“Bush church” is my sixth and last* story from Barbara Baynton’s Bush studies, and it presented a rather pleasant change in tone from most of the others in the book. I’m sorry in a way that I read these stories quite out-of-order. “Bush church” is the fifth story in the collection, appearing after “Billy Skywonkie” and before the very grim “The chosen vessel”. It would work well in this position I think.
Like “Billy Skywonkie”, “Bush Church” contains a lot of dialogue in the vernacular of that particular place and time, making it somewhat of a challenge to read. However, I didn’t find it off-puttingly so. This may be because I’ve developed a bit of an ear for it (and you do have to use your ear when reading it) or perhaps because there is less dialogue. The story concerns a motley group of graziers and selectors gathered together at a grazier’s property to attend a church service delivered by a travelling parson. It becomes clear early on that attending a church service is a very rare occurrence in this neck of the woods. There are couples not married, children not christened, and people, indeed, who have never been to a church service.
It is, in many ways, a comic piece. But, here’s where I should take back that word “pleasant” in my first sentence because, while it doesn’t have the violence that several of the other stories have, the comedy is bitter. Baynton’s people here, as in her other stories, are not the noble sufferers we meet in Henry Lawson’s “The drover’s wife” or those two stories by Mary Grant Bruce that I recently reviewed. They are, with few exceptions, jealous, self-centred and/or mean-spirited.
The story, divided into two parts, starts with the parson on a horse en route to the grazier’s property. It’s not a good horse. The story opens:
The hospitality of the bush never extends to the loan of a good horse to an inexperienced rider.
The implication, of course, is that the bush is hospitable. You know, country hospitality and all that! However, as the story progresses we see little if any evidence of bush hospitality. Early in the story, our unnamed parson, is joined by “flash” Ned, who is desperate for a smoke, but gets none from the non-smoking parson, nor from “hairy Paddy Woods of eighteen withering summers” whom they meet along the way.
Perhaps because of this or just because he’s who he is, Ned decides, mischievously, that the parson is there as an Inspector, and spreads this news to all and sundry, so that they start hunting for:
land receipts, marriage lines, letters from Government Departments, registered cattle brands, sheep ear-marks, and every other equipment that protects the poor cockey from a spiteful and revengeful Government, whose sole aim was “ter ketch ’em winkin'” and then forfeit the selection. All of these documents Ned inspected upside down or otherwise, and pronounced with unlegal directness that “a squint et them ‘ud fix ‘im if thet’s wot ‘e’s smellin’ after”. He told them to bring them next day. Those of the men who had swapped horses with passing drovers, without the exchange of receipts, were busy all afternoon trumping up witnesses.
No wonder Ned, who, we also discover, is a wife-beater, “was no favourite” among his neighbours!
This is where the first part ends. The second part comprises the church service which takes place on the grazier’s verandah. The attendees, we are told, are “ten adults and eighteen children”. Baynton provides us with colourful descriptions of these people as they arrive, and then the service starts:
For a few minutes the adults listened and watched intently, but the gentle voice of the parson, and his nervous manner, soon convinced them that they had nothing to fear from him. Ned had been “poking’ borak” at them again; they added it to the long score they owed him.
Not surprisingly, with a couple of exceptions, they all gradually lose interest. The adults bicker, while the children find the food the hostess had prepared for a post-service lunch for the parson, herself and her husband. Her hospitality was not extending any further, but she’s one-upped by the children and one of the mothers! When the service is over, she has a problem to solve!
This is not a story with a strong plot, but is, rather, a slice of life, presented with a good deal of humour peppered with bite and irony. Susan Sheridan, in her introduction to my edition, suggests that Baynton’s writing belongs to the naturalist tradition of writers like Zola and Gorky. Naturalism, she says, is a style that “was crafted to express the view that the uncontrollable forces of the natural world had their equivalents in human nature, and that the values of civilisation were a mere crust over an underlying struggle to death among various life forms”. In this style, she suggests, violence and cruelty are expressed in a detached way. That doesn’t mean, I think, that we readers react in a detached way. Rather, the detached tone adds to our feeling of horror.
Barbara Baynton, I’ve decided, was a very interesting woman. I plan to do a Monday Musing on her soon to share a little more about who she was.
“Bush church” in Bush studies
Sydney University Press, 2009
Available online: in Bush studies at Project Gutenberg.