So we begin Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week. If you are posting, or have posted previously, a review of a work by a Gen 1 woman, put a link in Comments below and I’ll include it in the AWW Gen 1 page. In preparation over the past month or so I have put up:
The AWW Gen 1 page contains a short overview of the period (women who began writing prior to the 1890s and the Bulletin years) – the Dale Spender review contains a longer overview – and a list of all the women writers of the period with links to their ADB biography, reviews of their work, essays about their work and in some case links to where their work may be found on-line.
So far I have
19 21 writers, seven of whose novels I have reviewed; links to reviews by Brona (Brona’s Books), MST (Adventures in Biography), Lisa (ANZLitLovers) and Jessica White; posts about authors by Sue (Whispering Gums), Nathan Hobby, Jess again (and again!), Narelle Ontivero, Morgan Burgess; links to ‘third party’ essays like Illawarra Historical Soc., The Letters of Rachel Henning: Have we been conned? (Read it, it’s fascinating). And more is promised!
Onwards, to Lady Bridget. Rosa Praed (1851-1935) was born into ‘comfortable’ circumstances on one of her father, Thomas Murray-Prior’s Queensland cattle stations, the third of eleven children (ADB). She was educated at home, by her mother and tutors.
In October 1857 Rosa was at a corroboree which presaged the massacre of seven members of the Fraser family, and one black worker, on neighbouring Hornet Bank Station (map), in retaliation for the usual ‘dispersal’ of the traditional inhabitants and misuse of their women. Following the massacre, posses of white settlers, in which Murray-Prior was prominent, virtually wiped out all the local Yiman people.
Oldest son, William Fraser who had been away at the time of the massacre, returned and began murdering black people – without hindrance from the police – at every opportunity, including two men exiting Rockhampton courthouse where they had just been acquitted. Astonishingly, Fraser is the model for Colin McKeith, the hero of this novel.
Murray-Prior moved his family closer to Brisbane and in the 1860s was Postmaster General in a series of colonial governments. Rachel Henning, one of my Gen 1 list, writes of him, ” I suppose it does not require any great talent to be a Postmaster General. I hope not, for such a goose I have seldom seen. He talked incessantly and all his conversation consisted of pointless stories of which he himself was the hero.”
In 1872 Rosa was married from Government House at St John’s Church of England, Brisbane, to Arthur Campbell Bulkley Praed, a younger son of an English banking and brewing family. After an unhappy couple of years on Campbell Praed’s station on Curtis Island near Gladstone (400 km north of Brisbane) the couple went to live in England where Rosa Praed became well-known as a writer. In 1897 Rosa gave up on the marriage and began living with Nancy Hayward, a psychic medium.
Rosa Praed never returned to Australia but drew heavily on her life there, and on her correspondents, including her father, whose attitudes she later repudiated, for her stories (see Patricia Clarke, A Paradox of Exile: Rosa Praed’s Lifelines to her Australian Past here).
Lady Bridget in the Never-Never Land begins with journalist Joan Gildea talking to her friend Colin McKeith, a Glaswegian of humble antecedents, who has taken up property on the ‘Upper Leura’ in outback Queensland, and is a member of the Legislative Council (established in 1860 after Queensland became separate from NSW in 1859). It is not stated but I’m guessing the action takes place in the 1880s*.
All place names are fictionalised so Queensland is Leichardt (after the explorer), Brisbane is Leichardt’s Town, and Joan has a house on ‘Emu Point’ in a bend of the ‘Leichardt River’ downstream from Parliament House and the Botanical Gardens.
Hornet Bank is north of Wandoan, good country on the coastal side of the Great Dividing Range. The local river is the Dawson which runs into the Fitzroy and comes out on the coast near Rockhampton. But Patricia Clarke says that the locality of ‘Leura’ is further north and inland, semi-desert ‘Never Never’ country based on Rosa’s sister’s home, Aberfoyle Station. The (mostly dry) rivers up there stay west of the Great Divide and run into the Gulf, so Praed may have made a mistake with her geography when she has the ‘Leura River’ coming out on the east coast.
Lady Bridget O’Hara is the impecunious daughter of a late Irish Earl, living off her wits and the generosity of titled relatives. She is friends with Joan and to escape a failed love affair in England comes out to Leichardt in the party of the new Governor. McKeith, a solitary and hard-nosed bachelor, is introduced to Bridget by Joan, falls heavily in love and persuades her to marry him, which she does in scenes reminiscent of the author’s own wedding.
