Monday musings on Australian literature: Introducing Rachel Henning

If you are an Aussie who was sentient in the 1950s and/or 60s, you have probably heard of Rachel Henning. If not, she may be new to you, though she does have something of a classic status in Australia. Let me explain.

Rachel Henning (1826-1914) was an Englishwoman who came to Australia in 1854 with her sister Amy, following her brother Biddulph and another sister Annie who had come previously for Biddulph’s health. She did not enjoy the life: she was homesick, she disliked bush life “extremely”, and hated the hot climate. She wrote on 29 March 1855 of being

tired of the perpetual glare of sunshine. Fine days here bring me no pleasure as they do in England: they are too hot and too numerous, and besides, you cannot enjoy them by taking nice walks–there are no walks to take.

So, she returned to England in 1856. However, in 1861, back she came to Australia, determined to be more positive, and found it much more to her liking. It was well into autumn when she landed on this second trip, which helped. After spending a few days in Melbourne, she got a steamer up to Sydney arriving there in mid-May. She writes in her first letter after arrival:

The next morning I got up early, and a most lovely Australian morning it was, the sun shining and everything looking bright and beautiful.

I do not know how to give you any idea of the beauty of Sydney Harbour. I certainly underrated the Australian scenery, but, then, it is winter now; I should tell a different story in the heat and dust of summer. (Letter to sister Etta, May 15, 1861)

After spending a little time in New South Wales, she joined her Australian family in the Bowen region of Queensland where Biddulph had taken up a property. From there she lived in several parts of eastern Australia, before spending the end of her life in Sydney.

Penguin ed. 1969

Rachel Henning died in 1914, but her letters, which were never intended for publication, were not published until The Bulletin serialised them over 1951 and 1952. This was followed by publication as a book in 1954, illustrated by none other than Norman Lindsay, and edited by David Adams. Here is where it gets interesting because, as Bill writes (and as Judy Stove told my JASACT group), Adams severely edited them (reminding us of how Austen’s sister Cassandra “curated” Austen’s life by destroying so many of her letters). Bill reports that Adams reduced the original 179 letters down to 90. Not only did he remove repetitive salutations etc, but he also deleted references to “women’s problems” (which would be so interesting now) plus her most scathing comments about her fellows and most of her complaints about ‘colonials’. None of this editing was acknowledged at the time, and was only exposed decades later.

I’m not sure, and nor was Judy Stove, about the current state of the original manuscripts – or whether there are plans to release a more complete edition of the essays. However, Stove said that Norman Lindsay apparently liked the letters, and, I believe, likened them to Jane Austen’s letters which, unlike many male readers, he also liked.

Now, at the beginning I indicated that Henning’s letters were very popular in the 1950s and 60s, but implied that, if you weren’t sentient then, you may not have heard of her. This is because she fell out of favour, mainly, said Judy Stove, due to her “snobbish” attitudes, including to First Nations Australians. These attitudes changed a little over the time, with her expressing some humanity towards the original inhabitants. Fundamentally, though, it appears, as Bill cites cacademic Anne Allingham saying, that Henning “became party to the pastoralist’s pact to maintain silence on frontier conflict, the hope being that silence would imply that it simply did not exist.” In the letters, she clearly distinguishes between the “wild blacks” and the “boys” who worked on the station. She does seem aware that the term “boys” is not really right, but still, she accepts the status quo:

He [Biddulph] takes with him Alick, one of the blackboys–they are always called “boys”, though the said Alick must be thirty-five at least. People who are going for a long journey almost always take a blackboy with them. They are most useful servants in the bush, get up the horses in the morning, light fires at night, and know by a sort of instinct if there are any wild blacks lurking in the neighbourhood of their camp. They are very faithful, too. I never heard of an instance of a traveller being murdered or robbed by his own blackboy. (Letter to Mr Boyce, 23 March 1864)

Regardless (or perhaps because) of these attitudes – which were not uncommon in her time – Henning offers valuable insight into colonial Australia. Caldwell puts in this way, at the end of her ADB entry:

Her letters read like a novel with ‘darling’ Biddulph the hero, and give an invaluable picture of colonial life; with vivid descriptions and shrewd, if not always charitable, observations on people, they have both charm and humour.

