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Barbara Baynton, Squeaker’s mate (Review)

November 17, 2012
Barbara Baynton.

Presumed public domain, via Wikipedia

My last post was about this year’s Meanjin Tournament of Books which is pitting short stories against each other. One of the short stories is Barbara Baynton‘s “Squeaker’s mate”, which I’ve read before but a long time ago. I decided, though, to read it again, since I have easy access to a copy, on my shelves and online.

Author and blogger Karen Lee Thompson commented on my tournament post that she’d like to see a bout comparing “Squeaker’s mate” (1902) with Henry Lawson’s “The drover’s wife” (1892), and it would be delicious. I was tempted to do it here but I won’t. However, I did think of commencing this post with “Only a woman …” because, despite their broad similarities in subject matter and setting – the harsh life faced by pioneer women in the outback – there is a big difference in tone. Both stories chronicle the bravery and perseverance of bush women,  but Lawson’s story has an heroic, even somewhat romantic, tone. Not so with Baynton.

Squeaker’s mate, “the best long-haired mate that ever stepped in petticoats”, is a hardworking, taciturn woman whose mate, Squeaker, is a good-for-nothing. Here’s paragraph three:

From the bag she took the axe,  and ring-barked a preparatory circle, while he looked for a shady spot for the billy and the tucker-bags.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Squeaker, other than laziness, but “she knew the man, and her tolerance was of the mysteries”. However, things change dramatically early in the story when a tree falls on her, putting her out of action. Squeaker’s initial reaction is chilling – “he was impatient, because for once he had actually to use his strength” – and, a little later

he supposed he would have to yard them [the sheep] tonight, if she didn’t liven up. He looked down at unenlivened her.

It’s only in the last few paragraphs of the story that we learn “her” name. Significantly, it’s Mary.

The rest of the story chronicles his self-centred callous treatment of her, sometimes leaving her for days with no sustenance. All she has is her loyal dog which, for we readers, relieves, albeit slightly, our despair at her situation. There is no heroism in here, very little kindness even – but there is, on the part of Squeaker’s mate, resilience and, without giving away the story, a triumph of sorts.

Baynton is critical of men’s attitude to women – and this is a major theme of the story, though it’s not that simple either. Early on, a few men do show kindness to Mary – let’s dignify her with her name now – but their women put a stop to that. Mary had not been one for “yarnin'”, making her “unlikely” to be popular with them. Baynton writes:

It is in the ordering of things that by degrees most husbands accept their wives’ views of other women.

And so Mary is left alone.

The writing is compelling. It is told third person, but the perspective swaps between hers, his, and, later on, that of the woman he brings into their home. In some circumstances this narrative approach could provide an even-handed view of the characters, but here it only serves to reinforce our early opinion of them. In other words, Squeaker does not improve on acquaintance. Baynton plays effectively with the “word” mate, contrasting the roles, responsibilities and rights of mates as partners, alongside those of the Australian “mateship” tradition, with Squeaker’s un-mate-like, in all senses of the word, behaviour.

Imagery is used sparingly, but it’s pointed when it’s there. It is a tree that brings Mary down, and then late in the story Squeaker decides to clear some land:

So that now, added to the other bush voices, was the call from some untimely falling giant. There is no sound so human as that from the riven souls of these tree people, or the trembling sighs of their upright neighbours whose hands in time will meet over the fallen victim’s body.

A little melodramatic in that 19th century way maybe, but Baynton’s suggestion that there’s more solidarity among trees than the humans below is well made. In fact, while life is harsh, it’s not an unforgiving environment that is the main problem for Baynton’s characters.

It’s a grim but effective story that focuses mostly on gendered callousness in a world where survival would be best ensured by cooperation. In confronting gender issues, Baynton is part of a tradition of Australian women’s writing of the late nineteenth to early twentieth century that has, to a large degree, been forgotten a century or so later. It’s time to revive these early writers – and hopefully recent initiatives by Sydney University Press, Text Publishing and others, will do the job.

Barbara Baynton
“Squeaker’s mate”
in Bush studies
Sydney University Press, 2009
ISBN: 9781820898953

Available online: in Bush studies at Project Gutenberg

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. November 17, 2012 5:43 am

    That does sound like a grim story but good. I’m glad you said that Squeaker was the man’s names because I was imagining “Squeaker” might be some sort of Australian slang for some kind of work!

    • November 17, 2012 8:36 am

      Fair enough too, Stefanie, we do have some colourful slang, like most countries I suppose but the ones you don’t know are the most colourful aren’t they?

  2. November 17, 2012 7:17 am

    Oh my. Another story to add to my “why it’s better to be single than in a relationship just for the heck of it” list.

    Which perhaps wasn’t *really* the point of the story…

    • November 17, 2012 8:38 am

      Probably not, Hannah … Though I suspect Barbara Baynton wouldn’t see that as an irrelevant reading either!

  3. Bryce permalink
    November 17, 2012 9:17 am

    I enjoyed your review – thank you. I read this powerful story a long time ago and it has always remained vividly in my mind, unlike most short stories which fade over time.

    • November 17, 2012 11:38 am

      Thanks Bryce … yes, it is one of those isn’t it? I have a few that have stood that test of time: Lawson’s The drover’s wife, Chopin’s Desiree’s baby, de Maupassant’s The necklace, and Jolley’s Five acre virgin.

  4. November 17, 2012 3:51 pm

    Thanks for linking me in Sue.

    Barbara Baynton wrote some wonderful stories and, had literary politics been a little more inclusive in the days of the Bulletin, I’m sure she would have received wider recognition. Many of Baynton’s short stories, like ‘Squeakers Mate’, turn ‘The Australian Legend’ on its head and, perhaps because of this, the male literary elite (A.G. Stephens, A.A. Phillips for example) chose to modify or explain her work in various ways.

    An interesting example of this editorial intrusion is the politics surrounding Baynton’s ‘The Chosen Vessel’ (Baynton’s preferred title was ‘What the Curlews Cried’) which I have read, in its various forms, a number of times. Stephens published it as ‘The Tramp’. It is believed he wanted the title to shift the focus away from the central woman and it allowed for clarity between a ‘tramp’ (an isolated individual) and a ‘swagman’ (a virtuous kind of everyman of the bush). Stephens also cut a significant part of the story before publication.

    For anyone who enjoys ‘Squeakers Mate’, I’d suggest a reading of ‘What the Curlews Cried’ (aka ‘The Chosen Vessel’ or ‘The Tramp’), preferably in its unabridged form.

    • November 17, 2012 4:09 pm

      Thanks for this wonderful discussion of Baynton Karen Lee. I was aware of a little of the politics … I think only one story was ever published in The Bulletin wasn’t it? Has a bio ever been written of her?

  5. November 18, 2012 8:26 pm

    Great discussion and I enjoyed the story (also the one above). So laden with images and very compelling reading. I haven’t read much from this era and now must look up Barbara Bayton. What a woman she must have been. The story also made me think of Cold Snap by Cate Kennedy in its reverence for these almighty trees.

    • November 18, 2012 8:29 pm

      Thanks Catherine … I must track down that story by Kennedy. I need to read more of her as I’ve only read a couple of short stories. I think Baynton was a pretty gutsy woman.

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