Squeaker’s Mate, Barbara Baynton

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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.