Book review: Bee Miles, Rose Ellis

Bee Miles was punished for daring to defy conventional expectations of female behaviour.
Bee Miles. Image is an author shot of a woman with short red hair, glasses and a tan jacket. On the right is a book cover in blue with large yellow lettering and the small figure of a woman.

A frustrated writer, an institutionalised woman, an eccentric and at once a notorious and captivating figure of 20th century Australia, Bee Miles is fascinatingly detailed in Rose Ellis’ meticulously researched biography.

Born into an affluent Sydney family, Bee Miles grew up in a milieu of rationalism. Her father taught her to distrust authority, which may have backfired as Miles did not trust his own. She wrote poetry about her commitment to atheism and got in trouble at school in the 1920s for her views on conscription and Australia’s defeat at Gallipoli.

In her late teens, Miles became sick with a condition known as encephalitis lethargica, obscure today but epidemic at the time. She was cleared to study at university, but soon after forged a life in and out of psychiatric facilities and prison. She would jump on and off moving trams, hitchhike rides around the country, and get into scuffles with taxi drivers. She was supported on a tiny allowance upon her father’s death (much less than her siblings got in the will), and money she could make via gambling and Shakespeare recitals. She was homeless, though never without books, throughout most of her adult life.

The story of Bee Miles is also a cultural history that traces attitudes towards women, mental health and the ways we define “acceptable behaviour”. Miles was a woman who was bashed by her father for not pointing his mug handle at the correct angle towards him, a woman who was ordered to pay a fine for poking her tongue out at a lorry driver, a woman who sued her father for beating her and who was, in turn, sued by him for insulting him and being annoying, a woman declared “insane” for tram fare evasion and having a messy bedroom. Ellis crafts a picture of Miles that is vivid and resilient, strikingly joyful –  a woman who can’t help being herself amid the condemnation of her family, doctors and judges.

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From her depth of research into her protagonist’s life, Ellis questions the reasoning of those that would detain her. Twentieth century psychiatry blamed Miles for her inability to capitulate to social standards and “parental control”, diagnosing her with “congenital moral defect”. Meanwhile, the myth that circulated in the press was that Miles over-studied herself to madness. Ellis points to the issues of a repressive society, a difficult father and her encephalitis (which can result in long-term impulsivity) as more likely causes. This results in a deeper, more nuanced account that embraces Miles for the person she was.

Bee Miles, Rose Ellis
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 9781761069130

Pages: 336pp
Publication Date: 29 August 2023
RRP: $34.99

Erin Stewart is a Canberra-based freelance writer and researcher.