On Wednesday 12 October historian Kay Saunders gave a talk on her latest book, Notorious Australian Women, at the University of Queensland; I was in the capacity audience that was treated to a fascinating account of the subjects of the book, and how the book came to be written.
Fact is often stranger than fiction, and the stories of the twenty women are classic examples of this. Their stories are sometimes sad, often adventurous, and sometimes downright bizarre.
Among the twenty colourful characters described in the book are several Queenslanders, or at least women who lived here at some point: specifically, Eliza Fraser the castaway, Florence Broadhurst, Pamela Travers of Mary Poppins fame, and Lillian Roxon. The legend of Eliza Frazer is well known; after she was rescued from the Aborigines with whom she had been living after the shipwreck of her husband’s ship, the Stirling Castle, she told lurid tales of her dreadful ordeal. This story changed over time, and the facts became a little blurred. In 1838 John Curtis’s graphic account of these events, Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle, was published in London by George Virtue in 1838; its full title, Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle, containing a faithful narrative of the dreadful sufferings of the crew, and the cruel murder of Captain Fraser by the savages, indicates the dire nature of this saga.
As for the other Queenslanders, they are fascinating people in their own right. Florence Broadhurst was born near Mt Perry, and though she did declare this fact in the marriage notice that appeared in The Times in 1929, she never mentioned the inconvenient fact that her father was a stockman turned publican. She had already discovered the heady delights of show biz, back home in Queensland, and she subsequently reinvented herself, as Bobby Broadhurst. She was to make a habit of reinventing herself, in fact. Her life, in its final incarnation, came to an end with her brutal murder in 1977.
Pamela Lyndon Travers was born Helen Lyndon Goff in Maryborough in 1899, the daughter of a failed Irish bank manager named Travers Lyndon Goff. She was happy to leave Maryborough, which she did in 1907 when her father died. Her literary career, which began in New South Wales when she was in her teens, came to fruition with the publication of Mary Poppins in 1934. She was unhappy with the circumstances of her life in Australia, and created a more satisfactory background for herself in later life. Fantasy became a prominent theme in her life, and not just on the pages of her books.
Lillian Roxon deserves to be better known than she is. She was only 41 when she died in 1973. She was born Liliana Ropschitz in Italy in 1932; in 1939, her Jewish family migrated to Australia, and they moved to Brisbane. They changed their surname from Ropschnitz to Roxon, and she became Lillian Roxon. She grew up here and then moved to Sydney, where she attended Sydney University , graduating in 1955. She became a journalist, and in 1959 moved to New York , where she was based for the rest of her life; in fact, she became the very first Australian female foreign correspondent. From there, she became a rock journalist, being intimately involved in the rock music scene in New York. The result of this experience was a groundbreaking publication, Lillian Roxon’s Rock encyclopedia, which was published in 1969 and was the very first in-depth book on rock musicians and the rock scene. Her life was relatively short, but very full.
All of these women lived unorthodox lives at some point, unintentionally in the case of Eliza Fraser and very much intentionally in the case of the others. Women were supposed to live lives that were conventional, respectable, and safely within the narrow confines deemed suitable for women. The subjects of Kay’s book definitely did not do so, for whatever reason. They all lived life far removed from the norm, the socially acceptable. This is a fascinating book, full of colourful characters whose stories are vividly brought to life. The John Oxley Library has copies of John Curtis’s book, Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle, and several other items inspired by the legend of Eliza Fraser. It also has a copy of the 1934 edition of Mary Poppins, not to mention several other titles by P L Travers.
Librarian, Queensland Memory – State Library of Queensland