The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Scarlet Letter (1850) has long been a favourite of mine, one I had been thinking of reviewing, along with Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth as early, and rare, examples of stories about single mothers. So I was happy to find it in my (new) local library as an audio book. We all know the story. Hester Prynne, a young married woman in Boston in the earliest days of the settlement of New England by English Puritans, commits adultery and is sentenced to wear a scarlet letter ‘A’ for adulteress on the front of her dress for the rest of her life.

The Scarlett Letter is actually historical fiction, that is it was written 200 years after the events being portrayed took place. In a very long and largely irrelevant prologue, Hawthorne describes his own position in the Customs House in Salem, Mass., which was apparently his home town, though he had spent a long time away. In all the material for Americans who must have to study this book at school, there is a suggestion that Hawthorne’s ancestors were involved in the Salem witch trials in the 1690s. The premise of the prologue is that Hawthorne discovers some old papers in the attic of the Customs House which tell Hester Prynne’s story.

Hawthorne begins his ”introductory” with “It is a little remarkable, that – though disinclined to talk overmuch of myself and my affairs at the fireside, and to my personal friends – an autobiographical impulse should twice in my life have taken possession of me, in addressing the public” and then goes on to talk about himself for 40 pages. He should have been a blogger! But don’t get me wrong, I love old fashioned first chapters. My favourite is from Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) which begins (after a long preface): “The Browns have become illustrious by the pen of Thackeray and the pencil of Doyle, within the memory of the young gentlemen who are not matriculating at the universities… For centuries in their quiet, dogged, homespun way, they have been subduing the earth in most English countries, and leaving their mark in American forests and Australian uplands.” And so it goes on. It is indicative of the sort of books that I read and gave my children that I advised them that it was always ok to skip the first chapter when starting a difficult novel.

The Puritans, in Boston at least, were members of the Church of England who believed that the English Church, which had separated from the Catholic Church in the 1530s, remained too Catholic in its ceremonies. Up until the beginning of the English Civil War in 1642, 21,000 English Puritans emigrated to colonies on the east coast of North America. Brought up ‘low’ C of E as I was, I am sympathetic to the Puritans who were attempting to establish a rules-based society in reaction to the excesses of the Crown – Elizabeth, James I and Charles I. The problem of course is that any set of rules attracts people who enjoy enforcing them.

Boston, founded in 1630, would by 1642 still have been a quite rudimentary settlement, hemmed in between the dark forest and Massachusetts Bay. Salem, which plays no part in this story after the prologue, is 20 odd miles northwards along the coast, and was settled a few years earlier. A later passage illustrates the impression I have of Hester’s gloomy surroundings:

The road … straggled onwards into the mystery of the primeval forest. This hemmed it in so narrowly, and stood so black and dense on either side, and disclosed such imperfect images of the sky above, that, to Hester’s mind, it imaged not amiss the wilderness in which she had so long been wandering.

The novel proper begins with Hester Prynne being released from jail, holding Pearl, her 3 month old baby daughter. She is led to the town square, refuses once again to divulge who is the father, and is displayed – “pilloried” – for three hours on a platform which has been built for that purpose, although she is not held in the stocks.

Hawthorne seems fascinated by witches and they constitute a minor theme throughout the book. A crowd has gathered to witness Hester’s humiliation, as for an execution:

But in that early severity of the Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be drawn. It might be that a sluggish bond-servant, or an undutiful child … was to be corrected at the whipping post. It might be that an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist, was to be scourged out of the town, or an idle and vagrant Indian… It might be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins, the bitter tempered widow of the magistrate, was to die upon the gallows.

Misstress Hibbins subsequently invites Hester, on more than one occasion, to join her and her fellows in the forest.

The “SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated on her bosom” can only have been intended as a defiance of the sentence imposed on her by the colony elders, and also the always bright clothes worn by Pearl, as she grows up, in contrast to the sober clothing of the Puritans. Yet, over the decade or so encompassed by this novel, Hester earns grudging acceptance from her fellows for her quiet, helpful and industrious ways.

The scarlet letter must also have been a very rare punishment, as towards the end, Hester is still been being pointed out by out-of-towners at a local fair.

