I recently wrote of Denmark: at last, I hinted, we may have held up our end of the bargain in an intercontinental exchange. In the 1820s a colourful Dansker came to Tasmania; in the year 2000, a love affair between a Tasmanian and the Crown Prince of Denmark began. Where we once received Jørgen Jørgensen, we gave away our Mary Donaldson.
But actually, Tasmanians are still one-up over the Danes. Because in 1891, another Danish migrant would arrive to Hobart and also make a significant mark on our island’s culture. This was the novelist Marie Bjelke Petersen.
She had been brought up in the outskirts of Copenhagen, but moved with her whole family when she was a teenager. They arrived in the spring. In her reminiscences at least, the scenery was instantly affecting: it was “a paradise of untouched beauty”, she said. “When I saw all these mountains in Tasmania, I embraced it on the spot.”
Certainly the mountains would have been impressive. She’d have seen a number of them whilst still at sea, and Mount Wellington must have have struck her as imposing. Denmark, after all, is rather flat; its highest point is 170 metres above sea level.
At first she tried to transmute her feeling for the Tasmanian landscape into painting, but she soon converted to writing. Her first three publications were religious works, but in 1917 she wrote The Captive Singer. The plot featured a guide who took tourists into the caves around Mole Creek, and sang well, and charmed a woman. It sold 150,000 copies in Australia – and 40,000 in a Danish translation.
It kicked off a steady stream of words, and sales. In Dusk she wrote of a love affair in the mining town of Queenstown; in Jewelled Nights she narrated a close friendship (which became a love affair) at a prospectors’ camp on the Savage River. In total Bjelke Petersen sold more than a quarter of a million books in English and many more in the six languages into which they were translated. For an Australian author of her era, this was an enormous success.
The novels don’t necessarily age well. Their plots are sometimes frivolous, and Bjelke Petersen’s religious didactism doesn’t read well today. Today, her prose comes across as overly romantic, breathless and out-of-control. But one thing is certain: Marie Bjelke Petersen’s writing about Tasmania (and mainland Australia, in which she set a couple of novels) showed an original view of the landscape. Where other authors painted Tasmania as “bleak and cheerless”, Bjelke Petersen raved about the “lawless loveliness of the landscape.”
Perhaps for Bjelke Petersen, excursions into the bush gave her liberty. She travelled far and wide into western Tasmania researching her plots. Her other career was as a teacher of physical education; she strongly believed in its virtues. She went places that few women of European background had been.
You may be familiar with her nephew, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who would later become a Queensland politician. His aunt was also religiously conservative, but Marie was nevertheless a forward thinker in society. I’m not sure if she ever thought of herself as a feminist, but she certainly wasn’t willing to be constrained by expectations of gender roles. The novelist refused to be married, and instead lived with her close friend Sylvia Mills. (Plenty of tongues have wagged about what their relationship might have been, but I have little gossip to contribute.)
Marie Bjelke Petersen was also an environmental conservationist. “It is really a matter that brings tears to my eyes to see the way our beautiful forests are being wantonly burnt off,” she declared in one public address. Her enthusiasm for the bush wasn’t confined to her literature. (“The jungle was a riotous confusion of strong growing things, which clung savagely together and almost strangled each other in their fierce passionate embraces!”)
This is a recurring theme in Tasmania: so many of the activists who have spoken in praise and in defence of our landscapes have originally come from places like Denmark, Austria, Germany, Romania, Lithuania and Latvia. Although today I think some Tasmanian-born individuals have at last begun to understand and respect their surrounds, for many years we relied on those who had come from the outside to point out just how special it all was.
Likewise, Marie Bjelke Petersen was a special character in Tasmanian cultural history – another Dane for whom we can be grateful. She died as an old lady in October 1969.
Another fascinating literary figure from Tasmania was the Glenorchy-born author Christopher Koch.
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