Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 3, 2023

An Australian Girl in London (1902) by Louise Mack

Written as a series of letters to friends and family at home, An Australian Girl in London by Louise Mack (1870-1935) is a semi-autobiographical novel tracing a journey of self-discovery as the protagonist makes her way from Australia to London at the beginning of the 20th century. Though the novel was first published in 1902, it has been reissued by Grattan Street Press in its Colonial Fiction series #MinorTechnicality even though Australia had federated its colonies in 1901.

This is the blurb:

An Australian Girl in London, first published in 1902, is an endearing look at the journey of self-discovery that many young women of means made to the heart of Empire around the time of Federation. Its author, Louise Mack, a friend and rival of Ethel Turner, captures the experience of a provincial young woman immersing herself in the epic metropolis of London – its hard urban edges, and the challenges it poses for colonial talent, but also its rich history and culture.

Sylvia Leighton embarks on an increasingly familiar narrative in turn-of-the-century Australian fiction, travelling to England to establish herself in a country she has long dreamed of visiting. Fellow Australian Emmie Jones joins her, and the two girls share a boarding house and a very close bond.

So, it’s a travel book, of sorts, written over 120 years ago. The world has changed immeasurably since then. London was the centre of a vast global empire at that time, and Britain was the most powerful nation in the world.  Australians, who were mostly then of Anglo-Irish extraction, travelled on British passports and had a connection to Britain that few in multicultural 21st century Australia would feel today.   Travellers had no option but to travel by ship, a journey which took weeks, and without the wealth of communication options available to us today, information exchanges between the two countries consisted of print: letters, newspapers and books.  (Books being a mostly one-way traffic from Britain because the publishing industry in Australia had barely got started.)

Yet the An Australian Girl in London is not just an obscure period piece of interest only to scholars. What Mack captures so well is still valid today: the sense of anticipation about leaving Australia which is still a very long way from anywhere; the sense of wonder at the first encounter with places seen before only at second-hand; and finally, the sense of disillusionment when dreams of elsewhere collapse against reality.

Sylvia Leighton’s enlightenment consists of expanding her horizons from newly federated Australia to realising her dreams of encountering sophistication and culture in London, and her gradual realisation when she forms the conflicting view that she has been sucked into the realm of hero-worship of England and actually there is much about Australia that is better than ‘the motherland.’  The style is lively, conversational and descriptive — and often lyrical when describing Australia.  There’s not much in the way of analysis although she interrogates her own feelings, emerging from enthusiastic naïveté to a more detached observation of what she sees.

In London at last, she is surprised to find that it’s not the dreaded city of fogs that she was expecting, and that it is clean and neat and (in May) green everywhere.  She is ecstatic at first, delighting in not getting lost, encountering nice policemen, and savouring the democratic values inherent in a statue of a sailor i.e. Nelson’s Column.  She likes the cheap shopping, and she loves being in the city of poets where she can see the Elgin Marbles and paintings by Turner.  But — suddenly yearning for the wide open spaces of her homeland and the distance in the vistas that we see here — she wishes that Turner could have been an Australian:

Now I will tell you a great big secret.  No one knows it except me and Turner.  As he is dead — God bless his memory! — it falls to me to divulge it.  And so:

Turner ought to have been born an Australian.  The same Turner, same brain, same eye, same hand, same soul, but with Australia to mother him. In his pictures I see his craving for great distances.  And there he would have satisfied himself.

Turner in the Blue Mountains looking away up the Kanimbla Valley one winter sunset!  (p.80)

Like others of her era, Sylvia is careful to avoid writing anything that could be construed as disreputable.  There is no shipboard romance and no overindulgence in champagne.  What she sees and does is in the company of her shipboard companion Jean or with her boarding-house friend Emmie.  Most of her letters are to family or ‘everybody’ but there is one written to Peggie, particularly addressed to her…

First, because it is all about a romantic adventure. Second, because you’ve never had one, my poor old romancing Peg. (p.32)

But as it turns out, Peggie is the sole recipient of this letter because it would alarm the family to learn that the pair had got lost in Naples, missed their steamer’s departure, and had to undertake a dash by train in order to reconnect with it in Marseilles.  They are cheated, and (allowing a little for melodrama) almost abducted, and rescued only just in time by a genial English gentleman called Gerald Huntley.  (Yes, as we learn in the last letter addressed only to her darling mother, he is a love interest, but mercifully there’s not much of that.)

