ROLAND, Betty (1903-1996)

Betty Roland and Ellis Davies in July 1932.
Betty Roland and Ellis Davies in July 1932.
The eye of the beholder
Betty Roland, nee Mary Isobel Maclean, the journalist, playwright and scriptwriter for film, radio and eventually television, was born in Kaniva. Victoria. In late 1922 she married Ellis Davies and wrote under the name Betty Davies. Her first play, the Touch of Silk, performed in Melbourne in 1928, was to become her most acclaimed.

The marriage to Davies was not a happy one and the couple separated in 1933 when Betty eloped with the Melbourne-based Marxist scholar and political activist Guido Carlo Luigi Baracchi (1887-1975). The couple travelled to London and then onto Leningrad and Moscow in the USSR, where both worked for more than a year during Stalin’s purges and the collapse of the Soviet agricultural system. Betty worked as a journalist for the Moscow Daily News and Guido as a translator.

Guido Baracchi in 1932.
Guido Baracchi in 1932.
The eye of the beholder
Following heir return to Melbourne in January 1935, Betty and Guido found their former circle to be too parochial following their Russian adventure, so they moved to Sydney in January 1937. They were immediately attracted to the Castlecrag community on the North Shore, purchasing a block of land there in January and moving into one of the Griffin-designed houses there in April. It was not until August 1939, however, that the couple was able to move into their dream home, Pangloss, which had been designed by Eric Nicholls to meet their special interests.

Meanwhile, Betty had given birth to their daughter, Gilda Baracchi, on 13 October 1937. Roland and Baracchi were both active members of the Australian Communist Party at this time, with Guido being co-editor of the Communist Review, while Betty’s scripts were regularly published in that journal. Roland was a founding member of the Australian Society of Authors and became a leading contributor to the New Theatre. In 1938, her play Are You Ready Comrade? won the Australian Theatre Council competition, a remarkable honour for a radical playwright.

With the outbreak of war in 1939, the Baracchi and Roland residence in Castlecrag became a target for raids by security personnel seeking evidence of subversive Communist material. Local residents recall that Guido usually had ample warning of these raids and by the time the officials arrived, the library would present a picture of conservative literature, complete with a well-thumbed volume of the Holy Bible!

All was not well in the relationship, however, and Baracchi departed in 1942 with the new love of his life, another woman from the local community. Betty remained at Pangloss and established the New Theatre League. She continued her involvement in left wing politics and earned her living writing radio serials. Several of her plays were performed at Pangloss during this time. Betty and Gilda moved to London, where she wrote television dramas and childrens’ books. She returned to Victoria in 1962 and continued her writing until 1990. Three of her books are autobiographical, with The eye of the beholder (1984) providing details of her time in Castlecrag.


Further reading:

1 Betty Roland, The eye of the beholder, Sydney, Hale & Iremonger, 1984.

2 Jeff Sparrow, Communism: A love story, Melbourne University Press, 2007

3 Robin Gollan, ‘Baracchi, Guido Carlo Luigi (1887-1995)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol 13, Melbourne University Press, 1993

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