Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week, contributors

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

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Still no review!

I, I try not to begin posts with I, but today it really is unavoidable, or if not unavoidable … but why should I use a circumlocution? So: I. I find myself today unexpectedly with time on my hands. I spent yesterday evening loading when I could have been having a Saturday night out, down at the Balmoral maybe with ex-Mrs Legend, eating quinoa and pumpkin – me that is, she eats steak – and catching up on the week past over an immature and overpriced pinot gris, only to find that the customer didn’t need me.

So I thought that I should take the opportunity to highlight the contributions to this week that I haven’t re-posted and which you may have missed. If I ramble a bit it is because the idea only came to me this morning and I haven’t had time to properly think it over. However, if one thing is clear from all that has been written it is that we are surprised by the willingness of C19th Australian women writers and their heroines to rail against the laws and customs that restricted them. I guess this is at least partly because Australia was new, wealthy, with more fluid class boundaries than old Europe, and at the forefront of debate about democracy and labour politics.

But it is also because this period of our history has been deliberately obscured by layers of myths. From where we baby-boomers sit we must view this period, and women’s writing in particular, through the myth of the 1950s – a woman’s place is in the home, a reaction I think to the independence of women during the War, running farms and factories; the big literary myth, the Australian Legend, of men and their mates in the Bush and at war; and the myth of the Victorians – of women bound by corsets and rules to lives of virtue and strict obedience to scripture and husbands.

These books we have been reading blow away these myths. Love of the Australian bush began way before the 1890s and its appropriation by the Bulletin. You can see it in Rosa Praed who was born here, in Annabella Boswell in the 1830s and 40s (also born here) and in writers like Catherine Martin and Ellen Davitt.

Rosa Praed makes a virtue of doing away with husbands, but nearly all the women question the value of marriage, and a few, even if it does not show in their fiction, make their principal relationships with other women – Rosa Praed and Nancy Harward, Catherine Helen Spence and Jeanne Young, Anne Drysdale and Caroline Newcombe (discovered for us by MST here).

The most important writer of the period is Catherine Helen Spence who throughout the second half of the century was the dynamo who got first wave feminism moving, in her novels, in her journalism, and in her activism for women’s suffrage and proportional representation.

The most popular (now) and maybe the most enduring writer was Ada Cambridge with her gentle social commentaries. Lisa (ANZLitLovers) reviewed Cambridge’s memoir Thirty Years in Australia (here) some time ago and if you are interested in reading it for yourself the AWW Gen 1 page has a link. A reader, Alison Stuart wrote in:

[Ada Cambridge’s] husband was vicar of Holy Trinity Williamstown for many years and she did much of her writing in the lovely old (it was new back then!) vicarage. She is honoured in Williamstown today with the Ada Cambridge Prize at the annual Williamstown Literary festival… As a side note she was a friend of Jeannie Gunn, who is reputed to have written part of We of the Never Never on the verandah of the vicarage on a visit to Ada.

and provides a link (here) to Ada’s web page.

Brona at Brona’s Books and Emma at Books Around the Corner put up reviews respectively of Sisters and The Three Miss Kings (which I also have reviewed, here). Brona writes that Sisters “is the story of four young women coming of age on a rural property in northern Victoria. But it is also the story of Guthrie Carey, a young sailor whose life crosses paths with the sisters at various points.” Cambridge, she says, “tackle[s] women’s issues and class consciousness head-on”. (Brona’s review).

Emma too enjoyed her Ada Cambridge. She writes:

The writer under these words appeared to have a progressive view of women’s place in society. She also refers to Darwin’s theories in passing and we know they were controversial at the time. Her vision of religion is also daring for her century. I had the feeling she was well-read and modern, that she was not afraid to speak up for herself and for her gender, that she was interested in new theories, in progress in social matters as well as in science. She comes out as a woman involved and in advance for her time.

(Emma’s review).

And there’s more. Narell Ontivero’s guest post of course (here) and an essay, Ada Cambridge: colonial writer and social critic (here) by Morgan Burgess, which was posted by AWW Challenge last year.

As is the way of trucking, my customer in Kalgoorlie has discovered they are about to run out of product after all, and I have to get going. But before I do let me point out for those few of you who may have missed them, Lisa’s two posts yesterday arising out of her reading of Australia’s First Century 1788-1888, EE Morris ed.

She has discovered a new writer for us, Margaret Seymour, who was in charge of the house (wife?, housekeeper?) on Alpha Station out Barcaldine way in far outback Queensland in (maybe) the 1860s (here). And she has uncovered Mary Gaunt’s journalism, of which I was previously unaware (here).

