Her Sunburnt Country: Nonfiction Review 

Review by Stacey O’Carroll

Author: Deborah FitzGerald

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

RRP: $55.00

Release Date: 30 August 2023

“I love a sunburnt country,

A land of sweeping plains,

Of ragged mountain ranges,

Of droughts and flooding rains.

I love her far horizons,

I love her jewel-sea,

Her beauty and her terror

The wide brown land for me!” Dorothea Mackellar

Most Australians will be familiar with Dorothea Mackellar’s famous poem My Country, but little has been written about the important poet and author. Senior journalist Deborah FitzGerald’s second non-fiction book, Her Sunburnt Country, is a long overdue thorough biography about Dorothea Mackellar and her fascinating life. 

Dorothea Mackellar is a writer whom I have been familiar with since my early teens. Her poetry has continued to captivate my imagination and inspire my writing since I went to her namesake high school. I was also fascinated to learn more about this talented writer and one-time Northern Beaches local. 

In Her Sunburnt Country FitzGerald explores the woman behind and beyond her famous poem. Much has been written about Australian male writers, but as FitzGerald discovered, there was very little about Dorothea despite her acclaim. The biography developed through her PhD research into Dorothea Mackellar at Sydney University.

“The surviving paintings among her papers reveal intricate drawings of insects – beetles and butterflies – and, later, scenes from her travels: delicate Japanese parasols or pastoral scenes of Chinese peasants at work.”

FitzGerald was lucky to be friends with someone distantly related to Dorothea Mackellar. Her friend’s mother asked FitzGerald if she would like to write a biography about Dorothea. Of course, FitzGerald said yes. The family estate granted her permission to access Dorothea’s archives in the Mitchell Library, which include diaries, notebooks, paintings, photos, and, oddly, locks of hair. At an author event in Mona Vale, FitzGerald stated that the “diaries inform the whole book.” This becomes apparent when reading Her Sunburnt Country because the diaries, including their translated secret coded passages, reveal the real Dorothea. Dorothea’s love of the bush is also revealed through the diary entries. Her love of the Australian landscape went beyond the written word and is also captured in her her drawings and paintings.

“The horizon beckoned Dorothea with the promise of adventure on the high seas, and the garden was a masterpiece of contradiction sprawling across five acres, with native plants like grevilleas, kangaroo paws, jumping-jack wattles and billy buttons clustered alongside imported roses, lilies and daffodils.”

In Her Sunburnt Country, FitzGerald also explores the 100-year-old myth that Dorothea wrote My Country because she was homesick. FitzGerald discusses how this myth has continued to be reported in the media even though Dororthea herself disputed the claim in interviews. 

One of the many fascinating reveals in Her Sunburnt Country is Dorothea’s connection to many famous authors, including Joseph Conrad. Interestingly, Dorothea, alongside Mary Gilmore and Ethel Turner helped found the Australian chapter of the Poets, Essayists and Novelists Group (PEN). I was also surprised to learn that author Di Morrissey was inspired to write by Dorothea, whom she encountered at Lovett Bay on Sydney’s Northern Beaches when she was a child looking for fairies. 

Fitzgerald’s beautiful biography mixes evocative prose with her research to bring a well-rounded picture of a captivating writer. Her Sunburnt Country is a captivating and important record of a talented writer, which includes some truly stunning photographs. Fitzgerald’s biography is a must-read and should be in every school library.