The novel is an interesting precursor for the (Australian) Independent Woman paradigm. Hester is already married, but the whereabouts of her husband are a mystery. In fact, it is her getting pregnant in his absence that leads to her conviction for adultery. She lives a quiet and virtuous life, in a cottage on the edge of the settlement, supporting herself by her skill at needlework. We discover early on who the husband is, but he holds himself apart, and the lover, Pearl’s father, is not disclosed until near the end. Disappointingly, Hawthorne says very little about Hester’s problems in bringing up a child unaided, other than to say that Pearl is wilful and undisciplined.

The other thing I would say is that I found the writing very formal. More “old fashioned” than Austen and Walter Scott who were a generation older, or Hawthorne’s near contemporaries Dickens and Mark Twain, as I remember them. I am listening to Anna Karenina at the moment and find the flow of C19th writing infinitely soothing, though I suspect that the Tolstoy is a modern translation.

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, first published 1850. My edition (not the cover pictured) ‘Best Seller Classics’ from Award Books, USA, undated but maybe 50 years old. “This book is a reprint of the first edition … published in Boston by Ticknor, Reed & Fields in 1850”. Audio version: Dreamscape Media, 2014, read by Robert Bethune.

Fanny Balbuk Yooreel

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Fanny Balbuk Yooreel

My sister-in-law M keeps a copy of ‘The List‘ (of Independent Women) on a notice board in her apartment and from time to time gives me suggestions for inclusions. She recently attended a National Trust WA event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum which officially included Aboriginals in the Australian population, and came away with the booklet Fanny Balbuk Yooreel: Realising a Perth Resistance Fighter.

Fanny Balbuk Yooreel was born around 1840, 11 years after the founding of the Swan River colony, on Matagarup (Heirisson Is.), just outside the eastern boundary of the land reserved for the Perth settlement, which at that time may have had a population of 1,500 with a similar number downstream at Fremantle. She was a Whadjuk yorga (a woman of the Whadjuk people, the Noongars based on the Swan R. plains), the granddaughter of Mooroo leader Yellagonga and niece of Yagan, the best known of the Noongar resistance fighters.

Her story crosses over with that of my favourite Independent Woman, Daisy Bates, who documented some of their meetings, and when she died on 20 March, 1907, she was living at the Maamba Aboriginal reserve on the Canning R. (15 km or so south of Perth (map)) where Daisy Bates had been camped since July 1905 as a continuation of her employment with the WA Registrar-General curating Indigenous languages.

Elizabeth Salter in her biography Daisy Bates (1971) writes of Bates’ application to move her base to Maamba:

At the Maamba Aboriginal reserve in Cannington at the foot of the Darling Ranges were many old Aborigines who were the last of their different groups. If the Government would give her permission she would pitch her tent among them and take down information from them at first hand. This way she could be sure of her facts, and record dialects that would die out with the natives on the reserve. She would report regularly to the office and continue to work for her eight shillings a day.

Bates herself writes in The Last of the Bibbulmun Race, Chapter VII of The Passing of the Aborigines (1938):

When I came upon the remnants of the Bibbulmun [Noongar], they had been in contact with civilization for some seventy years, and in that short time it had reduced the native inhabitants of the city of Perth and its environs to one old man, Joobaitch, and an older looking niece, Balbuk.

My first camp was established on the Maamba Reserve … in the early years of this century a beautiful kingdom of bush still rich in native food and fruits. The Bibbulmun race was represented by some thirty or forty stragglers, and these would gladly have gone back to their own various grounds; but their health and sight had failed…

A circular tent, 14 ft, in diameter, sagging about me in the wet and ballooning in the wind, was my home for two years in that little patch of bushland bright with wild flowers … I would be on duty from night till morning, collecting scraps of language, old legends, old customs, trying to conjure a notion of the past …

Bates implies that it was Balbuk’s grandfather who gave up the Noongar lands to the British – “Joobaitch… was the son of that Yalgunga who ceded his springs on the banks of the Swan to Lieutenant Irwin.”* She describes “Fanny Balbuk as she was called” as a “general nuisance of many years standing” and devotes a page to her misdeeds, which is the source of some of the material in the National Trust booklet.