Finally, Sue (Whispering Gums) whose review of Tasma’s Uncle Piper of Pipers Hill will be with us momentarily put up this post on Tasma earlier in the week (here).

I’ll put up my final post for the ‘week’, A review of Ellen Davitt’s Force and Fraud: A Tale of the Bush overnight, with a list of all the posts received – I think apart from Sue’s there is one about Georgiana Molloy also on the way – but please, keep submitting reviews and I’ll keep adding to the AWW Gen 1 page.

 

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A Marked Man, Ada Cambridge

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

The author of this guest post is Narelle Ontivero who caught my attention last year with her essay “As Nature Bade Her”: Sensuality in Tasma’s Bush Stories (here). Narelle is a doctoral candidate at Western Sydney University in the Writing and Society Research Centre. Her current research explores the relationship between space, gender and identity in the works of Tasma, Rosa Praed and Ada Cambridge. Narelle, thanks for taking part.


Across Both Worlds: Ada Cambridge’s A Marked Man (1890)

Cambridge Marked Man

When published in volume form by William Heinemann in 1890, A Marked Man garnered its author, Ada Cambridge, considerable attention. Contemporary reviewers praised the literary style of the novel as “remarkable”, “easy and vigorous” with a perfect blend of “[h]umour and pathos” (The Speaker: The Liberal Review, 20 September 1890: 335). The protagonist, Richard Delavel, is described as “a great and original creation […] one of the most striking and touching figures in contemporary fiction” (Westminster Review, February 1891: 218). And the Manchester Guardian assured its readers in its review that “[w]ith such power and finish Miss Cambridge ought to command popularity of the best kind for anything she will bestow on us in the future” (Manchester Guardian, 23 September 1890: 6). More than one hundred years later, there is still much to celebrate in Cambridge’s successful novel.

A Marked Man is cleverly presented in two parts: The first part is set in Dunstanborough “the ideal English village” lorded over by the aristocratic Delavel family (2). The youngest son of this family, Richard, is a rebellious Oxford seminary ‘drop out’ who impulsively pursues and marries Annie Morrison, “the village maid of romance—the ideal farmer’s daughter” (31). The perfection of this village is often pointed out. Even the “beach at Dunstanborough was spacious and level and firm—everything that a beach should be” (21). Alongside Richard’s romantic pursuit of Annie, Cambridge intelligently draws out many of the class structures and traditions which unfairly governed the lives of nineteenth-century British people.  The reader is warned, for example, that in Dunstanborough “[t]he lower classes knew their place and kept it, dropping the loyal curtsey to their lord and lady and the young sirs and misses, not only in the street but in the church” (2).  But on a more intimate scale, to prove his worth as a true gentleman, and not some common farmer, Richard hastily agrees to marry Annie and is disinherited when the elopement is revealed. As fate would have it, before a fortnight of marriage is through, Richard realises that he and Annie are entirely unsympathetic as a couple, but that they are legally bound to each other in unhappy marriage.

The second half of A Marked Man takes place twenty-five years later in the burgeoning city of Sydney, Australia. Now a self-made businessman, Richard’s sole comfort in his loveless marriage is his daughter, Susan. Together they read Matthew Arnold, question religious precepts, enjoy boating and time at their secluded camp on Middle Head; while driving the ostentatious and principled Annie wild. Notwithstanding the apparent stalemate in the Delavel marriage, the romantic quests continue in the second half. Noel Routledge, an ex-minister without pedigree pursues Susan; and Richard pines after Constance Bethune, his helpmate in his first years in Sydney and “the woman whom nature had intended to be his mate, but whom circumstances had denied to him” who suddenly returns to Sydney a widow (220). It is only once Annie drowns in a boating accident on Sydney Harbour that Richard and Susan are free to marry their respective partners for love.

The novel’s overarching exploration of love, marriage, tradition and modernity is made possible first by the transference to Australia; and, second, by the weight of Annie’s staunch traditionalism. In A Marked Man Australia is a testing-ground in which marital and religious traditions can be challenged and where people like Annie—who doubted “the use of being Mrs Delavel in a wild country where the name had no significance”—become stumbling blocks to the liberal spirit forging the new nation (130). We are told that,

In middle age [Annie] was—what she had been from her youth—the evenest-tempered woman that ever a well-meaning husband found it difficult to get on with […] She had conformed to the customs of a country wherein birth was disestablished like its ancient friend the church, and had no dependent ‘lower orders’ to take off the loyal hat and drop the humble curtsey to it as in the good old times […] Those customs, and all the fundamental changes in social state that they implied, had never ceased to be repugnant to what she called her instincts  […] People and things might change with changing times and circumstances, but [Annie] never changed” (145).

