Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Seven Little Australians, by Ethel Turner

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Seven Little Australians certainly deserves its crown as an Australian classic. Ethel Turner brilliantly brings to life the adventures and fun of childhood, and warns how tragedy silently stalks amongst us.

On a customer’s recommendation I recently decided to read Ethel Turner’s classic Seven Little Australians. I’ve always loved the title – so simple and cheerful – but somehow never got around to giving it a go. It appears all I needed was a little nudge. Ethel Turner (1870-1958) published this first novel in 1894, when she was 24 years of age. In her 1893 diary, a year before publication, she confided that she wanted fame, and ‘plenty of it’. Her wish came true. Seven Little Australians was an international smash and is still much loved today, a hundred years on.

The novel relates the impish adventures of the seven Woolcot children. There’s the romantically inclined and eldest Meg (16), next in line is Pip, the eldest boy (14), then the brilliantly inventive Judy (13). The youngest of the brood are Nell (10), Bunty (6), Baby (4) and the baby of the family, The General.

Captain Woolcot is the distant and authoritarian father, who has recently remarried upon the death of his first wife. Twenty year old Esther is the new Mrs Woolcot (the text describes her as a child-bride), who is mother to the General. She is stepmother to all the other Woolcot children.

There is much humour in the passages that describe the children’s adventures and individual personalities. You often find yourself marvelling at the young Ethel Turner’s skill and aplomb at describing young Australian life at the turn of the century. Yet there is a strange, clinical coldness in the father. It’s made clear in the text that the children are somewhat too noisy and burdensome to him, and that he prefers his family to be run like a military barracks. While these attitudes are handled with a dose of humour, you’re left
wondering why the Captain is so remote from his children. Transgressors of his rules get very stiff punishment indeed. Alarmingly for modern readers, six year old Bunty is victim to plenty of beatings. In some ways this absentee father, who spends most of the novel ‘off stage’, seems to highlight the creativity and adventure that is possible when individuals evade authority.

Does Seven Little Australians have some deep, subconcious feminist point to make? Male authority and a lack of empathy with children in this Australian classic ends up creating, albeit indirectly, the conditions for a terrible tragedy. If only the Captain had truly loved and cherished his children, then the novel would have had a happier ending.

Surely the simple message of this book must be: love the children in your life, for they are precious and need guidance and care.

Seven Little Australians, by Ethel Turner. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9781742530857  RRP: $9.95