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Lady Flora Marjorie (Marnie) Bassett (1889–1980)

by Ann Blainey

This article was published:

Flora Marjorie Bassett (1889-1980), by Norman Wodetzki

Flora Marjorie Bassett (1889-1980), by Norman Wodetzki

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/2264

Lady Flora Marjorie (Marnie) Bassett (1889-1980), historian, was born on 30 June 1889 at the University of Melbourne, daughter of (Sir) David Orme Masson, professor of chemistry, and his wife Mary, née Struthers. (Sir) James Irvine Orme Masson was her brother. Marnie spent 'delicious childhood years' on Melbourne's campus, fishing for yabbies in the university lake accompanied by Professor (Sir) Walter Baldwin Spencer's children and bicycling on the curving drive around the System Garden. With her only sister Elsie, she was taught at home by governesses; for twelve weeks at the age of 17 Marnie was enrolled at the Church of England Girls' Grammar School. After taking shorthand and typing lessons, she became her father's secretary, helping him in 1914 to organize the Melbourne conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. There she met eminent scientists, among them her future brother-in-law, the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski.

Marnie's family background and three extensive trips to Europe in her girlhood fostered her love of history, literature and music. Although her mother did not favour degree courses for girls, in her early twenties Marnie attended history lectures given by Professor (Sir) Ernest Scott. Encouraged by him, she studied a parcel of neglected papers and, in an article in the University Review in June 1913, concluded that the true founder of the university had been Hugh Childers. While her conclusion has now been refuted, her article was remarkable for its initiative and perception, and indicated an unusual historical aptitude. At Scott's request, in 1915 she gave five lectures to history students on French colonial policy and was awarded a government research scholarship that year.

Before she could complete her research, Marnie became absorbed in war-work as secretary to Professor Richard Berry who had been appointed part-time registrar of the 5th Australian General Hospital. When (Sir) David Rivett succeeded him, she continued her secretarial duties, transferring with Rivett to the 11th A.G.H., Caulfield. In 1916 she sailed for England: her ship Arabia was torpedoed in the eastern Mediterranean and she escaped in a lifeboat before being rescued. In London she worked with (Sir) Henry Barraclough, honorary lieutenant colonel in charge of Australian munitions workers in England and France. She wrote lively letters home to her father, trenchantly defending democracy against his increasing pessimism. Having returned to Melbourne, she met (Sir) Walter Bassett, a senior lecturer in engineering; they were married on 25 January 1923 at her father's university home by Rev. Dr Edward Sugden of Queen's College.

Marnie was an unaffectedly domestic person, devoted to her husband and family; she refused to employ a nanny for her three children. She was equally devoted to her friends, especially the females, many of whom were intellectuals. She had been one of the earliest members of the Catalysts, a women's discussion group founded in Melbourne in 1910, and the papers she read to that society are among her most vigorous and evocative writings. Such pursuits kept her mind active during her child-rearing years.

On the eve of World War II, with her children growing up, Marnie again began to write. The Governor's Lady (1940), a study of Anna Josepha, the wife of Philip Gidley King, made Marnie a pioneer in the then neglected field of women's history. Her most celebrated book, The Hentys (1954), is a classic in Australian history, combining diligent research, intelligent handling of historical evidence, and a prose style that is clear and harmonious. She also published two works on voyages of discovery, Realms and Islands (1962) and Behind the Picture (1966), and a vivid volume called Letters from New Guinea, 1921 (1969) which described her travels when aged 32. In her ninety-first year she was engaged on a life of Henry Gisborne which was published posthumously with one of her Catalyst papers as Henry Fyshe Gisborne and 'Once Upon a Time . . .' (1985). When writing several of her books she attended weekly seminars at the university and was a great encourager of young historians.

Lady Bassett's achievement was recognized by honorary D.Litt. degrees from Monash University (1968) and the University of Melbourne (1974); she also became a foundation fellow (1969) of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. These honours were a particular source of pleasure to one who had never enrolled at a university. Survived by her daughter and a son, Marnie Bassett died on 3 February 1980 at her Armadale home and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Blainey, A Centenary History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1957)
  • J. M. Gillison, A History of the Lyceum Club (Melb, 1975)
  • L. W. Weickhardt, Masson of Melbourne (Melb, 1989)
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, June 1980
  • Age (Melbourne), 23 Feb 1980
  • M. Bassett papers (State Library of Victoria and University of Melbourne Archives)
  • private information.

View the list of ADB entries written by Lady Flora Marjorie (Marnie) Bassett

Additional Resources

Citation details

Ann Blainey, 'Bassett, Lady Flora Marjorie (Marnie) (1889–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Flora Marjorie Bassett (1889-1980), by Norman Wodetzki

Flora Marjorie Bassett (1889-1980), by Norman Wodetzki

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/2264