So while Annie’s death is a hefty price to pay to secure the happiness of the remaining Delavels, it is symbolically important for Annie with her ‘Old-World’ values to disappear in A Marked Man.

Of course, it is also through Annie and Richard that A Marked Man questions the British laws that bound men and women to unhappy marriages. As is likely well-known by the readers of this blog, the ‘Marriage Question’ was generating a substantial amount of controversy in the 1890s when the novel was published. And it was certainly an issue addressed by the Gen. 1 writers of this blog series—authors like Rosa Praed, Tasma, Catherine Martin, Catherine Helen Spence and Ada Cambridge, to name only a few.  Marriage as a source of women’s forced economic dependence and sexual labour were two central issues raised and protested by these admirable and talented women writers through their fiction.

In the Australian colonies, the view of marriage was particularly dim. For first wave feminists, it seemed ineffectual to enforce strict marriage laws in Australia where the unattached, roving, drinking and licentious bush man was idealised with fervour. A country where male domestic violence was a common occurrence, and

It was [still] quite common for men to bash up their wives and the strange thing was, if you were to kick a dog, another man would kick you. But if you were having an argument with your wife, nobody would interfere (McCalman, 1984: 26; see also: Lake, 1986).

And where “marriage made no difference to a man’s life [but] all the difference to a woman’s life” who was enjoined to live for her husband and children’s happiness (Magarey, 2001: 37). While there is no abuse in Richard and Annie’s marriage, it is a penance to the former.  And over his entire life there lingers one question: why suffer the bond of wedlock when love is not in it? Richard’s last regret, as he lays dying, is that in fifty years of life, he was only allowed three happy years with Constance, his true love.

Cambridge Marked Man map

In contrast to Annie—who cannot swim or row and only leaves the house to pay social visits—Richard, Susan and Noel are continually moving from Double Bay, on one side of the harbour, to Middle Head on the other.  Their mobility, proficiency in navigating the waters of Sydney Harbour and rowing skills analogise their intellectual and spiritual progressiveness. Indeed, the core complaint of the three ‘black sheep’ is “the inadequacies of that inelastic integument to the growing soul” that longs to be free of customs, practices and beliefs that hold no relevance to its personal life (169).  Susan, of the three, is particularly obstinate and rebellious;

She was full of schemes for a working life; she wanted no bridal tour, she said, and her heart was set on living at the camp, where and her husband [Noel] would be unmolested by the world of fashion, which would surround and absorb them if they established themselves in a brick house (312).

Despite Susan’s tenacity, she materialises and achieves what her father only dreamed of—autonomy in early life, the right to marry for ‘true’ love, and a life unbridled by time-honoured customs. In doing so, however, she becomes the antithesis to her mother, Annie. To the point where their mother-daughter relationship is full of bitterness and misunderstandings, and Annie dies before they reconcile. Though not perfect, Susan represents the ‘next generation’ in her family and the ‘next’ Australian generation. As Elizabeth McMahon (2010) suggests, colonial Australia offered itself as a place where “range of possibilities” was possible, and as a “measured counterweight of the northern hemisphere”—just as Susan is the counterbalance to both her parents (McMahon, 2010: 181).

Then, as now, Cambridge’s most popular novel, A Marked Man reveals important truths about ideals, faith, tradition and rebellion. And, set as it is, across both worlds, it will not fail to capture your imagination. And as Richard would advise Susan, I encourage you to discover these truths for yourself.

 

Cambridge, Ada. 1987. A Marked Man: Some Episodes in His Life.  London, UK: Pandora Press. [first pub. 1890]

References:

Magarey, Susan. 2001. Passions of the First Wave Feminists. Sydney: UNSW Press.

McMahon, Elizabeth. 2010. “Australia, the Island Continent: How Contradictory Geography Shapes the National Imaginary”. In, Space and Culture 13, no.2: 178-187.

Lake, Marilyn. “Historical Reconsiderations IV:  The Politics of Respectability: The Masculinist Context”. In, Historical Studies 22, no. 86 (1986): pp.116-131.

McCalman, J. 1984.Struggletown: Public and Private Life in Richmond, 1900-1965. South Melbourne: Hyland House.

Georgiana McCrae

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

Women’s letters and journals form an important part of the history of Australian Literature. Georgiana’s Journal gives us insights into the early days of Melbourne and into the life of an educated and cultured woman a long way from home. And historian Janine Rizzetti of the blog The Resident Judge of Port Phillip is the ideal person to write about her. Thank you Janine for taking part in this week of reading and writing abut the earliest Australian women writers.

