Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 20, 2018

Mary Gaunt, in Australia’s First Century 1788-1888, (Facsimiles from Cassell’s Picturesque Australasia 1889), edited by E.E. Morris Part 2

Following on from my chance discovery of the 19th century writer Margaret Seymour in Australia’s First Century 1788-1888 which I’ve blogged for Bill’s ‘AWW Gen 1 week’ at The Australian Legend, (a week to focus on the first generation of Australia’s Women Writers) … now it’s time to look at the much more prolific Mary Gaunt.

Australia’s First Century 1788-1888 consists of facsimiles of pages about Australia that were originally published in a four-volume series called Cassell’s Picturesque Australasia, published in 1889.  I was looking for anything by Ellen Clacy, whose A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia 1852-53 I am currently reading on my Kindle.  But in addition to finding instead in the book’s Table of Contents two articles by Margaret Seymour (which I’ve reviewed here),  I also found seven articles by M. Gaunt, including ‘Gold’; ‘Ballarat’; ‘Explorers by Sea’; ‘Riverina’; ‘Early Explorers by Land’; ‘Later Explorers by Land’; and ‘Some Inland Towns of Victoria’.

Could this ‘M. Gaunt’ be the Mary Gaunt (1861-1942) that I’d noticed on Bill’s AWW Gen 1 page and whose Kirkham’s Find (1897) was reissued in 1988 as part of the Penguin Australian Women’s Library series?  Well, yes she was, and she was actually born in Australia (Chiltern, Victoria to be exact) and her story is just wonderful!

Photograph of Mary Gaunt, Australian novelist, included in her book “Alone in West Africa,” published in 1912 (Wikipedia Commons)

I found her at Australian Literary Journalism, a site well worth exploring further.  (It’s currently focussing on colonial literary journalism, but intending to expand.) Mary Gaunt’s page  complements one at Colonial Australian Popular Fiction and the one at the ADB but it’s the ALJ page that explains the ‘mannish’ quality of her writing for Cassell’s.  Whereas Ellen Clacy’s writing is notable for her female perspective and the title of Margaret Seymour’s ‘An Englishwoman’s First Experience of the Bush’ makes a virtue of the author’s gender as well as her English origin, not a word of anything M. Gaunt wrote so much as hints at its author being a woman.  Mary Gaunt’s page at Australian Literary Journalism explains why:

Gaunt’s first work of literary journalism was a first person article narrating her brother Ernest’s experiences in Papua New Guinea (1885).  She submitted the article to the Age as Ernest, not disclosing that she was his sister and had never left Victoria. It was promptly published and Gaunt later employed the same tactic for a series of first person articles about naval training undertaken by another brother, Guy, and the conflict he witnessed between officers at sea. Gaunt submitted the articles to the Argus under the byline, “by The Captain of the Maintop Starboard” (1888).

Her biographer, Bronwen Hickman writes that when Gaunt contributed to the volumes Picturesque Australasia (1887 – 1889) , she wrote under the name “M. Gaunt” to claim the stories without revealing her gender (2014; 47)  and appease her mother’s displeasure that she was writing journalism. For the Picturesque Australasia, Gaunt wrote again about her brother in Papua New Guinea, but also explored descriptive narrative closer to home, writing about the Victorian goldfields and the Riverina.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) says that Mary Gaunt was not a great writer but she knew her limits and within them she wrote with economy, directness, imagination and energy.  But the ADB seems to be focussing more on her novels than her journalism.  (To be fair, the ADB entry was probably written before Bronwen Hickman’s biography, Mary Gaunt Independent Colonial Woman, (2014) published by Melbourne Books. But I have noticed before that older entries in the ADB tend to be a bit dismissive of women writers.)  Whatever about that, if you read the home page at Australian Literary Journalism it would seem that Gaunt’s inclusion there means that her work fits their definition of

