Monday musings on Australian literature: Barbara Baynton

Barbara Baynton 1892

Baynton 1892 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

It’s a while since I’ve devoted a Monday Musings to an individual author – my last being, I think, Jessica Anderson back in February 2012 – and so I thought it was high time for another one, if only to mix the series up a bit! My choice for today is – well, you know who it is from the post’s title – Barbara Baynton. She is a worthy subject for several reasons. Let me count the ways. Firstly, she does not, outside of academia at least, receive the attention she deserves. Yes, she can be a little challenging to read, particularly in her use of the vernacular, but she was quite a pioneer in the subjects she discussed and in bucking some of the male traditions of her time regarding writing about the bush. Secondly, she was an interesting person worth knowing a little about. And thirdly, I recently finished reviewing the short stories in her collection, Bush studies. Baynton only published two books: Bush studies in 1902, and a novel, Human toll, in 1907. She did write stories, poems and articles after this, but there were no more books.

Rags to riches girl

So, who was this Barbara Baynton? It appears that she was pretty good at covering her tracks – at least earlier in her life. In a 1980 review of Barbara Baynton (Portable Australian Authors series), author Marian Eldridge wrote that the editors had cleared up the mystery surrounding her origins. This mystery was further clarified in a biography written in 1989 by her great grand-daughter, Australian actress, Penne Hackforth-Jones. Baynton was born in the Hunter region of New South Wales in 1857, and was married three times. She divorced her first husband, with whom she had three children, after he repeatedly left her isolated when he was “a-droving and a-drinking” (Ralph Elliott reviewing Hackforth-Jones’ book). In fact, he ran off with her niece. At this point, Baynton moved to Sydney where she, aged 33, married the 70-year-old wealthy doctor Thomas Baynton, who had employed her as a housekeeper. It was during this time of material comfort that Baynton started to write about the harsh life of the bush. After Thomas Baynton died in 1904, she moved to London with her daughter and it was here, wrote Hackforth-Jones, that “she rubbed out bits of her past she didn’t like and substituted the ones she did”, creating for herself quite an ancestry. During the war, she was generous to Australian soldiers, apparently lodging, overall, some 8,000 during their leave. On a visit to Australia in 1920, she spoke of the pain experienced by Australian mothers whose sons were sent to other side of the world:

Those mothers had not the wonderful hours when their sons were on leave. Their boys were strangers in London, and I know no lonelier place on this earth than London for the uninitiated. It is the Gethsemane of loneliness.

Many years later, in 1921, she married Lord Headley. Elliott writes that Headley was “a Muslim convert, engineer, sportsman” who “needed money for his decaying Irish estate.” Baynton, on the other hand, “coveted the coronet”. This marriage did not last long and ended in divorce. She returned to Australia, one last time, in 1928, and died in 1929.

Subtle like Proust, grim like Gorky!

Researching this post, I came across some interesting contemporary (or near-contemporary) assessments of her work. One, by Australian poet, essayist, critic and literary mentor, Nettie Palmer, appeared in the Brisbane Courier of 15 June 1929, a couple of weeks after her death. Palmer analyses Baynton’s writing, quoting a passage, and arguing that:

Baynton shows that there is no end to subtleties of human and even sub-human intercourse. The implications of that passage … make a scene as subtle as something in Proust.

Proust, eh? I’m afraid I don’t know Proust well enough to comment on that, but it’s an interesting comparison. Baynton is determined, she says, “to record the varied strands in our human nature” even though “her actual figures are usually derelicts in some forgotten corner of a bush that she shows as without comeliness”. She then writes that Scottish writer RB Cunninghame Graham likened her to contemporary Russian writers like Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) who was determined, according to Wikipedia, to “write the bitter truth”. That certainly sounds right! Take, for example, this contemporary review of Human Toll:

As a study in character of the morbid kind recent fiction has nothing to show equal in impressiveness to this picture of the beautiful, strenuous, high-wrought Ursula.

That was in 1907. In 1931, another unidentified writer is somewhat critical of Baynton’s grim realism, comparing her and Price Warung (see my review of his collection, Tales of the early days) with Henry Lawson and EG Dyson. Baynton and Warung, this writer says, “have not their breadth of vision, although they have a compensatory intensity to some extent”. Hmm … that “to some extent” rather reduces what little compliment there is in this statement, doesn’t it? This writer continues that:

“The Bulletin” encouraged the presentation of the raw and ruddy in bush sketches as an antidote to the sentimental. Yet it is no truer art to exclude the gentle and gracious side of life in the name of realism than to obliterate the harsh and repellant in the name of the romantic. Barbara Baynton is a grim realist, and her “Bush Studies” are powerful but unpleasant.

