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McDonald, Nancy May (Nan) (1921–1974)

by Jill Roe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Nancy May (Nan) McDonald (1921-1974), poet and editor, was born on Christmas Day 1921 at Eastwood, Sydney, third child of native-born parents William James McDonald, postal engineer and returned soldier, and his first wife Beatrice May, née Hancox. Nan grew up at Eastwood, spending holidays on the Hawkesbury, and at Blackheath and Wellington. She attended (1934-38) Hornsby Girls' High School under Agnes Brewster where she contributed poems to the school magazine, twice winning the Ethel Curlewis prize for verse. Proceeding to the University of Sydney (B.A., 1943), she graduated with second-class honours in English.

In 1943 McDonald joined the editorial staff of Angus & Robertson Ltd. There she worked with such people as Alec Bolton, Beatrice Davis and Douglas Stewart. Recalled by Rosemary Dobson as 'the best book editor in Australia', she made a considerable—though largely unacknowledged—contribution to the publication of Australian fiction and history for some thirty years. She and Davis spent 'many gruelling hours' on the manuscripts of Ion Idriess and Frank Clune. Several of her poems chafe at the constraints, and the pay was poor; but it was the heyday of A. & R. and professional standards were upheld.

McDonald's poetic output was small but highly regarded, with poems appearing mostly in Sydney journals from the 1940s to the 1960s. Her first collection, Pacific Sea (1947), praised by Stewart as 'a book of sea and bush and flowers and birds', won the first Grace Leven prize for poetry in 1947. She edited the annual, Australian Poetry, in 1953, thereby gaining A. D. Hope's approval. In The Lonely Fire (1954), which impressed Dame Mary Gilmore, McDonald added an urban dimension, as in 'Market Street: Friday Evening'. The Lighthouse, an historical verse-play influenced by T. S. Eliot and broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1957, was the title poem for a third publication in 1959 which contained the powerful 'The Hatters' and 'The Hawk', subsequently included in anthologies. In 1969 she published a fourth collection, Selected Poems, with new poetry from the Illawarra. McDonald was a practising Presbyterian; her affirmation of the east-coast Australian landscape was driven by metaphysical as well as environmental values. She shone in shorter forms, but was capable of narrative, as in the haunting 'Alison Hunt' and 'The Mail-boat's Late Again'.

From 1948 Nan McDonald corresponded with 'Dearest Rozzie' (Dobson), exchanging 'pomes' for comment and telling of her garden. After she had undergone several operations and seen the takeover (1970) of A. & R., McDonald took leave late in 1971 and freelanced for the firm thereafter. Letters to another friend in 1972-73 indicated a strained relationship with the new management: 'The old firm has certainly passed away'. Nan lived with her sister Margaret at Mount Keira, as in 'The House of Winds' (Torch 1936). Editing and illness left little energy even for gardening. McDonald died of cancer on 7 January 1974 at Mount Ousley and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. One late poem, For Prisoners, was published posthumously (Canberra, 1995). Her poems appear in most modern anthologies, but critical perspective is still lacking.

Select Bibliography

  • Hornsby Girls' High School, Torch, 1934-38
  • Hemisphere, 20, Mar 1976
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 May 1956
  • Rosemary Dobson papers (National Library of Australia)
  • McDonald correspondence, MSS 5346, 5757 (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jill Roe, 'McDonald, Nancy May (Nan) (1921–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcdonald-nancy-may-nan-10934/text19427, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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