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.