Australia’s First Women Writers

Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week 15-21 Jan. 2018

The author of this guest post is Michelle Scott Tucker (MST of Adventures in Biography) whose Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World is due out in April. Michelle’s essay on the very first of our first generation of women writers provides the perfect lead-in to AWW Gen 1 Week. Thank you Michelle.

Australia’s First Women Writers – a piecemeal and imperfect overview enlivened by a giveaway at the end.


European women and men, as soon as they arrived in New South Wales, began writing letters to those they had left behind. So perhaps Australia’s first women writers could more accurately be labelled correspondents.

As Aboriginal people had been doing orally and pictorially for maybe 60,000 years, the European colonists used letters, diaries, drawings and paintings to share their stories, news, and hopes. Many of these sources are well-known and well-used, particularly the earliest ones, and historian Inga Clendinnen, in Dancing with Strangers, felt that all the archival material covering the early encounters of the British and Aboriginal peoples ‘takes up not more than one solid shelf.’

But, until relatively recently, Australian history tended to exclude the writings of women – it was too personal, too domestic, too unimportant. This was, of course, complete rubbish. From the female correspondents, we gain a fascinating perspective on the colonial experiment, a perspective that often belies the formal reports and documents recorded as ‘History’.

But I won’t pretend to provide any sort of comprehensive overview here – instead I’d simply like to share with you some of my favourite women correspondents, and the books in which their letters and diaries can be found. Clendinnen’s hope was that ‘readers will be stimulated to read some of that material themselves’. That’s my hope too and, like Clendinnen, ‘I promise they will be rewarded’.

A terrific place for the general reader to begin is with Patricia Clarke and Dale Spender, in their excellent book Life Lines: Australian women’s letters and diaries 1788-1840. Clarke and Spender provide intelligent commentary, and the many excerpts they include are comprehensive and fascinating. Even the categories Clarke and Spender use to group women writers are illuminating and include: Forced Labour, Farm Managers, The Work of the Lord, Shipboard Travail, Charitable Works, Vice-regal Duties, Working Wives and Mothers, Shopkeepers and Needlewomen.

The following information, about convict women writers, is drawn from Clarke and Spender.

Convict Women

Few letters from convict women survive, and no diaries. Many of the convict women (and men) were illiterate, of course, but certainly not all, and their letters were, in many cases, crafted with creativity and skill.

The first letter we have from a convict woman (anonymous) was written on 14 November 1788.

I take the first opportunity that has been given us to acquaint you with our disconsolate situation in this solitary waste of the creation. Our passage, you may have heard by the first ships, was tolerably favourable; but the inconveniences since suffered for want of shelter, bedding & c, are not to be imagined by any stranger. However we now have two streets, if four rows of the most miserable huts you can possibly conceive of deserve that name. Windows they have none, as from the Governor’s house & c., now nearly finished, no glass could be spared; so that lattices of twigs are made by our people to supply their places.

She goes on to describe attacks on the colonists by Aboriginals, the convict women’s lack of clothes, and the pitiable situation of women who, on the voyage out, fell pregnant to sailors now long gone. Meals were ‘insipid’ for want of sugar and salt. ‘In short, every one is so taken up with their own misfortunes that they have no pity to bestow on others.’

A second letter survives from a convict woman who arrived in 1790, aboard the Lady Juliana (for an account of the voyage, try The Floating Brothel). Of the one thousand or so convicts sent out in the second fleet, more than a quarter did not survive the journey. The anonymous convict woman wrote that those who died after their ships entered Port Jackson were flung overboard, and their unweighted corpses washed up on the shore. Nearly half the convicts were landed sick. Upon reaching dry land some creeped upon their hands and knees, and some were carried upon the backs of others. All were filthy and emaciated. Governor Phillip was furious with the captains, wrote the convict woman: ‘I heard him say it was murdering them.’  Phillip’s dispatches back to England were, however, far more circumspect.

Farm Women

Elizabeth Macarthur, then the wife of an officer of the garrison, also arrived with the Second Fleet in 1790, although not aboard the Lady Juliana. She and her family would go on to establish the Australian wool industry.

