Delicious descriptions: Tasma’s country town

Tasma, Uncle Piper of Piper's HillIt’s some time since I wrote a Delicious Descriptions post, but these three paragraphs from Tasma’s Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill  (beginning of Pt IV, CH 3, “Laura does penance”), which I reviewed a few days ago, are too delicious not to share:

THE remark that Voltaire made about the great Russian Empire, when he compared it to a pear that was rotten before it was ripe, might be applied with equal truth to many a Victorian township. But the comparison, let me hasten to add, only holds good as regards the buildings and general aspect of these places. That “peace and contentment reign” therein, and that the small storekeeper and cockatoo farmer have nothing in the way of extortionate taxation or prompt knouting to fear in the land of democracy and universal suffrage, may be taken for granted. Nevertheless, as I said before, in the matter of their arriving at decay before they reach maturity, there are many Australian townships that might take Voltaire’s remark to themselves.

Barnesbury is one of these. Its oldest inhabitants, still in their prime, look back with regret to the days when it was the railway terminus; when all the coaches, and buggies, and bullock-drays, and four-in-hands, and squatters and diggers made it their head-quarters; and money spending and money-making, and consequent joviality, were the order of the day. Then it was that the three banks were built, in front of the largest of which the cows and geese graze peacefully today. Those fine-sounding names were given to the broad tracks leading away into the bush, which a few years more (it was fondly imagined) would transform into bustling streets. The great bluestone publichouse, designed for a monster hotel, was completed as far as its first story, but as it was never carried any farther, it naturally possesses at the present time a somewhat squat appearance, with a suggestively make-shift roof, and a general air of having been stopped in its growth. The church, too, was begun upon quite an ambitious scale, for to the credit, be it said, of Victorian country-folk, they pay as liberally for their religion as for their beer, and the Barnesbury spire was to be a “thing of beauty” in the eyes of all men. But the church, unhappily, shared the fate of the public-house and the banks. The spire that was to have been a “joy for ever” to the residents of Barnesbury shrank into a small wooden bell–tower, not unlike a pigeon house, and the incumbent deemed himself fortunate when a weatherboard verandah, without a floor, was affixed to the modest bluestone cottage dignified by the name of the parsonage.

The same evidence of having been brought to a sudden halt in by-gone years, and of having never been set going again, clung to the commerce of Barnesbury. The one and only street ran down and up a hill, which is not the same thing as to run up and down one. In the hollow mid-way was a row of shops of the most casual order, in one or any of which you might purchase almost anything from a bonnet to a wash-hand basin. On race-days, or tea meeting evenings at the school-house, it was not unusual to see as many as three spring-carts, with a bush-buggy and riding-horses, fastened to the posts in front of the one bit of wide pavement that remained. On election days the crowd was even greater, but its chief scene of action was the afore-mentioned Junction Hotel, which made up in extent what it had lost in height, and which could have gathered almost all the population into its bar.

I chose this excerpt for a few reasons. The allusions to Voltaire in the first paragraph and to Keats in the second reflect Tasma’s erudition, but they are used to effect rather than simply to show off. The Voltaire reference in the first paragraph underpins her promotion of Australia as a good and fair place to live, an idea which some commentators see as a theme throughout her works. She says that it is a place of “peace and contentment”, that “the small storekeeper and cockatoo farmer have nothing in the way of extortionate taxation or prompt knouting to fear in the land of democracy and universal suffrage” – unlike the Russian Empire, for example, as described by Voltaire.

The language, throughout, is clever, wry, cheeky, such as the description of the town’s main (only) street: “The one and only street ran down and up a hill, which is not the same thing as to run up and down one.” In other words, the main part of the town is probably at the bottom and indeed it is, in “the hollow”, which supports the suggestion that this is a struggling town. Other examples are that on race days you can expect to see “as many as three spring-carts, with a bush-buggy and riding-horses” (a whole three!) in the town, and that Victorian country people pay as well for religion as their beer!

This is the town where our main characters will learn something about themselves, and thence deserve their happy endings. It’s a great setting.

Tasma (Jessie Couvreur), Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill (#BookReview)

Tasma, Uncle Piper of Piper's Hill

The first thing to say about Tasma’s debut novel Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill is that it’s rather wordy, speaking to a literacy different from that of today’s readers. For this reason, Uncle Piper won’t appeal to readers who like short simple sentences, and a plot which moves along at a good clip with little reflection or commentary. Consider yourself warned, but know also that, according contemporary reports, this novel made Tasma famous in a week.

So, if you enjoy immersing yourself in the writing of different times, and are interested in late 19th century Australia, Uncle Piper has plenty to offer, starting with well-drawn characters who, in modern clothes, would be as real today as they were in 1888.

Take father, the Uncle Piper of the title, and his son George, for example. Uncle Piper is a self-made man. In his case this involved emigrating from England, where he was poor and with few prospects, to Melbourne, where, starting as a lowly butcher, he worked hard to establish himself as the wealthy, successful businessman he is at the novel’s opening. Now, what often happens when parents struggle to establish themselves and create for their children opportunities that they never had? Why, those children take their easy, comfortable lives for granted. That’s what! Not a new story, is it?

And so, about a third of the way through the novel, we have a wonderful scene between father and son over a girl of whom the father doesn’t approve. Feeding this scene is a two-decade history of growing frustration on Uncle Piper’s part and a learned, practised nonchalance on George’s. The scene is delicious and requires no suspension of disbelief to understand. Here’s a short excerpt of a confrontation in Uncle Piper’s beloved tower at Piper’s Hill:

So he [George] courted a personal attack … and sat caressing his moustache, as was his wont, with his eyes bent on the floor, while his father exposed his grievances in a crescendo key.

