Mabel was born on 6 March 1872 on Queensland's Darling Downs and grew up in south-west Queensland, where her father worked as a station manager. She was educated at home by her mother before marrying John Burkinshaw in 1893. The couple separated three years later, and Mabel remarried in 1903.
Labelled 'the most industrious versifier in the Commonwealth' Mabel was a successful writer and poet by the beginning of the First World War. She was published in the Australasian and the Bulletin along with London's Pall Mall Gazette and Spectator. Mabel's poetry during the War reflected her patriotism and her maternal protection for her fellow citizens. She had over 25 poems published in 1914 and 1915 in popular periodicals, and she included war verse in her successful post-war publication Roses and Laurel Leaves. These poems deal with the sacrificial nature of war deaths, and she also took inspiration from key events in the conflict that were widely reported on at home, like the landing at Gallipoli.
Mabel took her role as a teller of war stories seriously. She contributed three poems to a pamphlet that raised money for the Kangaroo Point Red Cross Kitchen, which were accompanied by responses from a soldier poet. Her work struck a chord with soldiers serving in Europe and she received hundreds of letters from servicemen, which she preserved as treasured possessions in her cuttings books. Writing work that provided hope and sympathy to soldiers at the Front was important to Mabel - fifteen years after the war she spoke reverentially about a Gallipoli veteran who had carried her poems with him through the Battle of the Somme. Memorialising their sacrifice was her purpose.
To dismiss Mabel's work as jingoistic and thematically simplistic would be a disservice to the sincerity that imbues her verse. She felt the tragedies of the war deeply, and this is reflected in her work. As her friend and journalist Doris Waraker explained, Mabel 'wrote her best poetry during the First World War, which holocaust, needless to say, filled with agony her sensitive spirit. She wrote once, 'I have dreamed of Flanders till I feared to sleep again - for the horror of the German guns - and the hate and wounds and pain. And many of her simplest and most moving poems were concerned with the young men who died in saving the world of that day' (quoted in Gwen Fox, 1986).
And although Mabel's poetry for most of the war years celebrated the bravery of Imperial troops, she was not ignorant of criticisms of war. Mabel's poem titled 'War', published in the Bulletin on 24 September 1914, just a few weeks after war was announced, denounced the concept of war in general, taking a realistic, pessimistic view of the conflict:
And someone piling money overseas
From rotten stores and bayonets made of lead;
And someone praying 'peace' (and loading guns)
And bloated birds of prey and starving men
And ravished women...This is also war.
Mabel's love of country manifested itself in a desire to protect it, and to exalt those who did the protecting. But her poetry also recognised other perspectives, perhaps informed by her friendship with the feminist and peace campaigner Rose Scott. Like so many women poets of this time, Mabel's poetry eludes easy categorisation.
John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.