Eleanor Spence, born in 1928 in Sydney, New South Wales, is a distinguished writer from Australia. She helped create a literature for children with settings and interest that are authentically Australian. Her fine characterizations, touches of humor, and insight into youth give Mrs. Spence’s novels appeal far beyond her own land. She is the author of twenty published books.
Speaking of her childhood days she recalls, in Something About the Author, “I did set out to be a writer. As a nine-year-old, I scribbled away at my own stories…I loved to read and write about families and I was especially fascinated by orphans. I yearned to adopt neglected infants, [but] had to settle for adopting stray kittens or turning my assortment of dolls into orphanage-waifs.” It is clear that the young Eleanor’s fondness for orphans worked itself, later on, into the plot of The Switherby Pilgrims.
It was while employed in a children’s library as a young woman that Eleanor Spence thought she might write, specifically, for children. As it turned out, almost all the author’s books follow her natural bent for an audience of older children and youth. Over the years she has often presented the circumstance of the young person who in some way is an outsider in his social setting. These circumstances become the springboard for struggle and growth in self-understanding and self-worth. Mrs. Spence notes, “Twice [I have] used handicapped children as central characters—a deaf boy in The Nothing Place and an autistic boy in The October Child.” The situation of autistic children has been a matter of more than casual interest to the author, who has been involved longtime in The Autistic Children’s Association.
In the course of her life and writing career, there were times when Eleanor Spence became keenly interested in aspects of Australian history. The character of Missabella, in The Switherby Pilgrims, is an echo (although entirely fictional) of the fascinating pioneer, Mrs. Caroline Chisholm, an outstanding woman of the nineteenth century who made provision for young immigrant women in Australia. The effort of the “pilgrims” to establish a new home in the rawness of a strange and difficult land, is one of Mrs. Spence’s salutes to the early settlers. In Jamberoo Road, the sequel to The Switherby Pilgrims, we follow the lives of the Switherby characters as they make a way for themselves in early-day Australia.
Eleanor Spence is perhaps best known in Australian children’s literature for her focus on family life. Undoubtedly, her own marriage and raising of three children provided an authentic backdrop for her stories, as did her life-long residence in New South Wales, Australia, the setting for almost all of her books. She says, “I believe the young still find much joy in reading. And writers…still find much joy in writing.” This happy combination may be affirmed once more as the work of Eleanor Spence is offered afresh to a new generation of readers.