Jessie McLaren (1883‐1968)

[From a PDF file at the National Library of Australia]

Jessie was born in Hobart, Tasmania, the second daughter of Charles and Annie Reeve. She was one of seven children. Her father, Charles Frederick Reeve (1859-1941), founded the Poona and Indian Village Mission in 1892. Reeve remained as a missionary in western India for most of his life, only returning permanentlyto Australia in 1936-37 (Whittall. Charles p. 62). Annie Reeve (1856-1941), whose maiden name was Pirani, converted from the Jewish faith to Christianity before marrying Charles in 1880. She and the children did not stay long in India. In 1893 her daughter Alice died aged four months, while Annie and some of her remaining children suffered serious ill health. They moved back to Australia in 1895, to Tasmania, then Geelong and finally St Kilda in Melbourne. Reeve visited the family periodically. Jessie said that as a child she 'always seemed to be bidding her father farewell.'
Jessie attended Presbyterian Ladies' College in Melbourne from 1899 to 1901,and in her final year gained First Class Honours in English and history (PLC Archives). She majored in philosophy at the University of Melbourne, where she also studied English and classical languages. She obtained her Bachelor of Arts in 1911 and her Master of Arts in 1913. In the words of her daughter Rachel 'she had a deep love of literature, especially poetry, and was interested in languages having studied Greek and Latin amongst others.'

As they completed school, Jessie and her four sisters each spent protracted periods in India with their father. Jessie was there from late 1902. During 1904 she also accompanied her father on one of his fundraising and recruiting visits to Glasgow, Manchester and London.  Charles Inglis McLaren was 'a distinguished medical man and a member of a noted family.' He had been born in Japan, son of the Presbyterian missionary and educationalist, Samuel Gilfillan McLaren (1840-1914). Jessie and Charles married in Melbourne on 22 August 1911. In September, as missionaries of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, they sailed to Korea. The McLarens lived in Korea from 1911 to 1941.

From 1911 to 1923 Charles McLaren worked at Paton Memorial Hospital, Chinju, in the far south of Korea. Charles and Jessie's daughter, Rachel Reeve McLaren, was born in February 1923. Later in 1923 Charles, Jessie, their adopted Korean daughters and baby Rachel moved to Seoul, the Korean capital. Charles became professor of neurology and psychological medicine at Severance Union Medical College, which was to become the medical faculty at Yonsei University. As the Pacific War approached, the two women left for Australia in March 1941. After Pearl Harbor in December that year, Charles McLaren was imprisoned by the Japanese first in Korea, then moved to Japan and finally repatriated via neutral Portuguese East Africa late in 1942.

Jessie McLaren took a particular interest in advancing the status of Korean women. Rachel Human wrote of her mother, 'In her very early days in Korea she had established a kindergarten and a night school in order to offer opportunities to women nd children.'  After they moved to Seoul, Jessie taught at Ewha College, now one of Asia's most prestigious women's universities. Having studied history and philosophy at school and university, she lectured there in history as well as Bible studies. When Ewha moved to a new campus in 1935, she took responsibility for the layout of the grounds, its flowerbeds, trees and lawns. As her husband wrote in a letter to his sister Mary, dated 18 October 1936, 'Jessie has been very busy out at the women's college, laying out their site and landscape gardening there. She is so happy and enthusiastic about it.'  He also mentioned in a letter of 13 April 1939 that Jessie sat on the Board of Management at Ewha.  Jessie herself wrote in a letter to her husband's sisters, dated 28 April 1940, 'I have a few outside jobs to keep me busy  --  librarian of the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society…but my more strenuous job is the landscaping at Ewha College and the work on the college executive… Her love of gardening is obvious from her book collection, especially the many Japanese titles on Korean and other East Asian botany. 'Books and gardening were two of her major hobbies', her daughter Rachel recalled.

During her second decade in Korea, Jessie became seriously ill with a heart condition. She remained house-bound for a long period. 'It was characteristic of her that instead of fretting over what could have been regarded as an imprisonment, she used the time to dig deep into Korean history and culture,' her daughter recalled. She improved her knowledge of Chinese, the written language of educated Koreans up to the 20th century. Her translation from Chinese of the 'Tonggyong chapki', an historical miscellany about Korea's ancient capital, Kyongju, was published by Rachel in 1986. In its introduction, dated 29 January 1931, Jessie wrote modestly 'as fitness for the task [of translation] I can only plead enforced leisure from more strenuous duties and a certain acquaintance with my native tongue, small Korean and less Chinese.'. She also translated Chinese Confucian texts and Korean poetry. Korea  was the source and inspiration of her private collection of old and rare Korean books. In 1984 her daughter Rachel Human donated 136 of these titles to the National Library of Australia, as the McLaren-Human Collection. The earliest missionaries in Korea included the Americans, Horace Allen and Horace Grant Underwood; as well as the Canadian, James Scarth Gale. Underwood and Gale became prominent scholars. Several of their works on Korean history and language are to be found in Jessie McLaren's collection.

Faith Norris says that in 1930 Jessie gave Joan Grigsby copies of her translations of poems by Gisaeng (female entertainers). These poems form a separate section at the end of The Orchid Door. Jessie's family have recently identified four notebooks containing translations of poetry among the papers of Jessie McLaren still in their possession.

 [From a PDF file at the National Library of Australia]