Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian writers in England, 1911

Barbara Baynton 1892

Baynton 1892 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

I’ve devoted a few Monday Musings recently to Australian writers in the first few decades of the twentieth century. I expect to do a few more in coming months, as I’m enjoying the research. Today, I’m drawing from a report of a talk given by Barbara Baynton in Sydney in 1911 to the Writers and Artists Union. The article, titled “England and the Australian writer: Barbara Baynton’s experience” appeared in a column in The Argus titled Page Twenty-One, written by arts journalist Norman Lilley (d. 1941).

Barbara Baynton will be well-known to readers of this blog as over the last year I’ve separately reviewed the short stories in her collection, Bush Studies. This book was published in England, after she had not been able to get it published in Sydney. However, as she explains in her talk, it’s not easy …

English publishers

Baynton told her audience that she’d explored many avenues in her search for a publisher – the English Society of Authors, the London-based Agent-General of New South Wales, publishers themselves, and, by accident, a man reading for a publisher. It was this man, Edward Garnett, who, in the end, read her work, liked it, and submitted it to Duckworths. Along her journey though, she was offered money by a publisher for one short story only; was told by another, Heinemanns, that it didn’t “touch short stories”; and was asked for “absurd sums” by others to cover the printing and distribution of her book. As I read all this, I wondered how much has changed!

Lilley comments that Baynton found “Literature … to be a costly pastime – that is, legitimate literature as distinct from sensational novel writing.” The latter, he says, could be made to pay “if you could catch the vogue and tickle the popular taste”.

The English mind

Baynton clearly spent some time discussing what English readers would read. Lilley reports:

Englishmen were not interested in Australia; they knew nothing about it, and did not want to learn. They regarded it as a land of strange contradictions, where the birds did not sing* and the flowers had no smell, and the trees shed their bark instead of their leaves; and nothing could persuade them that eucalyptus was not our national scent. They might read about the adventures of an Englishman in Australia; but they declined to take any interest in the country itself.

Baynton said, he reports, that “you cannot score a popular success with serious matter”. Again, one wonders how much, really, has changed – in terms of reading tastes, not in terms of interest in Australia, I mean.

Anyhow, Baynton apparently went on to say that writers who included “plenty about princesses and earls and gilded palaces” did sell! She gave popular English writer Marie Corelli as an example of this sort of writing. I discovered a brief paragraph about Corelli written in 1904 in the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal. The writer reports on one Rev. R. Eyton, of Bathurst, who, apparently said that “children were left with the minds utterly untrained, and no wonder that their literary zest is satisfied with writers like Marie Corelli. They never have had a chance to judge between literature and trash, which is certainly rough on the lady whose books have such a vogue.”

Baynton also mentioned Australian-born English writer HB Marriott Watson. She said he had been a great literary success, but that “the better written his books were the worse they paid. To make a commercial success he had to be frankly sensational”.

Baynton, you can see, was not afraid to express her opinions! In fact, she also mentioned Conan Doyle who made “₤2000 a year or more out of fiction that was not literature at all”! The most successful Australian writer, financially speaking, was Albert Dorrington, but his work “was not legitimate literature”.

Unfortunately, Baynton also referred to what we know as “the cultural cringe”. Lilley reports that “she was ashamed to say that a great part of general public here seemed to think you must have the English hallmark, and that the Australian was of no value”. Interestingly, she also said that America was interested in Australia, that “American magazines would take what the English publishers rejected as ‘peculiar’; and so the Americans encouraged clever writers”.


Baynton’s talk was, as I indicated in the first paragraph, given to a union audience and so union issues, particularly in terms of remuneration for writers, were touched on. She gave examples of payments writers could receive in different countries and from different publishers. She mentioned that the people “who made the largest incomes out of literature were the middlemen – the agents”. She said that England badly needed a writers’ union.

Unionism, Baynton preached to the converted, “was wanted in the literary profession: to force prices up – to make the rich papers pay decent rates for writers’ brains”. She argued that shareholders, like herself, should receive smaller dividends so that the men and women who did the work could be properly paid. Good for her.

