A mortal flame
the life of Marie Bjelke-Petersen
One day Tim Jetson showed me an old novel, Jewelled Nights. ‘You’d like this’, he said, ‘It’s interesting. Set in Tasmania.’ He was right. I found it absorbing, a sugary love story with the unique setting of the Tasmanian osmiridium fields of the 1920s. It ended in writing a biography of the author, Marie Bjelke-Petersen.
Born in Denmark in 1874, Marie Bjelke-Petersen arrived in Hobart in the 1890s. She wanted to become an artist, but joined her brother teaching physical education, very new and modern. Probably lesbian but at the very least quite uninterested in men, she was devoted to her companion, musician Sylvia Mills. Together they spent their holidays touring Tasmania, Marie painting while Sylvia read out loud. This provided the impressively accurate backgrounds for her books.
Intensely religious, Marie Bjelke-Petersen started writing religious tracts, but then began on her nine novels. Most were set in Tasmania and featured typical local people going about their lives, for example attending a chopping match. On this background was grafted a highly passionate and improbable love story. There is always a strong moral, and often someone with a passion – for vegetarianism, fresh food, the rights of women, for example, passions Marie Bjelke-Petersen held herself. The novels did not sell particularly well in Australia as far as I can see (no figures are available) but were very popular overseas, the London Athenaeum counting one among the best books of the year. Amazing: they’re really trashy romances, not well written, only saved by their interesting backgrounds and characters.
Marie was devastated when Sylvia died in 1927. After this she lived in a sort of commune of women, all devoted to her. Her food preferences served her well, and she died in 1969, aged 95. Wikipedia tells me she has become a gay and lesbian icon. I daresay such readers are a bit disappointed if they read my book. Marie Bjelke-Petersen’s last female companion was very helpful to me, and was a highly respectable member of a highly respectable church. I just couldn’t ask her about lesbians, and I felt I had to be careful about what I said in the book, so it isn’t very graphic. I know it was cowardly, but she was so nice, so hospitable, so kind …
The rather obscure title was chosen (in desperation) because one of Marie Bjelke-Petersen’s books was called Immortal flame. And I have to mention him: Marie Bjelke-Petersen was the aunt of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.