Call of the Outback, Marianne van Velzen


Ernestine Hill (1899-1972) was a remarkable woman and Call of the Outback, a biography of Hill by Marianne van Velzen does not do her justice – or if it does, only in the sense that van Velzen whose writing, as was Hill’s, is based in journalism, also like Hill has a tendency to romantacise, to gild the lily, to make stuff up.  At the end of the book there is an Author’s Note, the last paragraph of which reads:

Some parts of my narrative are romanticised versions of the truth, because there is no one left to provide an actual account. They are my versions of what could have happened. Most of the text, however, is based on the known facts.

This might even be bearable if a) her book was a novel based on the life of; or b) the sources of her facts were documented and the inventions were noted. However, sadly, this is not the case. Instead we are asked to follow Ernestine’s ‘life’ in a steady flow (260pp) of breezy journalese. Then, at the end we are given, instead of numbered end notes, or even an index, a long list of page no.s and phrases with their sources, which might have been informative if only we could have referred to them while following the text.

Compare this with my gold standard for literary biography, Brian Matthews’ Louisa (1987):

Story is what comes naturally, and story is the enemy of the record, the bane of documentation, the subverter of historical truth in favour of the truth of fiction. Biography is an unnatural act. (p.7)

Louisa, the life of Louisa Lawson (newspaper publisher, suffragist, and mum of Henry) is written with its bones showing – all the author’s research, his guesses, his dead ends documented and discussed with skill and humour. Call of the Outback is just the opposite, smooth, glib even, a story, and a story whose accuracy it is not possible for us to judge.

Ernestine Hill was a journalist, a documenter of life in outback Australia, an author. But Ernestine was also Catholic, resolutely single, and a mother. Born Mary Ernestine Hemmings, she adopted (Mrs) Hill as a sop to suburban sensibilities. Ernestine was born and brought up firstly in north Queensland and then on the death of her father when she was 10, in Brisbane. She won a scholarship to All Hallows (Catholic girls) School where she began to write, and had poems and essays published in the Catholic Advocate and, in 1916, a book entitled Peter Pan Land and Other Poems . From All Hallows Ernestine went on to Stott & Hoare’s Business College to learn typing and shorthand, and then, as top of the class, to the Queensland Public Service. Boring! And within a year she and her cousin Coy Foster-Lynam were on their way to Sydney to join the staff of Smith’s Weekly, a new satirical newspaper being founded by Claude McKay and Robert Clyde Packer, Coy as a junior journalist and Ernestine as secretary to Literary Editor, J.F.Archibald who in 1880 had co-founded and then edited The Bulletin through all its glory years with Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson.

On the death of Archibald (aged 63) after only 5 months, Ernestine was promoted by Packer to sub-editor. Although Packer was 20 years her senior, Ernestine later admitted to Coy (according to van Velzen) that Packer, who was married with 2 children, was the love of her life. In any case within a few years she was pregnant, and in Oct. 1924 a son, Robert, was born in Melbourne. Ernestine took up a job, as Editor of the women’s pages, at The Examiner in Launceston, where she was joined by her mother and, intermittently by her mother’s sister Kitty, and with her son they formed her only family for the rest of her life.

In Tasmania, Ernestine took lessons from a professional photographer and bought herself “a little foldable Zeiss Ica” camera. She became a fine photographer and it is a shame that only a very few photographs are reproduced in this biography.

By 1929 the Great Depression had begun but Ernestine was feeling restless. Packer, now General Manger of Associated Newspapers, found her a job, and more importantly, a monthly retainer, with the Sydney Sun, as a feature writer with a brief to file copy from the remotest corners of central Australia. With Aunt Kitty and Robert, she moved first to Perth and then to Carnarvon, then, leaving them behind, by steamer to Shark Bay where she was stuck for a month, then on to Cossack (near present-day Karratha) before gathering up her family again in time for Christmas in Broome. “She stayed there for most of 1930, collecting enough stories [about pearl diving mostly] to keep her editors happy for a while.” Then in Feb. 1931 she flew to Derby, hitched a ride in the mail truck to Hall’s Creek and eventually, on to Wyndham where she met, and travelled onwards into the Northern Territory with, Michael Durack, father of Mary and Elizabeth with whom she was to be, sort of, life-long friends.

If these travels sound familiar it is because they are the basis of Hill’s famous book of Australiana, The Great Australian Loneliness (1937), in the Foreword of which Hill writes:

It was in July, 1930, that I first set out, a wandering ‘copy-boy’ with swag and typewriter, to find what lay beyond the railway lines. Across the painted deserts and the pearling seas, by aeroplane and camel and coastal-ship, by truck and lugger and packhorse team and private yacht, the trail has led me on across five years and 50,000 miles, a trail of infinite surprises.

