A few weeks ago, at a dinner in Bendigo for a cousin’s birthday, one of my cousin’s workmates – a librarian – at my table suggested Annie Rentoul as a possible for my list of Australian Independent Women.
Annie Rattray Rentoul (1882-1978) was yet another illustrious C19th alumna of PLC (Melbourne), well after Ethel (Henry Handel) Richardson and Vida Goldstein but just three years ahead of Nettie Higgins (Palmer). After a brilliant career at PLC, culminating in the classics exhibition, Annie took a first-class honours degree at the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1905), where she won the Wyselaskie scholarship in classics and shared the Higgins poetry prize (donated by Nettie’s uncle, the famous judge).
Annie returned to PLC in 1913 and, until her retirement, taught Greek, Latin and ancient history. She remained unmarried.
According to Jaqui, my new librarian friend, Annie Rentoul is best known for her collaborations with her younger sister, children’s illustrator, Ida Rentoul Othwaite (1888-1960). Most of the information above is from Ida’s ADB entry. Jaqui writes, “I became interested in the work of the Rentoul girls while working in a bookshop during the late 80’s and early 90’s. The store bought in a selection of reprinted editions. I was fascinated at how the two sisters wove their respective texts as one, but still maintained a singular beauty.” And she has sent me an essay, Elves and Fairies: A case study in Australian art publishing by Kate Riley, which sets out how The Lothian Book Company in 1916 were persuaded by Ida’s businessman husband to produce a book of colour plates of Ida’s illustrations of Elves and Fairies (the only other similar work they produced was for the paintings of Frederick McCubbin).
Annie and Ida’s first story was published, by New Idea, in 1904 and they subsequently produced a number of books until interest in their increasingly dated work petered out in the 1940s. Interestingly their third, Gum Tree Brownie and other Faerie Folk of the Never Never, came out in 1907, a year before Mrs Gunn’s We of the Never Never which I had thought might have been the origin of the expression. Not afraid to make discoveries on the fly, I see that Wikipedia ascribes the origin of ‘the Never Never’ to the poem Where the Dead Men Lie by Barcroft Boake published in the Bulletin in 1891:
Out on the wastes of the Never Never - That's where the dead men lie!
The only text of Annie’s I could discover was for Bush Songs of Australia (State Library, Victoria), which as poetry does not bear repeating.
On reflection we weren’t sure that Annie Rentoul fit my criteria but she’s an interesting woman nevertheless, especially in her education. I must find out one day just how many women graduated from university in Australia in the 1800s, by number and by comparison with the number of men, and maybe what they went on to do.
And do visit Bendigo. I took the opportunity to stay in the famous Shamrock Hotel with its lace verandahs, in the Nellie Melba suite no less which I highly recommend. After dinner my son and I took in the live blues in the Shamrock’s basement and a good time was had. As part of the whole tourist experience we called in at Maldon on the way up and of course I had to photograph HHR’s mother’s post office.