One of her favourite annoyances was to stand at the gates of Government House, reviling all who dwelt within, because the stone gates guarded by a sentry enclosed her grandmother’s burial ground…

She raged and stormed at the usurping of her beloved home ground… Through fences and over them, Balbuk took the straight track to the end. When a house was built in the way, she broke its fence palings with her digging stick and charged up the steps and through the rooms [Bates, quoted in booklet].

The booklet consists mostly of photographs and short statements by women Whadjuk Ballardong Elders. I’m not sure they make the case for her being a ‘resistance fighter’ but she was certainly a notable and colourful protester.

There is also a long letter from Fanny Balbuk, “with Daisy Bates as her scribe”, to her son Joe. “All our people are dead. Jimmy Shaw and Billy Shaw your two uncles are the last that have died. Old George Joobytch [presumably the “Joobaitch” above] is alive and well, and lives close to me at the Government reserve. Jimmy Shaw’s daughter married Henry Gijjup, your cousin and they have three children …” and so it goes on.

The release of the booklet coincides also with the 110th anniversary of Fanny Balbuk Yooreel’s death. Associated events included a walk, a public talk, a seminar and a display of quilts, all of which I’ve missed. There is also a half hour documentary on You Tube.

Trove has a long and detailed account Fanny Balbuk Yooreel’s life, written by Daisy Bates for the Western Mail of 1 June, 1907.

 

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Noongar, group portrait, before 1907. State Library WA

Fanny Balbuk Yooreel: Realising a Perth Resistance Fighter, National Trust WA, 2017. Research and interviews by Casey Kickett

Daisy Bates, The Passing of the Aborigines, first pub. 1938. My edition, Benediction Classics, Oxford, 2009

Elizabeth Salter, Daisy Bates, A&R, 1971, republished Corgi, 1973


*Bates is presumably referring to Capt. Frederick Irwin, the officer in charge of a detachment of 60 or so soldiers from the 63rd Regiment, who arrived on the Sulphur on 8 June 1829, though Charles Fremantle, captain of HMS Challenger, who had arrived a month earlier and claimed the whole of Australia west of NSW for the Crown, took a ship’s boat up the Swan on 2 May: “Continuing up the Swan River as far as the Canning River, Fremantle had his first encounter with a group of curious, but friendly, Aborigines”. (Settlement-of-the-Swan-.pdf).

The Three Miss Kings, Ada Cambridge

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Ada Cambridge (1844-1926) was English-born and came out to Australia as the young wife of a Church of England vicar, George Cross, who went on to serve in a number of parishes around Victoria. She took up writing she says to supplement the family income, and her serials in the newspapers under the initials ‘AC’ soon proved popular. “Overall she wrote more than twenty-five works of fiction, three volumes of poetry and two autobiographical works” (Wiki). In the “hastily suppressed” volume of poetry, Unspoken Thoughts (1887) she apparently expresses “religious anxieties, thoughts on the limitations of sexual love and concern for the under-privileged” (ADB).

As you can see by the cover above, The Three Miss Kings (1883) has been republished by Virago, but the version I read was on my kindle, courtesy of the AWW Challenge, Books by Australian Women page (here) and Project Guthenberg (here) – where I see her autobiography, Thirty Years in Australia is also among the titles available.

The three Miss Kings (shouldn’t that be the three Misses King?) of the title, Elizabeth, Patty and Eleanor, are sisters, young women in their twenties, orphaned following the early death of their mother and the recent death of their father. They live outside a town on the Victorian west coast, a town unnamed but which has both a steamer service and access to a rail service to Melbourne. The Rev Cross’ list of appointments does not include such a town and I’m guessing it is a composite of Port Fairy, Warrnambool and Port Campbell. At one point the action includes a visit to a ‘limestone’ cave. Port Fairy and Warrnambool in particular are in volcano/basalt country but geology daughter assures me that even there it might be possible to find sandstone caves, though not limestone, which takes longer to form.

Although the girls were brought up in relatively impoverished circumstances, their parents, and especially their mother, had been well educated and the girls were home schooled with special attention to their music.

