Happy Birthday Ernestine!
My Love Must Wait by Ernestine Hill was a bestseller when it was first published in 1941, which puts it neatly in the middle of Bill @The Australian Legend’s Gen III of Australian Women Writers. I can see why this story about the adventurer and explorer, Matthew Flinders attracted a lot of attention. He was the epitome of Australian manhood – brave, resourceful, and unafraid to head off into the great unknown for the purpose of science and the advancement of mankind!
Sacrificing the comforts of home, the love of his young wife and his own health for the sake of country and King, Hill describes Flinders in nothing but glowing terms. He is the hero of this story – a romantic figure, sure of his purpose, filled with zeal and passion, determined to make his mark in the pages of history. She also credits him with an early and unusual love for the Australian environment. A man who loved the idea of Australia and it’s potential for development before anyone else. A true pioneer.
His tale is an extraordinary one.
From the title, (which Hill apparently did not chose or like) you might assume that the love story between Flinders and his wife, Ann would feature more prominently than it does. Missing Ann and the comforts of home is a regularly refrain throughout Flinders’ various journeys, yet the call for adventure is always stronger.
Once upon a time I would have found this story more engaging than I did. Every now and again, the ghost of Bronwyn past would stir up to remind me that the idea of going off to ‘new’ lands to name everything after your family and friends was a thrilling idea. Creating a new world in your own image fulfils many age-old explorer urges, but, we, of course, now acknowledge that they were not coming into new territory or unexplored territory or unnamed territory. They just chose not to see it.
Flinders was not a bully or a thug and his treatment (according to his diaries and letters) of the various Indigenous groups that he met around Australia was better than many men of his time. He urged the crew on his ship to neither ‘harry or hunt’ the natives “‘for the sake of those who come after us, we must make a good impression on these Australians,’ he explained.”
However most of the time, I struggled to get passed the colonial and paternalistic attitudes that imbued the book. They dated the book terribly and left me feeling impatient with the careless, yet deliberate assumption of terra nullius. It wasn’t always easy, either, to see if Hill was ascribing an attitude to Flinders that she copied from one of his letters or journals or whether they were her own opinions.
(A few examples can be found on page 82-83, 190, 291 and 300-301 of the A&R Australian Classics edition, published in 2013 and pictured above.)
Hill was of her time. More compassionate, moderate and modern in her views thanks to her extensive travels around outback Australia, but still, of a time when most people believed that the Aborigines of Australia were dying out, in the face of inevitable progress and civilisation.
Ernestine Hill was born on the 21st January 1899 and died on the 21st August 1972 which made her an almost exact contemporary of my great-grandmother. I was only a child when Granny Llewellyn died in the mid-70’s, but I remember her fondly, mostly for her incredibly long, grey hair, that she kept braided and wound up in a bun on the top of her head until the day she died. She was a quiet, strong, uncomplaining woman. Hard-working and stoic. Too busy washing and cleaning and preparing food for her large family to worry about silly stuff like emancipation and women’s lib. She was kind but completely unsentimental. There was too much to be done and no time to be wasted on namby-pamby stuff like love and affection. In her world, if you couldn’t keep up and get by, then you were probably better off not in it in the first place. Tough views for tough times.
Reading My Love Must Wait felt like stepping back in time to another world. My Granny’s world. A world that was much harsher and less forgiving. It was a man’s world, a colonial world, a Western world that gave no value to anything that was not the same as them or of use to them.
My Love Must Wait was Hill’s one and only work of fiction. She wrote six non-fiction books about her extensive travels around Australia. In her Women of Australia Bio they claim that,
‘truth’ was not the main aim of her writing. Her colourful and affectionate accounts of Australian life may be misleading, but they caught the attention of many readers and contributed to the mythology of the Australian outback as well as to a sense of Australia as a booming economy and an adventurous destination during the 1930s and ’40s.
She had the explorer bug, just like Flinders, and believed that development and civilisation were the way forward for everybody. Into the Loneliness | Meanjin Summer 2017 | Eleanor Hogan:
Like others of her generation, she was preoccupied with questions of what kinds of existence were possible for women—typically white ones—in Australia’s vast open spaces….She lived in an era when optimism was championed as a value and a belief that if the north were properly developed, it would become a source of national prosperity where many would make their fortune. ‘Ten thousand people are holding the land that could—and will, some day—make room for fifty millions,’ she wrote.
Another quote that struck me as a small insight into Hill’s personality comes from the Australian Dictionary of Biography where Katharine Susannah Prichard said of her:
In the following year (1947) the novelist K. S. Prichard, who was with her at Coolgardie, Western Australia, wrote that Ernestine ‘seems to take . . . flies and red-backed spiders galore . . . in her stride. She’s a strange otherwhereish creature with big beautiful eyes, a hoarse voice and curious incapacity to argue logically about anything’.
My Love Must Wait may not have been, exactly what I was hoping for, it did however, turned out to be an excellent preparation for my reread of the Master and Commander series. All the nautical terminology and naval facts & figures overlap with the time period that O’Brian’s series is set in as well.
First Line: Prologue:
Dawn came to London Street, a creeping old hag, clawing along the tenement railings, peering through the leaden windows at slovenly litter of living.
More articles about Hill:
- Australian Women Writers Challenge | Guest Post 2017 | Robyn Greaves
- Ernestine Hill | April 2016 | The Australian Legend
- Ernestine Hill | August 2015 | Whispering Gums
- ‘Impossible, now, to read the Rosetta Stone’: cultural hybridity and loss in the Ernestine Hill Collection | Eleanor Hogan