Ethel Turner was the second child of Bennett George Burwell, commercial traveller, and his wife Sarah Jane. Burwell died when Ethel was a baby and her mother remarried. Ethel and her elder sister Lilian took their stepfather's name, Turner, and were known by it throughout their professional careers. When Turner died his widow emigrated to Australia with her children. Sarah married again, this time a clerk, Charles Cope, and the family settled in Sydney.. Some of the details of Ethel's early life are revealed in her autobiographical novel, Three Little Maids (1900).
Turner attended Paddington Public School and Sydney Girls' High School, where she printed her own magazine, Iris, with her sister Lilian Turner (q.v.) also on the editorial team. In January 1889, after Ethel left school, the sisters founded and co-edited a sixpenny monthly, Parthenon. The magazine ran for three years, but ceased when its printer was sued for libel. This period was formative for Turner as a writer for children. She edited the 'Children's Page' of the Illustrated Sydney News for one year and the same page for the Australian Town and Country Journal until 1919.
In 1893 she wrote her first children's book, Seven Little Australians, recording in her diary for 27 January that year: 'Night started a new story that I shall call Seven Little Australians...According to the diary she finished the first draft on 20 October 1893: 'Finished 7 Little Australians. Hurrah. I thought I'd never get to the end...' During the next thirty-five years, Turner published many books of fiction, poetry and travel writing but she is is best remembered for her first book. Set in the suburbs of Sydney, Seven Little Australians offers a portrait of domestic realism, attempting to capture the distinctive nature of Australian childhood. Despite some affinities with Charlotte Yonge's The Daisy Chain (1856) and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868), the novel differs from these earlier novels of childhood by avoiding their idealism and religious convictions. Turner's novel was adapted for television in the 1970s, demonstrating its enduring appeal.
Turner married barrister Herbert Curlewis in 1896. Their daughter Jean Curlewis (q.v.) wrote several novels in the 1920s, but died of tuberculosis in 1930. Turner's granddaughter edited her diaries in 1979 and A. T. Yarwood's biography was published in 1994.
There are various reprints and editions of most Ethel Turner titles. Many of these are undated. Deciding on the probable date requires examination of publisher catalogue details in the end matter of some editions, which give details of other Turner titles recently published. The usual variations occur in the name of the illustrator, the number of illustrative plates and consequently the extent of the books. Refer to Ross Burnet A Turner Bibliography: A Guide to Identification and Value of the Books Written by Ethel Turner (Australian Book Collector, Uralla, 2003) and Marcie Muir Australian Children's Books: A Bibliography Vol. 1 1974-1972.
Not all of the foreign editions of Turner's books have been indexed yet. For information about this author's works for children not yet included in AustLit, see Australian Children's Books by Marcie Muir and Kerry White (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1992-2004).