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Hasluck, Dame Alexandra Margaret (Alix) (1908–1993)

by Ann P. Hunter

This article was published online in 2017

Alexandra Hasluck, by Pat Barblett, 1986 (detail)

Alexandra Hasluck, by Pat Barblett, 1986 (detail)

National Library of Australia, 10909261

Dame Alexandra Margaret Martin Hasluck (1908–1993), historian, biographer, and short-story writer, was born on 26 August 1908 in North Perth, Western Australia, only child of Queensland-born John William Darker (d. 1925), engineer, and his New South Wales-born wife Evelyn Margaret, née Hill. Alix’s mother, a graduate of the University of Sydney (BA, 1895), encouraged her daughter’s curiosity and love of learning, enrolling her at Ormiston College (1914–18) and then at Perth College (1919–25). There she took a leading role in school life and excelled at literary subjects and composition. Her ambitions to be a writer were enhanced when her poems were published in the school magazine and the Australasian.

At the University of Western Australia (BA, 1929) Darker studied French, English, history, biology, and economics; joined the dramatic society; and was a sub-editor (1929–30) of the university magazine Black Swan, in which she also published poetry, book reviews, and essays. Having unsuccessfully sought entry to the diploma of journalism course, she enrolled in honours to research the Arthurian legend but withdrew after a few months, the harsh economic times fuelling her desire to look for work. Employed first as a part-time French and English teacher at a small private school, she became a resident teacher at the Girl’s High School (later St Hilda’s Church of England School for Girls) in 1930 and 1931.

On 14 April 1932 Darker married (Sir) Paul Meernaa Caedwalla Hasluck, then a journalist, at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Perth. The couple had met at university and shared intellectual and cultural interests, including enthusiasm for Western Australian history. Having honeymooned in England, where she researched the English Tudors at the British Library, she submitted a historical novel entitled ‘Tudor Blood’ to publishers in England, who rejected it. She never returned to the project, the experience contributing to her decision to abandon fiction in favour of history. In 1934 she took over Paul’s duties as honorary secretary of the Western Australian Historical Society. With her husband, she established the Freshwater Bay Press to publish Western Australian historical and literary works by local authors. The outbreak of World War II, however, prevented the development of the venture.

Paul’s recruitment in 1941 by the Federal Department of External Affairs required a move to Canberra, where Hasluck learned the protocols of being a diplomat’s wife, while caring for two young sons. At first she disliked the place: ‘My idea of Hell has always been of a freezing region,’ she wrote, ‘and here I am for my sins’ (Bolton 2014, 104). When her husband became a member of the Australian delegation to the United Nations in 1946, she enjoyed the opportunity to live in New York, and to meet and entertain ‘the foremost names in the world’ (Hasluck 1981, 178). After Paul resigned in 1947 and the family returned to Perth, she encouraged him to go into politics. They worked together on his campaign for the Federal seat of Curtin in 1949, in which she used her writing skills to enliven Liberal party election material, and appeared on weekly radio programs to expand her husband’s profile.

With her husband elected and frequently in Canberra, Hasluck was able to devote time to writing. She published a number of articles with historical themes in the West Australian. Encouraged by two of her friends, the author Henrietta Drake-Brockman and the archivist Mollie Lukis, she began to research the life of Georgiana Molloy. Based on the subject’s letters, Portrait With Background: A Life of Georgiana Molloy was published in 1955, and was subsequently reissued in a number of editions. Her next book, Unwilling Emigrants (1959), used rare letters from Myra Sykes to her husband William, a convict, to illustrate what she called ‘the prototype of many convicts’ (Hasluck 1959, xvi). The book raised the historical profile of women and convicts at a time when the study of neither was fashionable. She would regard Thomas Peel of Swan River (1965) as her best historical work because it drew on new sources ‘about a controversial figure … who has always been much maligned’ (Hasluck 1981, 236). These early books attracted many readers and became essential reading for those studying the history of Western Australia. Her work was also influential in encouraging writers such as Rica Erickson to take on Western Australian historical topics.