The parents of the three girls had been a mysterious couple, about whose circumstances and antecedents people knew just as much as they liked to conjecture, and no more…. But the greatest mystery in connection with Mr King was Mrs King. He was obviously a gentleman, in the conventional sense of the word, but she was, in every sense, the most beautiful and accomplished lady that ever was seen …

On the death of their father the Misses King decide to sell up, realising a few hundred pounds, and move to Melbourne. This coincides with the opening of the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton in 1880, which forms the background for much of the remainder of the novel.

Assisted by their local solicitor’s son, Paul, they take rooms in a quiet street in East Melbourne from whence they can walk through the Fitzroy and Treasury Gardens into the city. They are slowly introduced into society, aided by their poise, their beauty (though Cambridge is at pains to tell us that Elizabeth is classicly-built) and by Patty’s excellent piano playing.

Each finds a man, and is eventually married; it is the setbacks and hurdles to be negotiated which of course are what makes a love story. Elizabeth and Patty are serious young women and concerned to find a man whom they respect sufficiently to accept being dominated by. This is something they discuss, and Patty specifically rejects any claims to independence. Eleanor is a bit empty-headed and is pursued by a young man who is likewise, but sufficiently well-off for her to finally accept him.

The mystery of their parents’ origins and their exile in Australia is explained satisfactorily, though it initially complicates Elizabeth’s plans for marriage. But the biggest hurdle for Elizabeth to overcome is that her lover (in the old sense!) is a pantheist, while she is devoutly orthodox C of E. Cambridge’s discussions, and Elizabeth’s eventual acceptance, of this, allow Cambridge to air concerns she must have had herself. Amusingly, in light of Gaskell’s beliefs in the previous review, Elizabeth on first being told cries, “Oh no, you’re not a Dissenter!”

Elizabeth ends up “rich beyond the dreams of avarice in all that to such a woman is precious and desirable”, her husband-to-be an Englishman using his wealth to provide opportunities for the very poor. Interestingly Cambridge thinks that the wealth should both be enjoyed – there is a magnificent family seat in the country whose parks are eventually, but not immediately, turned into fields – and disbursed wisely. For instance, she discusses the problem of building homes for the very poor where, if the homes were attractive enough, the intended beneficiaries would be forced out by workers a class above them.

Cambridge is not the writer that her fellow chronicler of  C19th Melbourne, Tasma, is. That is, she is not as ‘literary’. But her writing is straightforward, the story itself is enjoyable – I of course love her descriptions of Melbourne, and of the Melbourne International Exhibition – and as with Gaskell, she is concerned to describe the process of finding a husband in both moral and religious terms. And that is something I find surprisingly acceptable, in the nineteenth century at least.

 

Ada Cambridge, The Three Miss Kings, first published 1883

see also:

Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis (review here)
My post, Early Australian Women Writers (1) (here)

Cousin Phillis, Elizabeth Gaskell

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Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) was the author of 15 novels, novellas, and story collections, the best known of which were probably North and South (1855) – which I think of rightly or wrongly as Jane Austen with steam engines (Gaskell did cite JA as an influence) – and The Life of Charlotte Bronte (1857). Her novel Ruth (1853), the story of an unmarried mother bringing up a son, I have mentioned a number of times, and I and/or Lisa (ANZLL) who is reading it now, will “shortly” produce a review.

Gaskell was brought up Unitarian, by her aunt in Cheshire following the death of her mother, and married a Unitarian minister. Dissenting religion and the plight of the poor, as well as strong women characters, are all important themes in her work.

I came across the novella Cousin Phillis (1864) recently, in a Madrid book stall (I can’t imagine I’ll ever be able to say that again) and coincidentally, read it in conjunction with Ada Cambridge’s The Three Miss Kings (1883) which I have with me on kindle. The two have similar themes – innocent and religious young women falling in love – and I plan to compare them in adjacent reviews.

For Cousin Phillis, Gaskell assumes the voice of a young man, Paul Manning, not very successfully IMO, and the story consists entirely of his observations of his (second) cousin Phillis falling in love, and of his own unfortunate interferences.

