Maidens: 'The Lettes of Willow Glen'

Maidens: 'The Lettes of Willow Glen'
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Using still photographs, personal narration, quoted correspondence and music, the early 20th century history of the maternal side of the filmmaker’s family is detailed. Summary by Adrienne Parr.

This is a segment of part one, which covers 1900 to 1921 and is entitled, 'The Lettes of Willow Glen’. While the title borrows more from 19th century women’s literature than from cinema, the segment itself, with its handwritten intertitles, pays homage to silent film. Its narrative maps a memory of the family’s life in Tasmania from the earliest photographs available, to the marriage of Thornley’s grandmother, Wyn Lette. While the photos are family records, they inevitably represent the broader Australian history of the period – the growth of a rural middle class and the First World War. Family photographs like these are today commonplace in formal presentations of national history. But it’s important to remember that at the time Maidens was made, collections of family photos, especially photos of women and domestic spaces, were only just beginning to be accepted as valid and relevant historical documents.


Maidens synopsis

Maidens is a biographical chronicle. It uses personal archives, made up of still and moving image, from both domestic and vocational sources, lyrical narration and emotive music to trace the filmmaking journey of one feminist (the filmmaker herself).


Maidens curator's notes

Jeni Thornley was one of a group of feminists who gravitated towards filmmaking when the practice (once again) became a possibility in Australia in the late 1960s. Thornley and others formed the SWFG (Sydney Women’s Film Group), an informal collective with broad based objectives. The group produced several films, organised women’s film workshops and lobbied for a 50 per cent intake of women to the then Australian Film and Television School. Initiatives like these steered the agenda and by International Women’s Year in 1975, the government was ready to allocate significant funds to women’s filmmaking. A portion of these went to the establishment of the AFC’s Women’s Film Fund in 1976. By the late 1970s a collection of low-budget, short ‘women’s’ films had been produced. Some were experimental while others were conventionally structured, but all engaged in debates about the position of women in society and their representation in the media. The fact that Thornley had been involved with a number of these films, and her determination to understand the feminist experience through the prism of the filmmaking experience, proved to be elemental in her scripting of Maidens.

Funded by the Creative Development Branch of the AFC, Maidens is set out in four parts. The first two parts document the lives of Thornley’s mother, grandmother and great-grandmother using an archive of beautiful and uncommonly comprehensive family photographs. (Indeed in the credits the filmmaker thanks her maternal family for preserving their heritage.) The second two parts document Thornley’s own life, again using an archive of family photos, but this time interwoven with a new feminist archive – in the form of excerpts from films with which Thornley had been involved, as well as Super8 footage she herself had shot. The two halves of the film diverge stylistically. The clear, static testament of the first half becomes opaque, fluid and intensely personal in the second half. Time loses its order and the female subject is continually repositioned. The divergence reflects the film’s central dilemma: how to begin a feminist history, how to begin a feminist memory, what to keep and what to throw out, what to remember and what to forget.

Almost four years in the making, Maidens picked up local and international short film awards and became compulsory viewing in women and film courses around the country – where it sparked much impassioned debate. It remains essential viewing for an enhanced understanding of the moment of awakened consciousness that characterised 1970s feminism.

Notes by Adrienne Parr


Education Notes

This clip shows black-and-white photographs of filmmaker Jeni Thornley’s maternal family between 1900 and 1921. The photographs are combined with Thornley’s narration and quoted correspondence to trace the history of the family. The account spans settlement in rural Tasmania, where the extended family worked the land, to the First World War, when the men enlisted to fight overseas and the women took responsibility for the farm. It concludes with the end of the War and the marriage of Thornley’s grandmother, Wyn Lette. The clip includes intertitles and excerpts of songs and instrumental music.

