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Bjelke-Petersen, Marie Caroline (1874–1969)

by Margaret Weidenhofer

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Marie Caroline Bjelke-Petersen (1874-1969), by May Moore, 1927

Marie Caroline Bjelke-Petersen (1874-1969), by May Moore, 1927

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an3084968

Marie Caroline Bjelke-Petersen (1874-1969), novelist, was born on 23 December 1874 at Jagtvejen near Copenhagen, only daughter of Georg Peter Bjelke-Petersen, gardener and later master builder, and his wife Caroline Vilhelmine, née Hansen. Marie attended schools in Denmark, Germany and London. When very young she was taken on long walks by her father, who had spartan ideals and instructed his children in subjects ranging from the Bible to Greek mythology and gymnastics. The family migrated to Tasmania in the Doric, arriving in Hobart on 13 October 1891, and settled at New Town. Next year Marie's brother Hans established the Bjelke-Petersen Physical Culture School in Hobart; Marie joined as instructor in charge of the women's section and also taught the subject in schools. In 1906 she registered with the Australasian Massage Association and next year with the Teachers and Schools Registration Board, Tasmania. Illness forced her to abandon this career and she then began to write seriously. She was naturalized in 1915.

Her first published stories had appeared in Sydney papers about 1906 under a pseudonym, as her father would have objected. Her first books, published in Hobart, were three romantic religious sketches. The Mysterious Stranger (1913), called a classic by The Times, was translated into Arabic and reissued by the Religious Tract Society, London, in 1934. She was encouraged to write novels by William Henry (Will) Dawson, and her first, The Captive Singer (London, 1917), sold over 100,000 copies and 40,000 in Danish. The story was set in the Marakoopa Caves, Tasmania, and inspired by a guide who sang there. She was 42 at the time but her father, on being informed, 'wasn't too pleased': he had hoped that she would become an artist — she did continue to paint oils for many years. Eight more novels, published in London, followed until 1937.

In 1921 the Triad (Sydney) commented that she 'was honoured most outside [Australia] … Her people are real … and their inconsistencies are credible. She is not afraid of passion, though her theme and treatment are entirely … respectable'. However, the Bulletin gave her 'some nasty whippings … they loved making fun of my lovemaking!', she recalled. The Australasian reviewed Dusk in 1921 and suggested that Bjelke-Petersen should 'be persuaded to exercise a little restraint over both her imagination and her vocabulary'. Her 'flamboyant exuberance' and the 'reckless profusion of her descriptions' were deplored. Her metaphorical depiction of Tasmania's west coast as a 'virile, ferocious beauty' of 'lawless loveliness' who 'flung derisive laughter from unscalable peaks', 'danced in mad glee on dizzy heights' 'and looked unshaken into brain-reeling deeps!' drew particular disfavour. But her style remained florid.

Never an armchair novelist, Bjelke-Petersen's excellent physique and passion for accuracy enabled her, notebook in hand, to go on foot, horseback, dray or bullock-wagon into remote areas. At Queenstown in the 1920s she was the first woman to go underground with working miners; she mixed easily with them and with those on the Savage River osmium fields. The latter was the setting of Jewelled Nights (1924) which used the vernacular she had noted; it was filmed by Louise Lovely Productions in 1925.

Marie Bjelke-Petersen enjoyed country painting-trips with her close friend Sylvia Mills. She frequently wintered in Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne, taking a flat where she would hold religious meetings, to which she attracted fans and friends, including a large following of young women, in the manner of many female romantic novelists of her day. She was referred to as Australia's Marie Corelli, for her novels always contained an evangelical theme: in The Captive Singer the hero and heroine marry and sing Nearer my God to Thee. She felt the modern world lacked sentiment, particularly in 'our spiritual life towards God', but she believed in the advances women had 'made in education and in many other things in recent years'.

As a young woman she was fair, lithe and mannish in dress; later the expensive smart clothes she chose enhanced a graceful femininity. She made early radio broadcasts and in 1935 received a King's Jubilee Medal for literature. She encouraged younger writers, and her experience and practical suggestions were useful in establishing the Tasmanian Fellowship of Australian Writers. Although steeped in mythology Bjelke-Petersen was a sincere Christian who never overlooked the poor and needy. Her fondness for whimsy expressed itself through notes to fairies in letter-boxes in her garden. She continued reading and gardening in her nineties and set some of her verses to music; a selection was recorded in 1969. She died at Lindisfarne, Hobart, on 11 October 1969, leaving an estate sworn for probate at $40,474.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Lyng, The Scandinavians in Australia, New Zealand and the Western Pacific (Melb, 1939)
  • Triad (Sydney), Sept 1921
  • New Idea (Melbourne), 2 Dec 1932
  • Woman's Budget (Sydney), 5 Apr 1933
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 31 Dec 1921
  • New York Times, 16 Apr 1922
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Aug 1934
  • Sydney Mail, 25 Dec 1935
  • Mercury (Hobart), 14 Oct 1969
  • C. A. Anderson, ‘The fate of an emigrant 20,000 kilometers away from Denmark’, Danish radio script 1 Nov 1957, translated by Elin P. Johnston, 1975 (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Margaret Weidenhofer, 'Bjelke-Petersen, Marie Caroline (1874–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bjelke-petersen-marie-caroline-5248/text8841, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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