Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 15, 2021

Sincerely, Ethel Malley (2021), by Stephen Orr

Sincerely, Ethel Malley is Stephen Orr’s tenth novel and I’ve read and reviewed all but one of the others, so I can confidently say that this is the best one he’s ever written.  It works on so many levels: it’s a great story in its own right; and it has wonderful characters used to explore enduring themes like courage, fortitude and integrity as well as loyalty and trust within friendships and family.  The transformation of the central character and narrator is both entirely credible and wondrous.  But then there are questions which emerge from the book as a whole: what is truth and and who gets to tell it? who protects the individual against the power of the press?  what is lost when it is so difficult to do anything worthwhile in a conservative milieu? why is tradition so mercilessly hostile to modernity?  how and why does a culture drift into mediocrity? and anyway, what are the arts and why do they matter ?

This remarkable novel is a fictionalisation of the notorious Ern Malley literary hoax.  Although it’s not at all necessary for enjoying the novel, for those not familiar with the hoax, it’s well worth reading up on this at Wikipedia because it’s a significant element of Australia’s literary history which influenced the trajectory of modernist poetry in Australia.

Briefly, what happened was this: in 1943, two conservative Sydney poets, James Macauley and Harold Stewart,  rivals of the precocious Max Harris and not best pleased about the success of his modernist literary magazine in South Australia, cobbled together some random texts and submitted it for publication as modernist poetry. Harris fell for the hoax and in 1944 published the poems in a special edition of the magazine, with a Sidney Nolan cover and a brief bio of the poet: ‘Ern Malley’ who had died young, leaving the poetry to be discovered amongst his effects by his sister Ethel.  The hoax was subsequently revealed and Max Harris was tried and convicted for publishing poems that were ‘obscene’.  Angry Penguins folded in 1946, but by the 1970s those same poems were regarded as good examples of surrealism, and in what I can’t resist calling ‘poetic justice’ today they are read more often than anything written by Macauley or Stewart.

(The excerpts from the poems that are quoted in the novel show just how this could indeed be so.)

Set in 1943-44, Sincerely, Ethel Malley tells Ethel’s story, and she is a brilliant creation.  From her bemused discovery of the poems to her naïve uncertainty about what to do with them and her subsequent contact with Max Harris via a local ‘expert’, she becomes a warrior on behalf of her brother when the storm about authenticity of the poems erupts.  When the newspapers get hold of the story, it becomes the talk of the town in sleepy wartime Adelaide.  Denying the existence of Ern soon becomes a case of denying her existence too, and ever the loyal sister, she sets about demolishing the doubts.

Max Harris’s girlfriend Von is jealous of Ethel, because Ethel has something Von can’t compete with.  Ethel is a salt-of-the-earth, uneducated woman who—like her brother Ern—is of the sort routinely denied the chance to reach her potential by poverty, family tragedy, and an education system that in those days petered out early for people of her class.  But the way she so quickly grasps what modernism is about, eclipses Von’s understanding of Max’s ambitions.  Ethel can extrapolate from her growing understanding of modernism to discuss not only poetry, but also modernist art by Willian Dobell and drama such as James Joyce’s Exiles, and Max enjoys conversation with her.  Stephen Orr is a teacher, and he knows the way that the most unexceptional student can blossom given the right teaching at the right time.  That’s what Max, for all his flaws (and his doubts) does for Ethel.  Her remarkable intelligence blooms.

I walked up the hill, in the back door of the art gallery, past the Impressionists, Conder, Streeton, and all the others who were happy painting Australia as it looked.  Anyone could do that.   But how it didn’t look? I shouldn’t have ever doubted Mr Nolan.  Now, I knew, we needed him and his Malley-like landscapes. I wondered if he’d suffered the same outrages. (p.222)

But good as it is, Sincerely, Ethel Malley is not just an entertaining historical novel and a literary hoax.  It is also a novel of our time.  When Ethel and Max encounter Rus Nielsen at Speakers’ Corner, Orr uses it to raise the issue of toxic populism:

[Max} returned to Nielsen and said, ‘Rus, it seems you’ve already made your mind up.  You hate people who love culture because you don’t understand it yourself.  And instead of trying to (these things, like anything worthwhile, take some effort) you find it easier to destroy the people involved, to laugh at them, to call into question their motivations. And like Hitler, you agitate people into a frenzy, telling them it’s okay to hate what they’ve always hated, because it’s somehow different, and we can’t tolerate difference, can we, Rus?’

