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.
in Bush studies
Sydney University Press, 2009
Available online: in Bush studies at Project Gutenberg