Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gentile, Doris May (1894–1972)

by Ros Pesman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Doris May Gentile (1894-1972), writer, was born on 30 October 1894 at Woolwich, Sydney, second daughter of Harry Charles Dinham, a silver-engraver from London, and his Tasmanian-born wife Ida Margaret, née Pybus. Doris began writing at an early age and published a story in the children's pages of the Australasian when she was 7. Usually written under the name of 'D. Manners-Sutton', her work subsequently appeared in the Australasian, the Sydney Mail, the Tasmanian Mail and the Sunraysia Daily. In 1923 she published her first novel, A Marked Soul, a melodramatic tale involving the transmigration of souls, with the action moving from penal Van Diemen's Land to the trenches of France.

Intent on high adventure, Dinham left Australia in June 1925. In South Africa she worked as a publicity officer for the United Tobacco companies and published stories in local newspapers. After exploring the Kalahari Desert, she journeyed from Cape Town to the Congo. Her time in Africa was to produce two novels, Black God (London, 1934) and The Last Secret (London, 1939): both had Africans as the protagonists. Although virtually unnoticed in Australia, Black God received widespread acclaim and was chosen as the New York Book of the Month.

In mid-1926 Dinham sailed from the Congo for London where she worked for the Morning Post. During 1928 she studied French in Paris and drama in Vienna. Next year she moved to Italy; she attended various universities and pursued competence in a range of languages. She continued to publish short stories, supplementing her income with money earned from dancing engagements and loans from her friend Ella McFadyen, the children's writer. At Benghazi, Cyrenaica (Libya), on 6 June 1934 Doris married Salvatore Gentile, a Sicilian engineer. Marriage and motherhood did not retard her travels, which included a promotional visit to North America in 1936. She was in Britain when World War II broke out, but returned to Sicily in April 1940.

Doris Gentile's movements over the early years of the war are difficult to trace. She left both Sicily and her marriage, and made an unsuccessful attempt to escape with her children to Switzerland. From 1943 to 1946 she lived at Civiglio, Italy, a small village in the hills above Como. Lacking means of adequate subsistence and with two children to support, she made some money by giving clandestine English lessons, but she and her children were malnourished and often hungry. In April 1946 Gentile regained her British nationality and was repatriated to England. Two years later she emigrated to Canada where a friend had organized an editorial position for her with Longmans Green & Co. at Toronto. When her work did not prove satisfactory she returned to London. Although her papers include manuscripts for a number of novels, plays, film scripts and short stories, she published nothing after the war. In 1970 she followed her children to New South Wales. Survived by her daughter and son, she died on 16 May 1972 in Prince Henry Hospital, Sydney, and was buried with Methodist forms in the Anglican section of Botany cemetery.

In a letter written in 1946 to her family in Australia, Gentile made some amazing statements about her life at Civiglio, specifically that she had played some part in the downfall of Mussolini, that she had fought with the partisans and that she had been arrested and tortured. In the fragmentary drafts of two autobiographical novels, 'No Time for Love' and 'The Sawdust Republic', on which she was working in the early 1960s, she told the same story, but as yet there is no other evidence either to confirm or confound these claims. It is possible that she played some role with the partisans and in assisting Allied prisoners of war to escape to Switzerland. The rest of her assertions seem somewhat extravagant.

A small, pretty woman, with a tiny waist and red hair, she had learned early to play with her age and social status. Her marriage certificate and all subsequent documents gave her birth date as 1908; her visiting card bore a coronet and introduced her as the Contessa Dorina Gentile. The various accounts that she gave of her travels in Africa contained much of the bizarre and much inconsistency. Gentile was headstrong, intent on creating an extraordinary life of independence and adventure. She wrote truly in 1945, in a fragmentary diary: 'If I have done nothing else with my life, I at least have made of it something fantastique like a fairy story'. The question remains as to whether the 'fantastique' is the life or the story.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian, 13 Oct 1973
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Sept 1926, 3 Feb 1927
  • D. M. Gentile papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • W. P. Hurst papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • A1066/1, item 1C45/20/1/2/33 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ros Pesman, 'Gentile, Doris May (1894–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gentile-doris-may-10291/text18207, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 21 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Dinham, Doris May
  • Manners-Sutton, D.
Birth

30 October 1894
Woolwich, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Death

16 May 1972
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation