Barbara Baynton, The chosen vessel (Review)
I’m blaming author and blogger Karen Lee Thompson again for this post, because she wrote a wonderful comment on my post on Barbara Baynton‘s short story “Squeaker’s mate”, and I’m going to quote it pretty much in full (I hope that’s ok from a copyright point of view – tell me if it isn’t Karen Lee):
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.
“The chosen vessel” and “Squeaker’s mate” are Baynton’s best known and most anthologised short stories. However, I hadn’t read “The chosen vessel” before and so decided, on Karen Lee’s recommendation, to read the version in Bush studies. According to my brief research, and Karen Lee can correct me if I’m wrong, The Bush studies version is the final complete version Baynton presented for publication. However, it is not the same as the original version which was submitted as “What the curlews cried” and then significantly edited by the Bulletin.
Anyhow, if I thought “Squeaker’s mate” was tough, then this one is tougher. The female protagonist is left alone with her baby, rather like Lawson’s wife in “The drover’s wife”, but this woman faces a double whammy. Left by a cruel husband, she is terrorised by a “swagman” (not a “tramp” despite its first published title). She’s a town girl unfamiliar with bush life, but that’s not what scares her. I won’t detail the plot more because it’s a short story (around 8 pages) and you can find it in the online link below. The shorter Bulletin version, I understand, did not change what happened to the woman, but excised a whole section and thereby effectively changed the meaning of the story to suggest an isolated instance rather than something more systemic.
In the introduction to my Sydney University Press edition, Susan Sheridan confirms my statement in my “Squeaker’s mate” post that Baynton’s main concern was not the harshness or terrors of the bush and the land, which contemporary critics tried to argue, but male brutality to woman and, more significantly, “the impossible position that male culture constructs for ‘woman’ in the abstract”. She writes that woman is glorified as the Madonna, God’s “chosen vessel”, but “at the same time the capacity for motherhood is regarded as confining her to the animal level of existence”. In “The chosen vessel” religious imagery – the mother and her baby are both mistaken for a ewe and a lamb and as a vision of the Madonna and child – is used to devastating ironic effect.
I’m not surprised that those late nineteenth century men found her writing confronting and that the Bulletin only ever published one of her short stories, but, for me, Baynton’s writing presents an alternative view of life in the bush that I’m glad we have available today.
“The chosen vessel”
in Bush studies
Sydney University Press, 2009
Available online: in Bush studies at Project Gutenberg