Mary Gaunt was born in 1861, in Chiltern, Vic into a middle class family, her father was a Gold Commissioner (effectively, a magistrate) and later a judge. She was educated at Grenville College, Ballarat and enrolled in Arts at Melbourne Uni in 1881, the first year that women were admitted (my earlier post here), but did poorly and left after one year. Gaunt wrote articles for magazines and newspapers, earning enough to travel to England in 1890. Her first novel, Dave’s Sweetheart, was published in 1894 but later that year she returned to Victoria and married a Warrnambool doctor, H.L. Miller. She continued to write, with Kirkham’s Find coming out in 1897, and when Miller died in 1900 leaving her a small annuity, she returned to London. From there she travelled extensively including in West Africa and China (returning via Siberia after the outbreak of WWI), writing travel books and fiction, and died in 1942 in France (ADB).
In her Afterword, Penguin Australian Women’s Library series editor, Dale Spender writes:
Kirkham’s Find is an imaginative exploration of the theme of women’s position in society, and not only does it show how a fictional heroine came to terms with some of the problems women confront, it shows how the author … took a personal and professional stand against some of the iniquities and indignities of subordination. Mary Gaunt plunges straight in; from the first chapter she makes it clear that for women who are not offered marriage, life can be extraordinarily difficult.
I have written before that I was introduced to early Australian women’s writing around 1990 by a section at then Nunawading (now Whitehorse) library largely for books re-published by Dale Spender, presumably the Penguin Australian Women’s Library series. In the front of my copy of Kirkham’s Find, published in 1988, ‘Other books’ in the series includes only one other novel, Catherine Helen Spence’s Mr Hogarth’s Will and some anthologies. I have tried searching on the Penguin Australia website for the Women’s Library to see what else was published but in vain.
Unlike some C19th novels, including my favourite, Catherine Martin’s An Australian Girl (1890), the writing in Kirkham’s Find is not ponderous and most of the story, including the feminist philosophising, is carried by the dialogue. “The book taken as a whole is so well written, so easy to read, that it can be regarded superficially as just a romance of the period. It is far more. It is the statement of an intelligent and skilful writer of her views on women’s place in society and the need to improve it from mere marrying and giving in marriage.” (Kylie Tennant, Introduction). In passing, Kylie Tennant, herself a forceful writer on the subject of women’s rights, died in 1988, the year this re-issue came out, aged 76.
The main characters are Phoebe and Nancy Marsden, sisters, and their neighbours Ned Kirkham and Allan Morrison. The large Marsden family lives a little out of Ballarat on a small farm. Mr Marsden, bad tempered and mean, is a ‘university educated’ gentleman who has a not very profitable business in town. At the beginning of the novel Phoebe has set up some bee hives in ‘gin boxes’ in the hope of supplementing her meagre allowance.
Phoebe Marsden was taller than her sister, and, so said the little world of brothers and sisters, not nearly so pretty, in fact not pretty at all. She was older too, more than two years older, and the eldest of the family. The younger ones looked on her as quite an old maid, and she herself felt her life, as far as any happiness or pleasure to herself went, was nearly over.
The oldest brother, Stanley, a not very talented student at Melbourne Uni, is openly scornful of Phoebe’s chances of getting married and of any attempts she makes to achieve independence, and encourages his younger siblings to think and say likewise. Their ineffectual mother is concerned with appearances, and with maintaining their gentility, and hopes to get Phoebe married to an older man who may provide her with economic security.
This then is the philosophical core of the novel – Phoebe is ‘plain’, unlikely to attract a suitable young husband, and wishes to be financially independent. However, I’ll let you in on a secret, by the time she’s 30 Phoebe is a confident, handsome woman, and the pretty, vain Nancy’s looks are starting to fade. Interestingly, although Gaunt briefly mentions a debate on the subject of Votes for Women, which Phoebe does not attend, there is no indication either in this book or in the biographical material of any interest by Gaunt in the suffragist movement then raging in both Australia and England.
Kirkham and Morrison are both in love with Nancy. Nancy favours Kirkham and Phoebe is a little in love with Morrison who takes her seriously in conversation, but not in romance. The two young men decide to make their fortunes up north; Nancy agrees to wait for Kirkham; and the men sail up to Darwin and head out into the bush (to Rum Jungle) seeking alluvial gold. There, on the verge of success, they are attacked and forced to flee by the local Aborigines, who ambush and kill two of their small party. Of this Tennant writes: “ … the clash with the Aborigines is also written from the viewpoint of 1897. No nonsense about pitying the treacherous tribesmen!” The men are forced to take work in northern WA, manning outstations in the desert maintaining the bores so that the sheep have water. Gaunt has Kirkham say this about the legend which lends its name to my blog:
‘The Australian, at least the bushman,’ said Kirkham, ‘has a curious idea of independence. He sits down in the midst of a desolate waste where there isn’t a chance of speaking to or seeing a fellow-creature once in a blue moon, and then he thanks God he is his own master.’
Eventually, and after Nancy has written to say she’s engaged to be married to a prosperous Ballarat solicitor, Kirkham stumbles across a reef of gold, which takes further years to develop into a mine. Gaunt does not make the location clear, and I’m pretty sure she’s writing from other people’s accounts of the area. At one stage she describes them as being ‘east of Roebourne’ which implies the Marble Bar field and later she describes supplies coming from Geraldton which puts them much further south, in the Murchison goldfields, Mt Magnet, Cue and so on (where new goldfields are still being discovered today – Andy’s Well and Sandfire/Doolgunna north of Meekatharra).
Meanwhile, back on the farm, Phoebe slowly develops her hives, finds customers for the honey. Nancy’s husband, quickly disillusioned with his vacuous wife, becomes friends with Phoebe and lends her £50 to re-establish herself away from her disapproving father, in Warrnambool on the Victorian south coast, which she judges will have an easier climate for her bees than Ballarat. Phoebe takes a cottage on an acre of land outside Warrnambool “opposite State School 002”. As it happens Vic SS #2 is nowhere near Warrnambool but #3 is Allansford, situated almost exactly where she describes.
She prospers; her next oldest sister, Lydia, a ‘plain’ girl like herself comes to live with her. A handsome stranger comes to manage the new milk factory. He turns out to be Nancy’s old beau Kirkham, apparently unsuited to life in the north. He becomes a familiar face in the women’s cosy kitchen. Phoebe thinks he’s interested in Lydia. Well, you can guess the rest …
Mary Gaunt, Kirkham’s Find, Penguin, Melbourne, 1988 (first published 1897) Cover painting: An Old Bee Farm c.1900 by Clara Southern (1861-1940)