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Skinner, Mary Louisa (Mollie) (1876–1955)

by Wendy Birman and Olive Pell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Mary Louisa (Mollie) Skinner (1876-1955), nurse and writer, was born in Perth on 19 September 1876, second child of James Tierney Skinner, army officer, and his wife Jessie Rose Ellen, daughter of George Walpole Leake. The family moved to England and Ireland in 1878 and at 9 Mollie was sent to an academy for young ladies in Edinburgh. A keen student and voracious reader, she had to abandon formal education in 1887 because of an ulcerated cornea. She spent so much time during the next five years in England in a darkened room with her burning eyes bandaged that she thought of herself as the fifth sparrow (Luke 12:6)—'a poor, befeathered, blinded little bird yet still having joyful life, ability to fly, to sing, to preen, to pick up crumbs and drink and to find fellowship with my kind'.

After painful cauterization partially restored her sight, Miss Skinner began to write poems and stories; she also learned singing and cookery. Later she trained as a nurse at the Evelina Hospital for Children, London, and at the Metropolitan Convalescent Home for Children; she recognized within herself an intuitive power, or sixth sense.

Unlike her mother, Mollie was homely: short and sturdy, with thick, dark hair and smoke-blue eyes. She wore sensible clothing and low-heeled shoes. She was intelligent, perceptive and practical, her mind 'a delight of unexpected treasures among a conglomeration of serviceable items and irrelevant bric-a-brac'. Born with a cleft lip and threatened by blindness, she avoided marriage but found single life hard. She earned her living as a nurse, and wrote for pleasure and money. Both callings were considered 'common' by her family.

While nursing at the Royal Hospital for Women and Children, London, she wrote for the Daily Mail until she and her mother returned to Perth in 1900. Mollie was employed privately in Perth hospitals. She worked hard and expected the same from others, particularly her sister Dollie who helped her to prepare manuscripts. Continuing to write for the Western Mail, West Australian, Daily News and Hospital and Nursing Mirror (London), she also worked briefly as a social writer on the Morning Herald.

Skinner returned to London in 1907 to study midwifery; she topped her course, produced a textbook, Midwifery Made Easy (Perth, 1912), and worked in the London slums. Reared as an Anglican and educated by Presbyterians, Mollie believed that God's hand on her shoulder guided her life. She dabbled in the occult and, with her friend Muriel Chase, in theosophy; in London, through her beloved teacher and mentor Sybil Dauney, she was drawn to the Anglo-Catholic Church. In Australia during the 1920s, she joined the Religious Society of Friends.

In 1913 she had gone to Kashmir, India, to recuperate from neuritis. Next year she joined Lady Minto's Private Nursing Service, transferred to Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service and served in India and Burma. Letters of a V.A.D. (1918) recounts her war experiences. In 1917 she joined the Australian Imperial Force too late to go overseas, remaining at the base hospital at Jardee. As a civilian she established hospitals in the bush at Wagin and Katanning. Her last nursing post was in World War II at the Moore River Aboriginal Settlement; she had published Men are We, a collection of stories about Aborigines in 1927. Colleagues and patients often praised the nurse, without knowing of her writing.

As a writer Skinner could recreate occurrences without subterfuge. D. H. Lawrence described her as 'a queer magical bird of imagination, always deceiving itself'. In 1922 she had met him over the wash-trough at the boarding-house she ran with a friend at Darlington. Lawrence encouraged her to write a novel based on her brother Jack's life. When she sent Lawrence the manuscript, he added 'a unity, a rhythm and a little more psychic development'. Miss Skinner 'gloried in these touches', but felt that the changed ending had pulled it out of focus. The Boy in the Bush was published in London in 1924. Her collaboration with Lawrence bemused critics, but Skinner retained his generous affection. Her English editor Edward Garnett described her Black swans (London, 1925) as being 'so damn, damn bad … so damn, damn good'.

With the help of Marjorie Rees, Mary Durack Miller edited The Fifth Sparrow, Skinner's autobiography written in failing health and posthumously published in 1972. Revered for her perceptive narratives, her impressionistic images, her integrity, ebullience and fortitude, Skinner was a constant supporter of the Western Australian branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. From 1934 she received a Commonwealth Literary Fund pension, but continued to write. At the end of her life blindness returned suddenly; she died at York on 25 May 1955 and was cremated. Her literary papers, including radio plays, were acquired by the Battye Library and in 1984 The Boy in the Bush was televised.

Select Bibliography

  • Woman's World, Dec 1924, p 41
  • Biography (Honolulu), 3, no 4, 1980
  • West Australian, 26 May 1955
  • private information.

Citation details

Wendy Birman and Olive Pell, 'Skinner, Mary Louisa (Mollie) (1876–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/skinner-mary-louisa-mollie-8447/text14849, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 22 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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