its life and work, disclosed for her symbols of a vanishing age … the golden age of childhood was not alien to the modern setting of Sydney Harbour, on whose surface was an open road to the east, the ever-renewing day.
The Paling household in The Ship that Never Set Sail bears a striking resemblance to that of the author. Professor Paling is pursuing a distinguished career; his intelligent and elegant wife appears in the social pages of the daily papers; and Brenda, their fourteen-year-old daughter, is not only ‘the Dresden china shepherdess girl’ but she excels at school in ‘the subjects of her choice’ while secretly dreaming of a career
‘of adventurer at large’. Secure in her harbourside suburb, Brenda, inspired by her reading of Treasure Island, Captains Courageous, Kipling, Jules Verne and the Boys’ Own Paper, longs ‘to go to sea in a ship — to leave this stolid unendurable land'. The author aptly prefaces her book with a quotation from Longfellow which begins, ‘I remember the black wharves and the slips’ and ends ‘And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts’.
This is Jean Curiewis's one ‘domestic’ novel, in the tradition of her mother's writing in that it centres on Brenda, her dreams, her family life and the decisions she has to make about her future as she grows older. It all reads very much like Jean's own lifestyle and the circumstances of home and temperament that caused her not to attend university (for which she was so evidently suited) but to become engaged to an industrious medical student (who nevertheless failed one of his exams) in the year that she was writing her first novel While Brenda is the antithesis of the ‘Dresden china girl’ and revels in ‘dangerous and hare-brained pursuits’ like cliff-climbing, she soon learns that there is a serious side to life.
Her fantasies give way to reality in stages. When, as a teenager, she visits White City (Sydney's forerunner to Luna Park) and is mesmerised by the seeming glamour of the world-wandering performers’ lives, she learns that behind the facade are stories of betrayal and compromise.
It was the first, but not the last time that Brenda was to find her adventures end on a disconcertingly human note.
The next stage comes when Brenda discovers that ‘Mr. Brown the shabby man with the brown beard who lived next door and went to the office every morning’ is a ‘twin soul’, also a secret adventurer. For a time Brenda and Mr. Brown share some imagined as well as real-life adventures, as when they rescue some small boys from the sea, but when Mr. Brown resigns his ‘moderately well-paid billet in the City office’, forces his parasitic sisters to open a boarding house and actually goes to sea, the author uses his ultimate disillusionment as a metaphor of Brenda's own odyssey.
But she — she was still so young. For her the sea might still be the witching adventure with the zest of spring, and the taste of wine; for her the ships might still fulfil their mysterious promise of beauty.
So he did not write and she never knew.
For Brenda, at eighteen, is to fall in love with Jimmy Stevenson, the nephew and heir of a ‘merchant prince’, a law student given to ‘wild and woolly debate about politics and the constitution and the rights of man and the greatest happiness of the greatest number and other abstruse subjects’. His dreams are vastly different to those of Brenda's, but she finds herself listening intently to his passionate plans for a career in politics so that he can influence a generation of trained men to be bridge-
builders to a better society — a note that is to resurface in Jean's third novel, Beach-Beyond (1923). Brenda's feeling for Jimmy is set back when he fails his University exams and takes a position in a fashionable store selling haberdashery. Seemingly, his ship too has floundered, and it would appear that the way is clear for the dashing Lloyd, a friend of the family, to claim Brenda's heart. And when Jerry, her twin brother, uncharacteristically shows an adventurous spirit and signs up as official photographer on an Antarctic expedition it seems as though Brenda's dream ship is leaving without her. But it is on the wharf, when she is farewelling Jerry, that Jimmy Stevenson turns up, also to see Jerry off. It is Jimmy who offers Brenda his handkerchief to dry her tears and then uses the emotion of the occasion to confide in her his deepest dreams — to work his way up through the commercial world, as his uncle had done, and to use his wealth for the betterment of society.
Brenda felt suddenly cold and lonely and tired. Beside these keen active plans her own dreams of so many years seemed idle and childish. There was work to be done in the world — work, work, work — and Jimmy was doing it while she — she was idling in the beachcombing, sunny, lazy Islands.
So she can write, prior to her wedding, to her brother in the Antarctic that ‘possibly nothing but Love and Work really matter and the queerness is just put in to make Life dear and tantalising and enthralling’. Here, the author's voice is plainly heard, just as it is when Brenda expresses her delights in the harbour, goes picnicking at Palm Beach or looks down with rapture into the Jamieson Valley in the Blue Mountains. For The Ship that Never Set Sail is the most personal of Jean Curlewis's novels and, although it contains elements that were to appear in her subsequent writing, it has a feminine grace that is not to be found to the same degree in the later yarns. Those novels, however, owe a great deal to genres less explored by her mother and her aunt.