Read more …

You can read the full text of her letters at Project Gutenberg Australia.

And here are some places where you can read more about her:

Have you read The letters of Rachel Henning? And if so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

21 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Introducing Rachel Henning

  1. I remember a lot of the 1950s and 60s so I assume I was sentient. I don’t think though that I read of Rachel Henning until just a few years ago and then it was the ‘discovery’ of the editing rather than the letters themselves. Thanks for linking to my AWWC article.

    I commend the Letters to other readers interested in the beginnings of Australian writing and/or of white settlement. They have been made into a very readable memoir.

  2. *chuckle* I was certainly sentient and reading since I was six, but I wasn’t in Australia till the 1960s. In the early 70s I was reading Norman Lindsay but I’ve never heard of Henning.
    A letter writer myself until my father died, I would hate my quotidian ramblings to be pored over in later years and judged by standards not dreamed of now.

    • Haha yes, Lisa. I write weekly to my Californian friend … fortunately my letters are not of a quality anyone would want to publish. I try to channel Austen but don’t have her wit. And, as you say, the standards. What faux pas are we making that will be frowned on in the future?

      That’s interesting re not having heard of Henning. My mum read and enjoyed her but then my Australian-born parents were both interested in Australian history.

      • There will be such a dearth of written resources from our electronic age, who knows what will be valued?
        I do some scrapbooking as you know, and in attempt to ameliorate my most imperfect craft skills, I was at a workshop once, and about to sever the irrelevant bits of back garden from a badly composed photo of The Extended Family playing cricket at my parents’ house. The facilitator was horrified. She said that future generations would marvel at the size of it. It was only a suburban block in East St Kilda, but she said that the expanse of it and the mature trees and the above ground Clark’s pool represented a time and place that was disappearing. She was right back then, and even more so today where blocks are being subdivided all around me elsewhere in suburban Melbourne. Few children now have enough space to play cricket in the back garden.
        And that facilitator was right about my parents’ house too. A lovely old Queen Anne villa, it’s one of the few remaining in that street which is now subdivided from one end to the other. A couple of gays bought it and did a stunning renovation (which I have admired at when they sold it for megabucks). But the garden is less than half its size now, because they extended to build the large kitchen my mother always wanted. (And an entertaining area which they would both have hated. My father would have turned it into a library).
        But who will ever see this photo of mine that I was dissuaded from butchering? What will my unsentimental offspring do with it?

        I have no doubt the future will make assessments based on imperfect evidence, as we do now.

        • Yes, all great points Lisa – about not editing photos and about imperfect evidence. (Are we talking unknown unknowns here? That is, researchers don’t know what evidence they are missing and so make assumptions, draw conclusions, thinking that they have what they need?)

    • Melanie, I suspect Sue accidentally deleted my answer to your question, so here it is again –

      Rachel had 2 sisters and 1 brother in Australia. One sister and the brother were a pair, the other sister was married and lived in Bathurst, in the mountains behind Sydney. She also had one sister in England, married to a clergyman, with whom Rachel stayed when she returned.

      But she didn’t get on with her b.i.l., though she later used to write to him at length, and eventually could see that her prospects were better back in Aust. with her brother and sister. And so she returned and lived happily ever after (this is all off the top of my head, as I am travelling. But as Sue is too, I took it upon myself to answer)

  3. I was alive then – dunno about sentient but !
    She was totally unknown to me; but that’s scarcely surprising, as we all know how shallow a reader I am. Sighhh ..

  4. Hello Whispering Gums,

    I did have a copy c 1980s-1990s – but gave it away a little while ago. Could be this one, below, found on ebay just now, who knows!

    The Letters of Rachel Henning $29.95

    About this Item: Angus and Robertson., Sydney, New South Wales, 1986. Hardcover. Condition: Very Good. Dust Jacket Condition: Very Good. 330 pages. 27 x 19.5 cms. Many illustrations (of the period) in the text, some black and white, some line and some colour. Hard cover in dust jacket. Decorative dust jacket. A good clean copy. ‘ . intimate view of life in Australia from the 1850s to the 1880s’.


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