Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 28, 2009

Bush Studies, by Barbara Baynton


Bush StudiesBush Studies (1907) is a slim collection of short stories by Barbara Baynton (1857-1929).  It’s one of the Australian Classics Library books sent to me for review, and I had never heard of her.  When I Googled to find out something about her background, I discovered that this book – which in Australia has been published by Sydney University Press with support from CAL (the Copyright Agency Ltd)  – is available for sale through Dodo Press.  How interesting that on the other side of the world a bookseller thinks that a reprint of this little book is commercially viable, was my reaction.  But my next discovery was that the Australian publisher Angus and Robertson published a copy in 2007.  You can buy it from Amazon too, and there are copies on eBay.   It’s not the obscure title I had assumed it to be at all…it even gets a mention on the Australian Horror Writers Association website on its Australian Masters of Horror page.

But who’s reading it?  Nobody on Library Thing, and nobody on GoodReads, but academics are, it seems, from the earnest articles that the Google search threw up.  I haven’t read them, though I did read the brief scholarly introduction in the book, and I certainly enjoyed the rather surprising bio that I found online: Barbara Baynton was a shocking liar about her own life!  She changed the date & place of her birth and the names of her parents, claiming that her father was a wealthy landowner (and not a carpenter).  She romanticised these origins with a tale about how they had fallen in love en route to Australia from Ireland and her mother had begun their relationship while still married to somebody else (who conveniently died).

Barbara Baynton

Source: Wikipedia

The truth is that Barbara Lawrence (not Barbara Kilpatrick) was born in Scone, N.S.W., was briefly a governess, and married a selector who ran off with her cousin, [1]  leaving Barbara with three small children.  She went to Sydney, divorced Frater and married 70 year-old Dr Thomas Baynton the next day, claiming on the marriage certificate to be a widow.  (She looks a bit saucy in the picture, doesn’t she?) Things looked up after that, and Baynton became part of Sydney’s social circle, fraternising with the notables of the day.  She shared her husband’s interest in antiques, invested in the stock market and had an impressive collection of opals, not to mention a splendid house called ‘Fairmont’.  Hanging out with Sydney’s literary milieu, she started writing, and had her first story ‘The Tramp’ (later re-named The Chosen Vessel) published in 1896, in The BulletinBush Studies followed, but she couldn’t get it published in Australia and it was finally published in 1902 by Duckworth & Co.

When Doctor Baynton died in 1904, Barbara Baynton went to England, continued writing, and in 1921 married Lord Headley,  fifth Baronet of Little Watley in Essex and a Muslim convert who had done the Hajj in Mecca.  (I’m not making this up!)  They separated after only three years, and she then divided her time between London and Melbourne, spending most of her time in health resorts and nursing homes due to poor health.  She died in 1929. [2]

Bush Studies  draws on the brief period of her life with the selector Alexander Frater and her bush childhood.  The stories are grim, representing the harsh realities of a selector’s life but also debunking the myth of Australian mateship amongst the poor.  Women fare badly, exploited by men and unsupported by each other.  In A Dreamer the bush itself is malevolent, as a wild storm becomes a nightmare for a young un-named woman struggling to return home to her mother, three ‘bush miles’ from the railway station.  Left to her own devices late at night by the porter, she becomes disorientated, and loses her way in the dark.  Spiteful trees whip at her face as she tries to cross a raging river and is flung into the torrent by the wind.  This is powerful writing despite the sentimentalising of the mother as a source of hope and determination.

Squeaker’s Mate paints an extraordinary picture of male stupidity and exploitation buttressed by female martyrdom masquerading as stoicism.  The woman works like a navvy beside her indolent husband, only to be gravely injured when a tree branch falls on her.   For the best part of the afternoon he does nothing to help her, making himself tea and dinner, and not even noticing that the pipe he has given her has set fire to her clothing.  She says nothing about any of this, not a word of complaint.  She is finally rescued by the dealer to whom she usually sells her honey, but there is no succour from the local community.  Women, who had previously ‘pretended to challenge her right to wear womanly garments’ (p13) ‘left her severely alone’ (p17) and so she spends her days as a cripple alone in the hut.  From strength and independence she has become intensely vulnerable, and her sole remaining source of power is her moral right to the property.  (She doesn’t own it, but it was her money that her husband used to take it up in his name).  Deaf to her husband’s appeal to sell the selection (which seems like common sense to me, since she could hardly work it and he was clearly never going to) she doesn’t complain either when this wretched man brings his Other Woman to the property and shifts her out of the house and into a shack.  (The Other Woman is a bit of a sad specimen as well, ignorant and stupid, and not even pretty.)  Eventually the bed-ridden woman cracks and takes revenge, but the hero of this story is the dog who attacks Squeaker when he tries to retaliate.  Loyalty, in Baynton’s world, is for dogs, not people, and the violence of the climax – which doesn’t bring justice, only retribution – seems to be endorsed because it’s by a woman who has suffered enough.

