02 September 2016

Single Woman Seeks Adventure

In a time when women rarely travelled by themselves one Canberra librarian defied convention and had many remarkable adventures. Her name was Eva Jean Starling, but she went by Jean.

Travel documents from Jean's trip in 1959
Travel documents from Jean's trip in 1959
Jean came to Canberra with her parents as a teenager in 1928 and lived in Blandfordia (Forrest), an area built for the wealthier public servants. She was the first librarian at the Canberra Community Library in Acton, which started out as a bookcase on a veranda and grew to a well loved community institution.

It wasn’t long however, before Jean set off on her first adventure to Britain, where she completed a librarianship course. When WWII broke out she enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and worked as a specialist photographic interpreter within Intelligence. She was in London during the horror of the Blitz and her work station was even bombed out. After the war she came home to Canberra and worked at the National Library of Australia, back ‘when it had a minuscule staff of three’. 
Studio portrait of Flying Officer Jean Starling
Studio portrait of Flying Officer Jean Starling
Image Source: Australian War Memorial Photograph Collection, Image P03985.001
WWII affected all areas of life and society, including the role of women, and once it was over a serious renegotiation of gender roles took place. While there was a boom in post-war leisure travel options, many women frequently felt uncomfortable travelling alone and were constrained by social expectations about what was appropriate for women to do, particularly within their roles as wife and mother. 
Sample of one of Jean's airline tickets, 8 October 1959
Sample of one of Jean's airline tickets, 8 October 1959
But Jean, who never married, went on many holidays alone, despite what people might have thought. During her lifetime she traveled to Norway, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Britain, the United States, New Zealand and the Pacific. She collected a large amount of memorabilia from her many adventures, including airline tickets, maps, postcards, brochures, exhibition catalogues, play programs and other travel ephemera. When examined carefully, you can find her distinctive handwritten observations about the places she visited penciled onto the fragile paper, a testament both to her daring and her love of travel.

Just some of the brochures collected by Jean in her travels
Just some of the brochures collected by Jean in her travels
She took her first strictly for pleasure trip in 1947, travelling from Canberra by way of bus, train and ferry all the way to Darwin via Adelaide, and recorded it all in her journal in short, wry sentences. She left Canberra on one of those winter days when there was ‘brilliant sunshine – still air – frost patterns in the shadows still reaching westwards [and] snow-capped blue mountains.’ Her other observations are candid and often amusing.

Jean's journal of  her recreational trip in 1947
Jean's travel journal of  her recreational trip in 1947
She writes that her experience of the famous ‘Dog on the Tuckerbox’ memorial at Gundagai was rather spoilt by the poor choice of wine available.  Out past Albury along the Murray River she writes that there was ‘practically no one about anywhere – a quiet dull country but pastorally efficient like a quiet housewife.’ She keeps up a steady commentary of observations about her fellow passengers and a meticulous record of the costing of each night’s stay, as well as the time it took to travel between destinations. For example, a night in Hotel Wintersun near Mildura cost fourteen shillings and sixpence a day. At the end of her journey she writes with delight about watching a flying boat take off from Darwin harbor, buying paw-paw and collecting shells.

A sampling of text from one of Jean's travel journal in 1947
Pages from one of Jean's travel journal in 1947
Like many librarians (we might be biased), Jean was a remarkable and somewhat radical person. Despite social expectations she had a varied and interesting life. Her love of travel and eye for observational detail can be seen in one of her journals, currently on display in our Reading Room. 
Her full papers are available for reference at HMSS 0061 Jean Starling Papers.

1995 'Housing a lifetime of Canberra's history', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 18 April, p. 4. , viewed 17 Aug 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article130544329 

Australian War Memorial, 2010?, Flying Officer Jean Starling. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/salute/community/starling / . [Accessed 25 August 2016].

Wilson, E & Little, DE 2005, “A ‘relative escape’? The impact of constraints on women who travel solo”, Tourism Review International, no. 9, pp. 155-175, viewed 18 August 2016, URL: http://epubs.scu.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1050&context=tourism_pubs