1878 - 1958 | VIC | Journalist & children's author
Bruce was a journalist and children’s author when fiction was an important component of newspapers. She joined The Age after leaving school and a series on Melbourne hospitals won her respect as a journalist. But it was as a fictional story-teller that she made her mark as Australia’s best-selling children’s author for 25 years. Bruce’s books featured vivid descriptions of the beauty and danger of the Australian bush and colloquial dialogue celebrating the art of yarning. Her stories of mateship, the Anzac spirit and bush hospitality helped frame attitudes towards the Australian identity.
Mary Grant Bruce is best known for the 15 Billabong books, the children’s novels about the idyllic rural life of plucky Norah Linton, brother Jim and their mates Wally and Harry. But her work over 13 years as a professional journalist is equally noteworthy.
Like many other journalists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Bruce’s writing switched from reportage to fiction with ease, reflecting the editorial mix of newspapers and magazines at the time. For instance, the first Billabong book, A Little Bush Maid, was serialised initially in The Leader when Bruce was editing that rural weekly’s children’s page.
Born in Gippsland in 1878, Minnie Grant Bruce – as she was before her publisher urged the change to a more marketable Mary – began writing at seven. Her first story was an epic about a crazed Czar. At 10, she was editing the school magazine. At 17 she won the Melbourne Shakespeare Society’s annual essay competition. Her obvious talent caught the eye of the society’s president, Dr James Nield, who became her literary mentor.
In 1900, after the publication of a couple of short stories in The Leader, she left Gippsland for Melbourne “full of assorted ambitions and five pounds in [her] pocket”. However, her writing ambitions took a while to realise.
For a time she worked as a secretary and, influenced by her experience as a “bachelor girl” living independently in a bed-sit in a big city, began to question traditional women’s roles.
This emerging feminism influenced much of her later work. She clearly revelled in independence, becoming one of the first women in Australia to own a three-speed bicycle which she used to ride on the 160-kilometre trip to visit her parents in Traralgon.
She was writing freelance articles when Dr Nield’s friendship with The Leader’s editor ensured her first regular journalistic job, editing the magazine’s children’s page for a pound a week. The editorship was not time-consuming so Bruce boosted her income by freelancing. She contributed articles and short stories on a range of topics to a range of publications and combined with other women to form the Writers’ Club which later merged with the Lyceum Club.
Outpost, Table Talk, Lone Hand, Women’s World, Australasian Traveller, Woman, Southern Sphere and the Ballarat Evening Echo all carried her work. She was particularly gratified when the prestigious rural publication Dalgety’s Review accepted an article about cattle.
She turned everything she experienced into copy: even ferry rides on Lake Wendouree and outings with friends. Only one topic – fashion – was out of bounds. She covered the Melbourne Cup, wrote a series on hospitals, interviewed the celebrated Australian actress Nellie Stewart, and espoused the cause for women’s suffrage.
At one stage she travelled around South Australia with political activist Muriel Farr on a tour for the Australian Women’s National League to encourage women to vote. Later she was temporary editor of the League’s magazine, Woman.
She wrote forcefully about women’s issues, always taking a practical stand. Women should have access to proper sex education. They should be able to take on a wider range of careers, if they wanted. Wives should have a defined allowance from their husbands to allow them independence.
For Bruce, that was the key. Women had the right to be treated as individuals and to savour an autonomy as strong as any man’s. But with autonomy came a responsibility to work hard, be direct, practical and good-natured: qualities she extolled in all her writing.
She wanted no cloying love interest in the Billabong books but was, she said, ‘more or less forced into marrying off Norah and Wally eventually, but beyond that I drew the line’. But she was not anti-marriage.
In 1913, three years after Ward, Lock & Co in London published A Little Bush Maid, Bruce travelled to Britain. An introduction to Lord Northcliffe, provided by helpful English relatives, led to her writing articles on Australian life for the Daily Mail. In England she met a second cousin, Major George Bruce, and married him the next year in Melbourne.
By the end of her years as a professional journalist, she no longer needed a regular job. The success of the early Billabong books, not her marriage, guaranteed that. But she continued to write – moving with her family between Australia, England and Ireland – until her death in England in 1958.
The qualities that Bruce recorded in her journalism and expounded in her fiction were reflected in her own working life: decent, self-reliant, practical and hard-working. When the Linton family at Billabong station showed those same qualities, her Australian readers saw themselves. Bruce’s work was undoubtedly influential in forming the part of the Australian national identity that celebrates the perceived virtues of life in the bush.
Sally White is a former journalist, educator and author of four books including two journalism texts.
Books from the popular Billabong series
Mary Grant Bruce signing books for childen at Prahran Town Hall in 1939
'Bruce, Minnie Grant (Mary) (1878–1958)', Lynne Strahan, Australian Dictionary of Biography, MUP, 1979.
Billabong’s Author: The life of Mary Grant Bruce, Alison Alexander, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1979.
The Peculiar Honeymoon and Other Writings by Mary Grant Bruce, Prue McKay (ed.), McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1986.