I must have been about 9 when I first came across Ethel Turner and her novel Seven Little Australians. A television adaptation of it – made by an Australian tv station and bought by the BBC – showed up here on children’s television. My mother and I, both of us addicts of the BBC Classic Serial, watched with growing fascination. And, as soon as possible, I bought the book.
It had, I think, been out of print over here for some years. Certainly, it was not in the library with the other children’s classics: Little Women¸ Treasure Island, Anne of Green Gables, Kidnapped, The Railway Children. And yet to my nine-year-old eyes it belonged right there with them. It was the same sort of book – but better.
The fictional children I grew up with lived restricted lives, lives full of duty to family and society. The March girls, Anne Shirley, Katy of What Katy Did, all spent their days studying and working and being good, or paying for it if they were not. Even in the more recent novels, like the Narnia books or the Swallows and Amazons series, girls were either faux-boys or they were Responsible. Boys were freer, but I didn’t like those books so much. There were no girls in them, or, if they were, they were peripheral and silly.
Turner’s Woolcot family were different. They lived in a bigger world, somehow. This was not the restricted canvas of school and gossipy small town, of the safe sailing lake or camping trip. This world encompassed boat travel as a means of going from A to B, huge open spaces on horseback, and, despite the small-town setting, a household that somehow licensed picnics at a whim, wanderings without adult interference, and a clear sense from the child heroes that adults were not Authorities, but unpredictable and sometimes very unfair individuals who could be negotiated with or outmanoeuvred with every hope of the child coming out on top and feeling all right about it. These children had agency in their lives and they were the better for it.
And, best of all, the girls were the dominant characters. In most of the books I’d read with a mixed cast, the boys took the lead. Girls followed and imitated (and were teased for it) or took on the ‘mother’ role. Not the Woolcots. Meg and Judy – and, in the sequel, Nell – took the lead in almost everything and resisted every attempt by their brothers to dominate or bully them. Judy, wilful and inventive, wild and loving and careless and determined, is the heart of Seven Little Australians. She is the planner and the leader, the person to whom everyone, even the older children and their young stepmother, turned. Of all my other fictional girls, only Anne Shirley was as imaginative and brave – but Anne lived in a world restricted by Christian duty and adult chores. Judy ducked punishment, recognising its unfairness, and led rebellion. She was brave without having to be a tomboy. She seemed like someone I could be friends with.
She was a little scary. Some of her plots were wild and she had an instinct for trouble. But I didn’t think she’d bully me for being nervous. She’d encourage and support me, as she did her sister Meg. In the book, she walks 70 miles home from school, almost penniless and unsupported and Turner approves her action all the way (although she does not show it). I loved and admired Judy’s courage. Meg, though, was my favourite. Quieter than Judy, dreamier, she seemed more approachable. She was a girl like me who liked being female, but, unlike Beth March or Susan of Swallows and Amazons, her femininity did not condemn her to being little mother. She could ride and romp with the others, and plot and talk back. She was a real girl, not a baby saint.
I discovered years and years later that Ethel Turner was only 22 when she wrote Seven Little Australians, and that she had set out to make her living as a writer at 18, beginning and promoting her own magazine. She had grown up knowing that women must look after themselves. Her twice-widowed mother had emigrated to Australia with three small daughters and Ethel grew up knowing she must work to survive. Her heroines do not focus on household chores: they, like her, live in a wider world where they may have to run a sheep station or manage a large house or go out to work. Their horizons were wide, somehow: they contained marriage and family, yes, but also the possibility of work after marriage, of exploration, of expansion. As children, they move from their ramshackle, anarchic family house to the hugeness of the outback, from concerns with nursery food to the very real dangers of nature in ways that are very believable.
I admired Judy and loved Meg and envied all the Woolcots their vast skies and freedom to do as they pleased. I admire Turner, too, for her courage and determination and her sense that she could write and write well. I’m glad I found her book. It opened doors for me onto a different kind of childhood.
Kari Sperring grew up dreaming of joining the musketeers and saving France, only to discover that the company had been disbanded in 1776. Disappointed, she became a historian instead and as Kari Maund has written and published five books and many articles on Celtic and Viking history and co-authored a book on the history and real people behind her favourite novel, The Three Musketeers (with Phil Nanson). She’s been writing as long as she can remember and completed her first novel at the age of 8 (12 pages long and about ponies). She started writing fantasy in her teens, inspired by J R R Tolkien, Alexandre Dumas and Thomas Mallory. She has published short stories in several British anthologies: Her first novel Living with Ghosts was published by DAW books in March 2009: her second, The Grass King’s Concubine, comes out, also from DAW, in August 2012.
She’s been a barmaid, a tax officer, a P.A. and a university lecturer, and has found that her fascinations, professional or hobby-level, feed and expand into her fiction. She’s currently at work on her third and fourht novels at once, because she needs more complications in her life. She can be found at http://www.karisperring .com, on Facebook (Kari Sperring), Twitter (@karisperring) and on Live Journal as la_marquise_de_.