As a correspondent and diarist, she was very much a typical colonial woman writer, but we know more about her, and have more of her letters, because of the wealth of material made available to us by her descendants. The Macarthur Papers, housed in Sydney’s Mitchell Library, amount to some 450 volumes, as well as boxes, maps and plans. In basic terms, we simply know more about Elizabeth, and her family, than we do about her female peers.

It is crucial to understand, though, that with the exception of Elizabeth’s journal recording her 1790 voyage to New South Wales, the letters that are available to us now are in fact excerpts and transcriptions – painstakingly copied out by Elizabeth’s grown-up children. We cannot know the extent to which they edited their mother’s original words, or censored them. Unfortunately, this is true of many colonial letters and diaries.

A selection of John and Elizabeth Macarthur’s letters were published as early as 1914 in a collection edited by Elizabeth’s great-granddaughter Sibella, but a comparison of the letters in the book with even a few of the ‘originals’ reveals changes in word order and whole sentences missing. And is it significant that, with a single benign exception, none of Elizabeth’s letters to her husband survived? Did John read and immediately destroy them? Or was it their children who did that, all too keen to remove any evidence that their mother might not have been entirely satisfied with her lot.

Elizabeth’s descendants did not, however, manage to completely erase her ability to pen a telling phrase. She described the nefarious captain of her ship as a ‘sea monster’ and in a much later letter drolly apologised to her adult son for not writing sooner. Instead of hiding away at the writing desk ‘I kept myself disengaged to talk, which occasionally you know Edward I am very fond of’. In another letter Elizabeth describes a Macarthur family visit (which she did not attend) to see her husband’s nephew Hannibal Macarthur at his Parramatta property, the Vineyard. In time the Vineyard would boast a fine, two story Georgian house but in the late 1820s Hannibal and his wife Maria were still living in the original small cottage. When Elizabeth’s family visited, two of Hannibal’s brothers were expected any day from England; Maria Macarthur a few weeks earlier had given birth to her eighth child; and Maria’s sister-in-law, also staying at the Vineyard with her family, had just given birth to her seventh son. ‘You may imagine,’ wrote Elizabeth, ‘the Vineyard cottage was well peopled. They must be as thick as hops.’

It is striking that Elizabeth’s existing letters are, with few exceptions, uniformly positive and cheery. This is possibly due to family censorship but may equally have been a result of self-censorship and a reflection of the circumscribed nature of women’s letters. Like other correspondents of the period, Elizabeth expected her letters to be widely read, at least within the family, and so did not necessarily consider them private documents. Maria’s sister-in-law (the one with the seventh son) summed up the problem in a letter to her husband. ‘I could make you laugh if I were near you but do not like to put my funny stories on paper.’

Clarke and Spender include excerpts of Elizabeth’s letters but the best hardcopy sources of at least some of Elizabeth’s transcribed letters are:

  • Hughes, J (ed), The Journal and Letters of Elizabeth Macarthur 1789-1798, Historic Houses Trust NSW, Sydney, 1984.
  • Macarthur Onslow, S, The Macarthurs of Camden, Rigby, Adelaide, 1973.

Both are out of print though, and the former is particularly difficult to find. The State Library of NSW is in the process of digitising many of Elizabeth’s letters but, to my knowledge, few if any are as yet available online.

Maria’s sister-in-law Harriet endeared herself to me with her published letters but again the book, called The Admiral’s Wife: Mrs Phillip Parker King, is out of print and hard to find. Goldfields Library Service (in Victoria) have a copy, if you’re keen.



In the 1840s Anne Drysdale and Caroline Newcomb successfully farmed in Victoria.  Drysdale’s diaries survive, and extensive excerpts were published by the State Library of Victoria.  It’s a fantastic little book. The blurb states, in part:

In 1839 Miss Anne Drysdale sailed from Scotland to Port Phillip.  She was 47 years old, had a small inheritance, and was determined to be a sheep farmer.  Soon after arriving in Melbourne, she took up land near Geelong and formed a partnership with another enterprising woman, Caroline Newcomb.  They established a successful pastoral business, and for thirteen years lived and worked together on their properties.

Interestingly though, the book doesn’t include the diary excerpt that has Miss Drysdale describing how she joined a shooting party with the express aim of killing Aboriginal people. A brief footnote in Bruce Pascoe’s Convincing Ground brought that harsh point home to me. Another example of the need to be aware of what is left out.

