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Roland, Betty (1903–1996)

by Jayne Regan

This article was published online in 2020

Betty Roland (1903–1996), playwright and author, was born Mary Isabel Maclean on 22 July 1903 at Kaniva, Victoria, only child of Roland Maclean, medical practitioner, and his wife Matilda, née Blayney, both Victorian born. After her father died in 1907 Betty moved with her mother to her maternal grandparents’ farm in the Goulburn Valley. She was educated by governesses before being sent at age nine to Oberwyl Girls’ School, a boarding school in St Kilda, and then to Fintona Presbyterian Girls’ Grammar School, Camberwell. She showed a strong interest in writing and won a junior essay prize in 1916.

Leaving school at fifteen, Maclean worked in G. H. V. Thomas’s exclusive fashion house in Collins Street, Melbourne, and then held two short-lived appointments as a journalist with Table Talk and the Sun News-Pictorial. On 9 April 1923 at Scots Church, Melbourne, she married Ellis Harvey Davies, an engineer and divorcee who was twenty-one years her senior. The next year she gave birth to a son, who would die in 1931 after years of ill health. In the mid-1920s, while recovering from tuberculosis, she wrote the play The Touch of Silk (as Betty M. Davies), which concerned the hardships of a returned soldier and his French bride in the Victorian Mallee. First performed by the Melbourne Repertory Theatre in November 1928, it was well received by critics. She began to write radio dramas and scripted one of Australia’s first talking films, The Spur of the Moment (1931).

Talented, ambitious, and pretty, Davies fled her loveless marriage in 1933 and booked a passage to London. She soon discovered that the wealthy Marxist scholar Guido Baracchi was to sail on the same ship and the pair struck up a relationship that would last nine years. Baracchi was on a mission to deliver confidential documents to the Soviet Union. The pair undertook the journey together and stayed for fifteen months, living in both Moscow and Leningrad (St Petersburg) and sharing their room with the novelist Katharine Susannah Prichard. Adopting the surname Roland (after her father), Betty worked as a journalist with the Moscow Daily News and later as a typist, while Baracchi obtained work as a translator. She later recalled jubilant May Day celebrations and captivating theatre productions, but also highlighted the extreme poverty experienced by ordinary Russians and the operation of strict social hierarchies that privileged foreign visitors.

Returning to Melbourne in December 1934, Roland joined, and Baracchi rejoined, the Communist Party of Australia, for which they distributed leaflets, sold the Workers’ Voice, and produced political graffiti. Roland established a workers’ theatre group, which eventually became the New Theatre League. She wrote short agitprop plays designed to be performed on street corners, in parks, or in workplaces. Her semi-autobiographical play Are You Ready, Comrade? (1938), about the political awakening of a bourgeois woman, won first prize at the Perth Drama Festival. The couple had moved to Castlecrag, Sydney, in 1937, welcoming a daughter in October. In the wake of the German-Soviet non-aggression pact and news that some of their Soviet friends had fallen victim to Stalin’s purges, both Roland and Baracchi severed ties with the CPA in 1939.

After Baracchi left Roland for another woman in 1942, she had to rely on her literary abilities to survive financially. She wrote radio dramas for the Australian Broadcasting Commission and commercial radio stations, including most of the popular soap opera A Woman Scorned (1951), which later inspired the 1983 television miniseries Return to Eden. For the Sydney Morning Herald she authored the comic strip ‘The Conways’ (1946–49), drawn by the artist John Santry. In 1947 she and her daughter moved to the Montsalvat artists’ colony at Eltham, Victoria. She had a long-term, if sometimes tempestuous, association with the colony’s founder Justus Jorgensen and his followers. Disheartened in 1951 when her play Granite Peak did not win the Commonwealth Jubilee stage-play competition, she decided that she and her daughter would move to London. There she wrote comic strips for children’s magazines and the Daily Express, and Granite Peak was produced for television in 1957.

Roland returned to Australia in 1961 via Greece, recounting the experience in her travel book Lesbos: The Pagan Island (1963). Living in Sydney in the 1960s, she wrote a series of children’s books and was a founding member (1963) of the Australian Society of Authors (life member 1993). In the 1970s she lived again at Montsalvat, where she organised the colony’s manuscript collection, worked on a privately published biography-cum-memoir of Jorgensen, and began writing romantic fiction for the London market. Between 1979 and 1990 she produced four volumes of autobiography, which chronicled her extraordinary acquaintances, adventurous travels, and numerous love affairs, though her regret is evident throughout that she never again achieved the literary acclaim that had greeted The Touch of Silk. Survived by her daughter, she died on 12 February 1996 at the Prince of Wales Hospital, Randwick, and was cremated. A portrait by Sir John Longstaff (c. 1925) is held by the Ballarat Art Gallery, and the New South Wales Premier’s award for scriptwriting was named after her in 2012.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Arrow, Michelle. Upstaged: Australian Women Dramatists in the Limelight at Last. Strawberry Hills, NSW: Currency Press, 2002
  • Hilton, Margot. ‘Obituaries: Betty Roland.’ Australian Author 28, no. 1 (1996): 26–27
  • National Library of Australia. MS 6672, Papers of Betty Roland, 1908–1982, 1985
  • Roland, Betty. Caviar for Breakfast. Rev. ed. Sydney: Collins Publishers Australia, 1989
  • Roland, Betty. The Devious Being. North Ryde, NSW: Angus & Robertson, 1990
  • Roland, Betty. The Eye of the Beholder. Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1984
  • Roland, Betty. An Improbable Life. Sydney: Collins Publishers Australia, 1989
  • Roland, Betty. Interviewed by Hazel de Berg, 17 November 1971. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Sparrow, Jeff. Communism: A Love Story. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2007

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jayne Regan, 'Roland, Betty (1903–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/roland-betty-27186/text34709, published online 2020, accessed online 6 March 2021.

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