Monday musings on Australian literature: Louisa Atkinson, and indigenous Australians

Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872)

Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872) (Courtesy: Artist unknown, via Wikipedia)

Time for another Monday Musings highlighting an Australian literary pioneer, this time Louisa Atkinson. I came across Atkinson a few years ago when I was researching Australian women writers for Wikipedia. She’s one of those women who achieved much in her field but who, I believe, is little known. She was a journalist, novelist and naturalist. She was born in 1834, in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, just a couple of hours’ drive from where I live.

There’s a good general biography of her online at the Australian Dictionary of Biography, but here is the gist:

  • She collected and painted plant specimens for well-known scientists of the time including Ferdinand von Mueller, and she is commemorated in the Atkinsonia genus as well as several plant species.
  • She was a rebel when it came to clothing. While, as is typical of her time, she was highly religious, she shocked the good women of her rural neighbourhood by wearing trousers for her naturalist ramblings and pony-riding.
  • She was a well-regarded botanical artist. Twentieth century Australian artist Margaret Preston described her drawings as having “unexpected elegance and extreme accuracy”.
  • She was the first Australian woman to have a long-running series of articles in a major newspaper. This was her natural history series, A Voice from the Country, which ran for 10 years from 1860.
  • AND she is credited as being the first Australian-born woman to publish a novel in Australia. It was titled Gertrude, the emigrant girl: A tale of colonial life (1857). This and her second novel, Cowanda: A veteran’s grant (1859), are available as etexts from the University of Sydney’s excellent SETIS project (to which I’ve linked the titles). Gertrude tells the story of a young immigrant girl hired to be a housekeeper in a country house by Mrs Doherty who, to give a sense of Atkinson’s style, is described in the first chapter as “a small woman, with a brown careworn countenance; the index of generous emotions, strong passions, and acute griefs, which had worn her straight features into sharp outlines, and given a restless keenness to her small dark eyes”.

I have only dipped into Atkinson’s novel, Gertrude, to get a sense of her writing so I won’t write any further on that. What is interesting to explore a little is her experience of indigenous Australians. Elizabeth Lawson in her book on Atkinson, The natural art of Louisa Atkinson, wrote that her father created a model farm, but

Oldbury’s promise was clouded by its exploitation of the convict system and by its dispossession of the local Gandangara people, a dispossession the family at least recognised. And just above the house on a natural terrace of the mountain rose a great Aboriginal grave-mound with carved funeral trees which Louisa was later to sketch. This mound and its increasing desolation stood in silent rebuke of Oldbury’s enterprise, of its new English place-names and all they signified.

Nonetheless, Lawson writes that Atkinson befriended, and retained life-long friendships with Aboriginal people both at Oldbury and in the Shoalhaven area where she spent some time. That she had sympathy for them is clear from one of her columns for A Voice from the Country (22 Sept 1863) in which she wrote:

These unhappy races have become rather a tradition, than a reality, already in many districts …

She describes their lives, their homes, their hunting with a naturalist’s, and sympathetic, eye:

On one occasion, when the remnants of three different friendly tribes had assembled for a grand corroboree or dance, I made plan of the encampment; each tribe was slightly apart trom the other, divided by a sort of street. Thus, the inviters (?) were clustered in the centre, having, I think, seventeen camps; the Picton tribe on the right hand, five camps, and the Shoalhaven on the left, comprising ten or eleven gunyahs, consecutively forming a village.

She also writes:

The men were severe to their wives, striking and even killing them – when under the influence of anger, but I believe these cases were far less frequent when they had not lost virtues and acquired vices from the so-called Christian people who invaded them.

Interesting, and sensitive, observation. She talks of the problem of drinking:

Intemperance is one of the vices so sadly prevalent among them, they know what its fatal results are, lament them, but have not courage to resist. How frequent is the paragraph in the country paper of an aborigine’s death from this cause, how many have sunk unrecorded. A great sin lies on us as a people, for much has been done to injure, and little to benefit the poor original possessors of our farms and runs.

