Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Isabel Mary Mitchell (1893–1973)

by E. M. Finlay

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Janet Charlotte Mitchell

Isabel Mary Mitchell (1893-1973), author, and Janet Charlotte Mitchell (1896-1957), journalist and author, were born in Melbourne on 25 August 1893 and 3 November 1896, third and fourth daughters of (Sir) Edward Mitchell and his wife Eliza Fraser, daughter of Dr Alexander Morrison, principal of Scotch College, Melbourne.

The four Mitchell daughters grew up at Scotch College and in family homes in East Melbourne and at Mount Martha and Mount Macedon, where they were educated by governesses. The academic and literary tastes of Dr Morrison influenced his granddaughters, as did their parents' interest in welfare organizations such as the Red Cross. Extended European tours 'finished' their education, some visits being made in conjunction with Edward Mitchell's appearances before the Privy Council in London.

Mary Mitchell visited England in 1906, 1911 and 1916, returning in 1921 for secretarial training at the Women's Institute, London. She then worked for the Australian Red Cross Society as assistant secretary and until 1932 was secretary of the Victorian Junior Red Cross. Writing was a hobby until, after two unsuccessful attempts, her novel, A Warning to Wantons (London, 1934) was published. Described as 'a combination of ultra-sophisticated worldliness and romantic melodrama in a Ruritanian setting', it was a popular success, occasioning surprise that a gently bred woman from the colonies should produce a work so daring and cosmopolitan. The Gothic fantasy of the plot and the charm of the gamine heroine's innocence and amorality, in contrast to the ironic astringency of the social observation, appealed widely; it became a Book Society's book of the month and was translated into Swedish, Hungarian, French and German. In 1949 it was filmed. Mary Mitchell travelled extensively in Europe in 1935, visiting the settings of many of her later novels.

Pendulum Swing, a novel set in Melbourne depicting the relationship between two girl cousins from differing social backgrounds, appeared in 1935, then Maidens Beware (London, 1936), and thereafter more than twenty novels until 1956. In the 1930s Mary Mitchell also published three detective stories under the name of Josephine Plain. No other work achieved the popularity of A Warning to Wantons although Miss Mitchell herself preferred One More Flame (London, 1942), a study of an Australian farming family and its relationship with the land.

In 1947 Mary Mitchell became aware that she was going blind and adapted her methods of writing to her failing vision. Determined to prove that a blind person need not become dependent, she mastered the technique of touch-typing and use of a dictaphone and produced eight novels after losing her sight. Living independently at Kalorama in the Dandenongs, she published in 1963 Uncharted Country, an attempt to present in lay language the everyday problems of the blind. A tall, fair, reserved, dignified and elegant figure, Mary Mitchell became the first woman president of the P.E.N. Club and vice-president of the Braille Library of Victoria; in 1970 she was appointed M.B.E. She died at Box Hill on 24 July 1973, and was cremated.

Janet Mitchell became a licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music in 1917 and graduated B.A., University of London, in 1922. She was education secretary of the Young Women's Christian Association, Melbourne, in 1924-26 and directed the thrift service of the Government Savings Bank of New South Wales in 1926-31. Active in the League of Nations Union, in 1925 and 1931 she was an Australian delegate to conferences of the Institute of Pacific Relations in Honolulu and Hangchow, China. She went on to Harbin at some risk to report the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, an experience which formed the basis of her only novel, Tempest in Paradise (London, 1935), which was dedicated to her cousin 'Chinese' Morrison. An autobiography, Spoils of Opportunity, followed in 1938.

In 1933 Janet Mitchell was acting-principal of the Women's College, University of Sydney, and in 1936, after journalism in London and semi-official work with the League of Nations in Geneva, she became warden of Ashburne College in the University of Manchester, resigning in 1940 for health reasons. She was assistant in youth education, Victoria, for the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1941-55. Delicate from childhood, she lived at Armadale, Melbourne, until her death on 6 September 1957. A convert to Catholicism, she was buried in St Kilda cemetery.

Agnes Eliza Fraser (Nancy) (1890-1968), Mary and Janet's elder sister, was born on 15 July 1890. She worked at American Naval Headquarters, London, during World War I and married George Hill Adams, wine merchant, at St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, in 1921. During World War II she managed G. H. Adams & Co. Pty Ltd and later wrote a novel, Saxon Sheep (1961), based on the experiences of her forbears who imported Saxon merino sheep into Van Diemen's Land. In 1966 Nancy Adams published Family Fresco, memoirs of the Mitchell and Morrison families. She died in Melbourne on 22 August 1968.

Select Bibliography

  • Lady Mitchell, Three-Quarters of a Century (Lond, 1940)
  • M. Harding (ed), This City of Peace, Being the Conversion Stories of 25 Australian Converts to the Catholic Church (Melb, 1956)
  • J. Hetherington, 42 Faces (Melb, 1962)
  • Bohemia, 13, no 2, Oct 1957
  • Argus (Melbourne), 6 Oct, 13 Dec 1933, 9 Jan 1934, 16 Apr, 10 Dec 1935
  • Herald (Melbourne), 16 May 1935, 19 Oct 1963
  • Age (Melbourne), 20 Nov 1962, 26, 27 July 1973
  • Sun-News Pictorial (Melbourne), 1 Jan 1970
  • Age biography file for Mary Mitchell (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

E. M. Finlay, 'Mitchell, Isabel Mary (1893–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Plain, Josephine

25 August, 1893
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


24 July, 1973 (aged 79)
Box Hill, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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