Another fascinating diarist is Mary Braidwood Mowle (1827-1857), who lived in what is now the Canberra region, before moving to Eden, on the NSW South Coast. She provides many personal insights, including her description of childbirth as ‘the dreaded ordeal’. Mowle’s diaries have her galloping over the Limestone Plains in the heat of January with her hair flying; terrified in a gale when sailing with her children to Tasmania; absorbed in polite conversation in the drawing room of a Braidwood property. Again, Patricia Clarke edited this one.


Clarke and Spender argue, and I agree, that the letters and diaries of Australia’s first women writers ‘provide clear and creative examples of the connections between women’s letter writing and the growth and development of fiction.’ These women told exciting stories of their lives in the colonies, using the features of suspense, structure, and humour. They wrote to maintain family ties, and – some of them – as a creative outlet. Their letters are variously engaging, intelligent, funny, and heartbreaking. Some are deeply conventional, others are just as deeply subversive.

Modern-day writers seeking to understand the colonial ‘voice’; historians seeking insights; readers wanting to know more about colonial Australia – women’s letters and diaries provide all that and more. But really, they are well worth reading simply for their own sake. Why don’t you give them a try?


In the course of writing this post, I discovered that I have two copies of Clarke and Spender’s Life Lines. Both were purchased second-hand, and are in good (but not pristine) condition. I don’t need two copies, so I’m happy to give one away. If you live in Australia and you’d like me to send you a copy, leave a comment saying so by 31 January 2018 and we’ll choose a winner at random.

Books mentioned above

Clarke, P, A Colonial Woman: The Life and Times of Mary Braidwood Mowle, Allen & Unwin, Sydney,1991.

Clarke, P, and Spender, D, Life Lines: Australian women’s letters and diaries 1788-1840, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1992.

Clendinnen, I, Dancing with Strangers, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2005.

Hughes, J (ed), The Journal and Letters of Elizabeth Macarthur 1789-1798, Historic Houses Trust NSW, Sydney, 1984.

Macarthur Onslow, S, The Macarthurs of Camden, Rigby, Adelaide, 1973.

Pascoe, B, Convincing Ground: Learning to fall in love with your country, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2007.

Rees, S, The Floating Brothel, Hodder, Sydney, 2001.

Roberts, B (ed), Miss D & Miss N: an extraordinary partnership, Australian Scholarly Publishing with the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, 2009.

Walsh, D (ed), The Admiral’s Wife: Mrs Phillip Parker King, The Hawthorne Press, Melbourne, 1967.

43 thoughts on “Australia’s First Women Writers

  1. Another fascinating read – a teaser – “piecemeal and imperfect” as it may be! I hadn’t considered letters and diaries may have been censored and edited by family members and well-meaning or otherwise invested custodians and historians. What a shame – all the truths of improper conduct we’ve missed out on – as though women weren’t invisible enough.
    I’ve already decided to look into getting hold of a copy of ‘Life Lines’ (should I not be in luck with this kind giveaway), and there’s certainly an interesting list of recommended reading here, so thanks for sharing another well of perspectives to delve into. Best wishes, Jay.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post Michelle, your writing is, as ever, inspiring. And thank you too for introducing me to this blog! Please include me in the draw for Life Lines. All the best with your upcoming book publication.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the idea of a snapshot in time in letters. Considering how even prisoners of today lack a voice in many ways, I’m not surprised that there are so few prison letters. It’s even more telling that many of them were illiterate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Letters are a terrific window into the world of the writer. And it’s possible that some illiterate people had others write letters on their behalf (so we have more than we might).


    • I’m only amazed that so many letters survived. But Melanie – Michelle won’t be aware you are giving college courses in a prison – are you encouraging the people you teach to write letters?


      • No, I don’t help my students do anything that goes into or out of the correctional facility because it’s considered trafficking. I believe they can write and send letters, but I don’t get involved in that at all.

        Liked by 1 person

      • If I take something out of the facility for one student, it’s trafficking. If I bring something into the facility for one student without written consent from an authority, it’s trafficking. My students are very skilled writers and way beyond needing my help with letters. They can send mail, but it’s all examined and read by the department of corrections first, as is incoming mail.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I must admit I was thinking in stereotypes and hadn’t considered literate prisoners. If I’d thought more I’d have realised they must have a fair degree of literacy for you to be giving a course in creative writing.