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The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

During this week, Bill of the Australian Legend blog is running Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week.  He defines Gen 1 as “those writers who came before the 1890s and the Sydney Bulletin ‘Bush Realism’ school, although many of them continued writing into the first part of the 20th century.”  To be honest, I was surprised when he asked me to write about Georgiana McCrae, whom I have generally considered as a source, rather than a writer. She did not write for publication, and had it not been for the efforts of her family (for good or bad), she may well have stayed in the shadows of family history.  Nonetheless, let’s consider Georgiana McCrae.

Georgiana McCrae

During this summer break, tens of thousands of Melburnians traveling to the beaches of the Mornington Peninsula will pass the beachside town of McCrae, with its holiday houses nestling among the gums on…

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Mr Hogarth’s Will, by Catherine Helen Spence #BookReview

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

Catherine Helen Spence is both the mother of the Australian novel and the mother of Australian Suffragism. I’m really glad that Lisa Hill chose Spence’s Mr Hogarth’s Will to review for this week, especially as I have been dilatory in reading and reviewing Spence myself. Thank you Lisa.

ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

Over at The Australian Legend, Bill is hosting a week (15-21 January) dedicated to the first generation of Australian women writers which he defines as those writers who came before the 1890s and the Sydney Bulletin ‘Bush Realism’ school, although many of them continued writing into the first part of the 20th century, though as he notes, most Australian writing before 1850 consists of letters and journals and novels only began to be published after that. What to read for this ‘week’ was an easy choice for me, because I’ve had Mr Hogarth’s Will (1865) on my TBR since Sue at Whispering Gums recommended it to me, and it has turned out to be utterly absorbing reading.

Catherine Helen Spence by Maude Gordon c 1900 (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910) migrated to Australia in 1839 aged 14, in the wake of her father’s financial difficulties, and…

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Lady Bridget in the Never Never Land, Rosa Praed

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

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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:

AWW Gen 1 page
Annabella Boswell’s Journal review
Dale Spender, Writing a New World review
Australia’s First Women Writers, Michelle Scott Tucker

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.

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.

Some Everyday Folk and Dawn, Miles Franklin

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Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909) is Miles Franklin’s second published novel. It’s set where it was written – at Penrith (called Noonoon in the novel) now an outer western suburb of Sydney, but then a separate country town where Franklin’s parents had moved after leaving their farm at Thornford and where Miles lived with them for part of 1904, three years and two unpublished novels after her runaway success with My Brilliant Career. In her Introduction, Jill Roe says that Franklin …

… has two main things to say, and says them in typically forthright style. The first is that marriage is a material question and should be treated as such. The second is that women are citizens in their own right, and should take their responsibilities seriously. Both points relate to the position of women and debate about it in Australia in the early twentieth century, and reflect Franklin’s increased feminist awareness and commitment.

Roe also points out that we should do well to take notice of Franklin, rather than second wave feminists – she instances Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police, but I would add Kay Schaffer – who see women in early Australian society as oppressed or irrelevant.

By contrast, Franklin presents a progressive, self-respecting and even prosperous female culture which is well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of newly attained political status, participant in, rather than victim of, social forces.

Finally, Roe says, while we should not read fiction as documentary, Franklin writes an ‘astonishingly accurate’ account of electioneering in Penrith during the NSW 1904 state election, the first in which (white) women were permitted to vote, though maybe in stressing local issues, she underplays the Conservative’s great fear of the rise of Labor and Socialism.

So, the story. Dawn is an attractive young woman, living with her Grandmother Clay who has a large, old house on the banks of the Noonoon (Nepean) River, and who takes in paying guests, mostly over summer. The other members of the household are Carry – another young woman who shares housekeeping duties with Dawn, Mrs Clay’s brother ‘uncle’ Jake, who doesn’t do much, and Dawn’s grubby younger cousin, Andrew. The narrator, an older woman – thirtyish it later turns out, but grey haired – lately retired from the stage, has had to wait till autumn to become a boarder, so there are no summer staff – cooks and waiters and so on – and only one other guest, Miss Flip, “an orphan reared by a rich uncle”. Then there’s Mrs Bray, neighbour and gossip and Ernest Breslaw, a handsome young man, previously acquainted with the narrator, who appears serendipitously to rescue her from a rowing accident.

The unnamed narrator is an observer and occasional meddler in the action. She has a heart condition and is recuperating from a nervous breakdown after heartbreak. Miles was only 25 when she wrote this, but this foreshadows breakdowns she was to suffer herself – notably after the death of her sister only a few years later, and on her return from Serbia near the end of the Great War – and also the breakdown she ascribes to her heroine Bernice Gaylord in Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang (review) written two decades later.

