Human Toll, Barbara Baynton


Barbara Baynton (1857-1929) was born and grew up in the Hunter Valley region of NSW, well watered farming country a couple of hundred km north west of Sydney, but in her late teens began working as a governess further out and in 1880 she married Alex Frater, older brother to some of her charges, and they took up a largely uncleared property near Coonamble in western NSW, “the nearest neighbour a day’s ride away.” Frater was often away and eventually he ran off with Baynton’s niece who was helping in the house, leaving Baynton with three children to support. Over time, Baynton got a divorce, moved to Sydney, married Dr Baynton and so on (more here) and began writing, under the influence of the Bulletin’s AG Stephens.

The intense isolation and fear that Baynton felt, alone in the bush in the outback, is reflected in all her (relatively few) stories, and it is often remarked what a bleaker view she brings to the mostly male Bulletin school with all its mateship and good cheer in adversity.

By 1909 when her only novel (or novella, it’s 180 pp),  Human Toll was published, Baynton was a widow, living in London. Stephens was not available to provide advice or editing as he was for Bush Studies (1902), her earlier collection of short short stories, which I think had all appeared in the Bulletin during the previous decade, and this might account for the structure of the story being relatively difficult to follow, although individual passages are often excellent.

Human Toll commences with a little girl, variously Lovey, Ursie and Ursula, already motherless, coming to terms with the death of her father. She is on a remote, semi arid sheep property in the care of her father’s mate Boshy and an Aboriginal couple Nungi and Queeby. Boshy wishes to continue as the girl’s guardian but their nearest neighbour – yes, “a day’s ride away” – Cameron and his daughter Margaret come and take her (and all the father’s papers). Ursula is sent to Cameron’s sister, a widow in a small country town, who also has the care of Cameron’s son Andrew, a few years older than Ursula, to attend school.

The widow marries a grasping Presbyterian preacher, Mr Civil. Andrew often has to stand between Civil and Ursula when the former is handing out punishments. Boshy sometimes comes to town and later provides the money for Ursula to attend boarding school. Mrs Civil dies and Civil becomes ‘nicer’ to Ursula when he thinks she might inherit her father’s property (which Cameron seems to have taken over), or Boshy’s mysterious “fortune”.

Spoilers: It all comes to a head at a town dance when Andrew ignores Ursula, gets drunk, and in the morning is found to have “married” Ursula’s friend, Mina. Mina is thrown out of home and Andrew and Palmer, his brother in law, take the two girls back to the original property (where Nungi now has a new and less amenable wife). There the two young woman – with no love at all lost between them – are abandoned; Nungi refuses to continue seeing to the sheep; his new wife is of little assistance around the house; Mina has a baby which she attempts to kill; Ursula runs off with the baby and becomes hopelessly lost in the bush.

Human Toll makes clear – by contrast – how much Australian fiction is written with a niceness, a middle class sensibility, that underplays people’s essential selfishness. Ursula is your ordinary moral, right-thinking heroine but all the supporting cast are nasty and brutish. Cameron apparently steals Ursula’s property; the preacher lives off the money Cameron pays for Ursula’s support, and later enters her bedroom:

He advanced to her, misled by her passiveness. She aimed a heavy blow at his leering face with the candlestick, but he dodged it, and, terrified of a noisy scene, he rushed to his room.

The townspeople are all at each other’s throats, though at least at the dance, they enjoyed themselves:

Then Neddy Neale, dragging his dazed partner, swished past where Palmer and Ursula stood. Gus Stein, with Pat the Jew’s daughter and Andrew with Mina, still kept the floor, but now the rat-tat-tat accompaniment knuckled from the bottom of a tin dish by Dave Heeley, Neale’s drover mate, till, tired out, even he ceased.

Then the dancing husband of the singer, importuned, momentarily disengaged his partner to grab his concertina, and with this resting on the girl’s back, he kept the dancers going, till he, though much encouraged, wearied. Dry-throated and panting, some of the wine-maddened performers tried to hoarsely bellow independent tunes, which in turn yielded to impotent yells.

The one great difficulty is that throughout, all speech is rendered as dialect, and between a childish Ursie, the Aussies, the Aborigines and the Germans, this is often quite hard to follow.

The novel ends with an astonishing tour de force, a stream of consciousness, over 20 or so pages, as Ursula struggles, increasingly crazed by thirst, disoriented and incoherent, through the bush:

What a most peculiar thing that was, the leaning tree which earlier she had passed – oh, surely long ago – days and weeks ago; and why did she pass it? Why? she wondered, and her enfeebled mind rested in this futile query. Oh – screaming – she knew why. She was lost in the Bush, and, as long ago she called, “Andree, Andree!” Now, now, she was growing like a child. A child! Worse, for when a child she had conquered herself …

Baynton was a writer for only a brief period of her life, and this is a shame. She apparently commenced another novel, a comedy of manners set in England, which would at least have provided an interesting contrast to her earlier work, but it was never published.