The loyal dog features in Scrammy ‘And too, but much of the story is hard work to read.  Baynton uses a lot of dialect – only of course, it’s not really a dialect in the literal sense, it’s ungrammatical English, designed to show the gulf between the educated and the poor, and not sympathetically.  The old shepherd, alone and vulnerable on the property because the woman has gone to ‘the comparative civilisation of the township’ to have her baby, has a long and somewhat droll ‘conversation’ with the dog.  It took me ages to work out what was meant by his last words: ‘Cline our ‘earts ter keep this lawr’ (p40) and even now I’m not sure that I have it right, though the old man bringing his palms together is a clue: I think it’s a mangled quotation from 1 Kings 8:58

[That he may] incline our hearts to him, to walk in all his ways, and to keep his commandments, and his statutes, and his judgments, which he commanded our fathers.  

If I am right, meaning that the old man is paraphrasing it as an entreaty to  the Lord to protect his stash, it would seem that prayer isn’t much good to the old fellow, not at all…

Dialect is even more tiresome to decipher in the next story, Billy Skywonkie, and there were  couple of exchanges of dialogue which defeated me entirely.  (‘Oh Billy Skywonkie, e ‘mally alri’ ??) Here the again un-named woman is submitted to one humiliation after another en route from the railway station to the property where she has been engaged as a housekeeper, but the boss sends her packing because she is ‘half chow’ .   In the bizarre racial hierarchy of the bush, white males (who speak educated English) reign supreme, and there is a place for a male Chinese cook and a ‘half caste’ rouseabout, but a woman of mixed descent is open to scorn of the most offensive kind, including the assumption by other women that she is of easy virtue.  Billy Skywonkie, handy with his fists towards women when it suits him, declares  when she removes his unwelcome hand that he’s not interested in ‘yellow satin’ because ‘I ken get as many w’ite gins as I wanter, an’ I’d as soon tackle a gin as a chow anyways.’ (p59) But that was on the way to the property, when he felt some constraint.  She is even more vulnerable on the return journey to the station, and this time, ominously,  Billy has a knife with him.

The travails of the parson have long been a subject for comedy, best done (in my opinion) by Anthony Trollope and George Eliot but what contemporary readers of  The Barchester Chronicles (1855-7) or  Scenes of Clerical Life (1857) might have made of Bush Church written half a century later on the other side of the world I cannot imagineWhile both these literary giants poke fun at their parsons in order to tackle serious issues, Bush Church is a savage burlesque of service and christenings in the remote Australian bush.  Once again the dialect serves as a marker for the ignorance of the ‘parish’ and the dubious parentage of the baptised infants mocks the mores of the church they are so belatedly entering.  There is none of the gentle and affectionate humour that I found in Scenes of Clerical Life to relieve the impression of stupidity and crassness in Bush Church.

The Chosen Vessel seems to be the best known story from this collection.  It’s certainly the most shocking.  Perry Middlemiss reviewed it for his Year of Classic Reading and was disturbed by it, and readers familiar with Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife (1892) will see it most vividly.  For although Lawson’s woman faces peril alone, her adversary is a snake – and she not only triumphs, she also receives acknowledgement of her lonely life and an affirmation from her son that he ‘won’t never go droving.’   Baynton’s vulnerable young woman is also left alone for long periods with a young baby while her husband is shearing – but he mocks her fears, and beats her.  Her adversary is a lascivious swaggie, and the tragedy is intensified by her plea for help from a passing boundary rider.   The structure of the story is a bit awkward, but it makes sense in the end.  Baynton had the good sense not to use that painful ‘bush dialect’ in this story, presumably because it would have been incongruous to mock the innocent victim.  Mothers – some of them at least – seem to be sanctified in this collection.

I can’t see Bush Studies becoming a bestseller but taken as a whole this collection brings a new perspective to the romantic vision of the little bush woman as beloved helpmeet for her noble pioneering husband.    And I do think that somebody should make a movie about Barbara Baynton’s life!

[1] The Australian Dictionary of Biography Online says it was one of Frater’s servants.  So does Wikipedia.

[2] Source: Answers.com

Bush Studies (Text Classics) You can buy Bush Studies from the Sydney University Press e-store.

Or through the Text Classics series, with an introduction by Helen Garner: Bush Studies (Text Classics)


Responses

  1. I’ve re-read my review of this story and realise that I didn’t say a lot. I suppose it’s hard to do that given the story is only 8 pages long. Like you I hadn’t heard of Baynton before reading this, and I stil find it disturbing. The fact that it’s listed on the Australian Masters of Horror page doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.

    • Hi Perry I agree: I find it very hard to write about short stories without giving away too much. On the one hand you want to pique a reader’s interest, but on the other you want to leave them with some discoveries – and short stories are so economical, it’s not easy to do that. BTW I loved your year of reading classics. That book by Jane Gleeson-White is excellent: I RSS’d your feed and enjoyed reading about the ones I knew, and made a mental note to seek out the others, some of which I’ve since tracked down e.g. Coonardoo. Lisa

  2. I got a bit slack near the end and didn’t carry on as much as I wanted to. I hit a reading wall/block I think and hardly read anything towards the end of last year. I must get back into these classics some time soon.