As in nearly all Franklin’s fiction there is a matriarch who is central to the action and usually from the NSW high country. In this case it is Grandma Clay, whose late husband had been the driver/operator of the mail coach servicing ‘Gool Gool’ (Tumut), the nearest town to Sybylla’s grandmother’s property in My Brilliant Career.

The various story lines are: the narrator’s attempts to match Dawn up with Breslaw, with more discussion on making a sensible match, rather than no match as in say My Career Goes Bung; Miss Flip’s “uncle” proves to be no uncle; and on choosing/voting for a good candidate rather than a particular party.

Franklin always struggled with plots but her descriptions are wonderful. And evocative – when I was little my grandparents’ farm didn’t have electricity, a lot of the outbuildings were thatched, horses were still used, cows were handmilked and grandma made her own cream and butter. Franklin writes of the daily ritual of pulling apart and washing the cream separator, which grandma would do in the outside laundry. It’s all so familiar (and I’m so old!). Here she describes the trains pulling through Penrith and heading up the mountain to Katoomba:

The little town retained a certain degree of importance as one of the busiest railway centres in the state, and its engine-sheds were the home of many locomotives. Here they were coaled, cleaned and oiled ere taking their stiff two-engine haul over the mountains to the wide, straight, pastoral and wheat-growing West; and their calling and rumbling made cheery music all the year round, excepting a short space on Sundays; while at night, as they climbed the crests of the mountain-spurs, every time they fired, the red light belching from their engine doors could be seen for miles down the valley.

Romances go as romances go; Grandma Clay is concerned about the perils of girls  marrying ‘up’; Dawn is inclined to marry any local yokel rather than be stuck at home; and the anti-marriage sentiment is mostly in the context of the election – men expecting that the women of the household will vote as directed (by them).

In fact, most of the book centres on the election, and when it was eventually published 4 or 5 years later, Franklin requested that publicity be directed at the women’s suffrage campaign in England where women were not to receive the vote fully until 1928.

There’s unfortunately quite a bit of gratuitous racism of the “even a gin wouldn’t behave so badly” variety, or the woman campaigner whose children were left to run about “so untended as to be indistinguishable from aboriginals”, and even if these are typical men’s views, Miles makes no attempt to counter them.

The incumbent makes his pitch to men in the bar where he can buy their votes with free grog, while the women mostly support the opposition candidate who is for temperance – a strong stream in the women’s movement when drunken husbands were a major problem. “The men on the Ministerial side were nearly gangrene with disgust, because, as one put it, “nearly all [the opposition candidate’s] men were women”.

Dawn becomes overwrought when one man, a neighbour, goes down the pub and leaves his wife to give birth alone, until Grandma comes to the rescue, and takes it all out on Ernest, who must be mollified by the narrator:

“Can you not grasp that she was irritated beyond endurance with the unwholesomeness of the whole system of life in relation to women, and that for the moment you appeared as one of the army of oppressors?”

After this, the “uncle”, whose perfidy has become known, is tarred and feathered (literally!) by Dawn and friends. Shades of #Harvey Weinstein, they tell him,

“Yes, good women have to continually suffer the degradation of your type in all life’s most sacred relations. They have to endure you at their board and in their homes, and leering at their sweet young daughters …”

Then the election. Miles is more concerned with women voting, and parliament therefore having to consider their interests than in who actually gets in. Then as now, there was no real difference in their policies, nor in the self interest of members on both sides. Interestingly, on the night following, the newspaper office has a scoreboard in the window, just as we do today on television, with the names of winners going up as they are declared elected.

The story glides slowly to its natural end. Miles Franklin is not a natural story-teller and this is a typically awkward account of love making (in the old fashioned sense!) though for once she has marriage on her mind, she was only 25 after all.What little narrative tension there is is in Dawn’s choice of suitor. But Franklin believes very strongly that the groom should be as pure as the bride and this limits her choices somewhat.

Overall, Franklin’s detailed account of electioneering and town meetings, of ‘everyday folk’ serving the railways and farming on the banks of Nepean, paints a brilliant picture of a few, important months in the life of one of Australia’s oldest white settlements.

 

Miles Franklin, Some Everyday Folk and Dawn, first pub. 1909. This edition Virago, London, 1986 with introduction by Jill Roe. Cover painting, detail from “Cove on the Hawkesbury”, Charles Condor.


For links to all my other Miles Franklin posts I’ve replaced my Miles Franklin Central post with a page – ‘Miles Franklin’ in the menu overhead – or click here