Drowning Maze (1922) opens in the tradition of the school story as it was then established, but moves into melodrama — or ‘Comic-Opera Country’ as one chapter head has it — which has obvious echoes of Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda, published in 1894, and to which there is overt reference in the text. Were she writing today, Curlewis's second, third and fourth novels would undoubtedly have moved more directly into ‘metafiction’ in that she makes deliberate use of the conventions of the genres established by writers such as Hope, Rider Haggard, John Buchan, Kipling and G.K. Chesterton, with direct literary references to such writers (was Jimmy Stevenson's surname a tribute to the writer of Treasure Island?), but also an ironic use of plot techniques such as the race against time, the chase, and misunderstandings that must be cleared up before the story can unravel. Drowning Maze (complete with a map of the maze, similar to Stevenson's treasure island map) also uses quick, episodic scenes that fade in and out of one another in the manner of a modern film.
The novel, which is divided into two major sections, starts with a ‘fake’ adventure which begins at the elite Towers School for boys and then moves into the ‘real’ adventure which is pure melodrama. The ‘fake’ adventure is cooked up by a lowly junior, an ‘extraordinary youth called Humpty-Dumpty (Humphrey) King’ who audaciously approaches two lordly sixth-former prizemen on the eve of the long summer vacation, promising that if they will accompany him for the holidays he will promise them ‘an adventure'. Humpty-Dumpty adroitly manoeuvres the august sportsman Streaker Brooke and the supercilious and literary Cynic Carthew into a camping expedition to Pittwater in a rare Crosshall wonder-car that Humpty-Dumpty's honoured scientist-explorer father has had sent out from England, and that Streaker is to drive. The Cynic's role is that of scientist, and he is to manage any acting or disguising that might be necessary to the adventure. But there is a fourth member of the party — Podmore, ‘the inkiest, nosiest and most objectionable boy in the Lower School’ who has stowed away between the Crosshairs luggage carrier and the back of the hood. So the ‘fake’ adventure begins (it transpires that Humpty-Dumpty has ingeniously set up the whole situation) and moves from an atmospheric ‘Old English looking grange’ in Frenchs Forest to the menacing mangrove swamps of Pittwater. Down the ‘long hill from Newport came the Adventure itself; and the manufactured adventure is overtaken by a real one — real, that is, in terms of the plot, but completely unreal (or Comic-Opera) in literary terms. On Sydney's northern beaches the unlikely quartet find themselves embroiled with the exiled King of Cadalia (another version of Ruritania), his sister the Grand Duchess, the stolen Crown Jewels, a scoundrel called Stavros, and a race to find the secret formula for making a vegetable dye from crushed mangrove bark. (As Cadalia is rich in mangroves, the formula would bring wealth to the tiny Balkan state and restore the monarchy.) In the ensuing struggle among the mangrove swamps and along the beachfront, young Humpty-Dumpty proves himself to be a true son of his intrepid father, so ultimately gaining the paternal respect he has long yearned for.
There are deliciously theatrical episodes and many comic effects in Drowning Maze, a clever spoof and the most frothy of the Curlewis novels. Enjoyment comes from the incongruity of the scenes in which the writer constantly reminds us (prodding us with references to her sources) that this is fiction. But underneath the Comic-Opera facade is the more serious suggestion that, like Brenda Paling of the previous novel, we all crave adventure, but that at times we may need to manufacture it. The book also suggests that we all have a great need for respect as well as love, but that we must make all our own way in the world, whatever our parentage. Perhaps a subconscious reference to the writer's own position as a writer! As in each of the novels the sense of place is wonderfully well realised, and the near-caricatures of Streaker and the Cynic point forward to the pale Egbert in Beach Beyond and the foppish Featherstonaugh who enlivens the narrative of The Dawn Man.