  3. Nice Lisa…I had heard of Baynton, though haven’t read her. I thought Squeakers Mate was her best known story but maybe I’m imagining it, mixing it up with a similar tale by Lawson or someone?

    Aren’t synchronicities a funny thing? You mentioned the bush woman as “helpmeet” and just today, in Halligan’s Valley of grace, a character says of his parents “he [the father] admired the way his life ran smoothly, she was his companion and helpmate. Or helpmeet, as they said at church, his father was patriarch enough to like helpmeet”. I can’t remember when I last heard that word!

    • *gasp* This sent me off to look in our Shorter Oxford Dictionary, (3rd edition, reprinted 1959) where helpmeet is listed, and our more recent editions where it is not…and lo! I am not only biblical I am archaic!

  4. I have loved Barbara Baynton for many, many years since I first bought her collection published by Angus and Robertson. I loved her depiction of rural Australian settings although the domestic violence in the stories was off-putting!

    I read the woman in ‘Squeaker’s Mate’ as certainly horrendously downtrodden, but also as a normalised view of certain aspects of historical rural Australia. Making a living from the land in 2009 also adds a similarly dark perspective to gender roles.

    I thought the build-up of tension in that particular story was very well-handled and established the desired atmosphere of terror and utter despair.

    I used to include her with Henry Lawson in a short story unit we taught Year 9, where we explored structure and establishing setting and character in the short story format.

  5. Hi Steph
    Actually, reading Squeaker’s Mate, I found myself thinking of those battered women syndrome court cases that we read about in the media…
    How I would have enjoyed that Year 9 unit!
    Lisa

  6. Lol Lisa – not biblical, not archaic, but literary!!

  7. This reminds me of an opinion article I saw in the Herald-Sun years ago. The journalist (I don’t remember his name, not Bolt but someone like him) was incensed because Baynton was being taught at schools. His argument had nothing to do with the quality of the stories as stories; he was annoyed because she made Australia’s pioneers look bad. He compared her to Henry Lawson. Lawson, in this formulation, was the nice writer, Baynton the nasty, grouchy, pessimistic one. I wrote the paper a letter pointing out that Lawson wasn’t a perpetual bed of roses either. I don’t think they ever printed it.

    • And the moral of this story is: Don’t read the Herald Sun! It’s too deeply depressing and life is too short to waste your time with the tabloids. Not that the others are much better, these days, but at least their book review sections are (mostly) still worth reading.

  8. I read this in first year uni. Good stories. I actually think some of them might even be better than those two giants – Lawson and Patterson. Bush Church and A Dreamer stick out in my head as the good ones.

    • That’s interesting, Matt…what were you studying? Was it English lit or Australian lit? Lisa

  9. Re. And the moral of …

    Agreed, but it was the only paper my parents bought, so it was the one I read.

    We studied her in first year too. I can’t speak for Matt, but in my case I’m pretty sure it was it was Aus Lit. Our class went over Lawson, Baynton, The Vivisector, The Man Who Loved Children, Gerald Murnane’s Landscape with Landscape, and a book written by the man who was having an affair with our lecturer.

    A few weeks ago at a library book sale I found a paperback Bush Studies with flourescent post-its marking different pages and notes in pen written throughout, so it looks as if a) universities are still using the book, or b) this copy was older than it seemed.

    • It does say on my copy’s cover that the series is intended to be for students… By coincidence I’m currently reading Gerald Murnane’s Inland, from the same series. Such an intriguing writer…I read The Plains a year or so ago and can understand why he’s so highly regarded by the literary intelligentsia. Must get on with some school stuff today…only three days holiday left!

  10. Erm, I read her as part of my English major, but it was in a course about Australian Literature.

    Is that the right answer?

    • *chuckle* It’s a pass. Lisa

  11. Writing an essay on this right now….

    Very helpful review – neatly summarised :)

  12. Sarah was not a servant but she was invited to the Frater household to look after the children. Once a thing gets misquoted it can get repeated. I wrote the biography and she was a cousin.

  13. Thanks, Penne – I bet you had fun and games trying to sort out the facts from the fantasy when you were writing that bio!
    PS I love your work in film & TV – by coincidence I have just bought the DVD of Mao’s Last Dancer and shall watch out for you in the role of Cynthia:)

  14. I have just done some work on another version that is planned for publication soon in Australia (after having lived nearly 3 years out bush myself). I really loved the tales, they’re so descriptive and real, and hide nothing. Having to read them slowly to take true hold of the meaning of the dialect gives the reader time to really develop a mental image of the scene being described – Barbara has a true talent of placing the reader within each tale…amazing stories of true grit.

    • Hello Seona, and welcome:)
      You know, it’s a long time now since I read these stories and yet they have stayed with me. I’m glad to hear there’s a new version coming out, these stories deserve to be widely read.


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