Russian writing (and the English mind, again)

At the same meeting, Lilley reports, Dora Montefiore, the English-born Australian writer and founder in 1891 (according to Debra Adelaide’s Australian Women Writers: A bibliographic guide) of the Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW, also spoke on writing and publishing in London. She gave the example of trying to find a publisher for a translation of some Maxim Gorky stories. Montefiore, according to Lilley, said that:

a very wide circle of readers had not been expected for them, as the English mind, being the very reverse of introspective, could not easily understand the psychology of the Russian mind, and was consequently prone to call such work as Gorky’s morbid**. The English made mistakes, promptly forget them, and went on again; they disliked exceedingly thinking about them, or dwelling on any process of thought. The Russian was the reverse of this …

If you are English and reading this blog, what do you think … about then, and now.

The moral

Lilley concludes his report with

The moral that Australian writers should stay in their own country, and by uniting should make conditions good enough for the best of talent, seemed obvious.

* They clearly hadn’t heard the Australian magpie!

** Coincidentally, you may remember that I reported in my Monday Musings on Baynton that she’d been likened to Gorky for her grim realism.

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 …

Barbara Baynton, Bush church (Review)

awwchallenge2014“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.

Barbara Baynton
“Bush church” in Bush studies
Sydney University Press, 2009
ISBN: 9781820898953
Available online: in Bush studies at Project Gutenberg.

*For my previous reviews of stories in this book, click the appropriate title: A dreamerScrammy ‘and, Squeaker’s mate, The chosen vessel, and Billy Skywonkie.

Barbara Baynton, Billy Skywonkie (Review)

awwchallenge2014Well, I must say that “Billy Skywonkie”, my fifth* story from Barbara Baynton’s Bush studies, fair near defeated me, so I was rather relieved to read in Susan Sheridan’s introduction that “in this story and others, Baynton’s use of dialect to represent the speech of these uneducated bush folk can also act as a barrier to understanding”. I did understand it, but only just in places. I reckon it would be a good one to hear in audio version.

The story concerns a woman from the city coming to work as “a housekeeper” on a station in drought-ridden outback Australia. It starts on the train, in which she travels with a bunch of drovers accompanying their cattle. En route several cattle die in the heat and squash of their carriage, and the drovers make no attempt to speak nicely to the woman sharing their journey. This sets the scene for the coarse speech, lack of any sort of chivalry, and racist attitudes that feature in the rest of the story after she is picked up by rouseabout Billy Skywonkie in the buggy.

On the first page, Baynton describes the country our female passenger is coming to:

The tireless greedy sun had swiftly followed the grey dawn, and in the light that even now seemed old and worn, the desolation of the barren, shelterless plains that the night had hidden, appalled her.

As she alights at the Gooriabba siding her dismay – and hesitation – as the train disappears in the distance is palpable. There is a buggy waiting but, although she is the only person to alight, the driver seems not to recognise that she is his passenger! We’ve been given no description of our passenger – we have no idea how old she is, what her background is, or why she’s coming outback –  but clearly she’s not the “piece” Billy was expecting. “There’ll be a ‘ell of a row somew’ere” he rather ominously pronounces.

Most of the rest of the story concerns the 12-mile trip – perhaps a bit more given Billy’s shortcut to the “shanty” – to the station. Nothing that happens on the trip goes anywhere near reassuring our passenger or, in fact, the reader, that things are going to get better. Billy evinces no kindness to his charge – leaving her sitting in the hot buggy while he has a drink and a flirt with Mag in the shanty – though he is kind to the drunk kangaroo-shooter collapsed in the sun outside the shanty. That’s telling.

This is racist country. Chows or Chinks in particular are not liked. “Blanky bush Chinkies! I call ’em. No one can tell them apart”. Billy would rather “tackle a gin as a chow any day”, and we soon learn why. His missus, Lizer, is “dusky”, and has him under her thumb, though not enough to prevent his little side-trips to Mag!