…long-form reporting written with the flair of the novelist or short story writer. In other words, non-fiction written using literary techniques such as characterisation, dialogue and description.

and moreover, we learn from the ALJ Mary Gaunt page  that later in her career she was pioneering the research process called ‘immersive journalism’ that I associate with Kylie Tennant (1912-1988) and Eve Langley. (1904-1974)

Returning home to Victoria, Gaunt wrote a fictional story for The Bulletin and worked on novels, but continued to write journalism articles that focussed on the care of the poor and those with disabilities, particularly women and children, rather than highlighting  bohemian poverty as Marcus Clarke did.  According to Hickman, Gaunt wrote from, “inside the institutions,” (2014;70)  so was practicing immersive journalism. Gaunt toured Melbourne slums with the Melbourne District Nursing Society (1893) then immersed herself in the kindergarten, “Little Sisters of the Poor.” (1893). Both were published in the Argus under her full name ‘Mary Gaunt’, as was her piece “A Butter Factory” (1894).

Ok, enough about all that, what do I think of the pieces I’ve read in Australia’s First Century 1788-1888?  Well, there being so much more to read, I haven’t read all of them.  But it takes only a page or two to discern that she’s not #understatement as sensitive a writer as Margaret Seymour:

The greater part of Victoria was a wilderness in those days, but of danger there was little, save that every-day danger of the Australian bush, want of water.  An occasional wandering tribe of aborigines too, might prove troublesome, but that hazard was lessening daily. They had never been very numerous, and the squatters had from the first been waging continual war against the dark-skinned denizens of the bush, who, now reduced to half their numbers, entertained a wholesome fear of the white man’s firearms.  Into the virgin forest, then, went these prospectors, among the hills and into the gullies where the foot of civilised man had never yet trod.  What if they did disturb the ferns and trailing creepers, and turn the pretty silver creeks rushing down the rocky hillsides into dirty, yellow-tinged streams, and the fern-clad gully into a desolate waste? No one ever saw the beauty they spoiled, no one very likely ever would have seen it, and these men, selfish as they no doubt were, have helped to build up a mighty colony. (‘Gold’, p137)

I don’t think there’s any way to interpret her blithe dismissal of reducing half the numbers of the indigenous people as a ‘lessening hazard’ other than to call it blatant racism, and I apologise if reproducing it here has caused any hurt or anger.  Later in the same article when Gaunt writes about the black troopers, while she acknowledges that although coming from the midst of savagery they made excellent policemen and were the equal of their white comrades, she goes on to say…

… Tall and slight, often good looking, a splendid horseman, managing his horse with grace and ease, this son of that race which is truly counted as one of the most degraded in the world was the beau ideal of the trooper.  Unfortunately there was a reverse side to the medal.  It was utterly impossible to civilise the black man.  After three months of civilised life, he would beg a holiday, and return for a little to his own people.  Then, should anyone pay a visit to the blacks camp, a mile or so down the creek, there might be seen prone on the ground, or crouching beneath a wretched mia-mia, that hardly served to keep out the weather, a dirty, unkempt savage, stark-naked, save for an opossum rug or a filthy blanket, surrounded by gnawed bones, fighting dogs, and all the conglomerate filth of a black’s camp. (p.142)

Some people might excuse this on the grounds that Mary Gaunt was a product of her time, but as you can see from my post about her contemporary Margaret Seymour, published in the same book, there were other writers who acknowledged dispossession and were concerned about the ‘outrages’ against the indigenous people.  And this offensive portrayal is in marked contrast to her depiction of the Chinese – which is generally sympathetic, though her pervasive snobbery makes her describe them as being drawn from the very lowest ranks of society.  (This snobbery makes me want to read those later articles about disadvantaged people, as mentioned above).

