Monday musings on Australian literature: Tasma (aka Jessie Couvreur)

Tasma, c. 1890. (Public Domain, from the State Library of Victoria, via Wikipedia)

This week Bill (of The Australian Legend) is running an Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week, through which he plans to highlight Australian women writers from our first generation of writers, which he defines as “those writers who came before the 1890s and the Sydney Bulletin ‘Bush Realism’ school, although many of them continued writing into the first part of the 20th century.” These women, several of whom I read before blogging, include Louisa Atkinson, Ada Cambridge, Rosa Praed, Catherine Helen Spence, and Tasma. I have written about some of these writers before, particularly Louisa Atkinson and Ada Cambridge, so today I’ve decided to highlight Bill’s week by writing on another, Tasma, whose book Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill I’ve promised to contribute to his project.

Who was Tasma?

Born Jessie Huybers in London in 1848, Tasma (as she later styled herself) came to Hobart, Australia, with her parents in 1852. Her family was apparently among the more prominent in Hobart, with their friends including successful author Louisa Meredith (1812-1895) and her husband Charles. In 1867 Tasma married the 25-year-old Charles Fraser moving to Melbourne with him. However, the marriage was troubled and Tasma returned to Hobart in 1872, leaving her debt-ridden husband behind. The following year she sailed to England with her mother and youngest siblings, and spent the next couple of years soaking up European culture with her family. Returning to Melbourne and her husband in 1875, she discovered that he’d had a child with a servant. With divorce, particularly initiated by women, rare, they remained married but lived mostly separate lives.

She started writing in 1877, taking the pseudonym Tasma to honour the colony of her youth, and in 1878 her first articles were published. In 1879 she returned to Europe with her mother and some siblings, determined to earn her living as a writer. This also marked the final break with Charles, and they were divorced in 1883.

And here I’ll quote biographer Patricia Clarke (see below):

Tasma’s life deserves to be much better known, and not only because of her now almost forgotten fame as a novelist. Just as interesting and more gender-defying, she was also an acclaimed public lecturer in Europe, and a foreign correspondent for the London Times, both roles that contradicted the perception of women as solely home­bound. In her personal life also, Tasma defied all the stereotypes of the nineteenth-century woman by separating from, and divorcing, her first husband.

DPAC’s article (see below) describes her as “a celebrity lecturer” on the “geography, history, industries, culture and social progress of Australia” and says that her lectures were reported in French, Belgian and other newspapers. She met the eminent and more compatible, albeit significantly older, Auguste Couvreur in 1881, and married him in 1885, but before that, writes Clarke:

For six years before her second marriage, Tasma lived the life of a ‘New Woman’, the independent woman then beginning to appear both in real life and in fiction. From her base in Paris she earned her own living and was involved in the radical issues of the day. An interviewer wrote, ‘She was not a woman to hide the light of her militant radicalism under a bushel. When pressed to talk about her method of writing, she spoke instead of the latest developments in collectivism, and made an impassioned plea for the poor’.

Sadly, Jessie Couvreur died in 1897 of coronary heart disease, just before her 49th birthday. Way too young for someone who clearly gave a lot to her times.

What did she write?

Tasma, Uncle Piper of Piper's Hill

During her life, Tasma wrote, according to the DPAC article, 7 novels, 20 short stories (several set in Tasmania) and over 36 articles on a variety of subjects. Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, her first novel, was published in 1889, and her last, A fiery ordeal, was published, posthumously, in 1897, the year she died.

In her chapter in Debra Adelaide’s A bright and fiery troop, Margaret Harris quotes 20th century poet and novelist Winifred Birkett’s claiming Tasma as Australian

… in spite of her Dutch-French parentage, English birth, Belgian marriage, and long continental residence and professional career! She has been called by people who cannot get away from systems of category and comparison, “the Australian Jane Austen” and “the Australian George Eliot”, but without bringing her under the patent of any other writer’s name we may remember her simply as the “Tasma” of her own titling, and Australian enough by such an implication.

Interesting! Of course, I did my own bit of research in Trove and found some similar references from her 19th century contemporaries. One article in Tasmanian News (11 August 1892) reported on an interview conducted for a “Celebrity at Home” column in The World journal, writing that “Her interviewer credits her with much of the spirit of Thackeray and George Eliot, which, in combination with marked originality, is the secret of her success.” And an article from the year before in Tasmania’s Mercury (21 January 1891) writes that

The favourite Christmas book of 1888 [Uncle Piper] went through three editions before January, 1890. The success of her last two works has been equally marked, and Mr. Edmund Yates, the most competent of judges, regards her as a story writer of extraordinary power. “Uncle Piper” may very likely live as long as “Charles O’Malley,” and it is not impossible that one of “Tasma’s” literary efforts in the Chaussée de Vleugrat [sic] may yet attain the immortality of “Villette.”

Tasma, The penance of Portia James

Strong praise, eh! I’ve only read 20% (on my Kindle) of Uncle Piper to date, and, while the style owes more to late Victorian than to Jane Austen’s Regency/Georgian era, I can see the comparison in some of the cheekiness I’m reading. To see Eliot, Thackeray and/or Bronte, I think I’ll need to read more!

I won’t say more about her writing, except to share a comment made by Clarke regarding her descent into obscurity:

The usual explanation for her obscurity is that, like other Australian women writers who wrote about love, marriage and domestic relationships and whose main characters were women, her reputation has been overtaken and submerged by the Bulletin school of almost exclusively male writers who emerged in the 1890s. These writers glorified the traditions of mateship and the bush to establish what came to be seen as the authentic picture of Australia. Perhaps Tasma’s later obscurity was influenced by the fact that she died at a relatively young age, that for the second half of her life she lived in Europe, and that she had no direct descendants to keep her memory alive. Other nineteenth-century Australian women writers, such as Ada Cambridge and Rosa Praed, lived much longer, the former in Australia and survived by children, but this has not saved them from a similar, if perhaps less marked, obscurity.

If you’d like to know more, check out the sources below and/or watch for my post later this week …

Sources

Beilby, Raymond. ‘Couvreur, Jessie Catherine (1848–1897)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1969.

Clarke, Patricia. ‘In the steps of Rosa Praed and Tasma: Biographical details: A lecture by Harold White Fellow, Patricia Clarke‘, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1993

‘Couvreur, Jessie Catherine (1848–1897)’, Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. Also available in the original form at Trove, titled “The late ‘Tasma’ Courvreur”, The Mercury, 27 October 1897.

Harris, Margaret. ‘The writing of Tasma, the work of Jessie Couvreur’, in A bright and fiery troop (ed. by Debra Adelaide), Ringwood, Penguin Books, 1988.

‘Tasma (Jessie Couvreur nee Huybers)’, in Signifiant Tasmanian Women, Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPAC) (Tasmania). (Entry based on Patricia Clarke’s Tasma: The life of Jessie Couvreur, 1994)