Who said, one could ask, that art must be pleasant? For this 1931 writer, Baynton’s story “Squeaker’s mate” (my review) is “more gruesome than Gorky”, and “The chosen vessel” (my review) “raises the question of art and the horrible”. Baynton, s/he says, paints “the backblocks in the colours of hell”. S/he would much prefer Henry Lawson’s more “human” stories. But, Lawson could be sentimental, as Marian Eldridge argues. You could never accuse Baynton of that!

But wait there’s more …

I can’t leave this brief introduction to Baynton, without mentioning something rather surprising – her anti-suffrage stance, which was mentioned in a couple of the articles I read. Indeed, one specifically commented that she would stand on a tub in Hyde Park to argue her case! So, I delved a little deeper, and found a recent article by Lucas Smith at He tells us that she was one of the first women to divorce in the colony after laws were passed allowing women to file. And she was able to inherit Baynton’s estate in her own name because inheritance laws had recently changed. She was an independent woman. And, her stories demonstrate the awful powerlessness of women. So, why anti-suffrage? Well, Eldridge found the following statement by her in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1911:

It may sound disloyal to my sex, yet, it is a common truth; show me a woman in power, and I will show you a despot. Indeed, in my anti-suffrage canvass in London, my surest and most successful weapon was to just ask shopgirls, “Would you rather have a woman over you than a man?”

Oh dear … so simplistic, and unfortunately there is still an element of this attitude today. Anyhow, Smith concludes his article with a good question – and I’ll end my post with him:

She benefited from women’s rights struggles at every stage of her life – her divorce and her inheritance were the result of collective struggle – yet she seemingly never recognised this fact. Bush Studies portrays the fear and helplessness of early women settlers in a male-dominated colonial Australia better than any other book, yet Baynton was opposed to female suffrage, arguably the single-most important achievement of the modern women’s movement. Where is the line between the personal and the political drawn? This is the question Baynton’s story forces us to think about.

It sure does …

34 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Barbara Baynton

  1. What a fascinating woman, a little bit of P l Travers about her perhaps in heading to the UK to remake herself. She does sound quite a strong mixed women. I am drawn to read some of her writing now.

    • Ah yes, interesting connection to make Kate. Very different in their works but both complex women. Bush stories (and I’m sure Human Toll) are available at Project Gutenberg, as well as Sydney Uni and Text Publishing editions.

  2. “she rubbed out bits of her past she didn’t like and substituted the ones she did”, Sounds like quite a woman.

    Re: your last comment: I’ve been watching The Sopranos (highly recommended BTW), and there’s a part where Carmela Soprano, the long-suffering wife of the mob boss, has a speech in which she complains about her lot saying that she wants more–at the same time reinforcing that she’s not a feminist.

    Possibly Baynton didn’t want to identify with suffragettes as common propaganda portrayed them extremely unattractively. Plus at the time of the 1911 statement she would have been firmly in middle age and perhaps didn’t identify with these wild young things.

    • Good suggestion Guy … There possibly was a bit of that … And she did by then rather aspire to the high class, and may not have wanted to rock the boat, though she seemed pretty willing to be outspoken on other things. I think we still have that issue today with some women not wanting to associate with what they see as feminists all the while being happy to accept what is fought for.

  3. Thanks for this, WG. Absolutely fascinating. What a range of experience she must have had, from life alone with her kids in the country to the high life of London. The anti-suffrage stance is so interesting for a woman who had seen so much. I wonder if she might have encountered a few women in the infancy of the movement, who tried too hard to behave like men in power. It seems such a shame, given her intelligence, but we’re not to know the details, I suppose.

    • Thanks Robyn … She certainly is an interesting woman. I read in one article that she bullied her daughter, though I’d have to read her biography to see if that’s a generally held view. If she did, though, it could be the pot calling the kettle black in terms of women’s treatment of other women? It’s interesting that she never turned her pen to London society.

  4. Hmm, I’m not sure that I should quarrel with the likes of Nettie Palmer, but I wouldn’t say Baynton reminded me of Proust.
    She certainly spawned an endless succession of grim ‘Australian Social Realism 101’ novels, IMO!

