Hilda Margaret Bridges (1881-1971) wrote 13 novels while acting as amanuensis for her brother, Roy. Both were born in Hobart and formed a deep attachment to ‘Woods’, the family farm near Sorell. In 1933, Hilda and Roy returned, somewhat unwillingly, to Tasmania, thereby keeping a promise Roy had made to his family. They remained at Woods until Roy’s death in 1952, in an attempt to restore and protect the property. (Research Project Proposal)
In late 1930, Val Wood died. Bridges remembered the promise he had made to his uncle. “Hilda and I, keeping our word to him, left Melbourne for Woods’ to undertake its restoration.” (Bridges, R, That Yesterday 238) They stayed for a year. Then, in May 1935, not without misgivings, they moved to the farm. “That withdrawal,” one obituarist has observed, “was really an ordained thing, for [Roy’s] being if not his happiness was centred in Wood’s Farm” (Sayers 2).
The family had been centred in Tasmania since 1807, when Bridges’ maternal great-great-grandparents had arrived from Norfolk Island. In 1825, their maternal great-grandparents, the Woods, were granted land near Sorell, land that became the spiritual seat of their mother’s family. Bridges and his sister fondly recalled holidays spent at “Woods”, where they revelled in the pastoral surroundings and in the tales they were told about their “pioneering” forebears (e.g. Bridges, R, That Yesterday 1-4; Bridges, H, Wood’s Farm 2). (Exegesis)
Hilda cooked and kept house, turning Roy’s scrawled notes into neatly written manuscripts, and earning a ‘few pounds, from copying … songs and orchestral parts’. In 1922, Hilda wrote her first novel. She would go on to become a ‘well-known writer’, publishing thirteen novels, three children’s books and hundreds of stories in magazines and newspapers.
Having withdrawn to Woods, Roy and Hilda spent the rest of their lives battling loneliness and depression. They wrote letters and read but yearned for human contact. Their well-being, like the well-being of their works, rested on their associations. Their unhappy end suggests that no book or being is ever truly an island, even – or especially – in Tasmania. (Presentation)
Roy felt his face go red. ‘Fond of me?’
‘Yes, you. Don’t look at me like that. Father has always brought your books home – brought you home – and told us stories about his Antipodean prodigy, as he calls you. So I know you don’t live or work alone; I know you have a helper, Hilda.’
‘My sister,’ Roy said, stiffly, ‘is a very good typist.’
‘And writer, I hear.’
And secretary, he thought. And cook and housekeeper. (Thesis)
Roy rested his forehead on the cold glass, his eyes closed.
Hilda – she was alive. Probably more alive than ever now she was free of him, her brilliant baby brother. Her brilliant brother baby. (Thesis)
In ‘Some Modern Australian Novelists’, an article published in Melbourne’s Advocate newspaper, the critic and novelist Bernard Cronin opined that Roy Bridges ‘has made the province of Australian – particularly Tasmanian – history peculiarly his own’. As for Hilda Bridges, she, Cronin wrote, is one of those writers who ‘come readily to mind’ when thinking about ‘stories of crime, mystery and adventure’. The year was 1933. Roy and Hilda Bridges were in their literary prime. And yet within decades they had disappeared from view, neither one rating a mention in Penguin’s The Literature of Australia, for example, or making more than a fleeting appearance (at most) in subsequent surveys and histories of Australian literature (e.g. Kramer, Bennet & Strauss, Webby, Pierce 2009). (Exegesis Proposal)
It was in this world [when Tasmanian was seen largely as a ‘little England’] that Roy and Hilda wrote, and their works bear the imprint of this ideal. Their stories have settings that are passive, sympathetic and remote. They feature characters who are middle-class, ’feminine’ and English-born. They are conventional romances couched in a cultured and conservative style. Their books are, in other words, ‘little English’ novels.
This was a major source of Roy and Hilda’s success. Their novels were popular largely because they seemed comfortingly familiar to British and Australian readers. Roy and Hilda’s literary fortunes declined rapidly after Roy’s death in 1952. Their novels fell from favour and were largely forgotten. Roy became little more than a footnote in Australian literary histories, while Hilda was overlooked completely. And yet other novels associated with Tasmania – those of Marcus Clarke and Nan Chauncy, for example – prospered. Why?
In the 1960s, literary tastes began to change, as a generation of neo-nationalists rose to prominence, opponents of the so-called ‘cultural cringe’. They preferred novels whose settings were active and immediate; whose characters were working-class and locally-born. They valued radicalism and realism, unconventional works like those of the temporary Tasmanian, Hal Porter. In this world, the ‘little English’ novels of Roy and Hilda were badly out of place, their ‘Tasmanian-ness’ being seen as a liability. Even now, this perception persists. The Australian Dictionary of Biography, for example, deems Roy’s novels to be sentimental, superficial and ‘mannered’ in style, while Hilda’s ‘light narratives’ are said to have ‘stereotyped’ characters. (Presentation)
Roy and Hilda’s connection to Tasmania was strong; against their will it drew them back from the mainland and all but imprisoned them in a place infamous for its penitential past. And yet the island shaped more than just their personal lives. Tasmania and ‘Tasmanian-ness’ – people’s perceptions of Tasmania – would have a telling effect on their literary fortunes. (Presentation)