Bee Miles: Non-Fiction Review.

Review by Stacey O’Carroll

Author: Rose Ellis

Publisher: Allen&Unwin

RRP: $34.99

Release Date: 29 August 2023

“Bee Miles always maintained that she didn’t want to be known, even though she lived most of her life under a public spotlight.” Rose Ellis

Quirky, intelligent and interesting characters litter Australian history, many of whom have faded into the mist of time. However, some of these people leave such a lasting impact that they walk through the mist and onto the page. Bohemian rebel Bee Miles is one such person. Her untold story is captured in Bee Miles by Sydney-based writer, editor and researcher Rose Ellis.

I have lived in Sydney for nearly my entire life, yet for some reason, I had not heard of Bee Miles. Perhaps this is because of my age. Bee died before I was born. So, who is the legend behind the name?

Beatrice ‘Bee’ Miles was the daughter of wealthy businessman and far-right political activist William John Miles and Maria Miles. Bee grew up in the Ashfield mansion Ambleside. She then studied medicine at university before dropping out after contracting encephalitis lethargica. The horrible illness set in motion a wild life, discrimination and time spent in and out of mental institutions and prisons.

“Within the asylums, her life had been turned upside down and her personal freedom taken away.”

Not only does Ellis provide a rounded image of a complex and often misunderstood woman, but she also shines a light on some of Australia’s horrendous treatment of the mentally ill and poor. Each time Bee is institutionalised, the reader is taken further into the horrific treatment of mentally ill (and not mentally ill) patients. Bee’s fractured relationship with her father is heartbreaking, and the realisation that he had her committed, despite the acknowledgement of how her illness had impacted her mental faculties, is shocking.

“Despite Bee claiming that she was ‘heartwhole’ and could go where she liked and say what she thought, the outcome of Manly Council’s extraordinary meeting was to grant its lifesavers authority to ban Bee from the beach.”

Despite the heartbreak and discriminative treatment Bee received from the police, nurses, taxi drivers and members of her family, she led a wild and roaming life across Australia.  Her rebellious antics are both reckless and sometimes hilarious. I found mind-boggling an incident with her “swimming out half a kilometre from the shoreline and then embarking on a swim from South Steyne [in Manly] to Queenscliff and back” with a knife strapped to her leg. Furthermore, the visual Ellis paints of Bee jumping on and off trams and the bumpers of cars over many decades also captures her fearless side and the impact of her illness.

“The police’s general perception of Bee was that she was mentally unstable, but more than likely there was some vindictiveness on their part as well.”

Ellis’s background as a researcher is apparent with Bee Miles filled with plenty of fascinating facts and captures Sydney in a time of change. However, while Ellis creates a well-rounded picture of a nomadic, intelligent writer and performer, I found the middle of the book’s pacing slowed down and focused too much on other people rather than Bee.

Bee Miles is a biography about a fascinating wandering woman who has become a legend in Sydney lore. Ellis’s sympathetic portrayal brings forth the true identity of the infamous Bee Miles and is an enjoyable, worthwhile read.