Max, my hero, again. ‘Ethel, there’s no use buying into it, this idiot knows what he’s doing.  If you people choose to go along with it, so be it.  You’ll get the society you want, but in the end, might not like it.’

‘So that’s my fault?’ Rus said.  ‘A little bit arrogant, wouldn’t you say?’

‘See, tactic number one.  Identify the enemy and characterise as a moral danger.’

‘Now you sound ridiculous’.

‘Use of emotive language.  Short, simple words.’

‘What, you writing an essay about me, Max?’

‘Reduce everything to imperatives.  Black and white.  Are you with us or against us?  No complexity in any argument.  That’s another thing Hitler does.’ (p.218)

And of course you can substitute the name of a former American president and see what Stephen Orr is getting at.

I loved the way this novel played with its core mystery: what, and who is real in this story?  Sincerely, Ethel Malley is going to be one of my Best Books of the Year, and it’s destined for shortlists everywhere, I am sure of it.

To learn more about Sincerely, Ethel Malley, you can Join Miles Franklin longlisted novelist Stephen Orr and critic Simon Caterson, author of Hoax Nation, to talk literary hoaxes and all things Ern next Thursday April 22nd.  The event is hosted by Readings.  Book here.

Update 22/4/21 What a pleasure it was to hear what Stephen and Simon had to say.  Jo Case was an excellent host, contributing thoughtful conversation starters (and clearly very familiar with the book because she edited it!)  I think I’m about to add to my TBR with the book that Simon wrote, because of the discussion about the three types of hoaxes:

  • Impostors: writers who claim to be from a different culture, pretending to have an identity that’s not their own.  Norma Khouri is an example of this, cashing in on interest in ‘honour killings’;
  • Trojan Horses: stories that purport to be ‘just a story’ but carry a subliminal message.  Go Ask Alice is an example of this.  Authored by ‘anonymous’ it claims to be the edited diary of a teenager, but it’s really a didactic novel about the evils of drug-taking;
  • Time Bombs: hoaxes that are set up to be revealed in the course of time, with the aim of exposing gatekeepers such as critics and publishers as flawed.  Apart from the Ern Malley hoax, there is also the famous example of hoaxers sending a chapter of Patrick’s White The Eye of the Storm to publishers, who rejected the Nobel Prize winner’s manuscript.

It was interesting to see that Stephen has a more tolerant view of such hoaxes, whereas Simon admitted to being more censorious, but both agreed that it’s different if the intention to deceive is not intended to hurt.  FWIW I think that what Macauley and Stewart did was spiteful and cruel.

I might also be chasing up a copy of Michael Heyward’s The Ern Malley Affair…

Image credit: The Ern Malley edition of Angry Penguins. Featured on the cover is a Sidney Nolan painting inspired by lines from Ern Malley’s poem Petit Testament, which are printed on the cover, bottom right: “I said to my love (who is living) / Dear we shall never be that verb / Perched on the sole Arabian Tree / (Here the peacock blinks the eyes of his multipennate tail)”. The painting is now held at the Heide Museum of Modern Art. Public Domain,

Author: Stephen Orr
Title: Sincerely, Ethel Malley
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2021
Cover design by Liz Nicholson
ISBN: 9781743058084, pbk., 441 pages
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.



  1. Good stuff Lisa Having published Malley for 30 years, we all appreciate it. I’ve just published new editions of GREAT AUSTRALIAN LONELINESS, absolutely new upgraded edition of SECRET OF HANGING ROCK, new edition of THE LITTLE BLACK PRINCESS naming Bett-Bett properly, with the original pix Let me know if you would like copies, very happy to send them to you Interesting howq we publish SHAPEST – 2 volumes bio on Martin Sharp , and the exact investigation by Sharp is not noted by ABC, in any way. But then – actual books are not a story – media just loves reinvigoration

    My best




    • Hello Tom, I’m pleased you like this.
      Actually, I did think as I came across the quotations in the book — who owns the copyright on poetry written by an imaginary man? The publisher credits them to the Estate of Max Harris (presumably because he was the publisher) and not to Macauley and Stewart (presumably, ha ha! because they didn’t want to lay claim to them!)
      PS I’ll take a rain check on any more books at the moment, I am drowning in books for review right now and while it’s a nice problem to have, there are limits to my storage space.


