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Mavis Thorpe Clark (1909–1999)

by Stephany Evans Steggall

This article was published online in 2024

Mavis Rose Clark (1909–1999), author, was born on 29 June 1909 at Richmond, Melbourne, youngest of five children of Scottish-born John Richard Thorpe Clark, carpenter, and his Welsh-born wife Rose Matilda, née Stanborough. Spoilt by her parents and older siblings, Mavis spent her childhood in Newcastle, New South Wales, and Melbourne. She began her formal schooling when she was eight, attending Melbourne’s Camberwell State School, Mont Albert Central School, and Methodist Ladies’ College (1924–25). An avid reader, and encouraged to write by her family, she kept a diary during a six-month family trip to Europe in 1922. On their return to Melbourne, her writing took a serious turn and she soon sent her first short stories to newspapers.

A disciplined young writer, Clark completed her first book-length manuscript when she was fifteen. She was unable to secure a publisher for her earliest work, but eventually published her first book, Hatherley’s First Fifteen, in 1930. The following year she studied short writing courses with Stott’s Technical Correspondence College before marrying Harold Latham, an advertising agent, on 19 December at St John’s Church of England, Camberwell, Melbourne. They would have two daughters: Beverley Jeanne in 1936 and Ronda Faye in 1944.

Though Clark was discouraged by the domestic burden that accompanied her marriage, as well as her husband’s indifference to her writing, she persevered. In 1934, not long after she adopted the pen-name ‘Mavis Thorpe Clark,’ her first children’s serial, The Red School House, appeared in the Australasian’s children’s page. It was later published as Jingaroo (1951) by Oxford University Press. Several of her other early children’s books, including Dark Pool Island (1949), The Twins from Timber Creek (1949), and Missing Gold (1951), were similarly adapted from newspaper and radio serials. During World War II, in a period of ‘desultory, intermittent writing’ (Clark 1999, 67), she wrote plays and serials for children’s radio programs while also completing a book manuscript, which was later rewritten and published as Nowhere to Hide (1969).

The late 1940s marked the beginning of a new chapter in Clark’s career. She had joined the Melbourne Quill Club in 1946 and, with both of her daughters at school, she was able to dedicate more time to writing. In 1956, inspired by memories of childhood holidays at her Aunt Martha’s home at Tahara in Victoria’s Western District, she published The Brown Land Was Green. The book was highly commended in the Australian Children’s Book of the Year awards in 1957 and was subsequently adapted for radio. It also rekindled a childhood fascination with the outback and isolated rural stations.

In late 1960 Clark and her husband accompanied Harold Darwin, a retired teacher who ran a mobile library service, on his monthly route through north-west South Australia. It was a life-changing journey for Clark who experienced the ‘illumination of the “being” of my country’ (Clark 1999, 139). She repeated the trip in 1963 and 1966, and in 1967 spent several months mining for opals with her older brother at Coober Pedy, South Australia. These trips were to inspire many of her later works, including The Min-Min (1966), which won the Australian Children’s Book of the Year award in 1967, and was selected as a Notable Book for 1969 by the American Library Association. It was soon followed by Blue Above the Trees (1967), Spark of Opal (1968), and Iron Mountain (1970), the latter inspired by an eight-week trip to the Pilbara region of Western Australia with her daughter Ronda. In 1974 she published The Sky Is Free, for which Walt Disney purchased the film and television rights.

Clark was a productive writer, mainly for teenagers, and many of her books were published overseas, including in translation. She also wrote biographies, most notably of Pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls, an experience which she felt deepened her awareness of ‘the unique traits of this land, its mystery, its destiny’ (Clark 2004, 169–70). From the 1950s onwards she was active in Melbourne literary circles, including as a member of the Australian Society of Authors, the Fellowship of Australian Writers, the National Book Council, and the Melbourne Centre of PEN International (president, 1970, 1979). In the 1970s she travelled overseas to attend writers’ events, including International PEN congresses (Seoul 1970; Stockholm 1978; Rio de Janeiro, 1979). She was an enthusiastic letter writer and a regular guest speaker at schools. In 1974 she was also the recipient of a one-year literary fellowship from the Australian Council of the Arts.

Following the death of her husband in 1982, Clark continued to write and make trips to north-west South Australia, regularly visiting her friend, Beryl Cronin, at Kingoonya. In the 1990s she began writing her autobiography, Trust the Dream (2004), which was published posthumously. Her contribution to Australian children’s literature was recognised by her being made a life member of the Children's Book Council of Australia (1990). In 1994 the Victorian branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers also established an annual award in her honour for the best creative anthology by high school students, and in 1996 she was appointed AM.

Strongly built, with short curly hair and an imagination brimming with ideas, Clark was a dedicated writer whose love for the ‘red earth’ (Charlwood 1999, 14) of central Australia made her an adventurous traveller. On 8 July 1999 she died of a heart attack in Melbourne after bypass surgery, survived by her daughters. Her ashes were scattered with her husband’s on the shores of Level Post Bay, Lake Eyre, South Australia.

Research edited by Emily Gallagher

Select Bibliography

  • Charlwood, Don. ‘Writer Inculcated Love for Outback.’ Australian, 4 August 1999, 14
  • Clark, Mavis Thorpe. ‘Words about an Author.’ In The Early Dreaming: Australian Children's Authors on Childhood, edited by Michael Duggan, 11–21. Milton, Qld: Jacaranda Press, 1980
  • Clark, Mavis Thorpe. Trust the Dream: The Autobiography of Mavis Thorpe Clark, Author of The Min-Min. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2004
  • National Library of Australia. MS 7847, Papers of Mavis Thorpe Clark, 1920–1999
  • Tranter, Lyn. Obituary. Sydney Morning Herald, 16 July 1999, 32

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Stephany Evans Steggall, 'Clark, Mavis Thorpe (1909–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/clark-mavis-thorpe-33409/text41757, published online 2024, accessed online 14 April 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Mavis Thorpe Clark, c.1950

Mavis Thorpe Clark, c.1950

National Library of Australia, by Athol Shmith, 40206542

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Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Clark, Mavis Rose
  • Latham, Mavis
Birth

29 June, 1909
Richmond, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Death

8 July, 1999 (aged 90)
Richmond, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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