The Great Australian Loneliness, Ernestine Hill

You know that I am fascinated by intertextual geography. So, for instance, last month’s AWWC subject, Ada Cambridge, on her first excursion into the bush, was caught up in exactly the same loops of the Murray River in 1870 as Tom Collins (Such is Life) a decade later.

Ernestine Hill (1899-1972) is one writer who intersects many others. The journey around northern Australia she describes in The Great Australian Loneliness criss-crosses the paths of a number of notable Australian writers and books. She hitches a lift with Michael Durack, father of Mary (Kings in Grass Castles) and Elizabeth (“Eddie Burrup”), in northern WA (and later becomes friends with both, and her son Robert maybe becomes Elizabeth’s lover); she hears about the Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence girls in a pub in Marble Bar, and their epic walk home to Jigalong; Daisy Bates owned a cattle leasehold near Jigalong, to which she had famously driven cattle south from Roebuck near Broome, 900 kms north (“3000 Miles on Side-Saddle”); Hill later catches up with Bates at Ooldea in outback South Australia and does the work on Bates’ papers which leads to the publication of The Passing of the Aborigines; four or five years earlier, Katharine Susannah Prichard had been at Turee Creek, a couple of hundred kms south west of Jigalong, writing Coonardoo; later, Hill and Henrietta Drake Brockman travel in Hill’s ex-army amoured personnel carrier to Kalgoorlie to catch up with KSP who is there writing her Goldfields trilogy.

Then there is the mystery of who did Kim Scott’s aunty (Kayang & Me) see driving an apc across the Nullabor to meet with Daisy Bates? Hill’s condemnation of Aboriginal slavery in the WA pearling industry; Chris Owen’s excoriation of the Duracks’ complicity in Aboriginal massacres in Every Mothers’ Son is Guilty; Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis’ account of her family coming in from the desert (Pictures from my Memory) – she was at school for a while at Karalundi mission where Daisy, one of the Rabbit Proof Fence girls was working, in 1972; and of course, Robyn Davidson’s journey by camel across the desert (Tracks) whose beginning and end points, Alice Springs and Hamelin Pool, Shark Bay, mirror those of Hill, who started from Hamelin Pool and ends her account two years later riding a camel into Alice Springs.

This is all by way of an introduction to my review this month of The Great Australian Loneliness on the Australian Women Writers Challenge site. Read on …

20 thoughts on “The Great Australian Loneliness, Ernestine Hill

  1. I thought I had this, but no, I’ve got My Love Must Wait. A terrible title which makes it sound like a slushy romance instead of a fictionalised biography of Matthew Flinders.


    • I’m yet to read My Love Must Wait, which I own along with a couple of others of Hill’s, like ‘Water into Gold’, which I bought just because I like owning old hardbacks.


      • One site to keep an eye on is Leura Books, who send out an email newsletter featuring books on some kind of theme (gardens, explorers, Australiana etc.) I’ve often found good stuff there.


  2. Ooh, you sound fancy Bill with your “intertextual geography”! Seriously though, I love these sorts of connections too, though I’m finding that the older I get I’m making less of them. Once I could juggle lots in my head, but not so much now.

    Of course, like Lisa, when I think EH my first thought is always My love must wait, which all my friends read in the late 60s. But I didn’t because I didn’t like historical fiction – back then!

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    • I had to study Intertextuality for my degree, and a little of it stuck. I see authors and novels all round me as I drive, as you can probably tell.

      The Great Australian Loneliness has always been the first book I would think of in connection with Hill, though I didn’t read it until 20 years ago. Maybe Mum had a copy, as there isn’t one amongst Dad’s books now on my shelves. (I saw your comment on the AWWC site, I’m thinking about it)

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      • Intertextuality is something I certainly didn’t study in my maths degree, but funnily enough your connection suggest a three dimensional space with axes author, time, and place. Unfortunately, difficult to construct and view, we tend to struggle beyond two dimensions. Perhaps you could construct a spreadsheet with author in one axis, and time the other (a year per cell), and place and book at the intersection. Coloured, to group cells at the same place. That would be easier for my mathematical brain to process.


      • I remember when Lotus and its clones were a thing (I used VP Planner) you could construct 3D spreadsheets. So if your first two axes were N–S and E-W, then your base spreadsheet would be a map; then with a third axis T you would have layers of spreadsheets of the same map at different times. On each map I would plot the movement of a character or author.