Manning is from Birmingham where his father is a tradesman and an inventor. His father’s industry and success enable him to raise Paul up one level in class, as apprentice to the relatively young Holdsworth, the experienced engineer/manager of a crew putting in a new railway line in the south of England. In one of his weekly letters home Paul mentions that he is working near a town that his mother recognises as the home of her cousin who is married to a farmer who at the weekends is an Independent clergyman. Paul, who has been diligent in his attendance at Chapel is not keen on having to waste his limited free time on another clergyman, but does as his mother bids and goes out to meet his new relations, the Holmans.

The beautiful and demure Phillis, a couple of years younger than Paul, is their only child. Paul finds that he is both welcome, and enjoys being on the farm, and slowly he and Phillis become friends. Holdsworth is introduced to the farm when he becomes ill and needs somewhere to recuperate.

Long rows of peas stretched at right angles from the main walk, and I saw Phillis stooping down among them, before she saw us. As soon as she heard our cranching steps on the gravel, she stood up, and shading her eyes from the sun, recognized us. She was quite still for a moment, and then came slowly towards us, flushing a little from evident shyness. I had never seen Phillis shy before.

Spoiler alert. Phillis, an innocent, reacts to Holdsworth’s attentions by falling in love, but before anything can happen, or even be said between them, he is offered, accepts, and leaves immediately to take up employment in Canada, telling Paul that he will be back in two years to offer for Phillis. Phillis falls into a decline, Paul revives her by telling her what Holdsworth has said, but before the two years are up a letter arrives from Holdsworth telling of his marriage to a Canadian girl, Phillis collapses and Paul must admit to her father the part he has played.

Phillis collapses with brain fever and is unconscious or in a delirium for weeks – is that even a thing now, or were brain fevers, and for that matter hysteria, purely C19th illnesses.

Religion is present throughout this story without being intrusive, so that Phillis is just as moral as any other middle class young woman of her time. Though, while it looks like Phillis will die, Holman’s fellow dissenting preachers, ride out to argue with him to resume his ministry: “First, God has given you the opportunity of showing forth an example of resignation”; and “Secondly, we would have you listen to the voice of the rod, and ask yourself for what sins this trial has been laid upon you”. Holman, no doubt reflecting Gaskell’s own views about these strict interpretations of the situation, refuses both to give up his bedside vigil, and to accept that his daughter’s illness might be punishment for his pursuing his parallel vocation as a farmer.

In Ada Cambridge’s The Three Miss Kings, as we will see, Cambridge, who was married to a Church of England minister, has similar concerns about the strict application of Church dogma, while insisting as does Gaskell, that young women should act both morally and circumspectly.

 

Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis, first pub. 1864, this ed. Penguin, 1995

Jane Austen: Independent Woman

Jane Austen (1775-1817) English novelist remembered for her six great novels Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey. Engraving.

In my dissertation (here) I wrote: “And it is in the choosing of husbands, rather than of careers, that the Independent Woman is initially manifested, most famously of course, in literature, in Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet.”

The last time I ‘studied’ Jane Austen (1775-1817) was in high school, and although I have read all her books and seen all the movies, most recently the Lady Susan story misleadingly titled Love & Friendship, I would not pretend to be able to add to the considerable scholarship which surrounds her. However, the recent post on Northanger Abbey (here) by devoted Austenite Sue at Whispering Gums, and the comments ensuing, has prompted me to discuss those ways in which Austen is (and isn’t) a precursor for the Independent Woman paradigm.

Firstly, Jane was herself independent. After a failed engagement, and likewise for her older sister Cassandra, she and Cassandra were apparently happy to remove themselves from the marriage market and to live in a household consisting of just themselves, their mother and while he was alive, their father. Unlike Miles Franklin, however, or many other early Australian women writers, this is not a solution which Austen advocates for others.

Austen heroines start out ‘independent’ but strangely seem to get less and less so as their author gets older. Austen began writing ‘seriously’ in her early teens, circulating stories within a small circle of family and friends. Her first complete work, Lady Susan is an epistolary novella written around 1794. The eponymous Lady Susan is “the most accomplished coquette in England”, shuffling lovers and potential husbands to maximise the benefits to herself. Lady Susan remained unpublished for eighty years, till 1871. One can imagine it was written to amuse and scandalize her family, and to hone her skills, rather than for public consumption.

