Influences in early writings of Australian fairy tale writer Olga Ernst; female mentors, life experiences and the growing national sentiment

Stream: 20th Century Juvenilia
Date: Thursday, 19 May 2022
Time: 1.30 pm – 3.00 pm


From around the mid-nineteenth century literary fairy tales had begun to appear in newspapers and children’s books in Australia. A variety of contributions and letters were sought from child writers for the new children’s pages and Olga Ernst, a young girl of twelve years, seized the opportunity to give the old-world fairy tale an Australian bush context captivating children. Encouraged by her newspaper successes at the age of sixteen Ernst published a collection of her fairy tales, ‘Fairy tales from the land of the wattle’ in 1904. Initially this paper seeks to investigate Ernst focusing on the features of her juvenile writing, the importance of the encouragement by editors of children’s pages in local and regional newspapers in allowing her to find her writer’s voice. Close analysis of her juvenile writing in newspapers also allows a focus on the fashioning of her stories to reflect the experiences of her early life, her education, and her interest in Australian identity grounded in the environment and set in the backdrop of growing national sentiment towards Federation. I aim to contextualise common themes that emerge in her fairy tales, the value of education, faith, gendered expectations and a strong sense of social justice. Australian national identity as represented in Australian literature of the era emanated from a tradition with origins in the 1890s and reverberated with the themes of mateship, independence, resistance to authority and the contradictory and challenging aspects of life in the bush environment (Sarangi & Mishra). Many of the early fairy tales reflect the social and cultural norms of the era and include references to alcoholism, the gold rushes, struggles to farm in a harsh and unforgiving landscape, poor treatment of Indigenous peoples and contemporary attitudes to death, women and education. Fairy-tale books (pre–1910), particularly those written by men, were peopled with male characters on quest-like adventures with very few female protagonists. Ernst’s fairies undertake adventuring roles in the bush without male support and make choices about their destiny. I would argue that the influence of strong matriarchal figures in Ernst’s life challenged some of the prejudices of historical fairy tale structures. More recent critiquing by children’s literature scholars has seen Ernst measured against her adult peers without concern for, or mention of, her youth (Saxby, Niall, Kociumbas). Her negotiation of the publication of ‘Fairy tales from the land of the wattle’ was undertaken directly with the publisher without adult intervention indicating a maturity and determination beyond her years. Ernst’s first work was acclaimed, sold in four states between 1904 and 1907 and was even suggested to teachers as a ‘reward book’ for school prizes. High praise, indeed! However apart from six copies in library archives her work has been largely forgotten. Owen and Petersen acknowledge that for young authors there is no particular pathway or even purpose: some write alone or to simply to please themselves, some with adult support, some like Ernst achieve fame for a short time while for others, their early writings are stepping stones to a bright future (xxii). This paper finally questions whether it is worth analysing and evaluating the works of juvenile writers who do not achieve lasting success. The juvenile writings of successful authors have been reprinted, revised or annotated to meet the needs and preferences of a twenty-first century audience. The re-working of fairy tales is common. While I have suggested that the complexities that make Ernst’s writing distinctive—her German-Australian background, her inclusion of known place, setting and incorporation of natural sciences into her writing—deserve to be recognised perhaps more importantly and worthy of further scholarship is the analysis of socio-cultural contexts in Australian children’s literature of the past, and their relationship to the present.


Robyn Kellock Floyd (Presenter), Swinburne University of Technology
Robyn Kellock Floyd lectures in education at Swinburne University of Technology. Her educational research has resulted in the development of curriculum resources, teacher manuals and the occasional short story. Robyn’s PhD dissertation focussed Olga Ernst, a young writer, and the influences that shaped her writing of Australian fairy tales. Robyn has published her research on fairy tales, writes a blog and shared her enthusiasm for Australian literary fairy tales in the UK and Germany. It is no surprise that she is a founding member of the Australian Fairy Tale Society winning their annual award for contribution to Australian fairytale culture.