Marie Bjelke Petersen’s Romances: Fulfilling the Contract, Subverting the Spirit

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she became, during the 1920s, one of Australia’s most successful writers in terms of sales, both nationally and in the competitive international market. Her nine novels published between 1917 and 1937 sold more than 250,000 copies (including translations) and in 1935 Petersen received the King’s Jubilee Medal for Literature.Her novels were part of globalised popular culture and, as such, determined how Australia, and especially Tasmania, were viewed in Britain and America (2). Yet she is now largely unknown except as possibly an undeclared lesbian and aunt of one-time Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke Petersen. The reasons for this latter-day obscurity are intriguing for several reasons, not least for the light they shed on the stranglehold that prevailing cultural fashions and critical studies exert on how we read literature and how far we are prepared to credit some genres with depth and complexity while disdaining others as superficial, trivial and “not literature”. (41)


her novels, while providing useful income, were conceptually legitimised for their author by their frankly propagandist function. This included publicising the natural beauty of Petersen’s adopted home, Tasmania, and the therapeutic power of wilderness; reassessing the role of women in relationships; affirming the power and importance of emotions in a society devoted to rationality; proposing as an alternative kind of romantic love a psychic and companionable friendship; disseminating Petersen’s experiential Christian message of a personal God able to be communicated with through prayer; and denouncing the evils of alcohol and Eastern cultures. (42-43)