Book review: Her Sunburnt Country, Deborah Fitzgerald

A well-considered biography that provides a detailed and informative account of the life of the woman behind Australia's most famous poem.

I love a sunburnt country…’ if you don’t immediately chime in with ‘a land of sweeping plains’, are you even Australian?

As a poem, Dorothea Mackellar’s landmark work written in 1904 defines post colonial Australia in the same way that ‘Waltzing Matilda’ does in song.

But what of its author? We all may have heard of Henry Lawson’s struggles with the demon drink or Banjo Paterson’s reported love triangle, but how much do we know of the rest of the work of Dorothea Mackellar, let alone her life?

Deborah Fitzgerald’s impeccably researched and highly readable biography, Her Sunburnt Country: The Extraordinary Literary Life of Dorothea Mackellar, aims to address this oversight.

Fitzgerald wrote her doctoral thesis on Mackellar and is a journalist and editor, as well as an award-winning poet and author. Her previous book was 2018’s Sophie’s Boys, based on the life story of her friend Sophie Smith, so biography is a natural genre for her.

Thanks to those common Victorian habits – especially employed by literary folk – of keeping copious diaries and almost daily letter writing, Mackellar left a tremendous amount of detail about the ins and outs of her life and career – particularly her regular travels and long-stay visits with friends and family. And, naturally there are her literary pursuits, which were frequently undertaken in partnership with her friend Ruth Bedford – more on her later.

Fitzgerald paints a detailed picture of a highly intelligent woman from a more than affluent background – her father Charles, a surgeon, had a long and distinguished* career in the health sector of the public service. Never having to take regular employment or even succumb to the pressure to marry, Mackellar was free to travel, to write and to live her life as she pleased.

‘My Country’ was written when she was just 19, and suffering from homesickness while visiting the UK. But, as Fitzgerald makes clear, it was followed by a long and respected literary career, although in many ways the poem was the millstone around her neck – the huge success that came to define her and which would never be outstripped in terms of popularity or success.

It didn’t stop her from trying, however. Indeed, her own favourite poem of hers, ‘Colour’ was the one read at her funeral service in 1968.

And so to Mackellar’s unmarried status and romantic life. And it’s here that it’s hard not to be acutely conscious of a biographer’s own inherent bias, when Fitzgerald at times seems to almost tie herself in knots in an attempt to interrogate the supposed secret passions Mackellar harboured for the various menfolk that passed through her life, while relegating to “dearest friend” status the likes of Bedford, with whom Mackellar clearly shared a deep and extremely long-lasting connection. Even Fitzgerald though, who dedicates this biography to her husband and sons, finally allows the strength of this bond with the acknowledgement: ‘aside from her steadfast relationship with Ruth, romance continued to prove elusive for Dorothea’.

Read: Book review: A Brief History of Thought – Unfinished, John Bryson

You can’t help but feel that if the book had been written by someone viewing Mackellar’s life through a queer lens, it may have had a very different approach.

And yet… and yet…  while used to viewing the entire world through a queer lens, this reviewer is acutely aware how someone’s life and friendships may be perceived differently from the outside. How often have I wanted to stress ‘no no, really she is just a very dear and utterly treasured platonic friend’?

The only people who really know the truth of Mackellar’s deep and abiding relationship with Bedford were Dorothea and Ruth. And sadly they are no longer here to reveal all.

* Although of course his enthusiasm for the nascent field of eugenics could be described as regrettable at best.

Her Sunburnt Country: The Extraordinary Literary Life of Dorothea Mackellar by Deborah Fitzgerald
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 9781760855406
Format: Hardback
Pages: 325pp
Release Date: 30 August 2023
RRP: $55

Madeleine Swain is ArtsHub’s managing editor. Originally from England where she trained as an actor, she has over 25 years’ experience as a writer, editor and film reviewer in print, television, radio and online. She is also currently Vice Chair of JOY Media.