And thus she confirms that thinking about indigenous Australians with a humane and clear-eye did not pop up suddenly in the mid to late 20th century!

Louisa Atkinson tragically died not long after (but not due to) the birth of her first child, when she was only 38. What a lot she achieved in a rather short life – and what an interesting person she would have been to know.

28 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Louisa Atkinson, and indigenous Australians

  1. Pants! The harlot wore pants!

    It is fascinating to read those anecdotes/perceptions of Indigenous people, for while I can’t help cringing a little at the paternalistic tone in parts, at the same time I can definitely recognise that this was, at least, a recognition of humanity that wasn’t always present back then. Go Pants-Woman!

    • Oh yes, Hannah, but as you realise, it’s rare to avoid paternalism in those days — but her heart was definitely in the right place. And her paternalism isn’t as strong as it might have been.

  2. Very interesting post. Makes me wonder about my poor Irish heritage up in Queensland, and wish I still had my grandparents to tell stories about the Kyoomba farm. I think one of my grandmother’s sisters was of similar headstrong character – she had a sad life spent yearning for a married lover. I believe they were finally together when the man’s wife died, but don’t you wish you could investigate these stories and see these older generations in their prime. Maybe some book material here??

    • Oh yes, I would be great to know more of their stories … which is why I love reading those books about women that I wrote about a week or so ago. People’s lives are endlessly fascinating which I guess is also why we read novels and short stories eh? BTW What part of Queensland, Catherine? I was born there and my mother’s family were all from there.

      • My dad’s side were tin miners from Stanthorpe and farmers too, and my mum’s dad worked the railways so went all over. My grandmother was half-German and head nurse at the Mater. Both parents grew up in Brisbane and met at Annerley tennis club. I have a lot of memories of Queensland.

        • Ah, My mum was born in Townsville, but moved to Brisbane when she was 5, living in Coorparoo, not that far from Annerley. Her father’s side of the family came from the Gympie area I believe, and her Mum’s came from the west. My childhood was spent in Maryborough, Gympie, Brisbane (Sandgate) and Mt Isa before we moved to Sydney in my early teens. My favourite childhood home was our Sandgate one, a lovely old Queenslander.

        • We used to go to Cooparoo shops. My grandparents all had houses on stilts and lovely tropical gardens. Makes me miss Quernsland fruit!

    • Oh do they, Guy. What a shame I don’t have one! I think I read that they are pretty moralistic but I did like the opening description in Gertrude so if she manages to capture that era well I reckon it would still be a good read.

  3. What a fascinating and intelligent woman. Good on her for shocking everyone by wearing pants. I can’t imagine tramping around through the bush in long skirts. Though she still managed an unfortunate hairdo that makes her look a bit like an unhappy poodle.

    • Oh yes, Stefanie … that’s an awful photo isn’t it. I nearly didn’t use it. That hair makes her face long. As a young woman I had black curly hair and I never could wear it long because it did exactly that to my face. She had real character though and that’s the important thing isn’t it!

      • Character is definitely more important!

        On a seperate note, I didn’t know you are a curly girl! As a teen in the 80s my curls gave me a distinct advantage – no tragic perms – and achieving that big hair look was a piece of cake 😉 These days I much prefer a shorter and less pouffy style!

  4. I am a descendant of Louisa and I feel her compassion and yearning for a better life for all run through me all the time, maybe it’s in the family, or maybe I just hope to resemble such a wonderful woman. She was beyond her time, and to know that I am decendant to those that cared for our indigenous population could not make me a happier Australian

    • Oh thank you for commenting Jennifer. How nice to hear from one of her descendants. I think of her every time I drive to or through the South Highlands and see signs mentioning “Oldbury”. She was ahead of her time in many ways as you say.

  5. Pingback: Collecting Ladies, Ferdinand Von Mueller and Women Botanical Artists, by Penny Olsen | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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