Lady Bridget is tiny and vivacious with unruly curls, a horsewoman and a singer, sounding very much like a Miles Franklin heroine. Praed was 28 years older than Franklin, but in 1915 when Lady Bridget came out Franklin had just finished writing On Dearborn Street and their heroes have a striking similarity – both insist on their ‘wholesomeness’, ie. both are virgins. And this in fact is a strong theme in early Australian writing, both men’s and women’s.
At this point in my reading, Bridget and McKeith have just spent the night in a rough hotel after coming up the coast for a couple of days in a steamer, all in separate rooms! McKeith is planning for their “first night” to be camping out under the stars on their journey inland. I have paused because Praed has raised two points of tension and I want to write about them before I see how they are resolved.
Firstly, Bridget has married McKeith because he fits her image of a strong, independent man, but also because she is in desperate need of financial security. Praed’s novels are full of discarded, no-longer convenient marriages and I’m agog to see how this one turns out. Bridget suggests to McKeith’s bemusement “that you and I are as incongruous as the duck and the kangaroo”, quoting from the Edward Lear nonsense poem.
Secondly and far more importantly, McKeith’s strong man image is based in large part on his ill usage of and hatred for blacks and Bridget is disgusted by this and says so. And yet she marries him. Len Platt in Race and Romance in the Australian Novels of Rosa Praed here suggests that Praed’s reputation as a radical may not be deserved, and that in particular she is half-hearted in her condemnation of both McKeith’s racism and his violent opposition to trade unionism. Let’s read on …
Bridget and McKeith travel by train inland to the terminus at ‘Fig Tree Mount’ and there transfer to a buggy for the 250 miles home, with Moongarr Bill, the head stockman, and two black workmen, Wombo and Cudgee. As they depart McKeith is jeered by ‘unionists’ on the hotel veranda, who turn out to be men he’s just sacked:
“Mister Colin McKeith? – you can take it from us boys he’s the meanest cuss that ever downed a harmless nigger…. Ask him what the twenty-five notches on his gun stand for?”
“And I tell you what it is, Steve Baines. There’ll be another notch on my gun, and it won’t be for a nigger, if you give me any more of your insolence.”
Another man grabs the reins of the lead horse and is whipped for his trouble; and among the flying insults Bridget learns that McKeith employs a good looking young widow, Mrs Hensor, as housekeeper for the stockman’s quarters.
Fifteen months later memories of the honeymoon drive have faded. Mrs Hensor will not take orders from Bridget, drought is setting in, union shearers are striking, the government has sent armed ‘specials’ to protect employers of scab labour. A dray bringing supplies to the McKeiths has been ransacked and the horses killed; McKeith, returning from town with a police inspector and a visitor, finds Bridget has given aid to Wombo and his new bride against his direct orders; he whips Wombo and drives the couple off the station.
But! The visitor is her old lover from England, Willoughby Maule, who had left her to marry an heiress who had then conveniently died. McKeith and the inspector must go to a neighbouring station where fighting is expected. Bridget has refused to talk to McKeith about her former life as a social butterfly and now he is eaten with jealousy, but must leave her and Maule together just when he and Bridget are at daggers drawn.
This sounds melodramatic, but Praed is better than that and the last third of the novel is a convincing portrayal of two egotistical people at cross purposes through misunderstanding and miscommunication. The harm that McKeith’s jealousy causes reminds me of Henry Handel Richardson’s Maurice Guest. Of course I won’t tell you how it ends but I do think Praed lets McKeith off lightly. Yes he is scarred by the murder of everyone in his family, but Praed, once she introduced this into the story, should have dealt with it front on, not incidentally.
Overall though, Lady Bridget in the Never-Never Land is both an insightful study of a man tortured by love and an illuminating view of times past.
Rosa Praed, Lady Bridget in the Never-Never Land (first pub. 1915), Pandora, 1987, my copy on kindle from Project Gutenberg here
*Re the period of the novel: Praed mentions abandoned diggings at ‘Fig Tree Mount’. Gold was first mined in Queensland at Charters Towers in 1872. The Great Shearers’ Strike which led to the formation of the Australian Labor Party was in 1891. Praed has McKeith lose his seat in an election won by the Labor Party, about a year after his marriage, which could only be 1899 when the world’s first, albeit short-lived, minority, Labor government was formed.