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 an hour’s 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.
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.