Pride and Prejudice, which as First Impressions was the first of her novels to be offered to a publisher, in 1796, abounds with ‘independent women’. This and Elinor and Marianne (Sense and Sensibility), written about the same time, reflect directly on the author’s life – particularly Jane’s relationship with the presumably more serious Cassandra, and the financial insecurity of the women in the event of the death of Mr Austen.

Elizabeth, in P&P, steers herself by the moral compass, and calmness, of her older sister, Jane. Marianne, in S&S, may be a little rasher but she too is ‘brought to harbour’, so to speak, by Elinor’s steadiness. Then, in P&P we have Lady Catherine de Bourgh, not likeable! but certainly independent, and Lydia, though she is not so much independent as wilful, but all provide examples of how and how not to act. Interestingly, the men – except for Uncle Gardiner – are all weak. Mr Bennet provides no direction for his wife and daughters, Mr Collins is ridiculous, Bingley is easily led, Darcy is too proud, Wickham is a cad.

In S&S, in Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, Austen introduces men who are both upright and willing to provide direction to the weaker sex; and I think these men, the earnest young clergyman and the upright, withdrawn, slightly older man of property, appear, one or the other or both, in all her subsequent novels.

From this point on, in Austen’s writing, it is difficult to make a case for the ‘independent woman’. The next-written novel, Susan, not published till many years later as Northanger Abbey, is famously a spoof on ‘Gothic’ melodrama. In it, for the first time, the heroine, Catherine, is shown as needing and accepting direction from a man, Henry Tilney, a young clergyman, though mainly it must be said, on the hazards of depending too much on the tropes of gothic fiction.

Austen’s subsequent novels were Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. In Mansfield Park the one ‘independent’ woman, Mrs Norris is shown throughout in a bad light, acting only  in the interests, as she sees it, of Sir Thomas Bertram. Fanny, the heroine, young and insecure, is entirely dependent on the advice and support of her cousin Edmund Bertram (a clergyman in training).

Emma is certainly independent, but gets set down a number of times by Mr Knightley, for her thoughtlessness, and Austen’s sympathies seem to be with Mr Knightley rather than Emma. When Emma insults Miss Bates (implies she talks too much) at the picnic on Box Hill, Mr Knightley waits till they are on their own then tells Emma:

Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do; a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation? Emma, I had not thought it possible.

Catherine, Fanny and Emma all accept direction about their behaviour from men whom they subsequently choose to marry. Independence within marriage, let alone without it, would seem to be a way off.

Persuasion is not so good for my case, as Anne, the heroine, is older (than her fellows in the earlier novels) and less inclined to immature behaviour, harking back maybe to Elizabeth Bennet, though she (Anne) is not so, what is a good word?, forward maybe.

This is a brief summary of my case, and if nothing else, points up the need for closer reading, which I should one day undertake.

 

see also:
Claire Harman, Jane’s Fame, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2009 (my review)
Whispering Gums’ JA posts here


On Tuesday when my next post is due, I will be in the air, and for the next month, until Anzac day, will be travelling. I will stick to two posts a week, Tuesday and Friday, if I can but no promises. Check out my facebook account from time to time (see the ‘f’ in the sidebar) for photos.

A Sydney Sovereign, Tasma

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‘Lady in Grey’, John Longstaff, 1890

If I were to attempt a PhD my subject would be Daisy Bates in Western Australia. She was here for a number of years at the beginning of the last century and there is lots of material to cover. But, I have to keep working so that’s just a pipe dream. I will however, as soon as I can fit it in, review her collection, The Passing of the Aborigines.

If I just wanted a project, I’d get together Miles Franklin’s bits and pieces, the best of her short stories, journalism and plays, and publish them as a book. The closest we have at the moment is the collection of essays arising from her lectures in WA in 1950, Laughter, Not for a Cage.

