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 sheilas.org.au. 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 …