Bjelke-Petersen, Marie (1874–1969)

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Bjelke-Petersen, Marie (1874–1969)

Danish-Australian novelist. Born Marie Bjelke-Petersen at Jagtvejen, near Copenhagen, Denmark, on December 23, 1874; died at Lindisfarne, Hobart, Tasmania, on October 11, 1969; only daughter of Georg Peter and Caroline Vilhellmine (Hansen) Bjelke-Petersen; attended schools in Denmark, Germany, and London.

Selecting writings:

The Mysterious Stranger (1913); Before an Eastern Court (1914); Muffled Drums (1914); The Captive Singer (1917); The Immortal Flame (c. 1919); Dusk (1921); Jewelled Nights (1924); The Moon Minstrel (1927); Monsoon Music (1930); The Rainbow Late (1932); The Silver Knight (1934); Jungle Night (1937).

Marie Bjelke-Petersen's childhood, a reflection of her father's Spartan ideals, included instruction in the Bible, Greek mythology, and gymnastics. When the family immigrated to Tasmania (off the southeastern coast of Australia) in 1891, her brother Hans opened a Physical Culture School in Hobart, the capital city. Bjelke-Petersen was an instructor there and in the Hobart schools, until illness forced her to abandon her teaching career, and she took up writing.

After a number of her stories were published in Sydney papers, Bjelke-Petersen published three romantic religious sketches beginning with The Mysterious Stranger in 1913. Praised as a classic, it was translated into Arabic and reissued by London's Religious Tract Society in 1934. Her first novel The Captive Singer, written when she was 42, was set in Tasmania's Marakoopa Caves and was inspired by a guide who sang there. The book enjoyed immense popularity, selling 100,000 copies in English and 40,000 in Danish. Eight more sentimental novels followed, each containing an evangelical theme.

Bjelke-Petersen gained greater popularity in the U.S. and England than in Australia, although she did attract young women fans wherever she traveled. Critics praised her the authenticity of characters and the credibility of her plots, but some were less enthusiastic about her love scenes, with a writer for the Australasian suggesting that she should "exercise a little restraint over both her imagination and her vocabulary." Her passion for accuracy led her to travel into remote areas for firsthand information. In the 1920s, she was the first woman to go underground with working miners at Queenstown. Her 1924 book Jewelled Nights takes place on the Savage River osmium fields, with its settings and vernacular developed from on-site visits.

In 1935, Bjelke-Petersen received a King's Jubilee Medal for literature, and she was helpful in establishing the Tasmanian Fellowship of Australian Writers. In addition to her novels, she enjoyed painting (the career her father would have chosen for her). She also wrote verses, some of which she set to music. Marie Bjelke-Petersen died in 1969, well into her 90s.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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