Mabel Forrest

Mabel Forrest (1872-1935)

Prolific poet, such a sad life

When Mabel Forrest died in 1935, there was a public outpouring of grief. At that time, with the exception of Arthur Hoey Davis ('Steele Rudd'), she was probably Queensland's best known writer, and certainly its most widely published poet. Obituaries appeared in newspapers throughout Australia. The Courier Mail called her 'the representative poet of Queensland, her native state', and said that:
'In future anthologies of Australian poetry, fragrant blooms from her garden of verses will continue to be culled for the joy of our children's children.'

Yet within 25 years of her death, in Cec Hadgraft’s otherwise comprehensive study Queensland and its Writers,[2] her work is almost completely overlooked, and I can find no trace of her poetry in any anthology published in the last 50 years. Who was she? Why has her work disappeared from view?

The story of her life is at once tragic and triumphant. She was born Helena Mabel Checkley Mills, on 6 March 1872, near Yandilla, on the Darling Downs. Her father was a station manager, and she was educated almost exclusively by her mother on the various stations managed by her parents on the southern Darling Downs.

Her first published work has been traced to the 'Children's Corner' of the Queenslander, and according to sources was published when she was just 10 years old.[3] But economic circumstances, rather than any particular artistic vision, drove her to commence serious publication of her work. In July 1893, not long after she turned 21, she married a selector, John Burkinshaw, who represented that he had £500 in funds to support them. This proved to be untrue, and Mabel took in sewing and wrote poetry to earn money.

Within months of their marriage, Mr Burkinshaw tried to choke and kick their child, and had assaulted and beaten Mabel. He left for good in 1896 or 1897, after which Mabel was left without income except through her writing.  The poems of this time may have been driven by commercial motives, but they cannot escape the autobiographical. The Lonely Woman, first published in around 1898, is a good example:                    

By the door of the bark humpy, by the rotting blood-wood gates,  
On the river-bound selection, there a lonely woman waits...

This fine poem, which was anthologised in her lifetime in Walter Murdoch's Oxford book of Australian Verse, in 1918, has found currency in recent years, featuring on 4 or 5 poetry websites apart from this one.  

Forrest did not remain lonely. See took the rare step of initiating divorce proceedings in 1901, and her first marriage was dissolved in 1902. Shortly afterwards, she married John Forrest, who was more than 20 years older than her, and began what seems to be the happiest chapter of her life. She continued to publish stories and poetry, and worked as a freelance journalist. By 1916, she was acclaimed 'Australia's best known woman writer'.[5]

But her second husband died in 1921, and after that she was left to fend for herself. She lived in a little rented flat in Queen St, Brisbane, and published prolifically, in all sorts of genres. Her novel, ‘The Wild Moth' (1924) became Charles Chauvel's first feature film, ‘The Moth of Moonbi'. Active  and respected in Brisbane's small literary community, she became a foundation member of the Queensland Authors and Artists' Society.

By 1930, Forrest was at the peak of her fame, and her poem, 'The City Hall' was read at the opening of Brisbane's City Hall in 1930. That poem is now on a plaque in that hall, in a beautiful frame built by Rosenstegel's.

The last 5 years of her life were sad. Though her prolific publication brought her fame, it did not bring fortune. She suffered declining physical and mental health, and a public appeal was made to raise funds to support her.[6] In 1934, she attempted suicide, and she spent her last days in a mental hospital at Goodna, on Brisbane's outskirts, where she died from pneumonia, aged 62.

So much for her life. What of her writing? Well, she may have been too prolific for her own good. The literary database lists more than 1300 works in her name, and the list is almost certainly incomplete.  She even published different poems under the same name. The best of her poems are probably collected in two volumes: Alpha Centauri (1909) and Poems (1927). In these books her work is formal, traditional, and technically competent. According to the acknowledgements pages, the poems in these books first appeared in more than 20 publications, almost exclusively newspapers and magazines. She wrote for a general, rather than a literary, readership, and for editors who paid her for her work. This is both a strength and a weakness. She explored both rural and urban themes and is at her most successful when dealing with simple domestic topics:

'All day she works at the sewing machine, in the factory opposite,

Where the staring blindless windows gape in the glow of the summer light,

And all day long comes the clang and whirr, from the dusty, sunflecked room,

Looking on to a narrow city lane, where the tall black chimneys loom.

                                                                         (from 'Ready Mades')

In writing in that way, she gives away very little of herself. However, a poet as prolific as Forrest cannot help but draw on the autobiographical sometimes. When the autobiographical creeps in, it does so obliquely, and often in apparent reference to her first marriage. Take this, from the uncollected poem, 'Blue Eyes' :

'Came you with your gold locks flying,

You whom there was no denying,

Took my lips and took my loving-

All the heart of me.'

This kind of imagery is, however, passive, and generic, rather than specific. It is perhaps for this reason that the praise for her work was mixed, even from her contemporaries. Accordingly, one of her obituarists said 'it is as yet too early to allot her niche in the 'Temple of Fame'’.[7] But maybe, also, the sheer volume of her work made her miss what could have been best about it.  So, where she could have been specific and local, she becomes generic and general. I think this poem, from one of her threnodists, Emily Bulcock, gets it inadvertently right:

Daughter of Queensland! Passionate lover she

Of all this young land's colour, sun and fire,

She caught the poinciana's pagan glow

The bougainvillea's splendour stirred her lyre.' [8]

Of course, the poinciana and bougainvillea are introduced rather than native species. Maybe that's why, despite its contemporary popularity, her work is not so well remembered today.

Best book to buy:  Forrest, M, Poems, Sydney, Cornstalk Publishing, 1927.

Fun further reading: 'The Lonely Woman' a sensitively illustrated and rendered reprinting of the poem in comic book form by Ellen Iona Brombley:

[1] MacDonald, J. Scott, 'Our Queensland Poetess passes' , The Courier Mail, 19 March 1935, P12. 

[2] Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1959.

[3] Possibly 'Jessie's Dream' by 'Y.E.T.' in The Queenslander, 17 February 1883, p 251.

[4] 'Divorce Proceedings' in 'The Telegraph' (Brisbane) 21 November 1901, p2.

[5] 'Mrs Mabel Forrest Australia's Best Known Woman Writer', The Daily Mail, (Brisbane) 26 December 1916, p2.

[6] See for example 'Mabel Forrest Fund' in The Courier Mail 25 April, 1934, p16.

[7] 'Mabel Forrest' in 'The Queensland Figaro' 23/3/35, p6.

[8] Bulcock, Emily, 'In Memory Mabel Forrest' The Courier Mail' 11 April 1935, p18.

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