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Mary Theresa Vidal (1815–1873)

by J. C. Horner

This article was published:

Mary Theresa Vidal (1815-1873), by unknown artist

Mary Theresa Vidal (1815-1873), by unknown artist

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an12024169

Mary Theresa Vidal (1815-1873), author, née Johnson, was baptized on 25 July 1815 at Torrington, Devon, England, the eldest daughter of William Charles Johnson and his wife Mary Theresa, née Furse, whose mother, Elizabeth, was a sister of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Charles Wellington Furse, archdeacon of Westminster, and William, later known as Cory, the classical scholar and author of Ionica, were young Mary's brothers. At Ideford on 25 April 1835 Mary married Rev. Francis Vidal, curate of Torrington and scion of Jamaican planters. Because of her husband's health Mary and her family sailed for Sydney in the Earl Grey. They arrived in February 1840. Francis served as incumbent at Penrith, and in 1845 returned with his family to England, where he succeeded William Cory as a tutor at Eton. Francis and Mary had six sons. Their only daughter, Elizabeth Theresa (Lily), was born in New South Wales in 1841, and in August 1861 married Edward Stone, classics master at Eton and later headmaster of Stonehouse; their seventh child became, through marriage, Faith Compton Mackenzie, whose autobiography As Much As I Dare (London, 1938) gives a brief account of the life of her grandmother, Mrs Vidal.

Mrs Vidal's first known fictional work was written in Australia and issued in eight sixpenny parts before being published in book form as Tales for the Bush (Sydney, 1845); it ran to at least five editions in London. It is a series of stories in the form of brief novelettes, each carefully constructed and divided into tiny chapters. The tales are homiletic and highly moral and intended to instruct the lower orders of society in such Christian virtues as accepting their station in life, observance of the Sabbath and abhorrence of sin. There is little in the tales to connect them with Australia, and their theme and tone reflect the author's English upbringing rather than any Australian influence.

Mrs Vidal's second Australian work, The Cabramatta Store, is set in the Nepean district of New South Wales and was published as part of a volume entitled Cabramatta, and Woodleigh Farm (London, 1849), the second part, a short novel Woodleigh Farm, being set in England. The profits derived from its sale were offered to the bishop of Sydney for the cathedral fund. The Cabramatta Store is sub-titled A Tale of the Bush and is less a novel than a series of vignettes reflecting the growth and conditions of that part of Australia in its day. Mostly it deals with the school, domestic and church life of the locality, and introduces rather casually the sensational elements of bushrangers, drought and bush fires, which were later to become a feature of so much early Australian fiction.

Mrs Vidal's third Australian novel, Bengala: or, Some Time Ago (London, 1860) was published a year after Henry Kingsley's The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn and in her preface the author refers to her 'homelier and greyer tinted sketch' which followed 'the more recent and highly-coloured pictures of the same subject'. Bengala is a full length, fully developed novel in two volumes. In the rapid changes in colonial life Mrs Vidal planned 'to seize one of these shifting scenes—a transient period with its own peculiar circumstances, its hopes, fears, evils and enjoyments'. The setting is a fictitious township in New South Wales, just north of Sydney. Into the description of the pastoral society have been introduced many characteristics of the stock in trade of the novel of pioneer settlement, even to the near guiltless victim who turns bushranger. Despite the much stronger Australian emphasis, however, the characters are most marked by the English gentility of their way of life.

Mrs Vidal died at Sutton, Suffolk, England, on 19 November 1873. She is important as being an early woman writer of fiction published separately in Australia. She published eight other English works and has been referred to by A. E. Shipley as 'a lady of some distinction as a writer'. To the student of Australian literature her works are of interest historically rather than as novels in their own right.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Morris Miller, ‘First woman novelist’, Australasian Book News and Library Journal, Mar 1947.

Citation details

J. C. Horner, 'Vidal, Mary Theresa (1815–1873)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 25 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Mary Theresa Vidal (1815-1873), by unknown artist

Mary Theresa Vidal (1815-1873), by unknown artist

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an12024169

Life Summary [details]


Torrington, Devon, England


19 November, 1873 (aged ~ 58)
Sutton, Suffolk, England

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