By Tim Barlass
There’s a clue in the garden. Seven little conifer trees planted, one much smaller than the others. We are at Woodlands in Killara on the Sydney’s north shore. There’s the original fireplace and stained-glass window details and a magnificent staircase. Perfect tranquillity to inspire a bestseller.
Within these state heritage-listed walls Ethel Turner penned in 1893 what was to become Australia’s most popular and never out of print children’s novel. First the title was Six Pickles, then Seven Pickles before she settled on Seven Little Australians. Before beginning, she wrote in her diary: “I do want Fame - plenty of it.”
On Saturday there was a garden party to celebrate the property’s literary heritage and its refurbishment by new owners Albert Lim from Malaysia and Eva Yao from China to a style that would have been familiar to English-born 23-year-old Ethel embarking on her inaugural novel.
When Mr Lim and Ms Yao purchased the property at auction in 2017 they had never heard of Ms Turner or her seven little Australians.
Mr Lim, who owns an engineering company, said he and his wife fell in love with the character of the house. “Other countries treasure authors like William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Victor Hugo and bring them out but for us we have largely kept Ethel Turner hidden yet she has been in print over 100 years,” he said. “Since we are now the custodians of this house we want to bring her into the public eye.”
Ms Yao, with three-year-old daughter Eliza on her knee, said: “I have watched the video and the TV series which is easier than reading because my first language isn’t English.” She said Eliza was a bit young for Seven Little Australians and liked to watch Peppa Pig and PJ Masks cartoons instead.
Literary historian Susannah Fullerton launched the Friends of Ethel Turner, which aims to raise the profile of the home and author who was a pupil at Sydney Girls’ High School.
“Today we celebrate this wonderful novel at the very place in which it was written,” she said. “It is so exciting to explore the lovely front rooms of this house, to see them looking so much as Ethel would have known them.”
Ahead of its time Seven Little Australians was, unusually, about naughty children not good ones. The fictitious house where they lived was called Misrule, where tranquillity was hard to find.
The novel includes contemporary tips for any young mother (the seven children were in the care, just about, of 20-year-old step mother Esther). There’s wisdom on the fashion for the tight lacing of corsets, the evils of drink, the disciplining of children, and the very unequal education for boys and girls (Pip went to a grammar school while his sisters endured an inferior governess).
The original manuscript is held at the Mitchell Library. It is hand written, there are inky crossings out and a few chapters are written in a cheap yellow exercise book with a map of New Zealand on the back.
William Steele manager for publishers Ward, Locke & Bowden Ltd (London, New York and Melbourne) wrote in November 1893 from his Little Collins Street office that he considered the manuscript a “bright juvenile tale of considerable merit”.
“Your name at present being unknown as a juvenile writer, I could not entertain paying the sum you name,” he wrote to Turner. He offered £10 on publication for the copyright and royalty of one penny on copies sold under a cover price of two shillings.
Whatever the final small print on the contract, things gathered a momentum of their own. In August 1985 Steele wrote: “You will be glad to hear that the demand for Seven Little Australians is keeping up well. We have loaded 500 by the Orotrava (steam ship of the Orient Line). I have 1200 more to come in short periods.”
He began the letter: “Do you think it would be advisable to present a copy of Seven Little Australians to Mark Twain when he arrives in Sydney? He might be disposed to say a good word of the Seven, which would be of value if reported into American newspapers.”
Ethel Turner went on to write another 40 books and achieved fame. And plenty of it.
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