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Watson, Elliot Lovegood Grant (1885–1970)

by Dorothy Green

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Elliot Lovegood Grant Watson (1885-1970), biologist, writer and mystic, was born on 14 June 1885 at Staines, Middlesex, England, elder son of Reginald Grant Watson, gentleman, and his wife Lucy, née Fuller. The younger son died in 1899, the father soon after. The mother—a fanatical Darwinist—dedicated her life to her first-born. He was educated at Bedales School, Petersfield, and Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1909), graduating with first-class honours in natural sciences.

In 1910 Watson set out ahead of Alfred Brown who had invited him to join an expedition to Western Australia to investigate Aboriginal marriage customs. Watson's mother and stepfather followed him to Perth. Taken by the entrepreneur Dorham Doolette to see his mine at Bullfinch, near Southern Cross, Watson lived with the miners, collected insects for European entomologists and fell in love with the Australian bush, which, he said, changed his life. By October Brown's small party, joined by Daisy Bates, was encamped near Sandstone. Brown established contact with the Aborigines, but his relations with Bates grew increasingly distant, as Watson's But to What Purpose: The Autobiography of a Contemporary (London, 1946) makes clear. After a police raid on the Aboriginal camp, Brown and Watson retreated to Bernier and Dorré islands, off Carnarvon. In March 1911 the party disbanded. Brown and Watson travelled up the Gascoyne River, then Watson made a leisurely return to England by way of Fiji and Canada. He revisited Australia in 1912. His travels in the Pacific and, later, the Middle East and Northern Europe, left him permanently at odds with Western civilization. The autobiography and Journey Under the Southern Stars (London, 1968) give vivid accounts of his journeys.

Despite a nervous breakdown shortly before World War I, Watson enlisted in the British Army and was seconded to do biological research. After 1918 his mother's legacy supported his Bohemian life in London. On 17 July 1919 at Hampstead register office he married Katharine Hannay.

Watson wrote more than forty books, including fiction, travel accounts and studies of philosophy. His finest works, about the English countryside, are classics of their kind. His first novel, Where Bonds are Loosed (London, 1914), was based on hospital politics observed on Bernier Island; it was made into a film, unfortunately lost. The Desert Horizon (1923), Daimon (1925), The Partners (1933) and The Nun and the Bandit (1935) are better novels. Much of this fiction reflects the violence of his hidden feelings. Always restless, Watson moved his family from one country house to another. His main source of income was writing, lecturing and broadcasting. He kept in touch with Owen Barfield, Havelock Ellis and Carl Jung; one of his greatest admirers was the naturalist Frank Fraser Darling, in whose company Watson gathered material for his novel, Priest Island (1935).

Distinguished by a precise as well as a poetic evocation of the landscape and by an empathy with the Aborigines, Watson's Australian novels are also important for their use of the desert as a metaphor of the Unconscious and, metaphysically, as an image of the Void as the womb of all possible manifestations. In this respect he is a pioneer in Australian literature. Watson faced the desert with awe, not fear, and had a real affinity with the bush.

Survived by his wife and two daughters, Watson died at Petersfield, Hampshire, on 21 May 1970 and was buried in nearby Steep churchyard. A conspectus of his writings, edited by Dorothy Green, was published in 1990.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Green, The Music of Love (Melb, 1984)
  • Watson family papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Dorothy Green, 'Watson, Elliot Lovegood Grant (1885–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/watson-elliot-lovegood-grant-9000/text15845, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 28 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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