Wednesday 22 June 2011

Trailblazers: Caroline Chisholm to Quentin Bryce

Trailblazers: Caroline Chisholm to Quentin Bryce by Susanna de Vries (Pirgos Press)
PB RRP $39.95
ISBN 9780980621617
Reviewed by Hazel Edwards

 At a time when gossip-manufactured ‘celebs’ are featured merely for being thin, it’s a relief to read about ‘real’, historic females. ‘Trailblazers’ includes fifteen women from Australia’s past, and a few contemporaries  who achieved significant goals, solved problems for others or tackled challenges as the ‘first’ in their field.

‘Trailblazers’ anthology of chapter biographies includes reasonably well known women such as migration activist Caroline Chisholm, (on the bank note, despite her straitened circumstances late in life) as well as lesser known names. Chisholm’s chapter provided a rounded  insight into her motivations and the financial challenges of balancing family, travel and public life. Politician-parent Dame Enid Lyons also comes across as well organised and compassionate.
However, nursing sister Anne Donnell, pioneer-mother Eliza Hawkins and expeditioner-travel writer  Mary Gaunt were new for me. A resurgence of interest in the unusual oil painting style of Hilda Rix Nicholas  makes her chapter timely.This portrayal  had depth of passion about the challenges Hilda faced in acquiring her skills and an insight into the financial and emotional support of her mother and sister.

Money or lack of it, and husbandly support or lack were significant variables in whether these women could act unconventionally in a society which had strong expectations of female roles. A marketable skill, or at least the charm to convince others to support the project, plus hard work seem to be the common traits.

Filmic interest in translator Madame (Nell) Kerensky has been mentioned, and certainly action-woman (Nell Tritton) was a fast-driver, which was an asset for her Russian ex- Prime Minister husband being sought by assassins . They left the scene fast. But her choice in husbands, especially the non-opera singing , free-loading charmer Husband No. 1 did not indicate shrewd judgement. Her ambition appears to have been to marry a famous man. She married a notorious womaniser, twice.

Several of these women appeared to be in circumstances where interesting things happened, or they travelled because their families paid the bills. The philosophical  dilemma is:  Adventurous risk-taking, ego  or stupidity? This could have been discussed further.

War correspondent Louise Mack worried me.  But maybe that is my bias of wanting admirable traits in historic females. Not just ambitions related to personal fame. Re-entering Antwerp just prior to the German invasion, put others at risk for the sake of Louise Mack filing a story. Is this courage, stupidity or ego?  De Vries extract use of Mack’s diaries was a clever insight into the personality.  De Vries is an experienced historian and especially good at placing her characters in context. The endnotes are well documented and the index works, so this has been a thoughtful study. Interesting photos add to the portrayal of the women’s lives.

I have to admit another bias.  de Vries’ ‘Blue Ribbons and Bitter Bread’ is an earlier  biography about  refugee worker Joice Nankivell Loch which  I’ve recommended a lot. I’m a keen reader of history about significant females motivations and we all need heros.

In ‘Trailblazers’ there are nine chapters, each devoted to a specific woman,  except Chapter 8 tends to bundle all the ‘politicals’ together, but this is also the dilemma of including living and recent  role-changing females. Having the Governor General on the front cover is a statement, especially as she’s called Governor of Queensland in her chapter and the reader gets the impression the latter chapters on Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Quentin Bryce tend to include recent ‘news’ rather than a broader, historical evaluation of their roles. A work in progress is hard to evaluate historically.

I’d recommend  ‘Trailblazers’ but more discussion of the rationale for inclusion would be a bonus. And whether there are any common characteristics?  Or is the subjective elements of what attracted the compiler, a valid  rationale? Was the choice from each major field or from the material available? The section on Quentin Bryce is very personal-author related.  

‘Trailblazers’ is a good resource for those wanting accessible history to inspire younger women ( and men). How about a docu-drama based on ‘Trailblazers’? Maybe there are more ‘anonymous’ females in our history who didn’t have wealthy families nor the time to write diaries of their lives. Heroines without headlines?  But ‘Trailblazers’ is a good start.

Hazel Edwards ( is an Ambassador for the 2012 National Year of Reading and the Victorian Premiers’ Reading Challenge. Author of ‘Writing a Non Boring Family History’ she has also contributed to the Aussie Heroes series with ‘Sir Edward ‘Weary Dunlop’ and ‘Dr Fred Hollows’.

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