Meet… Nellie Melba
Random House Australia, 2016
32pp., hbk., $24.99
Many of us, and our students, will have tasted the traditional dessert consisting of vanilla ice cream, sugary peaches, and raspberry sauce and known as Peach Melba. It was created by famous French chef Auguste Escoffier to honour his friendship with the world-renowned opera singer Dame Nellie Melba who wowed the world with her singing as the 19th century turned over into the 20th. But while her name is now featured on restaurant menus around the world, her life began very differently.
Helen ‘Nellie’ Porter Mitchell was one of those children whose lives are incomplete without music. When she wasn’t playing the piano, she loved to sing and wherever she went she either whistled or hummed. But in the mid-19th century it wasn’t proper for girls to sing in public and so her father restricted her to singing for friends, church and charities, even though Nellie had bigger dreams than that. But even without her father’s rules, she would have had limited opportunities because Edison was yet to invent the means to record sound and with Australia’s isolation, opera companies did not visit.
After the death of her mother and sister, she moved to Queensland with her father where she married and had a son. But her singing was always her primary love and she returned to Melbourne determined to carve a career for herself, despite her lack of money and freedom. She persuaded her husband to move to England with her when her father took a job there, but her success was not instant. It was not until she auditioned for Madame Mathilde Marchesi in Paris that her talent was recognised and the career of Australia’s first renowned opera singer, the “Australian nightingale” began to flourish… Drawing on her home town for her stage name, Nellie Melba soon became a household name in high society in huge demand. Through determination, her dreams had come true.
But she did not forget her roots and was determined that everyone, regardless of income or status, should be able to hear her so when she toured Australia the ticket prices were the same for everyone. She brought opera to people who would never had heard it otherwise.
In this latest addition to this fantastic series which brings the lives of those who shaped Australia to life for young readers, Janeen Brian has captured the essence of Melba perfectly portraying a young girl with a dream and the determination to achieve it. Right from the beginning when Nellie’s father tells her to stop whistling because she “sounds like a tomboy”, she hits on humming as a compromise. Unlike others of her time, being married and having a family is not enough for her and she is a single mum at a time when such a status is totally shunned and her divorce in 1900 would have sent lesser women into hiding. Against such odds, made even greater by the rigid society of the times, she perseveres and triumphs – a role model in resilience that stands tall for today’s young girls.
From such a rich life that spanned 69 years and a wealth of material available, Brian has picked those elements that show that spirit that drove her on to do and achieve that which was an innate part of her and woven them into a very readable story that makes the reader want to keep reading to find out how she conquered the obstacles. It’s a story of dreams, hope and strength of mind and character that will lift any reader up. Claire Murphy has captured the author’s words well, particularly when she contrasts Nellie’s father’s perspective with Nellie’s dream.
Made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her fundraising efforts during World War I, Nellie’s contribution to Australia was so significant she is commemorated on the current $100 note.. It also makes her a worthy subject for this series and very definitely an important chapter in Australia: Story Country.