Educational value points

  • Documentary filmmaker Jeni Thornley describes her work as an 'exploration of the past and its meaning in the present’. In Maidens, from which this clip is taken, Thornley traces the period from 1900 to 1969. She examines three generations of her maternal family, 'a chain of mothers’ whose lives centred on marriage and family – the only option for most women in that period. However, she lingers on periods such as the War years and school days when women 'were alone with each other’, which, she has suggested, presaged the 'sisterhood’ of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s.
  • In Maidens, Thornley’s account of her maternal family places women at the centre of the historical narrative and, as a consequence, a 'national history is brought closer to home, and to the experience of women’.
  • Today it is common for historians to interpret history from the perspectives of women and ordinary working people, a practice that is sometimes referred to as 'history from below’. In the 1970s, when Maidens was made, most histories emphasised the experiences and achievements of men. Two leading Australian historians currently writing from feminist perspectives are Dr Beverley Kingston and Elizabeth Windschuttle.
  • Like Maidens, many of the feminist documentary films made between 1970 and the early 1980s emphasised women’s personal experiences, favouring autobiographical discourse and oral histories, and eschewing an 'authoritative’ or controlling voice-over. Thornley’s subjective first-person voice-over and her familial subject matter corresponded with the desire of feminist filmmakers to enable women to tell their own stories in their own voices.
  • During the First World War (1914–18), the men from Thornley’s maternal family enlisted, and her grandfather Tom Butcher served in France. This left the women to run the farm in Tasmania. From a population of less than 5 million, 330,000 Australian men enlisted to fight overseas, which meant that most Australians were directly affected by the War and often had a family member who served. As occurred in Thornley’s family, many women headed households and took over the running of family businesses and farms in the absence of male relatives.
  • Prior to the 1920s single adults, particularly women, tended to remain at home until they embarked on what was seen as the 'career’ of marriage. In the case of rural families, such as the one shown in this clip, the viability of the farm was dependent on the labour of the extended family, and adult children, especially sons, often remained on the property after they married. Child-bearing was sanctioned only within marriage, and unmarried women with children were socially ostracised. In the absence of welfare services, families had to support their less fortunate relations and this meant that many households consisted of extended families.
  • Jeni Thornley’s award-winning documentaries include To the Other Shore (1996), a diary film about motherhood, the co-directed feature For Love or Money (1983), a history of women and work in Australia, Maidens (1978) and A Film for Discussion with Martha Ansara and the Sydney Women’s Film Group (1974). These films have been hailed as 'landmark films in the history of Australian feminist cinema’ (Collins, 'The experimental practice of history in the filmwork of Jeni Thornley’, 1998,
  • Jeni Thornley has worked in a variety of capacities in the film industry, including as researcher, script editor, camera operator, film valuer, manager of the Women’s Film Fund (AFC), and documentary coordinator and assessor (AFC). She is currently a sessional lecturer in documentary film at the University of Technology in Sydney, where she is completing her doctorate film, 'Island Home Country’.
  • Thornley was a founding member of the Sydney Women’s Film Group (SWFG), established in 1969, and a collective called the Feminist Film Workers (FFW), established in 1978. Members of both groups were active in the women’s liberation movement and Thornley says that 'many women were attracted to film as a means of disseminating feminist ideas and challenging traditional sexist depictions of women that were rampant in the mass media’ ('Past, present and future: The Women’s Film Fund’, Don’t Shoot Darling!: Women’s Independent Filmmaking in Australia, Greenhouse, 1987).
  • Maidens, with its combination of subjective first person voice-over, family photographs, correspondence and snatches of contemporary folk music, is an example of a film that is made largely in the performative documentary style. Performative documentaries are often autobiographical, and emphasise the subjective and emotive qualities of memory and experience in shaping our understanding of the world.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

For further information and resources of this and other Jeni Thornley films visit:

Jeni Thornley films are all streaming VOD/PPV via beamAfilm:

Jeni Thornley
Jeni Thornley
Theresa Jack, Jen Short, Aurora Bell, Annie Bickford
With thanks to:
For the use of their films: Martha Ansara, Ann Roberts, Marg Clancy, Jeune Pritchard, Tim Woolmer, Ross Lander, Tom Cowan. Thanks to Jill Freewoman, Kay Self, Di Fuller, Chrissie Fuller, Ciel Fuller, Pen Short, Nebula Wild, Jan & Peter & Sky & Zoe
Made with the assistance of the Creative Development Branch of the Australian Film Commission

This clip shows a series of black-and-white family photographs. The filmmaker speaks over the images which are broken up by captions.

Jeni Thornley, filmmaker and narrator It begins at the very first photographs I can find. They’ve been kept by the women of the family.

Part One 1900-1921

Jeni Thornley This is my maternal family…

The Lettes of Willow Glen

Jeni Thornley ...a chain of mothers. Irish Catholics on the land, migrant convicts in a harsh new country. It is an extended family…

The family smile.

Jeni Thornley ...subsistence farmers, eight daughters and four sons complete unto themselves. They grow their own food…

The butter industry at home.

Jeni Thornley ...slaughter their own cattle, spin their own cloth.

Sun bathing.

Jeni Thornley It is hard work. There is a happiness about them and a hardness.

Mum and Dad are happy.

Jeni Thornley The land is hard.


Jeni Thornley They know what they want – they want to love and marry.

(A song plays)

A man I know will love me
And protect me like he should
And when he holds me in his loving arms
Stays with me all the time
Then I’ll know I’m all woman
And everything…

Jeni Thornley The war came. Massive changes were under way.

Men at war.

Jeni Thornley Letter to Wyn Lette at Willow Glen, Tasmania from Tom Butcher. ‘Somewhere in France, January 19th, 1918. My darling Wyn, your letters are everything to me. It is the thoughts of you and the dear home folk that keeps one alive in this sordid life. I’m quite satisfied when you are the only girl in the world. The French girls dance awfully fast. Your knees begin to go after about three waltzes…’

Some Sunday morning.

Jeni Thornley ’..and I had to cry, “Enough”. With you I could carry on…’

Back home.

Jeni Thornley ’..from dawn of day till the setting sun. It would make your heart ache to see some of the places, Wyn. In some cases the people had been at meals. I went into a house a few days ago and the table was already set. The people had cleared out at the first sound of the guns.’

The lady of the lake.

Jeni Thornley ’But it will not be very long now, darling, before I shall behold your dear face once and for always. Back to the land of sunny skies, fair women and freedom.’

Peace celebrations.

Jeni Thornley The men were glad to be back. They celebrated together, praised their valour, their manhood, and planned their futures of work, marriage and family.

Marriage – Wyn Lette becomes Mrs Tom Butcher.

(A song plays.)

Until you give your love
There’s nothing more that we can do…