Book Review - Jean Galbraith: Writer in a Valley

Book Review

Jean Galbraith: Writer in a Valley

 

Readers of The Lampstand will already be familiar with Aunty Jean Galbraith from articles by Sister Janet Cresswell in recent editions of the magazine. Aunty Jean was a humble, faithful sister who, in her 92 years, rarely travelled far from her home in the small Gippsland town of Tyers, Victoria. Despite this, she became one of Australia’s most loved and influential botanists and writers on nature, plants and gardens.

 

Jean Galbraith: Writer in a Valley, a biography of Aunty Jean, was launched in July last year by well-known historian Peter Cuffley and gardener Jane Edmanson. The author, Meredith Fletcher, is a historian and research fellow with Monash University. This book was not written to provide spiritual encouragement and motivation to Christadelphian readers. Sadly, I am told Fletcher does not even believe in the God of the Bible. However, despite this, and perhaps because of it, I found it to be an incredibly uplifting and inspirational read.

 

This book shines with the light of Aunty Jean’s faith. From her childhood, her belief was central to who she was and how she lived: “we all shared the same faith in God as revealed in the Bible and have attempted to manifest that faith in our lives despite the frailties of human nature”. A biography that failed to cover this aspect of her life would indeed be incomplete yet, unfortunately, not surprising.

 

Fletcher, however, does not shy away from Aunty Jean’s religious beliefs and the way in which they directed and influenced her life. Aunty Jean’s faith is present as a strong theme that runs right throughout the book. Fletcher has conscientiously taken the time to understand this aspect of her life and presents both Aunty Jean’s beliefs and the Christadelphian community with astonishing empathy and accuracy.

 

Over three pages of the first chapter of the book are spent providing a history and overview of the Christadelphian faith and the practical effect this had on the life of the Galbraith family. Fletcher emphasises the pivotal role of God’s word in the lives of the Galbraith family; their belief in its infallibility, inspiration and uniqueness as the only source of knowledge about God and how to live a life acceptable to him. She explains the Bible reading plan developed by Bro Robert Roberts and, in a number of places in the book, refers to Aunty Jean’s daily adherence to this discipline throughout her life, regardless of her circumstances.

 

The bond that this shared practice created with family and other members of the Christadelphian community is also evident. There is a lovely passage describing how, as a young child, Jean would fall asleep each night listening to the comforting and familiar sound of her parents doing their readings in the next room. And how, when they were a little older, Jean and her brother, Lawrie, would stumble haltingly through their assigned verses as the family read their Bible readings together. One of my favourite lines in the book is taken from a letter written to Jean by her father when she was just 11: “You have a good knowledge of your Bible. Keep on and add to your knowledge … you may learn to love and obey God with your whole heart”. What a beautiful witness to the sincere and steadfast faith of both father and daughter.

 

Aunty Jean was driven by an inexhaustible desire to reach out and share with others the joy and peace she found in the beauty of the creation of her Heavenly Father. Others responded to her warm and generous spirit as, whether in person or through her writing, she led them through her picket gate and opened their eyes to the joy and beauty of her garden in a valley. When I was a child we would visit Aunty Jean and I can well remember her infectious excitement as she pointed out a nest hidden in a mass of creeper or told us about the little creatures that had been visiting the feeding ledge outside her window. In her presence her garden became a magical world full of otherwise unnoticed detail and exciting possibility.

 

Through her work as a writer and botanist, Aunty Jean forged close friendships with a number of people who shared these interests but did not share her faith. Frequently, she seems to have been drawn to those, who, through ill-health, age or the circumstances of life, were in need of restoration and comfort. She learnt sign language so that she could communicate with a deaf friend with a passion for daffodils. She sent boxes of flowers to Ward XII of the Austin Hospital and ended up corresponding with many of the patients and staff (one of these being Walter Thornby, the artist of Garden in a Valley, who later became a brother in Christ). Many friends spent time staying with Aunty Jean at Dunedin, finding rest and recovery in the beauty of the surroundings and the simple daily routines of her home.

 

Without overtly preaching to those around her, Aunty Jean, in her attitude and approach to life, touched those with whom she came into contact. It is inspirational to read their recollections of her: her contentment in simplicity, her warmth, selflessness and love for others, and, over and over again, a recognition of the source and sustenance of these qualities: her devout ‘Christian faith’. Later in life Aunty Jean fought hard to preserve areas of her bush land from encroaching industry. Yet members of the Forest Commission’s alpine logging operations remember her as always friendly and reasonable: “your views are respected and integrity unquestioned”.

 

Of course, the book is not entirely about Aunty Jean’s faith. It covers her development as a botanist, gardener and writer and considers the contribution her work has made to the nation. Yet it maintains its very personal perspective throughout, referring frequently to Aunty Jean’s correspondence to give us insight into her thoughts, feelings and influences. I found the book delightfully easy to read.

 

Fletcher’s research has been meticulous. Aunty Jean donated all her personal papers, carefully collected at Dunedin over 80 years, to the State Library of Victoria. Aunty Jean did not like to throw things away, so even school exercise books and childhood field notes had been carefully preserved. Fletcher was granted access to these and other collections and spent a “magical” year reading through the material.

 

Fletcher also worked closely with Brother Ian Hyndman and Sister Marjory Burgess (Aunty Jean’s niece) in preparing the book. She acknowledges them both for their valuable assistance and I have no doubt that the sensitive and accurate representation of Aunty Jean’s faith in the book owes much to their influence.

 

All biographies, when taken to their natural conclusion, can leave the reader with a sense of loss and sadness. We grow old and our faculties deteriorate: a powerful lesson in the futility of trusting in the strength of man! Yet for those who have lived lives of faith, these things are merely the husk encasing the fertile seed of a heart given in faith to our Heavenly Father.

 

Fletcher refers a number of times to what Aunty Jean called her “most precious thoughts”: her longing for the return of Jesus. In her last years, Aunty Jean expressed the wish to go to sleep and “wake up in the Kingdom”. Our Heavenly Father has now granted her peaceful slumber. We look forward to the time when, together with those many faithful witnesses who have gone before us, we will enter into the eternal joy of God’s Kingdom.

 

This book led me to reflect on the power of a humble faith and a simple life lived in service to God; on the love of our Heavenly Father reflected and demonstrated in quiet care and compassion shown to others; and on a lamp kept steadfastly burning so that even now it continues to declare the knowledge of our Heavenly Father and bring glory to His name.

 

“Let your light so shine before men,

that they may see your good works,

and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

Matthew 5:16

 

Anne Johns, Cumberland Ecclesia , South Australia

 

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