The contribution of Olga Dorothea Agnes Ernst (1888–1972), the Melbourne-born daughter of a German emigrant, to Australian children’s literature was the establishment of distinctive Australian environs in her fairy tales and children’s songs. Similarly the backdrop in some of her adult fables locates them firmly in an Australian setting. Ernst, a bilingual writer, influenced by her German-Australian heritage offered an Australian identity in her works that challenged the strong British influence that presented Australia to children from an British perspective.
Characterisation and plot reveal the German/Lutheran values of her childhood and the influence of her vocation of education. Ernst actively promoted an Australian identity that centred on geographical and botanical settings. By placing Ernst as one of our early bilingual children’s writers of fairy tales, this thesis will argue that she challenged the British ideology of earlier Australian fairy tales and was part of an Australian fairy tale movement that encouraged the development of an authentic Australian ‘voice’ in fantasy in the late 1880s and early 1900s. Influenced by her relationship with artist William Ricketts and his personal understanding of Indigenous spirituality, I argue that as Ernst’s writing evolved, and she matured from girlhood to young academic, teacher and mother, the German-essence of her first book diminishes. Nevertheless, all her works advance her championing of a particular Australian identity through a scientifically accurate, and poetically descriptive portrayal of the Australian environment.
While this thesis is not a biography it does, however, examine the relationship between Ernst’s childhood experiences within the Melbourne-German Community, her teaching career, church life and community service in order to acknowledge, and examine their influence on her writing. Poverty and gender did not restrict Ernst’s ambitions, and she became a Head Teacher—one of the first primary teachers in Victoria to be appointed to a Higher Elementary School—achieved a Master of Arts degree, and actively self-published and promoted her last work, reprinting it three times.
A close analysis of Ernst’s works allows a focus on the fashioning of her stories to reflect the German cultural, social and linguistic context of her early life, and a later shaping to create an Australian identity. Ernst’s influence on Australian children’s literature will be examined in terms of the contemporaneous response to her work in newspaper reviews and personal correspondence, and its geographical distribution.
The central argument of my thesis is that the concept of ‘Australian national identity’ is presented to readers from Ernst’s perspective as a woman, a teacher, and a staunch Christian, who was of German, and Australian, rather than of British heritage. Ernst constructed a pedagogical fantasy world that instructed its child readers with an unashamed sense of pride in Australia, and for later writers offered a bridge between the traditional literary fairy tales of Europe, and the writing of authentic Australian fantasy. I also contend that Ernst’s later works reflected the developing concept of her particular perception of Australian nationhood by presenting the bush as the ‘authentic’ backdrop for narratives and poetry for Australian children.