There’s rough humour here. The characters tease Billy Skywonkie (whose name apparently means “weather-prophet”) with the question, which they find hilarious, “W’en’s it goin’ ter rain?”. There’s no lightness in the story’s humour though. It’s mostly bitter, unkind stuff, as though the land doesn’t encourage any sort of empathy or genuine relationship. Baynton’s people in this story are not the heroic or tragicomic bushmen of Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson and Adam Lindsay Gordon. They are, well, base – and the story’s unrelenting language leaves us in no doubt regarding how we are to read it.

When Billy finally arrives at the station with his charge, things do not turn out well, but why is something I’ll leave you to found out (by reading the story in the link below). My problem, though, is that not telling you why severely hampers my discussion of this story. It’s interesting that “Billy Skywonkie” is not as well known as “The chosen vessel” or “Squeaker’s mate” because its exploration of racism, in particular, must surely be pioneering. I certainly found it powerful when I realised what had been going on under my nose! It may be that the challenges involved in reading it, and the ambiguities it contains, put readers off, but it deserves wider readership and attention.

And now, I have one story to go to complete my reading of Bush stories. What an interesting and eye-opening collection it is for one used to romanticising the bush!

Barbara Baynton
“Billy Skywonkie”
in Bush studies
Sydney University Press, 2009
ISBN: 9781820898953

Available online: in Bush studies at Project Gutenberg.

*For my previous reviews of stories in this book, click the appropriate title: A dreamerScrammy ‘and, Squeaker’s mate, The chosen vessel.

Barbara Baynton, A dreamer (Review)

Barbara Baynton.

Presumed Public Domain: via Wikipedia

Finally, having reviewed three stories in Barbara Baynton’s collection Bush studies, I start at the beginning with the story “A dreamer”.

This story is a little different to the three* I’ve reviewed to date, primarily because men do not play a significant role in the action or denouement of the plot. The plot is a simple one: a young pregnant woman arrives at a remote railway station, at night, expecting to be met by someone with a buggy. When that proves not to be the case, she decides to walk “the three bush miles” despite the windy, rainy night because it was “the home of her girlhood, and she knew every inch of the way”. Except …

… as it turns out, on a dark rainy night, she doesn’t. Baynton recounts the drama of the young woman’s walk – a wrong choice at a fork, near drowning on a creek crossing – and in the process idealises the mother-child relationship against hostile nature:

Her mother had planted these willows, and she herself had watched them grow. How could they be so hostile to her?

How indeed? This story is another example of Baynton’s gothic, of her non-romantic view of the Australian bush which is, for her, alienating and forbidding, particularly for women. If the language of the opening paragraph is unsettling – “night-hidden trees”, “closed doors”, “blear-eyed lantern” – it only gets worse as nature seems to conspire against the woman. The wind fights her “malignantly” and the water is “athletic furious”, but the woman sees “atonement in these difficulties and dangers”. Atonement for what is not made quite clear but it might simply be that the young woman has been away for some time: “Long ago she should have come to her old mother”. Visions of her mother and memories of her childhood keep her going: “soft, strong arms carried her on”. To avoid spoilers, I’ll leave the plot here. You can read the story at the link below.

In my last post on Baynton, I wrote briefly on reading short story collections in the order they are presented, rather than in the ad hoc way I’ve done with this collection. Mostly, I do read collections from beginning to end. Had I done so with this collection, I would have had, with this story, an effective introduction to Baynton’s style and themes without being confronted with her full fury. In other words, “A dreamer” is the perfect first story in a collection which ends with “The chosen vessel”*.

Barbara Baynton
“A dreamer”
in Bush studies
Sydney University Press, 2009
ISBN: 9781820898953

Available online: in Bush studies at Project Gutenberg.

This review will count towards my Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

*For my first three reviews of stories in this book, click the appropriate title: Scrammy ‘and, Squeaker’s mate, The chosen vessel.

Barbara Baynton, Scrammy ‘and (Review)

Barbara Baynton.