(I’ve driven Perth-NT-Cairns-Pt Augusta-Perth a couple of times and it’s 12,000 km the round trip, so “50,000 miles” – 80,000 km – might be an exaggeration). In an earlier post I wrote that Ernestine Hill was a single mum but that her son was never mentioned in her writing and was almost certainly not with her. In fact, although van Velzen claims Ernestine was a good mother, Robert was mostly with his great aunt or grandmother in Broome, and later in Perth, while Ernestine was travelling. Though it is interesting to glimpse the breaks in her travels, not mentioned in the book, where she flies home to spend time with them.

Robert who, let me say it, ends up a bit of a mummy’s boy, doesn’t amount to much. He studies art and during the war (WWII), Hill, who has been appointed to the Board of the ABC, attempts to use her acquaintanceship with the PM, Curtin, to have Robert kept out of the army. When appeals fail they hide on a cattle station in the far north of SA. The army eventually catch up with Robert, but after 6 months he is invalided out on psychological grounds. Meanwhile Ernestine resigns from the ABC citing stress.

This is definitely a ‘life’ rather than a literary biography, but Hill does make some interesting literary friends during her restless moves from city to city around the country. During the travels which lead to The Great Australian Loneliness she meets Daisy Bates, and subsequently organises Daisy’s papers, providing linking chapters which are not used, which eventually appear as The Passing of the Aborigines (1938). Hill later writes a biography of Daisy Bates, Kabbarli (1973) which does not appear until after her (Hill’s) death. She is also friends with Mary Durack, with whom Robert is for a while rather too friendly, and with Henrietta Drake-Brockman.

After the war Robert and Ernestine purchase the ex-army 4WD pictured on the front cover (above) in which they travel from Mt Isa through the NT and down through WA to Perth. In 1947 Ernestine and Drake-Brockman then do a road trip across the Nularbor, stopping in Coolgardie on the way, to catch up with Katherine Sussanah Prichard.

Hill lived mostly on her journalism, van Velzen mentions a monthly payment which ceases  on the death of Packer in 1934, if so that was the only acknowledgement of Robert’s paternity, which Robert later, fruitlessly, attempted to assert. But she was also a popular author, most particularly of the historical novel My Love Must Wait (1941), an account of the voyages of Matthew Flinders.

A heavy smoker, she aged badly. Her mother and her aunt Kitty died in 1941 and ’43 respectively, and after the war her life and her writing both became more disorganised. In the sixties she promised her publisher another novel, Johnny Wisecap: Albino Aborigine, but (thankfully, probably) it was never finished.

Ernestine Hill died in Brisbane in 1972.

Thanks to Meg, a follower of Whispering Gums, for putting me on to this biography (here). I was wondering why I hadn’t noticed it in ABR, but their review, by Susan Sheridan, is in the current issue (April 2016).


Marianne van Velzen, Call of the Outback, Allen & Unwin, Sydney 2016

16 thoughts on “Call of the Outback, Marianne van Velzen

  1. Hmm … I didn’t think I’ll read this, but I would be interested to read Louisa! I love that quote you’ve given from it. Like you, I feel if it’s to be a biography I can live with some making up but it’s got to be flagged. Otherwise, it’s surely better write historical fiction and they’d probably get better response.


    • I think everyone should read Louisa, I think it’s brilliant (and Louisa doesn’t deserve to be in her famous son’s shadow). On the other hand, Call of the Outback is an interesting story not very well told.


  2. Yes, me too. I know that there are arguments about how no one can know what’s really true anyway, but I still like the author to be quite clear about sources and inventions.


  3. Amazing detail. Showing interconnecting lives,whether briefly in passing, or long term…years. Just the information alone could keep you busy researching for a long time. Let alone reading the published works.


    • I think Ernestine Hill’s is a great story, and I wish it had been better told. And yes a literary biography such as Roe’s Miles Franklin or Marr’s Patrick White would be too much I guess but van Velzen barely addresses Hill’s writing at all, and that is a shame


  4. Richard Walsh, Consultant Publisher, Allen & Unwin, has written a defence of van Velzen’s methods in the Letters section of the May 2016 ABR. He writes that he and van Velzen over the previous ten years “have done everything possible to gain the cooperation of Hill’s literary executor who has in her possession important papers and who is of course the only person who can give the permission necessary for a publisher to reproduce Hill’s words and images. We failed in this.” (I was going to give a link to the online site but you can’t see the letter unless you’re a subscriber, in which case you probably already have.)


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