Barbara Baynton, Human Toll, first pub. 1909, republished in Barbara Baynton, edited by Sally Krimmer & Alan Lawson, UQP, Brisbane, 1980

see also:
Barbara Baynton, Between Two Worlds (1989) by Penne Hackforth-Jones (here)
Barbara Baynton, Squeaker’s Mate – a comparison with Henry Lawson’s Water Them Geraniums (here)

Squeaker’s Mate, Barbara Baynton


In re-evaluating the place of women writers and women’s writing in the Australian canon there are many C19th women to consider but I will start with Barbara Baynton (1857-1929).

Principally a short story writer, writing in the 1890s, Baynton does not belong to the dominating legend which is supposed to have originated in that period. Her contribution to Australian literature is unique although she echoes in her writing much of what [Henry] Lawson and [AB] Paterson felt.

Introduction to Barbara Baynton, Bush Studies, other stories, Human Toll, verse, essays and letters, Edited by Sally Krimmer & Alan Lawson.

Baynton was born in rural NSW to Irish immigrant parents (ADB here). Her father was a carpenter and she was educated at home, well enough that for a while she worked as a governess. She married and had children, the husband ran off with her cousin, she remarried to a much older, well-off Sydney doctor, Thomas Baynton, and began writing, Her first published story was The Tramp (later revised and renamed The Chosen Vessel) which appeared in The Bulletin in 1896, ie when Baynton was nearly 40.

In all, Baynton wrote just one volume of short stories, published as Bush Studies in London in 1902 (republished as Cobbers in 1917 with the addition of a couple of war related stories), and one short novel, Human Toll (1907). Squeaker’s Mate, her best known short story, was first published in the Bulletin (in 1897?).  Although Baynton is sometimes compared with Henry Lawson, her vision was bleaker, she was far less prolific and, of course, she hasn’t Lawson’s advantage of endless republication and anthologizing.

It is revealing to compare the contemporaneous Water Them Geraniums, by Lawson with Baynton’s Squeaker’s Mate. Both have traditional bush settings but Lawson looks at the cost, to the woman, of adhering to the stereotype, of being a good wife; and Baynton at the cost of non-conformance, at the cost of independence.

The woman at the centre of Squeaker’s Mate is unnamed, except as an aside in the last few lines, as if to underline her lack of independence, and yet she is the strong one: “She was taller than the man, and the equability of her body contrasting with his indolent slouch accentuated the difference.” Her money is used to finance their ‘selection’ and her labour to keep it going. Typically, when her back is broken, she is chopping down a tree while Squeaker is off looking for honey. When she is taken home on a sheet of bark, when the neighbouring selectors’ wives stop calling, when Squeaker sells off her flock to buy grog and flash new clothes, even when she is deposed to the back hut by Squeaker’s new mate, what is being described is her apparent dependence, her complete inability to move and fend for herself and yet, at each step, what we see is her independence, the indomitability of her spirit. And in the end, when her dog chases away the new ‘mate’ and fastens its teeth into Squeaker’s hand, she is acknowledged for the first time as a person, “Call ‘im orf, Mary, ‘e’s eating me”.

Henry Lawson was undoubtedly the most influential Australian writer of this period, and I have even seen him praised, nonsensically, as “the doyen of Australian novelists”, but his prestige was never really matched by his output. While the Joe Wilson stories for instance might have been made up into a cohesive whole as a novel, Lawson apparently lacked the application and, in the end, wrote only short stories and poetry. The collection, Joe Wilson and His Mates, which includes Water Them Geraniums, was published in 1901.

Over the course of a couple of stories Joe Wilson has wooed and married Mary and they have taken up a selection near Gulgong (an old gold-mining town in mid-western NSW). Mary has persuaded Joe to give up both the grog and fossicking for gold but he still works as a carrier with a couple of draught horses and a broken down wagon, and is away a lot from home. Ostensibly, the story is about their neighbour, Mrs Spicer, her pride despite her poverty, and her decline into despair and eventually death as she loses her husband and older sons – mostly to the police for horse stealing; but the real story is Mary’s own despair and the decline of her and Joe’s relationship, which Mrs Spicer’s story only serves to highlight. Before their marriage, Mary was working in a squatter’s house as one of the family, and was a “little dumpling” with big, dark eyes and (hence) the nickname “Possum”, but now, three or four years and two children later, living in a little hut in the bush, she is thinner and depressed. Joe is aware that this is the result of isolation and worry (about his susceptibility to alcohol); and so we see that Lawson is aware that the romance of the independent bushman is built on the destruction of family life but, perhaps in line with his own decline into alcoholism, he is unable to suggest a way out. Joe foreshadows Mary’s eventual death, “But the time came, not many years after, when I stood by the bed where Mary lay, white and still”, in direct contrast to Baynton’s Mary who insists on living on despite the seeming hopelessness of her position.


Barbara Baynton, Bush Studies, First pub. 1902, this edition edited by Sally Krimmer & Alan Lawson, UQP, Brisbane, 1980

See also Whispering Gums who writes, ” Author and blogger Karen Lee Thompson commented on my tournament post that she’d like to see a bout comparing “Squeaker’s mate” (1902) with Henry Lawson’s “The drover’s wife” (1892), and it would be delicious. I was tempted to do it here but I won’t.” If you put ‘Baynton’ into her search you will see that WG has written quite a few posts on (or mentioning) Baynton.

And ditto for ANZ LitLovers. For her review of Bush Studies see here.