Presumed Public Domain: via Wikipedia

Back in November, Trevor at Mookse and the Gripes, decided that rather than write a single review of Alice Munro’s latest collection of short stories, Dear life, he would, over a period of time, read and review the individual stories.  Now, there’s something to be said for reviewing a collection of short stories as a collection because authors do put a lot of effort into the order of those stories. Reading them over a long period of time or, worse, out-of-order, could disrespect the author’s art. However, reviewing each story individually, enables us to give each one real recognition, and that has its value too methinks. Anyhow, this is what I’ve decided to do with Barbara Baynton‘s collection, Bush studies. I have, so far, reviewed the second story, “Squeaker’s mate”, and the sixth and last story, “The chosen vessel”. Today I’m going to review the third story, “Scrammy ‘and”, partly because Debbie of ExUrbanis likes it. Next, maybe, I’ll start at the beginning! I hope Baynton isn’t turning in her grave.

In her post on Australian classics for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012, Australian novelist Jennifer Mills wrote of discovering Barbara Baynton, saying that reading her was “an absolute pleasure”. She wrote:

Her work is distinguished by her rural character studies and a poignancy which verges on despair, and her stories are prototypes for the proliferation of outback gothic in our literature now. Baynton is part Henry Lawson, part Eudora Welty, and a master of the tension and texture of the short story form.

I couldn’t say it better myself! Mills’ comment that Baynton’s a master of “tension and texture” in the short story form is particularly true for “Scammy ‘and” because this story commences, quite deceptively as it turns out, with a fair dose of humour. It concerns an old shepherd and his dog Waderloo (Waterloo). The story starts with a flashback to a few weeks previously when the old man’s neighbours had headed into the nearest town to await the birth of their first baby (which, the old man thinks, “will be a gal too, sure to be! Women are orlways ‘avin’ gals. It’ll be a gal sure enough”.) The story then jumps forward to when the old man, having notched up the passing weeks, expects the young couple, who clearly provide some sense of security, to be back.

The humour in the first part of the story derives from Baynton’s description of the relationship between the man and his mate Waderloo as they go about their business. Here for example is the man talking to the dog about fixing a hat:

‘It’s all wrong, see!’ The dog said he did. ”Twon’t do!’ he shouted with the emphasis of deafness. The dog admitted it would not …

… and so on. The man and his dog resemble a Darby and Joan pair, dependent on each other, loyal to each other, but also having their little tiffs. However, underlying what seems like a light-hearted character study are intimations of something darker. First there’s the misogyny which features regularly in Baynton’s work. The old man is critical of the young woman despite her apparent attempts to help him, including fixing the hat. “‘The’re no good'” he says of women. This misogyny becomes more pointed in the parallel story of the man’s irritation with the ewe whose “blanky blind udder” means she can’t feed her “blanky bastard” of a lamb, and that he must feed it. Later on though the ewe is shown to be perfectly capable of teaching her lamb to drink.

But, there are intimations of other menace too.  Things are awry at the farm – including a tomahawk and an axe gone missing. Scrammy is mentioned in the second paragraph. The old man says:

”twarn’t Scrammy.’ But the gloom of fear settled on his wizened face as he shuffled stiffly towards the sheepyard.

As the story progresses, our disquiet increases, though for a while we are not quite sure where the problem is – is it an external threat or is it internal? The old man suspects “ther blacks”, “not poor ole Scrammy, ‘cos Scrammy wouldn’t ‘urt no-one”.  Baynton builds the tension slowly, but gradually, inexorably, it becomes clear – and halfway through the story the perspective shifts from the old man to the vagrant one-handed Scrammy, who’s seen the old man counting out his money. The menace grows. It’s melodramatic and almost a comedy of errors as Scrammy misreads clues … but I’ll leave the plot here.

Again, there’s none of Lawson’s pioneer romanticism here. Rather, this is a powerful story about refusing to see the truth –  or perhaps being scared of the truth. It’s not only the old man’s aloneness that makes him vulnerable but his prejudices. In the end, we see that wisdom is, in fact, more likely to be found in the ewe and the mother.