  2. This sounds wonderful Lisa! Did Peter Carey reference the Ern Malley case in a novel? It seems very familiar to me…


    • Yes, you’re right, that was Carey’s My Life as a Fake. (2003). *blush* I haven’t read it, though it’s been on my shelves ever since then.
      Now I’ll have to leave it even longer because even though it’s apparently entirely different, I can’t possibly read it straight after Orr’s version.


  3. I’ve not heard of that hoax so the background info is helpful. The cover art is striking isn’t it?


    • Indeed it is, and the naked lady is probably what drew police attention to it. Australia was incredibly prudish in those days, and Adelaide was known as The City of Churches. The censorship regime was stifling — if you have time, take a look at my review of The Censor’s Library to see how pervasive it was, writers couldn’t even mention birth control. (


  4. I discover Stephen Orr and I read only one novel, Dissonance and I like it, Thanks Lisa


    • You’re welcome. I hope you enjoy this one too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • yYpu’re welcome Lisa, i will read it after i finish my “books that waiting for me, i ‘m french, but i read in english …Thank you again


        • It’s the best way to learn a language… my French isn’t great, but I read in French to improve it:)

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I will request this right away Lisa. So timely. I still miss the wonderful Max Harris and have some correspondence from him when he so generously responded to one of my letters.


    • OH wow, how wonderful to have them!
      There is blurb from his daughter Samela on the cover of the book: she loves it because it presents him in a whole new light.


  6. Dear Lady,
    Sneers are cheap but do keep in mind that just perhaps many of your discriminating readers may just think of Macaulay and Stewart as major poets, particularly the latter, and that their emphasis on the sacred and on the paramount value of clarity is the true avant-garde


    • You may be right, Davenhill, but the fact remains that they are remembered for going to a great deal of trouble to perpetrate a cruel hoax on a young poet, just because they disagreed with him.


  7. I got a copy of this sent to me so haven’t read your review. The Ern Malley affair is referenced in so much stuff (Peter Carey, Joanna Murray Smith, Elliot Perlman and wasn’t Richard Flanagan’s last book about a similar kind of hoax?) that I wonder what is left to say about it?


    • Flanagan’s one was a riff on the John Friedrich fraud while an executive with the National Safety Council… but I didn’t know that Joanne Murray Smith had written about it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I stand corrected. I knew it was about some kind of fraud… it’s the only novel of his I haven’t read. I must rectify that.

        The Joanne Murray Smith was the play “Angry Young Penguins” I’m not sure why it sticks in my mind. I must have read about it in relation to the Ern Malley affair, which I read a lot about when I read Carey’s book many years ago. I’m always intrigued by people who fake things…


        • I am too… and what I didn’t know until I poked around a bit, was how destructive this whole affair was.
          It not only destroyed a magazine, which was probably running on a shoestring as most of them do, with not very many subscribers because ours is such a small market. It could very easily have destroyed Max Harris as well, though with the support of progressive people in the arts he was able to recover and go on to do great things.
          But according to Wikipedia the hoax also inhibited experiments with modernism in poetry, and whether you like it or not (and I mostly don’t) it was an international movement of significance.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. The many and various reviews of Orr’s The Hands put me off him and I’ve never looked for or come across any of his other work. This one being a re-writing of an important event in Oz Lit I’ll probably skip as well.
    On another matter – I’ve been intending to re-read and review The Great Australian Loneliness for ages, but I already own at least two copies.


    • Well here we must part company. I think Stephen Orr is one of Australia’s finest writers.


  9. Oh my, this does indeed sound like a wonderful read and – perhaps – a very important book. I will seek it out. Great review, as always.


    • There are features that you as a writer will especially appreciate. The way it is structured, the shifts in characterisation, the sense of Adelaide as a setting long before Don Dunstan turned up and transformed it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Now I’m even more keen. I just did a search but it is not coming up in the Kindle store – my only option these days. Maybe it is just too soon.


  10. I have this for review too, so will come back in a few months when I’ve got to it!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. […] Sincerely, Ethel Malley, by Stephen Orr […]


  12. […] Lisa (ANZLitLovers) loved this book and covered its essence very well. […]


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