    • And good for her too, I’d say Lisa, though I’m not sure I’d add the ‘101’ to the style … I think our literature is the stronger for voices like hers. I’d love to know which books you’d see her as spawning?

        • I’m not sure I’ve read many stories that are nothing but grit – though I guess it’s all to do with how we read and what we mean by “nothing but grit” isn’t it? The way I look at Baynton is in terms of our literary tradition. The fact that she spawned a succession of gritty writing makes her a pioneer? I’d like to think that innovators, those prepared to buck the prevailing trends, are remembered – read and taught – to help us understand our literary heritage. That said, she’s certainly a challenge – not only for her subject matter but her use of the vernacular! I didn’t find all her work easy but I did find it fascinating and I’m really glad that I now have her perspective.

  5. Thanks so much for this, Sue. I love Bush Studies, especially Squeaker’s Mate and A Chosen Vessel, which is a great companion piece to The Drover’s Wife, but I knew nothing at all about Barbara Baynton herself. What an interesting, complex woman!

    • Thanks Jonathan … yes, she sure was. I think my curiosity was piqued by some comments in the intro to my edition, so I started researching her a little. One day, I’d like to read the bio. There was an earlier one too by her grandson but I think it was more his memories than a researched work.

      I enjoyed Bush church too – quite different but clever.

  6. Oops, didn’t mean to imply that I don’t admire Baynton. (I think I conveyed that admiration in my review of Bush Studies, all those years ago!) Though I agree about the vernacular being a bit of a pain in some of her stories, overall I think she offers balance in stories of that era dominated by Henry Lawson, because her stories show us how tough life was for women. But they do more than (i.e. more than just telling about the grit), they debunk the mythology of Australian mateship amongst the poor. She de-romanticises it. She rubbishes the church too, which was brave.
    IMO it wasn’t just her fiction that was innovative, she was a pioneer for her gender because she was writing a much more forceful satiric style than was the norm for female authors at that time. I haven’t read enough Australian women’s fiction of her period to know that for sure, but it seems to me that she has more in common with Rosa Cappiello writing in the 1950s, than she does with female writers of her own era. She’s unabashed about expressing anger at the hypocrisy all around her in a decisive way, and too bad if people think it’s unladylike!.

    • Thanks Lisa for clarifying that … I wasn’t quite sure what you were saying. Nuances can be hard in text! I thought I remembered your review as being mostly positive.

      Yes, absolutely, was she a pioneer in style and for her gender. I have read other writers around that time and there were a few who were prepared to speak out on women’s lot e.g. Rosa Praed’s The bonds of wedlock in particular though it’s over two decades since I read that. Ada Cambridge too tackled women’s situation – not with the same “grittiness” but with a clear eye nonetheless. Though I need to read both these authors again.

      The funny thing about her is that she went to England and aspired to be a lady … a really fascinating woman.

  7. I am making absolutely the worst comment here, but I feel like I want her dress, judging purely by the Anne-of-Green-Gables-esque puffed sleeves.

  8. She sounds like a strong personality, a force to be reckoned with. I’m completely intrigued by characters like her, even though I’m glad I don’t have to deal with them! She’s a contradiction, isn’t she? Feminist on one hand—the fact that she wrote and divorced and didn’t devote herself to her husband and family says that. Then there’s the subjects she wrote about, like the hard lives of the womenfolk. Yet she distanced herself from the feminist cause. In the statement about women in power being ‘despots’, I wonder if there wasn’t a bit of projection happening—maybe she clashed with strong women like herself …

    I’m reminded of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who wrote around the same time and also had a complicated personal life. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be a woman and have been creative in those days. It must have been terribly frustrating.

    • Haha, I agree Louise re being intrigued, but preferably from afar. She certainly was a contradiction. I have read that she was a bit of a bully but I’m not sure how true that was – it could account for your suggestion though. It takes one to know one.

      I had forgotten the Gilman was writing around the same time. It’s good sometimes to realise that although we have a way to go, we have also come a long way.

  9. This was really interesting. That second marriage had quite the age difference. She is one of those curious women who benefit from suffrage etc but deny that women should have rights. There are still women today who are like that, leaders and yet they speak against women being leaders.

  10. Pingback: Barbara Baynton | theaustralianlegend

  11. Pingback: Barbara Baynton, Lady Headley – Scone Vet Dynasty

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