Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 9, 2018

Mary Gaunt, Independent Colonial Woman (2014), by Bronwen Hickman

There is a moment (at 6:10) in Michael Cathcart’s interview with Bronwen Hickman, the biographer of Mary Gaunt (1861-1942), when he mentions that the biography derives from Hickman’s Master’s thesis – and then apologises because, he said, he’d been asked not to mention that, ‘because publishers like to pretend that master’s theses don’t become books’.  This is presumably because of a concern that potential readers might think the book would be too academic – and I can certainly think of some theses-turned-books that are.  But I’m going to mention the book’s origins too, because Mary Gaunt, Independent Colonial Woman is a superb example of extensive research being turned into a highly readable, unputdownable biography.  Bronwen Hickman is a born writer and the book is a model for other biographers to follow.  It’s in the same league as Brenda Niall’s biographies.

As 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 discovered Mary Gaunt via Bill at The Australian Legend hosting a ‘week’ devoted to the first generation of Australian women writers.  It was only from poking around on the internet that I discovered how interesting this woman was, and more importantly that there was a biography about her.  It was Michael Cathcart’s interview that made the bio irresistible, and I found a copy at Bayside Library.

Mary Gaunt was such an amazing woman!  Despite a mother more interested in the proprieties, Mary was one of the first women to attend the University of Melbourne, starting (but not completing) an arts degree.  She was ferociously independent and she wanted to earn her own living as a writer instead of getting married.  And that was just as well, because when she eventually did fall in love and marry, her husband shortly afterwards died of an appalling brain disease, and she had to support herself.  She took herself off to London and wrote articles and stories drawing on her life in the colony, and then – in an era when women did not travel alone – she took herself off to Africa and to China and to Jamaica and wrote books and articles about that.  She was incredibly entrepreneurial, and although her travels relied to some extent on introductions and a middle-class way of getting about, she was brave too.

Yes, as I noted in my previous post, Gaunt was a product of her times.  She was racist and patronising about people of colour, and having eschewed marriage for herself, she wrote novels with romantic happy endings.  But she also wrote travel articles that illuminated issues like Chinese foot binding, and her novels treat some serious themes like men being press-ganged into naval service, and slavery in Jamaica.  She was also not afraid to offend: she wrote about unmarried liaisons and about plantation owners fathering light-skinned sons by their slaves.

Her adventurous life did not end well.  She was caught behind the lines during WW2 and had to flee her home in Italy for France but became trapped there under the German Occupation, dependant on an allowance from the US Vice-Consul because she could not access her English bank accounts.  Elderly by then, and frail, she died in 1942, leaving an extraordinary legacy of works: twenty-six books – novels, history and travel books.  But until the advent of electronic resources like Project Gutenberg, and a reprint of Kirkham’s Find in 1988,  most of them were unavailable to modern readers, apart from incomplete sets in the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne and the State Library of Victoria.  So I was luckier than I knew, to find Gaunt’s writing in Australia’s First Century 1788-1888.

PS I was disappointed to find that although Hickmen says that Mary Gaunt’s name was added to the Victorian Honour Roll of Women in 2002, I couldn’t find it with a search on their website.  In fact, I couldn’t see any women from the literary community there, not even Di Gribble or Germaine Greer. If it weren’t for Wikipedia, (which is always vulnerable to interference) there appears to be no online record of these women’s’ presence on the Honour Roll.  Which makes me wonder, what is the point of it?

Author: Bronwen Hickman
Title: Mary Gaunt, Independent Colonial Woman
Publisher: Melbourne Books, 2014
ISBN: 9781922129369
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: Mary Gaunt – Independent Colonial Woman


  1. Mary Gaunt was in the 1881 intake for Melb Uni which was the first year for women to be accepted into a degree course anywhere in Aust. I think she was concerned that women be able to support themselves, that was certainly the theme of Kirkham’s Find, though yes she does marry off Phoebe, the heroine in the end. (I think there is a fair bit of herself in Phoebe, and Kirkham’s Find came out during the 3 or 4 years of her marriage). I am adding this post to the Australian Women Writers Gen 1 page.


    • Hickman includes the plots and themes for the books (like Jill Roe does in her bio of Miles Franklin) and so you can see that Gaunt recycled events in her own life as well as having aspirational heroines who valued independence as she did. Somewhere, I should have made a note of it, she says (like Catherine Helen Spence says in Mr Hogarth’s Will) that times have changed for women and that they need to be able to earn an income.


      • I like a literary bio that works its way through the author’s works – like the great David Marr Patrick White. I’d better buy this one.


        • Yes, I like it too. #musing This might be the year I finally get round to reading the David Marr bio.


  2. […] Reviews by Lisa, ANZLitLovers of: Ellen Clacy, A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia in 1852-53 here Bronwen Hickman, Mary Gaunt: Independent Colonial Woman here […]


  3. A telling moment in the interview to pick out! I was already aware of an aversion to theses – probably from publishers as well as readers – but I should perhaps be even more aware. It’s also just like Cathcart to ‘accidentally’ say what he wasn’t meant to say.


    • I think it’s a prejudice that is easily overcome if the writing is good. I know myself, because I studied this-and-that part-time for most of my teaching career, that it’s so easy to develop an ‘academic style’ of writing, both in terms of the way the material is laid out and the way language is used: length of sentences, passive voice, vocab and so on. When I was writing articles for journals, I had to consciously work at getting rid of all that, and even more so when I was writing for children. If you’re at all concerned about your own style, I’d suggest going to any writing courses for writing journalism, whether they’re relevant to KSP or bios or not, because learning how to write a first sentence that hooks the reader and keeping your style bright and lively is a transferrable skill. And read, read, read as much as you can of a style you admire because it soaks into the brain like butter soaks into mashed potato….


  4. […] Mary Gaunt, Independent Colonial Woman by Bronwen Hickman […]


  5. I think I will have to hunt this one down after all. She sounds fascinating.


  6. […] Mary Gaunt available in print. Mary Gaunt, Independent Colonial Woman | Bronwen Hickman (2014) [reviewed by Lisa @ANZLitLovers] and To the Ends of the Earth: Mary Gaunt Pioneer Traveller, Her Biography | Susanna De Vries […]


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