Backhouse, Elizabeth (1917—)

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Backhouse, Elizabeth (1917—)

Australian author of fiction and drama. Born Elizabeth Backhouse in Northam, Western Australia, in 1917; daughter of Hilda (Booth) Backhouse and William Backhouse; educated in public schools; never married; no children.

Selected works:

In Our Hands (1940); The Sky Has Its Clouds (1943); Death Came Uninvited (1957); Death Climbs a Hill (1963); The Web of Shadows (1966); The Thin Line (1968); The Fourth Picture (1974); KAL (ballet, 1979); Against Time and Place (1990). Author of eleven novels, four plays, a children's book, television drama, ballet, and a family anecdotal history which portrays early 1900s Australian life.

Though Britons first settled in Australia in the late 1700s, the heaviest migration came in the early and mid-1900s. Elizabeth Backhouse's father William, a violinist, was among those who endured the long voyage in hopes of a new climate and opportunities in unchartered territory. Since Australia could not claim a strong musical community, he took a fair-paying job on the Australia railroad and, once he had earned enough money, sent for his fiancée Hilda. They married the day she arrived. In Northam, the couple bought a country house whose walls were made of hessian, a tightly stretched fabric or hide, on which pictures and other decorations were hung by stitching. It was surrounded by gardens, with a giant mulberry tree that stooped close to the rear porch.

Elizabeth Backhouse was born at home in 1917, two years after her brother Clive. Raised on music, the Backhouse children learned violin from William and piano from Hilda. Then, while their parents gave lessons to local children, Elizabeth and Clive slipped out the back door to explore their neighborhood. Always an eager student, Elizabeth attended public schools, even during an extended visit to England with Hilda's family in 1924.

When Elizabeth was nine, a sexual assault crippled her childhood. On her way home from school, she encountered an older man who asked directions to the park. Next, he demanded that she walk him there, then forced her into a public restroom and molested her. Elizabeth escaped by kicking him. The following day, she was struck blind and began to stutter. Later, in her 1990 memoir Against Time and Place, she wrote, "Sometimes I would finish a whole sentence. Sometimes I would speak normally for a whole day and be able to say nothing on the following day. I could say nothing at all if I did not have a firm grip on my right ankle. I had used my right foot to kick the man."

Backhouse stayed home from school with her mother, who read to her, and her father, who played the violin to soothe her. Thinking it might be therapeutic if she could play, her parents encouraged her toward music. Sometimes the attempts worked, but more often she was struck with paralyzing panic and her fingers would not move. Six months after the assault, when she had seen several doctors who could find nothing physically wrong with her, Elizabeth's sight was instantaneously restored. Her speech remained stilted, however, aided only by a grip on her ankle. Only as an adult, with the help of a public-speaking class, would she resume more normal speech.

The stutter ruined school for Backhouse. Since she refused all oral presentations and examinations, her grades suffered and the Backhouses saw university hopes fade. "You can educate yourself," Backhouse recalled her father saying, "through books. All education, all learning, all instruction, all wisdom and truth come from men's and women's minds. Read books. Sift everything, distill everything and see what rises from it."

Backhouse joined the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force at the start of World War II and served for four years stationed near Melbourne. She wrote her first three books during off-duty hours in a small, abandoned hut. Based on these early successes, she went to England after the war and for five years lived abroad and worked for Korda Films. Within a year of her 1951 return to her parents' new home in Perth, William Backhouse died. With a friend, Elizabeth bought a house nearby and made daily visits to her mother. When Hilda's health began to fail at age 70, Elizabeth had rooms built onto her own home for her mother. The two lived together for 23 years; Hilda was bedridden for the last ten.

Elizabeth Backhouse published novels throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. After the 1966 release The Web of Shadows, she focused her literary attentions on the stage and television. Published in 1990, her most recent work, Against Time and Place, provides an anecdotal history of the Booth and Backhouse families, several of whose members emigrated from England. The memoir is an unusual account of the experiences they had in a newly flourishing country.


Backhouse, Elizabeth. Against Time and Place. Fremantle, Western Australia: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1990.

Wilde, William H., Joy Horton, and Barry Andrews, ed. Oxford Companion to Australian Literature. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Crista Martin , freelance writer, Boston, Massachusetts