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Mackellar, Isobel Marion Dorothea (1885–1968)

by Beverley Kingston

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Isobel Marion Dorothea Mackellar (1885-1968), by Norman August Grosskopf

Isobel Marion Dorothea Mackellar (1885-1968), by Norman August Grosskopf

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2293529, with the permission of Mr Norm Grosskopf

Isobel Marion Dorothea Mackellar (1885-1968), writer, was born on 1 July 1885 at Dunara, Point Piper, Sydney, third child and only daughter of native-born parents (Sir) Charles Kinnaird Mackellar, physician, and his wife Marion, daughter of Thomas Buckland. She was educated at home and travelled extensively with her parents, becoming fluent in French, Spanish, German and Italian, and also attended some lectures at the University of Sydney. Her youth was protected and highly civilized. She moved easily between the society of Sydney's intellectual and administrative elite, life on her family's country properties, and among their friends in London.

Dorothea began writing while quite young and surprised her family when magazines not only published but paid for her verses and prose pieces. On 5 September 1908 a poem, 'Core of My Heart', which she had written about 1904, appeared in the London Spectator. It reappeared several times in Australia before being included as 'My Country' in her first book, The Closed Door, and Other Verses (Melbourne, 1911). She published The Witch-Maid, and Other Verses in 1914 and two more volumes of verse (1923 and 1926), also a novel, Outlaw's Luck (London, 1913), set in Argentina. With Ruth Bedford, a childhood friend, she wrote two other novels (1912, 1914). During World War I and as a result of its frequent inclusion in anthologies, 'My Country' became one of the best-known Australian poems, appealing to the sense of patriotism fostered by the war and post-war nationalism.

Photographs of Dorothea in her twenties show her to have been then an ideal image of the Australian girl, pretty, sensitive, and fashionable. She was said to be a strong swimmer, a keen judge of horses and dogs. Her verse shows that she was cultivated and spirited, her novels that she was hopelessly romantic. Between 1911 and 1914 she was twice engaged. The first engagement she broke because the man was over-protective; the second lapsed through misunderstanding and lack of communication after the outbreak of war. Her writing, once the product of youthful passions and enthusiasms, became increasingly souvenirs of travel or dependent on Nature for inspiration. She was unable to write of her disappointment in love except in powerful translations from little-known Spanish and German poets.

Despite her 'loathing all restrictions and meetings', Dorothea Mackellar was honorary treasurer of the Bush Book Club of New South Wales and active in the formation in 1931 of the Sydney P.E.N. Club. She became responsible for her ageing parents, and apparently wrote little after her father's death in 1926. Her mother died in 1933 and Dorothea, 'a not particularly robust dormouse', was frequently in poor health, spending ten years in a Randwick nursing home. Yet she outlived her younger brothers and was able to keep both Cintra, Darling Point, and a house at Church Point on Pittwater. She was appointed O.B.E. just before she died on 14 January 1968 in the Scottish Hospital, Paddington, after a fall at home. She was cremated after a service at St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, and her ashes laid in the family vault in Waverley cemetery. Her estate was valued for probate at over $1,580,000.

H. M. Green describes her as a 'lyrist of colour and light' in love with the Australian landscape. She herself 'never professed to be a poet. I have written—from the heart, from imagination, from experience—some amount of verse'. Privileged and unusual, she was also typical of many Australian women of her generation in the contrast between the inspired vigour of her youth and the atrophy of her talent and vitality through lack of use.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Matzenik, ‘Dorothea Mackellar. A memoir’, in The Poems of Dorothea Mackellar (Adel, 1971)
  • Aussie, 42 (Aug 1922), p 37
  • Spinner, vol 1, no 9 (June 1925), p 143
  • Australian Woman's Mirror, 1 Nov 1927, p 11, 54
  • South Australiana, 8, no 1 (1969), p 11
  • P. O'Harris, Notes on Dorothea Mackellar (manuscript, State Library of New South Wales)
  • John Le Gay Brereton papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • G. Mackaness collection (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Beverley Kingston, 'Mackellar, Isobel Marion Dorothea (1885–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mackellar-isobel-marion-dorothea-7383/text12835, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 21 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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