This slim volume is a collection of short works by Tasma, a novelist from the generation preceding Franklin, edited and introduced by Michael Ackland. A Sydney Sovereign was originally a novella, published with some short stories under the title A Sydney Sovereign and Other Tales in 1890 to take advantage of the author’s success with her debut novel Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill a year or so earlier. In this edition, Ackland has in fact included just a few pages of the title story, to give an idea of the flavour of the original, while retaining the other short stories, written in the 1870s, plus a couple of new stories from 1890-91. All were published at the time in magazines such as the Australasian and The Australian Ladies Annual. Ackland has not taken the opportunity to include any of her other work, which is a pity as I would very much like to have read examples of her literary criticism.

Jessie Catherine Huybers (1848-1897) was born in England to parents of Dutch and French ancestry who migrated to Hobart in the early 1850s. Her father prospered and Jessie had the run of a fine, and presumably multi-lingual, library. Neither Ackland nor ADB mention her education. She married Charles Fraser in 1867 and they moved to Malmsbury, Vic, taking up a property with the auspicious name, Pemberley. Fraser however was a gambler and womaniser, and eventually a bankrupt, and in 1883 she divorced him. Jessie, who by this time was writing short stories under the pen name Tasma, had for some time been living overseas and had already met her next husband, Belgian journalist and politician, Auguste Couvreur. Her ADB entry says that some of her novels following Uncle Piper were “so obviously autobiographical that Charles Fraser must have been recognized in them from one end of Victoria to the other.”

Tasma is a lovely writer, Jane Austen-ish (dare I say it) in her elegant writing and sly wit. You know I don’t read more short stories than I can help, but she is completely at ease with the form, unlike Vance Palmer (here), say, whose struggles with both getting underway and bringing the thing to a neat conclusion are ill-concealed. I enjoyed every one of these stories, not just because their endings were difficult to anticipate and often amusing, but for their descriptions of lovely Hobart Town, Melbourne’s dirty smelly lanes, crowded Parisian streets, and wide open Australian bush.

In What an Artist Discovered in Tasmania, a young man wishing to discover the ‘perfect’ model of an evil face, leaves his sister behind in London to travel to the end of the world. ‘”Where’s that?” cried Polly’:

Kind Tasmanians – whose blossom-garlanded isle is the original Eden of the Anthropophagi; whose aromatous breezes greet the pallid stranger, and efface from his recollection the haunting odours of Yarra bank noisomeness – do not stigmatise Polly as an imbecile for her ignorance.

In another, The Rubria Ghost, the 80 yo owner of Rubria Station brings home a much younger bride:

I think the most terrible thing connected with [the groom] was the pale reflection of passion that flickered in his dulled eyes every time they rested on his wife…. And, notwithstanding, she appeared to cherish him!

The ‘ghost’ which appears to the bride in the moonlight in the path through the Murray pines (sheoaks?) is her former lover, begging her to run away with him. But this is a tale with an anti-moral. She hesitates. The old man dies. She inherits.

So for anyone who is outraged upon hearing that Emily married the ghost, and that she and he are now in the springtime of their delight, I will offer this pale reflection of a moral: Who can forsee the end? Let us hope he will beat her.

Twenty years ago I was working in a largish fleet and a new driver was employed who quickly earned the sobriquet ‘Life of Brian’. Mr and Mrs Brian had allowed a temporarily homeless mate to stay; Brian of course was often away driving; inevitably, the mate ran away with the wife; and Brian, understandably, couldn’t stop telling us about it. In How a claim was Nearly Jumped in Gum-Tree Gully, a Lawson-esque tale of two mates clearing scrub in rough country – think Castlemaine, Vic – mate two realises before it is too late, that he is falling for mate one’s new wife. It’s a lovingly described story, both of the mates’ relationship and of the bush they are working in, the huge gums along the creek bed of Gum-Tree Gully.

Tasma’s theme is always, it seems, aspects of love, and surprisingly, with little consciousness of class or class differences. If I may be allowed to describe just one more story, the only one with a totally ‘European’ setting, in His Modern Godiva an artist is searching for a model with just the right amount of experience for an illustration of Hester, the heroine of A Scarlet Letter:

True, he could find in the Quartier Latin many grisettes of the type of the heroines in Murger’s Vie de Boheme  … [but] their experiences were too frequent and free to leave upon their faces such a stamp as he could imagine the Puritan maid-mother might have worn.

