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.

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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.

 

Diarists

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.

Connections

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?


Giveaway!

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.

Annabella Boswell’s Journal

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

Annabella Boswells Journal

Annabella Alexandrina Campbell Innes “was born at Yarrows, near Bathurst in New South Wales in 1826, in September, which in that favoured land is a sweet spring month, when all nature is fresh and gay.”

Her father George, an eighth son then aged 20, had come out to NSW from Scotland with his older brother, Captain (later Major) Archibald Innes, 3rd Buffs, in 1823 and almost immediately took up grants  of land at Winburndale Creek (“Yarrows”) and further north, a cattle station, “Glen Alice”, in mountainous and nearly inaccessible country near Capertee (then called Capita), maybe 200 km northwest of Sydney.

In November 1825 George married Georgianna “Moorshead, née Campbell” (which implies she was a young widow), also a Scot, in St John’s, Paramatta. “Miss E. Macarthur, of Elizabeth Farm, was one of the bridesmaids”. Ten months later Annabella was born.

At a young age, Annabella began keeping journals, and when later she married Patrick Douglas Boswell of Garrallan – a distant relative of the biographer – and then moved back home with him after he inherited the family estates in Scotland, she rewrote them for her children, according to the Publisher’s Note, as Early Recollections and Gleanings, from an old Journal. It is possible this was an intermediate stage as, according to the ADB

Some Recollections of My Early Days (1908) was republished as Annabella Boswell’s Journal (Sydney, 1965 and reprinted 1981 and 1993). Her vivid account of colonial life, Further Recollections of My Early Days in Australia (1911), was republished as Annabella Boswell’s Other Journal (Canberra, 1992).

This implies her writings were polished up again for the general public in 1908 and 1911 when Annabella Boswell was in her eighties (Later she writes that she is looking back 60 years which would be about right). She died at Garrallan in 1914.

Annabella writes that the family left Yarrows while she was an infant. It’s not clear where they lived for the next few years, but in 1834 they moved to Capertee and Annabella found herself “settled at school in Bridge Street, Sydney, under the care of Mrs Evans and her friend and partner, Miss Ferris. Mr Evans had a large bookseller’s and we occupied the rest of the house”.

At Easter the Tank Stream flooded Bridge Street and Annabella was sent to the Macleays. He was Colonial Secretary and her uncle, Major Innes’, father-in-law. Annabella remembers a dinner party where she was “much noticed by Mrs Sturt, afterwards Lady Sturt, wife of Captain Charles Sturt, who was then absent with an exploring party near the Murrumbidgee River.”

After a year at Mrs Evans’ Annabella’s father took her home to Glen Alice where she and her siblings were schooled by governesses. They seemed to have had an active social life with weddings and dances. In this context she mentions Ann Macarthur who MST tells me must be a daughter of Hannibal, John Macarthur’s nephew, and from the 1830s on, a member of the NSW Legislative Council.

Throughout, Annabelle and her family move almost entirely within the Scots community. A Presbyterian minister who includes Capertee in his rounds gives his service in Gaelic, and they have a shepherd who speaks only Gaelic. Even when Annabelle is being taught the kings of England, she begins at the Stuarts!

Annabella was a good diarist, both observant of people and her surroundings, and a fluent writer. While I enjoyed the references to the Macarthurs and Charles Sturt and so on whom I know from history books, the highlight of this book for me was the close descriptions of the logistics of getting into and out of Capertee. I have driven old trucks over Mt Victoria and out through Lithgow and Bathurst any number of times, not to mention Kandos and Wallerawang, so I can only marvel at the men who got horse and bullock wagons on unmade tracks through these mountains – at various times Annabella was in a gig that tipped over and pinned her underneath; her mamma was thrown from the back of a wagon that tipped when the horses bolted and a wheel broke; and of course they were bailed up by bushrangers.

The book’s subtitle is An Account of Early Port Macquarrie. The reason for this is that Major Innes built a mansion on his estate “Lake Innes” outside Port Macquarrie (400 km north of Sydney). George Innes’ health was failing and he took his family there in 1839 hoping for rest but was soon dead. Mrs Innes sold up Glen Alice and after a couple of years in Paramatta the family went back to Lake Innes to live.

At the peak of Major Innes’ uncertain prosperity, the grand house, liveried servants and unstinting hospitality gave Annabella a taste for the high life. Kilted pipers piped in the mornings and led the dances at night. Even the locals of the Birpai nation joined in:

When we went down again we found about twenty natives assembled there and dancing vigorously, while Bruce played. When they had finished, Dido proposed that we should dance a reel, and at once the whole party seemed inspired with a wish to join, and really there could not have been a gayer scene; we four girls in white frocks and pink sashes flying through the dance pursued by nimble partners ..

Life however was not without its problems. On Christmas Day, 1843:

It was very late when dinner was announced, the cook imagining it was a holiday (and making it one) had gone to sleep.

And so passed the 1840s as Annabella grew to womanhood – gardening, preserving fruit, drawing flowers, doing lessons, riding, bathing in the sea, rowing on the lake, entertaining endless visitors, and dancing. Of most concern is the news from London, via Sydney, of a new fashion in dresses:

Aunt Williamina asks her if we wear any stiff petticoats, and says she never wears less than two corded and stiff starched and one of horse-hair… I quite dread my own appearance so puffed out.

In 1845 a visitor arrives from India with “coolies” to be used as labour on his Darling Downs station. You might remember that Caroline Chisholm (here) was concerned that the virtual slave labour of convicts would be replaced by importing cheap labour from China and India. Annabella is more interested in their different colours and absence of dress, though she does mention some news from Sydney about Mrs Chisholm.

When the journal ends the colony is suffering an economic downturn and Port Macquarrie is virtually deserted; the house servants have ravaged the cellars and departed; Major Innes is in Sydney, and Annabella and her mother, too, are about to leave. The running of the Lake Innes estate had been predicated on the labour of convict servants. Transportation to NSW ended in 1840,  and by 1848 Lake Innes was unviable. Major Innes was appointed police magistrate at Newcastle, and there in 1849 Annabella met Boswell.

 

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For Kate W., Squab Pie. “Layers of apple and beef steak,covered with pie crust, and baked… Cook says I should have added an onion.”

 

Annabella Boswell, Annabella Boswells Journal, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1965 (this edition 1981). Introduction by Morton Herman. Cover painting: Port Macquarie in the 1830s by Joseph Backler (1813-1895)

See also AWW Gen 1 above for more on the first generation of Australian women writers.