        Practically though, I tend to ignore the T axis and assume all events are simultaneous. So last weekend, for instance, I had the Gums (and the Kimbofos) in Freo; Mudrooroo walking down to the beach from the jail (Wild Cat Falling, 1965); DH Lawrence arriving by ship – he describes looking across to the church, probably the one across the park from Clancy’s – and catching a woodfired train over the trestle bridge and up through Subi etc to Perth (1922); Xavier Herbert’s family coming in from the bush also on the rail – his father was train driver (1910); and Tim Winton peering down on them all from his top floor flat in Johnson Court (Eyrie, 2013)


  3. I love how you see all these literary connections as you drive around Bill. Obviously I haven’t read enough Australian books as this doesn’t happen to me so vividly! When I travel overseas I try to read books by authors from the country/region I’m in, but I don’t think to do the same when travelling around Australia. I will try to do better 🙂


    • I can’t generalize about travelling overseas, though it was fun to be in Maigret’s Paris and in Charmian Clift’s Hydra. It’s obvious from my reviews that I think as much about the geography as I do about the characters – and I discussed this someone else one time, I mostly remember people by where they’re from. And that on reflection probably applies to books too.
      I wonder if it helps that my constant travelling keeps a lot of scenery fresh in my mind. In June/July I was in every state (well, every mainland state).


      • My sense of geography works the other way! I remember what book I was reading in which house or town or city – at least the significant books in my life anyway.

        I have very clear memories of the b&b room in which I was staying in Denmark, WA twenty years ago and reading Rushdie’s The Midnight Children. It had got to a point where it was ready to be finished, so after doing the morning boat cruise (with a guide who sounded just like Diver Dan), I settled down by the French doors leading out to the verandah and got lost in India. SW WA makes me think of 1952 India to this day.

        Two times (in recent years) I’ve tried to read a novel set in a place I know intimately – Keneally’s Shame and the Captive and one of Anita Heiss’ books set in Mudgee. I couldn’t read either as they simply didn’t capture the location at all. I could have been anywhere; I certainly didn’t feel like I was in Cowra or Mudgee.


      • I was in Denmark a couple of weeks ago. I don’t think it would remind anyone else of 1952 India! Though I guess the local hippies might have flashbacks to late 1960s India. My brain not only doesn’t connect a book with where I read it – except in the very limited circumstance of me being on the way to where it is set, eg. Homage to Catalonia – but I very rarely remember whether I read or listened to a any given book.

        I guess everyone knows by now how I feel about Jane Harper’s incompetent geography in The Dry.


  4. I’m pondering how big of an area you are discussing where you see these connections. From reading and my limited knowledge of Australian geography, first it sounds like the whole country and then only Western Australia. However, when I’m thinking local geography, it is very, very much Michigan, and more specifically the lower peninsula and just a touch past the Mackinac Bridge into the northern side. I couldn’t honestly tell you much about Indiana geography, as I have not traveled much of it nor cared to (though there is a rather interesting lengthy patch of Amish and Mennonite communities in the north where you see horse and buggy everywhere). In general, I’m not interested in large swaths of U.S. geography.

    So tell me, did your interest in the geography and travel paths in Australia begin through reading and led to a career in driving, or did the driving all over the nation lead you to read more about the geography/landscapes you’d seen?


  5. Truck driving came from needing to be outside and wanting to move about, to experience as much of Australia as possible. I have no desire to be a tourist, but love working in all the corners of the country.

    Well, I enjoyed being a tourist in Europe, by train, boat and foot. So perhaps I just like being in different places. No planes though, no more queues, no more hours in a not-too-clean disease incubation tube.

    I find it a pleasure to read a novel and to be able to picture where the author is talking about (and hate it when the author’s geography is generic or derivative). And one of the pleasures is to be able to place other authors/characters in the same location. And conversely, it is is a pleasure to be somewhere I can visualise the novels/lives that have taken place there. Good thing I don’t live in Manhattan or I’d have a long retinue of fictional friends wherever I walked.


  6. Reading this post has really made me realise that I don’t read much from around the UK – just the parts of it I know fairly well (Kent, Hampshire, London, Glasgow) – and would struggle to see similar connections in British literature. In fact, you might have given me an idea for a new reading project – so thank you for that!


    • I really need more maps on my study wall. I have no idea where any English counties are, nor most US states, particularly in relation to each other. I would love an English person to comment on Jane Austen’s Love and Freindship because I think the heroines go to every county, and Scotland, in one day.
      Looking forward to the new project, glad I helped!


  7. How interesting! I had a fun time with my last read, finding two of the author’s old houses 8 minutes away from somewhere I used to live and within sight of another place I used to live – we weren’t there at the same time but I liked to think of our overlapping tracks!


    • The English do much better with ‘intertextual’ houses than we do. I rarely get much closer to a novel than suburb/town/river. The one exception is Tim Winton’s Eyrie. My family have owned several flats in that building over the years, which makes it very easy to visualize the action.


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