In marked contrast to the upbeat letters sent to ‘Everybody’, a letter sent just to Kit is about a bad case of homesickness.  She is nostalgic for her sea voyage, and she is tired of unimpressive English men.  By October she thinks that there is nothing very funny over this side of the world.

Everyone goes several degrees softlier, sadlier, than we do.  They don’t laugh as quickly, talk as easily, or feel the pulse of the world as keenly. (p.98)

However, the Introduction by Sarah Pope picks up on something I had not noticed. As the letters progress, Sylvia signs off in different ways:

  • Sylvia Leighton, London (before she has even embarked on the ship);
  • Nearly Melted Sylvia (when at sea in the Middle East);
  • Sylvia;
  • Sylvia? (after the escapade in Italy);
  • The Great Traveller (on her arrival in London);
  • a simple ‘Au revoir’;
  • a melancholy farewell, from this your purling stream of silver (to Kit when she is homesick);
  • Sylvia (four letters in a row);
  • Silver (at the end of the chapter about music and concerts);
  • Back to Sylvia (after the chapter about Emmie’s broken heart);
  • Your sun-struck Silver, after a rhapsodic chapter about the lights of a London Winter;
  • Your living Silver (after her conclusion that going back from London means leaving Europe too: go back to Australia and the whole world vanishes like a dream); 
  • Sylvia (by now certain that she would rather live in London than anywhere else); and finally in the letter to her mother about her engagement to Gerald…
  • I’m just your little, littlest Silver.

Pope interprets this as Sylvia becoming the smallest version of herself.  

The Australian girl performs the requirements of romantic narrative in a post-Federation Australia, drawing on her New World charm to revive a tired, antiquated British Empire. However, in order to fulfil her promise of marriage, Sylvia must compromise her strength and her stature, becoming doubly inferior as both the ‘littlest’ and ‘Silver.’

Well, that is certainly not what happened to the author Louise Mack, who went on to become a war correspondent in Belgium in WW1! To read more about this extraordinary woman’s life, see

Author: Louise Mack
Title: An Australian Girl in London
Introduction by Sarah Pope, PhD candidate at UNSW
Cover art: Cremorne (1895) by Arthur Streeton
Publisher: Grattan Street Press, 2018
ISBN: 9780987625342, pbk., 187 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Grattan Street Press, Melbourne.$24.95

 


Responses

  1. An interesting story. I’m glad she wrote so autobiographically as we are now able to follow her journey from Sydney Girls High (Teens, Girls Together) through to adulthood. I’ve added this to my Australian Women Writers Gen 2 page.

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    • *chuckle* I’m not doing the correct generation, am I?!

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  2. Thanks Lisa for the link. I’d like to read this too. I enjoyed Girls together but it was published a little earlier than this and is more girlish!

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    • Yeah, I’m not interested in what I see of her other books, romance is just not my thing.

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      • But Girls together is not really romance. For me, it’s the insights these writers offer into their times. I don’t like older books that are melodramatic, moralistic, etc but Mack is more thoughtful than that. It’s more that I’d like to read books by her with older protagonists.

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  3. I’d be really interested to read this for a visitor’s view of London over a century ago. Louise Mack does sound extraordinary!

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  4. I’d like to read this one too. I hope Grattan Street Press publish more for this series.

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    • As I understand it, publishing these and other books is part of their writing and editing course, whatever they call it…
      So I think it depends on having students who are interested in colonial fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh, this sounds wonderful! I can see I can get it for a certain amount on Kindle so will add it to the list. I’m always fascinated by such books.

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    • Yes, it’s fascinating to see authors recording their first experiences of travel. I’m currently reading Simon Mawer’s Prague Spring which features a couple of Young Things hitch-hiking into catastrophe during the Czech Spring of 1968. When I read the descriptions of the wide-eyed young man revelling in the experience, I am sure it is Mawer revisiting his own youthful travels.

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