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Mabel Forrest (1872–1935)

by Kay Ferres

This article was published:

Mabel Forrest (1872-1935), writer, was born on 6 March 1872 near Yandilla, Darling Downs, Queensland, and registered as Helena Mabel, second of three children of James Checkley Mills, station manager, and his English-born wife Margaret Nelson, née Haxell. The family lived on stations near Dalby, Stanthorpe and Goondiwindi, border towns that appeared in her fiction as 'Brolga'. Except for one year of schooling at Parramatta, New South Wales, she was taught by her mother, 'who spoke several languages fluently and had been to school in France and Germany'. Mabel's sister Ethel also became a writer, publishing stories and poems in the Sydney Bulletin.

On 5 July 1893 at Callandoon, near Goondiwindi, Mabel married with Anglican rites John Frederick Burkinshaw, a selector. A daughter was born in 1894 at Tulloona station in northern New South Wales. The marriage was unhappy. With her husband unable to support his family, Mabel contributed by taking in sewing, and began to write and publish her work. The couple separated when Burkinshaw went to Perth in 1896 to look for work. They were divorced on the grounds of his 'adultery, desertion and cruelty' in April 1902. On 22 July that year in Brisbane she married with Wesleyan forms John Forrest (d.1921), a railway surveyor. In public accounts of her life, she expunged her first marriage, but the experience informed many of her most powerful lyric poems.

She made her living as a writer—'the most industrious versifier in the Commonwealth'. Publishing in the Australasian, the Bulletin, Smith's Weekly, the Triad and the Lone Hand, she signed herself 'M. Forrest', 'Reca' or 'M. Burkinshaw'. Her stories from the Australasian were collected as The Rose of Forgiveness (1904). Her first volume of poems, Alpha Centauri, was published in 1909. She regularly won literary competitions and her works appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette and the Spectator (London), and in the United States of America.

Forrest's most successful work was The Wild Moth (London, 1924), filmed by Charles Chauvel as The Moth of Moonbi. Scenes from her novels were performed in public, and her play, The Highwayman, was staged at the Cremorne Theatre. Fidelity and betrayal in love were recurrent themes in her fiction. Her narratives of Australian bush life invited comparison with Rosa Praed, but she also documented the coming of modernity, taking up issues such as city planning, and describing the growth of suburbs (Streets and Gardens, 1922). Her characters were as likely to ride on trains and trams as on horses and in sulkies. Some poems were recited on civic occasions: 'The City Hall' was read at the building's 1930 opening in Brisbane and later etched on a commemorative marble tablet there.

A member of the Society of Authors, London, and the Fellowship of Australian Writers, Forrest was a life member of the Queensland Press Institute. Her last poem, 'Waning Moon', appeared in the Australasian on 16 March 1935. She died of pneumonia two days later in hospital at Goodna and was cremated with Presbyterian forms, survived by her daughter. A short manuscript autobiography in the John Oxley Library and the depositions from the divorce case are unreliable remnants of her life.

Contemporaries were critical of Forrest's writing, H. M. Green calling it 'over-facile', Nettie Palmer 'fluent and ornate'. Her children's verse, however, was praised as attractive and technically dextrous. She acknowledged debts to Scott, Melville, Browning, Adam Lindsay Gordon and Edith Wharton. Although Forrest's contemporaries saw her work in a tradition of colonial writing, it could also stand alongside that of Cross, Lesbia Harford, Gwen Harwood, Eleanor Dark and Dymphna Cusack, as the work of a modernist, sharing their interests in psychology and sexuality.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Palmer, Modern Australian Literature (Melb, 1924)
  • H. M. Green, An Outline of Australian Literature (Syd, 1930)
  • H. A. Kellow, Queensland Poets (Lond, 1930)
  • D. Adelaide, Australian Women Writers (Syd, 1988)
  • Australian National Review, 2, no 12, Dec 1937, p 89
  • Queensland Review, 8, no 1, May 2001, p 31
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 15 Oct 1927, p 22
  • Argus (Melbourne), 6 Apr 1935, p 6
  • G. Fox, Mabel Forrest: Early Life and Works (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1984)
  • G. Fox, Writing for Bread: The Professional Life of Mabel Forrest 1902-1935 (M.A. thesis, University of Queensland, 1986).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Kay Ferres, 'Forrest, Mabel (1872–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Mills, Helena Mabel
  • Burkinshaw, Mabel
  • Reca

6 March, 1872
Yandilla, Queensland, Australia


18 March, 1935 (aged 63)
Goodna, Queensland, Australia

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