After her mother’s death in 1962, Hasluck published Evelyn Hill: A Memoir (1963) to honour the person who had been an important influence on her life and a pioneer in women’s education. The same year, she edited a collection of the letters of (Lady) Mary Anne Barker, and wrote for school children a short biography of (Sir) James Stirling. In 1965 she published a biographical portrait of the former State engineer-in-chief C. Y. O’Connor. When Paul became minister for external affairs in 1964, she often travelled with him, and eagerly visited the historical places she had read about. Long periods away from home meant that for practical reasons she returned to writing short stories, contributing to a number of anthologies. In 1970 she published her own collection, Of Ladies Dead: Stories not in the Modern Manner. In the same year, the University of Western Australia conferred on her an honorary doctorate of letters. She was appointed dame of grace in the Order of St John in 1971.

In 1968 Hasluck had learned that her husband was to be appointed governor-general, necessitating a return to Canberra. Although she was starting to experience problems from an arthritic hip, and was grieving the loss of her best friend, Henrietta Drake-Brockman, she recognised the importance of public service and the honour associated with vice-regal duty. Paul took up the role in April 1969, and Alexandra became a popular hostess. She acted as patron or president of over twenty associations, including the Girl Guides Association, the National Trust of Australia, and the Australian Red Cross; and promoted causes close to her heart, such as heritage conservation, literature, literacy, and women’s education. Despite her heavy workload, she maintained her commitment to writing, often working into the early hours of the morning. In 1973 she published Royal Engineer: A Life of Sir Edmund DuCane.

Although the Haslucks experienced the tragedy of the sudden death of their elder son in June 1973, they undertook their functions with dignity and dedication. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam tried to persuade Sir Paul to accept a second term, an offer he refused because his wife ‘objected very strongly and wouldn’t stay on’ (Wurth 2010, 6). Departing the vice-regal lodge in July 1974, the couple returned to Perth where she resumed her writing career. She published, with Lukis, Victorian and Edwardian Perth from Old Photographs (1977), and she edited a collection of letters, Audrey Tennyson’s Vice-Regal Days (1978). In 1978 she was appointed AD. Her autobiography, Portrait in a Mirror, was published in 1981, followed by her final book, Western Australia’s Colonial Years (1984).

Described by Geoffrey Bolton as a person of ‘style, intelligence and wit’ (2014, 44), Dame Alexandra had a firm sense of duty, and was strong willed and highly opinionated. She brought the history of Western Australia to a popular audience at a time when the State’s historiography was in its infancy, and inspired others to follow her example. In failing health, she went permanently into hospital care. Survived by a son, she died on 18 June 1993 at Claremont and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery next to her husband who had died five months earlier. In 2000 a new Federal electorate was named in their honour. 

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Bolton, Geoffrey. Paul Hasluck: A Life. Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2014
  • De Garis, B. K. Review of Portrait in a Mirror: An Autobiography, by Alexandra Hasluck. Westerly, no. 2 (June 1982): 98–100
  • Hasluck, Alexandra. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 1970. State Library of Western Australia
  • Hasluck, Alexandra. Portrait in a Mirror: An Autobiography. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1981
  • Hasluck, Alexandra. Unwilling Emigrants: A Study of the Convict Period in Western Australia. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1959
  • Quartly, Marian. ‘Alexandra Hasluck Historian.’ In Paul Hasluck in Australian History: Civic Personality and Public Life, edited by Tom Stannage, Kay Saunders, and Richard Nile, 77–86. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1998
  • Wurth, Bob. ‘Blame the Vice-Regal Wife.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 2 January 2010, 6

Additional Resources

Citation details

Ann P. Hunter, 'Hasluck, Dame Alexandra Margaret (Alix) (1908–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/hasluck-dame-alexandra-margaret-alix-18561/text32678, published online 2017, accessed online 12 December 2018.

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