Barbara Baynton
“Scrammy ‘and”
in Bush studies
Sydney University Press, 2009
ISBN: 9781820898953

Available online: in Bush studies at Project Gutenberg

This review will count towards my Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

Barbara Baynton, The chosen vessel (Review)

I’m blaming author and blogger Karen Lee Thompson again for this post, because she wrote a wonderful comment on my post on Barbara Baynton‘s short story “Squeaker’s mate”, and I’m going to quote it pretty much in full (I hope that’s ok from a copyright point of view – tell me if it isn’t Karen Lee):

Barbara Baynton wrote some wonderful stories and, had literary politics been a little more inclusive in the days of the Bulletin, I’m sure she would have received wider recognition. Many of Baynton’s short stories, like ‘Squeakers Mate’, turn ‘The Australian Legend’ on its head and, perhaps because of this, the male literary elite (A.G. Stephens, A.A. Phillips for example) chose to modify or explain her work in various ways.

An interesting example of this editorial intrusion is the politics surrounding Baynton’s ‘The Chosen Vessel’ (Baynton’s preferred title was ‘What the Curlews Cried’) which I have read, in its various forms, a number of times. Stephens published it as ‘The Tramp’. It is believed he wanted the title to shift the focus away from the central woman and it allowed for clarity between a ‘tramp’ (an isolated individual) and a ‘swagman’ (a virtuous kind of everyman of the bush). Stephens also cut a significant part of the story before publication.

For anyone who enjoys ‘Squeakers Mate’, I’d suggest a reading of ‘What the Curlews Cried’ (aka ‘The Chosen Vessel’ or ‘The Tramp’), preferably in its unabridged form.

“The chosen vessel” and “Squeaker’s mate” are Baynton’s best known and most anthologised short stories. However, I hadn’t read “The chosen vessel” before and so decided, on Karen Lee’s recommendation, to read the version in Bush studies. According to my brief research, and Karen Lee can correct me if I’m wrong, The Bush studies version is the final complete version Baynton presented for publication. However, it is not the same as the original version which was submitted as “What the curlews cried” and then significantly edited by the Bulletin.

Anyhow, if I thought “Squeaker’s mate” was tough, then this one is tougher. The female protagonist is left alone with her baby, rather like Lawson’s wife in “The drover’s wife”, but this woman faces a double whammy. Left by a cruel husband, she is terrorised by a “swagman” (not a “tramp” despite its first published title). She’s a town girl unfamiliar with bush life, but that’s not what scares her. I won’t detail the plot more because it’s a short story (around 8 pages) and you can find it in the online link below. The shorter Bulletin version, I understand, did not change what happened to the woman, but excised a whole section and thereby effectively changed the meaning of the story to suggest an isolated instance rather than something more systemic.

In the introduction to my Sydney University Press edition, Susan Sheridan confirms my statement in my “Squeaker’s mate” post that Baynton’s main concern was not the harshness or terrors of the bush and the land, which contemporary critics tried to argue, but male brutality to woman and, more significantly, “the impossible position that male culture constructs for ‘woman’ in the abstract”. She writes that woman is glorified as the Madonna, God’s “chosen vessel”,  but “at the same time the capacity for motherhood is regarded as confining her to the animal level of existence”. In “The chosen vessel” religious imagery – the mother and her baby are both mistaken for a ewe and a lamb and as a vision of the Madonna and child – is used to devastating ironic effect.

I’m not surprised that those late nineteenth century men found her writing confronting and that the Bulletin only ever published one of her short stories, but, for me, Baynton’s writing presents an alternative view of life in the bush that I’m glad we have available today.

Barbara Baynton
“The chosen vessel”
in Bush studies
Sydney University Press, 2009
ISBN: 9781820898953

Available online: in Bush studies at Project Gutenberg

Barbara Baynton, Squeaker’s mate (Review)

Barbara Baynton 1892

Baynton 1892 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

My last post was about this year’s Meanjin Tournament of Books which is pitting short stories against each other. One of the short stories is Barbara Baynton‘s “Squeaker’s mate”, which I’ve read before but a long time ago. I decided, though, to read it again, since I have easy access to a copy, on my shelves and online.