Beach Beyond (1923) is the most unified of Jean Curlewis's novels and the best constructed, partly because it is narrated in the first person by a literate observer of life whose voice rings true, it opens with another of the incongruous scenes which the author handles so well. Merrick, a twenty-year-old lowly clerk in the firm of Massimer and Massimer is summoned to the office of the chief, who up to that time has been to him no more than a shadowy figure, to be offered an assignment as resident lifesaver at Beach Beyond where Massimer and some of his business and professional colleagues have established a summer surfing colony so that their wives and children can holiday in safety away from the hurly-burly of life and to where the husbands can commute at weekends. Apart from guarding the safety of the beach, Merrick is to put his ear to the ground to try and unearth the meaning of vague feelings of disquiet at the Beach and rumours of ‘strange happenings’. The incongruity of Merrick sitting back in an arm-chair sharing a cigar with Mr. Massimer quickly gives way to the smooth unravelling of the mystery of those vague rumours.
Once again Jean Curlewis builds up an authentic and clearly defined picture of 3 coastal resort, isolated yet accessible at the time of writing, but also recognisable to all who have explored the coastline north of Sydney even today. It is in this novel, too, that the author's wide general knowledge allows her to create a convincing mystery. Not only her understanding of tides, currents and rips but her technical knowledge of signalling devices such as a heliograph and of surf life-saving procedures is used in the gradual solving of small inexplicable happenings: strange stirrings of leaves; the finding of a .32 automatic cartridge; candles that turn up unexpectedly for a child's cake when no one outside the community would know that they were needed; a delicate-looking stranger who appears in the children's schoolroom and teaches them a new song and then disappears.
In the tradition of the best detective fiction, the plot slowly unfolds and the serious play of ideas that is always underneath the surface of a Curlewis novel begins to ferment the action. On the night of a high moon when the members of the colony, including husbands, have gathered at the centre they call Noah's Ark for a fancy dress ball, they are held under siege by the frail stranger who had appeared to the children. The stranger now proposes, with the aid of an army of labourers who share his socialist ideals, to kidnap the members of the Ark, if they will not accompany him voluntarily, and to sail with them to an island in the Pacific, there to establish a model colony. David Hartley is the frail stranger under sentence of death — ironically, given the author's condition — from tuberculosis. He is a young idealistic workman who has unexpectedly inherited a massive fortune from an American uncle, and he now plans to use this cream of society gathered at Beach Beyond, this intellectual task force, to found a model State where life should be as simple and happy as at Beach Beyond. As he explains to the group:
In two years you will build a fine state because not one of you is capable of doing slovenly work — no, not even though it is labour at the point of a bayonet. And once a fine thing is built — no workman wantonly destroys the thing he has made. Your own work will convert you. I shall die trusting in the pride — yes, in the vanity — of good workmen.
When he is outwitted by Merrick, Hartley, deprived of his Noah's Ark, yields to reality and strikes out into the treacherous surf — to his death.
He did not want to go home to Sydney. He wanted to go to his island and his island was just beyond the further surf. Then why not let him go? — it was much the best way to let people do as they wanted.
So David's dream founders as does Brenda's, but he has left a will leaving his money to his army of workmen ‘to build their own Utopia where and how they will…even in the heart of smoke and grime and muddle’. It is realised by both Merrick and Egbert that any Utopia has to be earned — ‘we've got to mill into life, and work and sweat and get tired out before we can get the essential flavour that is in the air’ of Beach Beyond. In the guise of a mystery thriller Jean Curlewis writes a novel of ideas that is ahead of its time.
The Dawn Man (1924) is also a thriller, with a hint of mystery, that has the stock ingredient of a race between two rivals to procure a rare ‘find'. It is certainly not a children's book, and it hardly falls into the category of the ‘flapper’ literature of the time (designed for the more ‘emancipated’ young women), although there is a romantic element in the plot. That the author knew exactly what she was writing is evident in the overt ironic references to the genre from which the plot is taken: a genre stretching from Wilkie Collins and Buchan to James Bond and the plethora of today's television crime series.
Early in The Dawn Man the foppishly affected Lawrence Charles Featherstonaugh, an old schoolfellow of the protagonist, Anthony Brant, an anthropologist who has been commissioned to travel to Australia on a delicate mission, defines the genre in a long speech:
Nay, positively I protest. Had you said, sink me, that your rendezvous was with the Secret Service I had not wasted my compassion on you. Into the wilds, forsooth, — everyone knows that the Secret Service conducts its negotiations entirely in restaurants. They carry restaurants in their valises, complete in box with set of gliding waiters, sparkish gentlemen, distractingly lovely women, and the elegantest music. A mighty ingenious scheme. Though his affair be egregious difficult no Secret Service agent feels himself distressed. He enters his restaurant, he seats himself, he orders caviar. He is assured that the enemy conspiracy will seat itself at the next table, and having a nice appreciation of what is expected of them will most genteelly allow him to overhear each detail of the plot.
