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Helen de Guerry Simpson (1897–1940)

by William Stewart

from Sydney Morning Herald

Just before Helen Simpson left England in 1937, to give, as a world famous novelist, a series of broadcasts in her native Australia, she said: "I shall not err on the side of overmuch criticism. A young nation is like a young child playing with a meccano set. It may make mistakes, but, deep down, it actually prefers to worry things out for itself, and profit by its own mistakes."

She contrived, more or less, to keep to this resolve, although the remorseless tearing down of historic buildings in Sydney aroused her to one outburst, in which, among other things, she described courts of justice as "places where the community's dirty linen is washed, highly necessary, but they ought to be kept out of sight, as laundries are."

Known to the majority of her fellow Australians as a novelist, Helen Simpson was a woman with a dynamic energy and an amazing range of interests. She was educated at the Rose Bay Convent and Oxford. At Oxford she studied music, taking her degree. Her original plan was to become a professional musician, but she turned, instead, to literature.

Her first book, Acquittal (1925), was written as the result of a challenge in her undergraduate days. In a discussion she described modern novels as being "written in six weeks by half-wits or persons under the influence of drink." A bet arose out of the ensuing uproar, and Acquittal was written in five weeks to win it. As she acknowledged herself, later, it was a very bad novel.

Her enthusiasms were many and, on the surface, at least, incongruous. She was a fine horsewoman and a good fencer. She read widely. She was deeply interested in demonology. She played the piano and the flute—both well—and was a gifted cook. A series of her talks on cooking, through the B.B.C., in fact, brought her a huge fan mail. She delighted in experimenting in the making of home-made wines according to ancient recipes—the cellars underneath her home in Queen Anne Street, London, were stocked with her own products. She devoted a great deal of time to her young daughter.

In the last war she served with the Women's Royal Naval Service, interpreting, deciphering, and decoding.

Helen Simpson's work was known in Australia before she achieved widespread recognition overseas. Gregan McMahon produced one of her plays when she came back to Australia after the war, and two early books of essays, A Man of His Time and Philosopher in Little, published out here, drew attention to her.

She had an extraordinary capacity for hard work. In 1934 she was known to be writing three books at the one time, pursuing her studies in music, and simultaneously indulging her taste for the more domestic arts.

Literary herself, Helen Simpson married into a family with literary associations: her husband, Dr. Denis Brown, is a nephew of "Rolf Boldrewood."

That she should have died this week at the early age of 42 will be felt deeply by the many distinguished friends she won by her charming personality and acknowledged gifts.

Since Boomerang was published in 1932 the name of Helen Simpson has been regarded as one of the most prominent in the list of modern Australian men and women of letters.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Helen de Guerry Simpson

Additional Resources

Citation details

William Stewart, 'Simpson, Helen de Guerry (1897–1940)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Helen Simpson, 1937

Helen Simpson, 1937

State Library of New South Wales, 15768

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Browne, Helen de Guerry

1 December, 1897
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


14 October, 1940 (aged 42)
Overbury, Worcestershire, England

Cause of Death

cancer (not specified)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.