The life of Mary Grant Bruce
From 1910 to 1942 Mary Grant Bruce wrote an extremely successful children’s series, the thirteen Billabong books, about life on a fictional cattle station in country Victoria – a wonderful place of sunshine, droving cattle, enormous meals, friendly people, ideal Linton family, the works. I loved them as a child.
One day in my Honours year in 1974, in an Australian history seminar on nationalism, I remarked that some concept was well illustrated in the Billabong books. ‘Yes,’ said the lecturer, Michael Roe. ‘That would make an interesting thesis.’ I was looking for a topic, so took him up on it: middle-class Australian nationalism, distinct from the left-wing Bulletin type. One chapter was a biography of the author.
People kept on telling me how interesting it was, I should write a book, so I sent a copy of the thesis to Angus & Robertson, the leading Australian publishers. To my astonishment, they replied – eventually – with a contract for a book. So I wrote it, with much information from Mary Grant Bruce’s son in Melbourne. He and his family were wonderfully helpful and hospitable. A number of other people also shared their memories of Mary Grant Bruce. Fortunately these were always positive, though she was obviously a strong character.
Mary Grant Bruce had an interesting life and was a forthright character: birth in 1878; growing up in Sale, with wealthy family on a cattle station which she visited (thus the ideal air about Billabong, for Mary a holiday haven); career as a journalist in Melbourne; writing the first three books; marriage to an Anglo-Irish army officer; travel to Britain in the First World War, as she had the Lintons do; return to Australia with two sons; more writing; leaving for Ireland, where one son died; sad return to Australia, but the marriage of the second son, grandchildren, and a happier old age.
I sent the book to Angus & Robertson, and after endless delays it was published in 1979, my first book. It had modest success only, but I received letters of praise, which was wonderful, and people told me they liked my writing style. I’d never thought I could write – writing at school was making up stories or descriptions, and I wasn’t much good at either – and this book started me on my career.