Nevertheless it is an astonishing achievement that she is able to present such a vivid portrait of the diggings from what the ADB tells us were her childhood memories and her brother’s ‘yarns’.  ‘Gold’ is detailed, comprehensive, and interesting, even at a distance of over a century.  The descriptions of the methods used for mining are vivid and take up many pages, which are accompanied by line drawings to clarify the process even further.  Any kid doing a ‘Gold’ project would love to get his hands on this book!

I skipped ‘Ballarat’ and ‘Explorers by Sea’ and went instead to ‘Riverina’, and enjoyed her presentation of Australia’s capricious river systems:

On the map the rivers and creeks twine and twist in and out in apparently inextricable confusion.  It is all but impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins; and yet the first impression of the stranger set down in Riverina in the summer-time would be that he had come into a dry and barren land, where no water is.  The sky is one clear, cloudless expanse of blue, so deep as to be almost purple; the atmosphere is without humidity, dry almost as the Sahara itself; and many of those creeks, marked so plainly on the map, are during the greater portion of the year mere chains of water-holes, between which a man may cross on foot dry-shod if indeed they are not dried up altogether.  (‘Riverina’, p. 613)

She explains for her English readers that sheep do wonderfully well despite the barren appearance and monotony of the landscape, except when drought lays its iron hand on the land.  She includes a graphic description of the horrific death that might come to a man lost on the plains but she says this is rare because the true bushman has an instinct, a kind of sixth sense and can find his way without a compass.

The monotony isn’t confined to the landscape either: in her arresting images of the life of a boundary rider, she describes the unchanging diet of tea and mutton and damper, damper, mutton and tea and notes that some of them end up suffering from scurvy because of their enforced abstinence from vegetable food.  (Maybe if they’d taken a tip from the Aborigines she was so scornful about in ‘Gold’, they might have had a better diet, eh?)  However, she offers an entirely different picture of the Riverina in winter, describing its perfect climate, its emergence as a health-resort, because the plains are full of life and warmth, and the dreary hot summer is but a memory of the past. She loves the peppercorn trees which thrive in the scorching summers, and even has a good word to say for the hot north winds because they play a part in town drainage, something she had noticed might otherwise be a problem in such a flat landscape!  She writes quite a lot about Deniliquin and Hay, which would surely be of interest to historians of these towns.

And used with prudent judgement, perhaps also of interest to authors writing historical novels.

Mary Gaunt - Independent Colonial WomanYou can listen to Michael Cathcart at Books and Arts at ABC Radio National, interviewing Bronwen Hickman about the biography, Mary Gaunt – Independent Colonial Woman.  (My goodness, we are going to miss Michael in the wake of all the changes at Radio National…)

Author: Mary Gaunt
Title: (selections from) Australia’s First Century 1788-1888, Facsimiled from pages devoted to Australia appearing in Cassell’s Picturesque Australasia MDCCCLXXXIX (1889)
Editor: E.E. Morris
Publisher: Child & Henry, in association with Fine Arts Press, 1980
ISBN: 0867770643
Source: Personal library



  1. Well Lisa! These are two great contributions to our discussion of the first generation of women writers. I will link to them as soon as I get home, which may be a day or so. If I remember correctly Gaunt’s father moved the family from Chiltern to near Ballarat hence her familiarity with the Goldfields.


    • Thanks, Bill – but it’s nothing compared to what you’ve contributed to Christina Stead Week.
      I’ve reserved the bio at the library, but I suspect that your week will be well-and-truly over by the time I get to it. (And I hope it’s not too long, I have so many other books piling up!)


      • Over tomorrow night/Mon morning so take your time. And Stead is a labour of love!


  2. […] 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). […]


  3. […] Mary Gaunt in Australia’s First Century, ANZLitLovers […]


  4. […] you will know if you read my post about Mary Gaunt’s articles in Australia’s First Century 1788-1888, (Facsimiles from Cassell’s Picturesque Australasia), I […]


  5. […] Mary Gaunt, in Australia’s First Century 1788-1888, (Facsimiles from Cassell’s Picturesque Austr… […]


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