Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 14, 2012

The Complete Book of Heroic Australian Women (2010), by Susanna de Vries

Don’t you hate it when a publisher re-publishes a book with a different title so that you unwittingly buy the same book twice?  That’s what happened to me with Great Pioneer Women of the Outback which I bought when it was released in 2005.  It was then rebadged in 2010 as The Complete Book of Heroic Australian Women, which is a compilation of Great Pioneer Women and another previously published book called Heroic Australian Women In War.  But there’s nothing about this Complete Book being a compilation on the Harper Collins website nor on the cover of the book – this IMO rather important information is tucked away on the verso page.  I didn’t discover it until I’d finished the book and then scoured the TBR for the ‘other’ book about pioneer Aussie women that I knew had somewhere.  I was not best pleased to discover then that I’d already just read it!

I wouldn’t have minded so much if I’d enjoyed the book.  It took me ages to read it, plodding dutifully through it over breakfast for what seemed like forever.  It felt like a book that had been commissioned for the school market to redress a gender imbalance rather than a book written from the heart.  I bet that great slabs of it feature in earnest essays about ‘The Role of Women in Early Settlement’, and ‘The Role of Women in War’.

The first half of the book is about 10 Australian pioneer women, whose stories are known from their letters, journals and books.  Georgiana Molloy, Fanny Bussell and Jeannie a.k.a. Mrs Aeneas Gunn, and more.  The story of Georgiana Molloy was quite interesting – but that might have been because she was first in the book.   Tough as it undoubtedly was for these women, there’s a limit to how much you want to read about tedious journeys over appalling roads, outback isolation, cursed weather, primitive facilities and 19th century childbirth or premature death.

(And if this book is used as a resource in schools, I hope that teachers also give due consideration to the challenges faced by lower-class urban women, not to mention the dreadful suffering of Aboriginal women dispossessed by these pioneers.)

The second part of the book is better.  It’s about women who went away to war, beginning with Olive Kelso King in WW1 and concluding with the largely unknown Mavis Parkinson and Sister Francis May Hayman who were slaughtered by the Japanese in Papua New Guinea.

De Vries makes a convincing case that these women were heroic because they left safe, comfortable homes to serve others at great personal risk.  These women refused to conform to gender expectations and battled bureaucracy and discrimination in order to save lives.   Olive Kelso, Dr Agnes Elizabeth Lloyd Bennett, Dr Lilian Violet Cooper, and Sister Alice Elizabeth Kitchen all deserve to be better known, (though perhaps not in quite so much detail.  This book could have done with considerable pruning.)

Oh well…

Author: Susanna de Vries
Title: The Complete Book of Heroic Australian Women
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2010
ISBN: 9780732290061
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books $35.00

Fishpond: The Complete Book of Heroic Australian Women


  1. Looking at title & description, sounds something which interests me but it sounds hard to get through!! Well done on persevering!

    And yes, how annoying is it- why would you published under different titles?!


    • Hello, Tien, welcome to ANZ LitLovers:)
      That’s exactly what I thought – I was expecting it to be really interesting! I think that sometimes historians know so much about their subject that they get a bit carried away with the detail at the expense of creating an engaging text.


  2. What a shame it is that this book didn’t hold your interest. I had meant to read the pioneer women book by Devries for a long time but kept on forgetting about it, mainly because I don’t read much non fiction.


    • Skip the pioneers, and go straight to the war heroes, Marg!


  3. I can understand your sentiments, it’s like paying for the same thing twice. There may be some consolation, though judging from your review, though not much. lol!


  4. Interesting to read these comments as I was so disappointed when I read the book. I wonder how the chapter on Georgiana Molloy has been judged suitable for publication twice now when it includes so many statements that are incorrect. Even a cursory glance at another biography or two minutes on the Internet would have shown the author and the editor that G was NOT the eldest daughter and her mother’s name was Elizabeth, NOT Mary. Her father died from a fall riding home one night NOT in a hunting accident. And that’s just the first page… Not sure this much ‘poetic license’ is appropriate in a historical biography.


    • Hello Bernice, and welcome! I’m intrigued to learn that this book isn’t even factually correct … that makes it even more disappointing. I did have a look around for other reviews (which I’ve been remiss not to have linked to, but can’t be bothered to rectify now) and I don’t remember any of those reviewers querying the accuracy of the research, but of course, they wouldn’t if (like me) they were general reviewers rather than historians with genuine expertise in the field.

      They were nearly all enthusiastic about the concept – how could they not be, I suppose? Women get so little space in history books about early settlement and not much more in war literature, of course we all want to see their contribution acknowledged. But still, as general readers, we want it to be interesting, not just repetitions of more-or-less the same experiences which was what I found at fault; we want it fair (paying due respect to the voiceless dispossessed which probably involves more authorial scepticism about what these women had to say about the indigenous people); and as you say, we want it to be accurate.

      Well, next time I’m at the History Teachers Conference, I shall make some enquiries to see if my hunch about it being used as a student resource is right!


  5. I agree and I thought the same thing – a potential resource for teachers and students and that makes it even more important to provide accurate content. I’m in education too and a writer and passionate about history – have spent the last six years researching the early settlers here in WA, particularly Georgiana Molloy, hence my extreme disappointment in that chapter. There are still few really good books that raise the profile of women in history, and not many resources that help teachers to show students how truly exciting history really is. Writers can help so much. :)


    • It sounds as if you might be in a position to write a more accurate, more engaging book, Bernice!


  6. I haven’t read the book but I’m not surprised at the comments. My motto is ‘beware the book with hero in the title’. These books tend to lack the healthy critical inquiry that all authors should maintain when doing the research. I actually think that they do the subjects a disservice as they tend to portray them as two dimensional perfect beings, not the wonderfully contradictory & imperfect characters that people generally are.

    I’m also thoroughly unimpressed with this publisher. All they seem to care about is churning out bestsellers without having the readers’ (and ultimately the authors’) interests at heart. It will take a lot of convincing to buy their books again.


    • Interesting what you say about distrusting the publisher: just last week I did an online survey about books and publishing, and this very question was asked. I do think publishers need to consider this because trust once lost is hard to get back again.


  7. […] was a significant botanist in the years of early settlement, but I first encountered her in The Complete Book of Heroic Australian Women by Susanna De Vries, an unimpressive book which harped on the drudgery of pioneer life for women and failed to make […]


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