If there was anything humiliating in being rated as an “able-bodied young man who wasn’t worth his salt,” as a loafer who was hardly fit to “jackaroo” on a station, as a “lazy lubber” who would “go to the dogs if it weren’t for his father,” George never betrayed that he felt humiliated by so much as the twitching of an eyelid. Persistently stroking the ends of his moustache with an air of profound abstraction, he made it apparent, as soon as Mr. Piper stopped to take breath, that he was suppressing an inclination to yawn.

Can’t you just see it – the increasingly apoplectic father and his determinedly calmly indifferent son!

In basic plot, Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill is a romance, a marriage story, set against the social backdrop of a meeting between these well-to-do parvenu Pipers, and the impoverished but upper crust Cavendishes. The lowly-born Mrs Cavendish is Uncle Piper’s sister. At the beginning of the novel, the Cavendishes are on a boat being brought out to Australia by Uncle Piper who has, in effect, been supporting them for years and who would now like them with him. He’s offered to find the reluctant Mr Cavendish a job “in the government”. The Cavendishes include two daughters, the kind, unassuming Margaret and her younger sister, the beautiful and imperious Sara. Sara follows her father’s mould of snobbish self-regard trumping any sense of human feeling or empathy, while Margaret is in her mother’s caring and hardworking mould.

Coming out on the same boat is the thirty-something Rev. Lydiat who, unbeknownst to them all, is also connected to the Pipers – this is a nineteenth century novel after all. His now-deceased mother had been Uncle Piper’s second wife. So, the afore-mentioned George is his step-brother, and Uncle Piper’s still-a-child daughter Louey, whom he’d had with the Rev’s mother, is of course his half-sister. But wait, there’s more. Also in Uncle Piper’s household is Laura, the Rev. Lydiat’s sister, whom Uncle Piper had promised his wife, on her deathbed, to care and provide for.

… a house divided against itself …

And now the plot gets complicated – though it’s easy to follow in the book. Rev. Lydiat falls (purely, of course) in love with Sara, while on the boat. And George and Laura, unrelated by blood, are in love. But, Uncle Piper wants George to marry his as-yet-unseen-to-any-of-them cousin Sara. And just to round all this off, Margaret is quietly, humbly, in love with Rev. Lydiat. Lest you give up at this point and think this all sounds a bit silly, let me say that despite its fairly traditional plot of love-triangles and interfering parents, the book has a lot more to offer.

So, where to go from here? There are many angles from which this book could be discussed. Issues like religion, money and class (as I’ve already mentioned), colonial life and the Australian landscape, and even the book’s relevance to Tasma’s biography, are all well worth exploring. I could also have fun teasing out comparisons between this book and Jane Austen’s Persuasion (my review). It’s not hard to see Sir Walter Elliot and his daughter Elizabeth in Mr Cavendish and Sara, or to see Anne Elliot in the capable Margaret. I could also talk about the style, and the influence on the style and tone of its being originally serialised in a newspaper.

However, given my previous reading of Aussie women writers at the time – of Ada Cambridge’s A woman’s friendship and Sisters, and Rosa Praed’s The bond of wedlock – I’d like to mention Tasma’s social commentary, particularly regarding women. Part of the commentary relates to the opportunities offered by Australian life. Uncle Piper’s generosity and capacity for hard work is offset against the snobbery of Mr Cavendish who is happy to take his brother-in-law’s money while continuing to hold himself “above” his host. He is snobbish, selfish and shallow, and by the end of the novel, has learnt nothing. Uncle Piper, on the other hand, along with his son George, learns some lessons and, by the end both have recognised and corrected some of their less tolerant behaviours.

For Uncle Piper much of this change relates to his step-daughter Laura Lydiat. For all his generosity, Uncle Piper has his faults. He can be autocratic, for a start. This does not sit well with the opinionated Laura. She has rejected religion, can be sarcastic, and has an “uncompromising disregard of feelings with which she does not agree”, albeit being very happy to eat at Uncle Piper’s table and wear the clothes he provides! She also does not approve of marriage:

though I abominate the system of marriage, though I think the yoking of two people together without a chance of release–as if the yoke mightn’t gall them any day–perfectly barbarous and absurd–still, in view of our ‘exceptional case’–there, don’t be demonstrative till you’ve heard me to the end–in view, as I said, of our ‘exceptional case,’ I’d have gone off with you to the registrar’s any morning–no, nothing would induce me to go to church–and have signed myself Laura Piper, instead of Laura Lydiat!


At the end of the novel, when the also-changed Laura does indeed marry, Tasma compares gentle, dutiful Margaret’s response to the marriage service with Laura’s:

She [Margaret] had followed the service in its most literal sense with all the earnestness of her nature, and would have had no sympathy with the half-perceptible gleam that might have been detected in Laura’s eyes at being called upon to obey George.


The novel is not, as you can tell from this gentle hint, overtly didactic. There is some running authorial commentary, but the ideas and themes are well conveyed through the story and the characters, who are, for the most part, realistic though there are some saints and sinners among them.

Uncle Piper owes much to the Victorian novel tradition, but one adapted to an Australian setting. The plot overlays a New World made-good story over the more traditional romance narrative. The result is a novel which explores some new ideas about life within a familiar format, which makes it particularly special, I think, for Antipodean readers. Tasma should be read more.

Posted as a contribution to Bill (the Australian Legend)’s Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week. See also my Monday Musings post this week on Tasma.

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Tasma (Jessie Couvreur)
Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill: An Australian novel
Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook, 2006
(Originally serialised in The Australasian, 1888; published as a volume, 1889)
Available online at Project Gutenberg of Australia

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 …


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)