That there is a more serious intent, and that the novel embodies philosophical thought, is hinted at in the first chapter in which a young professor of anthropology is lecturing on Ancient Man and quotes Sir Thomas Browne's ‘rolling cadences’: ‘He that lay in a golden urn should never find the quiet of his bones’. Running through this novel of intrigue and adventure is speculation, not only about the origins of civilised humanity but also about the first inhabitants of Australia and how they arrived.
Or had the great South Continents lain empty until Man, full grown, came striding down through Java from a northern nursery, or drifting south from the hills of India across this same Indian Ocean in canoes of his own building?
So mused Anthony Brant on his voyage to Australia in search of a skull reputed to have been unearthed in a gully out of Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. As he explores the mountain cliffs and valleys, Tony is to ponder long and hard about the origins of our species and Australia's part in the evolutionary process. And deeper still is the questioning of human motivation. What was driving Brant's rival, Mr Cazalet, himself an eminent anthropologist and an obsessive collector of prize specimens, to steal the crucial letter containing information concerning the skull's whereabouts and then to stoop to chicanery to obtain it.
[Tony's] eyes narrowed at the thought of Cazalet. There was something unutterably vulgar in the introduction of petty rivalry into the quest. To him, as to all anthropologists, there was something deeply religious, tragic, and brave in Man's desire, of which they, the anthropologists, were the instrument, to know the secret of origin, though the knowledge should prove him very dust of very dust.
For Anthony's search for the skull, during which he is to encounter and fall in love with Cazalet's beautiful niece (although there are the usual misunderstandings until the couple can ultimately declare their love), is symbolic of his deeper quest ‘to know’, a thirst manifestly of the author herself. Compared to the great mutations of the world, Anthony concludes that life — from leaf to man — was,
only a little local vapour which has temporarily crept about the mountain bases in comers of an inconsiderable star; some day, perhaps, to blow away again into space and be as nothing. What could it matter, then, if one wisp of that vapour chose to be happy rather than unhappy for the fraction of a second that was its life.
Even as these words were being written, Jean Curlewis's health was failing and her fatal illness was soon to be diagnosed. Below the surface story of a race from England to Australia between Anthony and Featherstonaugh and the Cazalets and of trickery and intrigue, there is the existential dilemma that confronts most intelligent, thinking
young people, writers and artists especially, as to the meaning of our transient lives, particularly when compared with the enduring mountains among which so much of the book's action takes place.
It is remarkable that Jean Curlewis's novels did not reach a second edition. They were all issued by Ward, Locke, who published most of her mother's and her aunt's novels, in the recognisable Ethel Turner and Mary Grant Bruce format. The first three were illustrated with half-tone plates after the prolific artist J. Macfarlane and The Dawn Man, in a similarly sympathetic style by another known artist, Harold Copping. Perhaps her writing was overshadowed by that of her illustrious mother and lacked the popularity of Mary Grant Bruce's ‘Billabong’ series, but reviews of her books were favourable. The Sydney Daily Telegraph is quoted in the publisher's blurb for The Dawn Man:
Miss Curlewis can always be relied upon for a wholesome story, free from psychological problems with which many minor modern novelists warp the minds of their readers.
Certainly hers were not ‘problem novels’ in today's sense, and the recognisable settings of Sydney and its environs must have brought delight to Australian readers and quickened the interest of overseas readers in this country. Her storylines hold the reader's interest and the underlying ideas or ‘concerns’ have an ongoing relevance. In Beach Beyond the sense of community is so well established, the characters so well defined and the mystery so well bedded in the plot, that David Hartley's failure to realise his dream of a Utopia and the manner of his death have a touch of nobility. His ship and that of Brenda Paling in Jean Curlewis's first novel remain near-tragic symbols of the author's career. Had she not been stricken by disease and had she not died, so young the ship of her talent may well have satisfied even Brenda's extravagant dreams. As it is, she has left us four highly readable novels that not only document life as it was for upper middle-class, cultured Sydney families in the 1920s but also express something of the idealism and the fife concerns of caring young people in every age.


  • Miller, E. Morris. Australian Literature: From its Beginnings to 1935, 2 vols. Melbourne: University Press, 1940.

  • Poole, Philippa. The Diaries of Ethel Turner. Sydney: Ure Smith, 1979.

  • Yarwood, A.T. From a Chair in the Sun: the Life of Ethel Turner. Melbourne: Viking, 1994.