Author and blogger Karen Lee Thompson commented on my tournament post that she’d like to see a bout comparing “Squeaker’s mate” (1902) with Henry Lawson’s “The drover’s wife” (1892), and it would be delicious. I was tempted to do it here but I won’t. However, I did think of commencing this post with “Only a woman …” because, despite their broad similarities in subject matter and setting – the harsh life faced by pioneer women in the outback – there is a big difference in tone. Both stories chronicle the bravery and perseverance of bush women,  but Lawson’s story has an heroic, even somewhat romantic, tone. Not so with Baynton.

Squeaker’s mate, “the best long-haired mate that ever stepped in petticoats”, is a hardworking, taciturn woman whose mate, Squeaker, is a good-for-nothing. Here’s paragraph three:

From the bag she took the axe,  and ring-barked a preparatory circle, while he looked for a shady spot for the billy and the tucker-bags.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Squeaker, other than laziness, but “she knew the man, and her tolerance was of the mysteries”. However, things change dramatically early in the story when a tree falls on her, putting her out of action. Squeaker’s initial reaction is chilling – “he was impatient, because for once he had actually to use his strength” – and, a little later

he supposed he would have to yard them [the sheep] tonight, if she didn’t liven up. He looked down at unenlivened her.

It’s only in the last few paragraphs of the story that we learn “her” name. Significantly, it’s Mary.

The rest of the story chronicles his self-centred callous treatment of her, sometimes leaving her for days with no sustenance. All she has is her loyal dog which, for we readers, relieves, albeit slightly, our despair at her situation. There is no heroism in here, very little kindness even – but there is, on the part of Squeaker’s mate, resilience and, without giving away the story, a triumph of sorts.

Baynton is critical of men’s attitude to women – and this is a major theme of the story, though it’s not that simple either. Early on, a few men do show kindness to Mary – let’s dignify her with her name now – but their women put a stop to that. Mary had not been one for “yarnin'”, making her “unlikely” to be popular with them. Baynton writes:

It is in the ordering of things that by degrees most husbands accept their wives’ views of other women.

And so Mary is left alone.

The writing is compelling. It is told third person, but the perspective swaps between hers, his, and, later on, that of the woman he brings into their home. In some circumstances this narrative approach could provide an even-handed view of the characters, but here it only serves to reinforce our early opinion of them. In other words, Squeaker does not improve on acquaintance. Baynton plays effectively with the “word” mate, contrasting the roles, responsibilities and rights of mates as partners, alongside those of the Australian “mateship” tradition, with Squeaker’s un-mate-like, in all senses of the word, behaviour.

Imagery is used sparingly, but it’s pointed when it’s there. It is a tree that brings Mary down, and then late in the story Squeaker decides to clear some land:

So that now, added to the other bush voices, was the call from some untimely falling giant. There is no sound so human as that from the riven souls of these tree people, or the trembling sighs of their upright neighbours whose hands in time will meet over the fallen victim’s body.

A little melodramatic in that 19th century way maybe, but Baynton’s suggestion that there’s more solidarity among trees than the humans below is well made. In fact, while life is harsh, it’s not an unforgiving environment that is the main problem for Baynton’s characters.

It’s a grim but effective story that focuses mostly on gendered callousness in a world where survival would be best ensured by cooperation. In confronting gender issues, Baynton is part of a tradition of Australian women’s writing of the late nineteenth to early twentieth century that has, to a large degree, been forgotten a century or so later. It’s time to revive these early writers – and hopefully recent initiatives by Sydney University Press, Text Publishing and others, will do the job.

Barbara Baynton
“Squeaker’s mate”
in Bush studies
Sydney University Press, 2009
ISBN: 9781820898953

Available online: in Bush studies at Project Gutenberg