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Dorothy Green (1915–1991)

by Willa McDonald

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Dorothy Green, by Alec Bolton, 1984

Dorothy Green, by Alec Bolton, 1984

National Library of Australia, 24448046

Dorothy Green (1915-1991), poet, literary critic, academic, and peace activist, was born on 28 May 1915 at Sunderland, England, elder of two children of Andrew Auchterlounie, tramcar motorman, and his Australian-born wife Marguerita, née Best. Dorothy’s father died when she was five and her mother remarried. The family migrated to Australia in 1927.

Educated at North Sydney Girls’ High School, Auchterlounie was awarded a bursary to the University of Sydney (BA, 1938; MA, 1940), where she studied literature and edited Hermes, the university’s literary magazine. She contributed regularly to Southerly from its first issue. In 1940 she published Kaleidoscope, the first of three volumes of poetry. While at university Auchterlonie met her future husband, Henry Mackenzie Green, the literary historian and University of Sydney librarian. Although she hoped to become a professional mezzo-soprano, he set her on the path of teaching, reviewing, and promoting Australian literature.

After university, Auchterlounie taught at high schools, but in 1941 took a cadetship with the Daily Telegraph, before becoming a radio journalist with the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC). Transferred to Brisbane, she covered state and federal rounds while helping transmit General Douglas MacArthur’s communiqués to Canberra. She also began writing literary criticism for Meanjin. Having returned to Sydney, on 16 May 1944, at the district registrar’s office, Ashfield, she married Green. Thirty-four years her senior, he had divorced in order to marry her.

Barred from full-time employment once she married, Green continued with the ABC on a part-time basis. When her husband retired, she was her family’s main breadwinner. She returned to teaching, this time at the Presbyterian Girls’ School, Warwick, Queensland, where she became co-headmistress in 1957. She introduced many reforms at the school but encountered conflict with the board that, combined with her onerous workload, affected her health. Always petite—she sometimes purchased children’s shoes—she was extremely underweight by the time she was appointed in 1961 to the English department at Monash University, becoming its first female lecturer. Her husband’s death the following year was a major blow, triggering a nervous collapse that necessitated psychiatric treatment.

In 1964 Green moved to the Australian National University (ANU), working under Professor A. D. Hope, but the new role brought frustrations. She thought both she and Australian literature were marginalised. Her second book of poetry, The Dolphin, appeared in 1967 and a year later she edited Australian Poetry. That same year she travelled to Italy and met Martin Boyd; she worked on his biography, but was beaten to publication by Brenda Niall. She published Ulysses Bound: Henry Handel Richardson and her Fiction in 1973. It was the first serious full-length study of a female Australian writer, for which Green received the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies’ Colin Roderick award and the Fellowship of Australian Writers’ Barbara Ramsden award.

Resigning from the ANU in 1972, the following year Green was awarded a pension by the literature board of the Australian Council for the Arts. However, cuts to arts funding forced her to return to academia when she lectured at the Faculty of Military Studies, University of New South Wales, Royal Military College, Duntroon (1977-80). It was the happiest period of her working life. For much of the 1980s, she sat on the board of the Age Monthly Review.

Green’s third book of poetry, Something to Someone, appeared in 1983. She continued writing throughout the decade: her literary legacy includes The Music of Love: Critical Essays on Literature and Love (1984); the revised edition of her husband’s History of Australian Literature: Pure and Applied (1984/5); the anthology Descent of Spirit: The Writings of E. L. Grant Watson (1990); a volume of collected essays, Writer: Reader: Critic (1991); as well as more than two hundred reviews and articles. For Green, literature encompassed ‘any piece of work made of words which gives me pleasure as well as information’ (Green 1991, 5).  She thought literature was to be enjoyed because it fully engaged the mind. It was ‘humanity thinking aloud—communicating its experience of all that is, holding a great continuous discussion throughout the ages and across the world’ (Green 1991, 16).

An Anglican, Green served in the 1980s on the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs and on the Australian Council of Churches. Her religious beliefs underpinned her political activities in the second half of her life. She became patron of the Australian Association of Armed Neutrality and in 1984 helped form the Canberra branch of the Nuclear Disarmament Party. With a colleague, David Headon, she established Writers Against Nuclear Arms in 1986. Next year she travelled to the Soviet Union to take part in an international peace forum and in 1989 helped form Writers for an Ecologically Sustainable Population.

Green was awarded the OAM in 1984 and appointed AO in 1988. She was a life member (1978) of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, and she received an emeritus fellowship (1984) from the Literature Board of the Australia Council. The University of New South Wales awarded her an honorary doctorate of letters (1987).

Reserved and intense, Green was happiest in the company of a book, but enjoyed deep and loyal friendships. She was romantic, slightly prim, and deeply compassionate. Anger at injustice drove much of her most insightful writing. She knew the worth of her own work and her own intellect, finding it infuriating when either was undervalued. Sharp-witted, she could be sharp-tongued, particularly as she aged and suffered from the pain of crippling arthritis.

 Green made a profound contribution to Australian literature as a poet, literary critic, and educator. At a time when the ‘cultural cringe’ marginalised Australian writers, her literary criticism supported many whom she believed were undervalued, including Henry Handel Richardson, Patrick White, Martin Boyd, and the English-born writer E. L. Grant Watson. A gifted teacher, she fostered a love of Australian literature in several generations of students, yet battled to see Australian literature recognised as a legitimate field of study in the universities in which she worked. Survived by her son and daughter, she died on 21 February 1991 in Canberra and was cremated.


Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Auchterlonie, Dorothy. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 31 March 1967. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Dowse, Sara. ‘In the Nature of a Prophet.’ Australian Society, February 1990, 19-21
  • Green, Dorothy. Writer: Reader: Critic. Leichhardt: Primavera Press, 1991
  • Papers of Dorothy Green. National Library of Australia
  • Headon, David. ‘Love and Thunder.’ Overland, no. 123 (1991), 78-80
  • McDonald, Willa. Warrior for Peace: Dorothy Auchterlonie Green. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2009.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Willa McDonald, 'Green, Dorothy (1915–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Dorothy Green, by Alec Bolton, 1984

Dorothy Green, by Alec Bolton, 1984

National Library of Australia, 24448046