The artist eventually finds his model and over a series of sittings forms the desire to portray her as Lady Godiva.

It still remained, however, to make Freda hear reason, which is also a phrase that may be variously interpreted. How it came about neither was exactly aware; but before the dress – or undress – rehearsals for the pose were at an end, Edgar’s model had become his betrothed wife.

The picture is a success, but in being so, was also an advertisement for his wife’s charms, and Edgar becomes jealous. How it ends, I advise you to read and see.

 

Tasma, A Sydney Sovereign, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1993

Early Australian Women Writers (1)

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What fiction by early Australian women writers is still in print? None from the C19th probably, and very little up to the 1960s. Publishers continue to put out (a limited selection of) men’s writing from the C19th – Henry Kingsley, The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859), Rolf Boldrewood, Robbery Under Arms (1882) and Marcus Clarke, For the Term of his Natural Life (1874)-  but what of the women -Tasma, Ada Cambridge, Catherine Martin, Rosa Praed, Mary Gaunt, Catherine Helen Spence? They were often more popular than the men but dismissed by the literary establishment as ‘romance writers’.

The Australian Women Writers Challenge have put up an excellent site (here) where they are listing all books by women, available online, sorted by decade, up to the 1930s. I thought I might complement this by beginning a list of C19th books which have been republished in the last 50 or so years, since we began to get ‘modern’ paperbacks, and which you might therefore find in second-hand bookshops.

Dale Spender published some women at Pandora in 1987, Australian Women Writers: The Literary Heritage series; and at Penguin in 1988, Penguin Australian Women’s Library. Seal Australian Fiction publish books out of copyright, but Spence’s Clara Morrison, “published with the assistance of a grant from the Commonwealth Literary Fund” is the only one I’ve found for this list. Then there are Imprint Classics which has republished some  books from the first half of the C20th, Virago which republished Miles Franklin’s Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909), and of course, Text Classics (which however, appears to have no C19th women).

So, here is what I’ve found so far for the first wave of Australian women writers (prior to the Bulletin and ‘bush realism’):

Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910)

Clara Morrison (1854) Seal Books, 1971
Mr Hogarth’s Will (1865), Penguin, 1988
A Week in the Future (1889), Hale & Ironmonger, 1988 (Review)

Ada Cambridge (1844-1926)

The Three Miss Kings (1883), Virago, Modern Classics #244
A Marked Man, Some Episodes in his Life (1891), Pandora, 1987

Tasma (Jessie Couvreur) (1848-1894)

Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill (1889), Pandora, 1987
A Sydney Sovereign, short stories, Imprint, 1993

Catherine Martin (1848-1937)

An Australian Girl (1894), Pandora, 1987 (Review)
The Incredible Journey (1923), Pandora, 1987

Rosa Praed (1851-1935)

The Bond of Wedlock (1887), Pandora, 1987 (Review)
Outlaw and Lawmaker (1893), Pandora, 1987
Lady Bridget in the Never-Never Land (1915), Pandora, 1987

Mary Gaunt (1861-1942)

Kirkham’s Find (1897), Penguin, 1988 (Review)

Eleven books from the C19th plus two from the C20th, pathetic isn’t it? Let’s hope we can come up with some more before ‘paper’ publishing dies completely.

I haven’t done too badly, I have eight of these, plus I read one Ada Cambridge when most of these were republished and acquired by my local library in 1988-89. And I’ve been trying to force myself to read/review Praed’s Lady Bridget on my tablet for a year now – it’s an important book both for women’s writing and for its representation of interactions with Aboriginals. I guess Kindle is the way of the future, but how do you feel about the means of reading being owned by one commercial entity?


Show-off Tues (to borrow a heading)

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Enjoying a g&t on Rottnest Island after last weekend’s Rottnest Channel Swim. The stewards pulled me up at 17km mark – 3km to go – when they determined I wouldn’t finish inside the regulation 10 1/2 hours. Time to retire! More on facebook – it was a lovely day for a swim.