  4. I was an inveterate letter-writer while my parents were alive and although our letters were surely ‘domestic’ they were also a snapshot of everyday life and I bet an historian of the future would love to have ’em.
    But, as many have observed before, the art of letter-writing is now lost, and probably journal-writing too, and where will those future historians look for their research, I wonder?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I keep only the sketchiest diary but I do like writing letters. Mum used to make me write every week when she was paying me an allowance at Uni, and she and her mother wrote every week for 40 plus years after she ran off with dad at 18. I have a very random collection of letters in the bottom of my sock drawer which historians can puzzle over if they’re bothered.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Interesting Lisa, as I’m halfway through Biff Ward’s memoir, In My Mother’s Hands. Although the focus is her mother’s mental health, there are many references to her father, Russel Ward’s (an historian), letters to his mother. The letters document details of everyday life and now kept in a national archive because of their historical significance!

      Liked by 1 person

      • You intuited my question below (what are you reading on the beach?) and answered while I was still writing. I really must review Ward’s The Australian Legend one day soon, having studied it in two different courses AND pinched his title.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I can see why. The everyday seems mundane when we write it, but when I look back on letters I have from my grandmother in the 80s, they take on a different significance. But I guess that an historian might have had a much greater sense of The Moment than my grandmother did!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you Michelle and Bill. It’s worth mentioning that in reading this lovely post, I am about 50m from the homestead where Georgiana McCrae lived (in what is now known as McCrae), bringing a touch of AWW Gen 1 to my beach holiday.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can see you relaxing on a beach chair, gazing out over the placid bay, your tome untouched on your lap, and a g&t to hand (I forget now what you chose for your major holiday read). Thanks for being first to like the AWW Gen 1 page and I’m hopeful that we’ll have a post on Georgiana McCrae during the week.


      • You are startlingly accurate Bill. I had ear-marked Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies as my ‘big book’ but haven’t started it yet. Instead, I’ve been (happily) waylaid with Aus authors – Georgia Blain’s The Museum of Words; Gillian Mears’s The Mint Lawn (although finding this one dense and a bit of a slog); Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World; and Biff Ward’s In My Mother’s Hands. And there was some Yates in the mix as well. It’s been a good reading week.

        I have holidayed at McCrae every summer, my whole life. It is the place that I love most.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Brenda Niall’s biography of Georgiana McCrae is one of my inspirations. It’s been a long time since I read it but I still think of it (and of Georgiana) very often.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. And I am back from my brief sojourn in the mountains ready to engage in this wonderful conversation. But, I don’t know where to start. I do love the idea, Bill, that your mum made you write weekly letters when she was paying you an allowance!

    I particularly enjoyed Michelle’s caution about letters – about being aware of what’s left out (for various reasons, some of which she touches upon) and of the tone that may have been carefully constructed. There’s also the issue that letters can be missing – lost or destroyed (such as Jane Austen’s sister destroying many of hers. When you see some of the things she says in the remaining letters you do wonder about the ones that were destroyed!).

    Anyhow, I agree that letters – by people of any age or gender – are invaluable. I am currently (in my supposed decluttering project) reading the weekly letters I wrote “home” in the early 90s when we were living in the USA. I had forgotten so much about the kids’ childhoods, for example, and am loving re-acquainting myself. Since the returning to Australia in the mid 1990s, I now write weekly letters to my friend back there. We word-process them (so they make a sort of diary for me) – rather than handwrite them – but we still snail mail them which makes my husband laugh. It’s ridiculous I know to be reading today, for example, her comments about something Trump said before Christmas, but that’s what we do!! It’s hard to imagine what it was like for Michelle’s correspondents waiting so long for news that was so old by the time they got it.

    Thanks Michelle for a great first post for Bill’s week.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Sue – it’s scary how we much we forget along the way, isn’t it? So glad you’ve kept the letters as a reminder. Your descendants will thank you for it!


    • You guys have reminded me to look in a box of dad’s stuff full of letters. I thought they were from his mum, but mum’s mum is on top. On 17-9-71 she wrote “I think I will have to give up letter writing as the week goes too quickly and not much to write about, but don’t you think of it like that, it is only for the aged?” (She was 66) From there she goes on for another 6″ of fine paper and 20 years.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s