Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 2, 2018

Georgiana, a biography of Georgiana McCrae, painter, diarist, pioneer, by Brenda Niall

Brenda Niall is one of Australia’s preeminent biographers, but even she could not make me warm to Georgiana McCrae (1804-1890) … she seems like a rather disagreeable person to me.  As it says on a rather entertaining blog called Ancient Destructions, she was a ‘high maintenance babe’ born in the wrong century.

Of course, at this distance in time, we are getting a distorted picture of her, as Niall warns us. The biographer’s sources include her prolific letters and journals, the letters giving free play to her powers of observation, her gift for a pithy phrase, her malice (p.242) but her extant journals seem to have been whitewashed.  They were all copied out and rewritten many years after they were written, and no one can know what might have been excised or altered.  The big mystery is her relationship with her unsatisfactory husband Andrew: she says next to nothing about him, so the facts have to speak for themselves.  And the facts are that she married him because her wicked very religious stepmother wouldn’t let her marry the Catholic bloke she was fond of and Andrew turned out not to provide the kind of life that Georgiana aspired to.

Georgiana’s aspirations were both well-founded and unrealistic.  She was the illegitimate daughter of George, the 5th Duke of Gordon, but she was brought up to enjoy The Good Life in her grandfather’s castle because in those pre-Victorian times the Duke was happy to acknowledge not only Georgiana but also a whole brood of other illegitimate children by another woman as well.  When Jane Graham, Georgiana’s mother had an accident resulting in brain injury, Alexander, the 4th Duke took Georgiana in and she lived the life of an aristocrat’s daughter in the castle.  Alas, when old George died his debts were substantial and it was just as well that the wicked very religious stepmother Elizabeth Brodie had money of her own.  Unfortunately for Georgiana, the childless Elizabeth liked to spend her money on Improving Works for God, and when Elizabeth’s husband, (Georgiana’s father), died having made a muddle of his Will, the promised legacy remained just that.  And as Victorian respectability became entrenched, Georgiana waited in vain for the substantial legacy her father had intended for her.

Was Andrew a dud husband?  Well, he wasn’t much of a lawyer in London, so like many an impecunious hopeful, he chose immigration to the colonies as a solution.  He chose the Port Phillip Settlement in Victoria, where plenty of fellows had done well.  But he didn’t have enough capital, he made imprudent land purchases, and though they couldn’t afford to pay for it, he let Georgiana have her head designing a house called ‘Mayfield’ in Abbotsford, (demolished in 1962).  Having on arrival despised everything about the Port Phillip Settlement, Georgiana set about establishing herself in what passed for society (even though some of them at least were not so convinced of her aristocratic bona fides). But eventually the mortgage had to be paid, the McCraes didn’t have the money, an appeal for an advance on the promised legacy bore no fruit, and so off they went down to what is now Rosebud in 1845.   The house they built there at Arthur’s Seat –McCrae Homestead – is now a National Trust property, but things didn’t work out there either…

It was the Gold Rush of 1851 that restored their fortunes somewhat.  Andrew picked up a job as a Police Magistrate which meant a regular salary but it also confirmed the couple’s separation when their marriage was obviously rocky.  Andrew went on to work in different places around Victoria, barely seeing his children, including one who was born and died without him ever seeing her.  By the time he retired Georgiana was liverish and tried to get a judicial separation; he forestalled this by sailing back to England and having quite a good time doing things Georgiana had long hankered to do such as (a) going back home and (b) visiting France.  When he returned to Port Phillip, it was to die, which he did within three months of his arrival.

From the outset, Niall establishes that Georgiana was an artist of some talent who was frustrated in her ambitions.  The book includes full-colour reproductions of her sketches, paintings and portraits, and some of them are very good indeed.  (Some of them are missing from the library copy I read: I suspect school projects may be the culprit).  But social mores in Scotland meant that she could paint charming portraits but it was infra dig to be paid for them.  Andrew McCrae’s ideas about respectability allowed him to leave his Port Phillip creditors wanting while forbidding Georgiana to make some badly needed money.  OTOH there was nothing much to stop her painting once they were separated, except of course that she had a large brood of children (nine of them, some of them born when she was in her forties) not to mention extensive domestic responsibilities.  Niall doesn’t exactly say so but I get the impression that by the time Georgiana was in her middle age she preferred writing self-justificatory letters to all and sundry than trying to kick-start an artistic career. She obviously could find time for that…

Of course it’s not necessary to like a subject to enjoy a biography, but I didn’t find this one as compelling as other bios I’ve read by Brenda Niall.  (I didn’t like Mannix at all, but the biography was excellent).  As Niall says, she became a bitter old woman who could not shed a tear and although she loved her children, she lost the language of love.  It was ironic that this most unwilling of colonists was claimed by a contemporary historian as one of the builders of Australian cultural community, and it’s surprising that as the wife of an obscure settler and mother of nine children, she has emerged into history as a person of note.  It is her descendants who have ensured her legacy by keeping her journals, her artwork and her memorabilia and by publishing her journals and buying back McCrae Homestead for the National Trust.  They did so, says Niall, because the legend of Georgiana compelled their imagination.

Just one thing mars this bio: in discussing the McCrae’s relationship with the Bunurong (on whose land the McCraes squatted) Niall concludes her chapter with a reference to the death of an Indigenous man called Johnnie:

What Georgiana could not know was that while her own family would survive the dislocations of their unsettled life, the death of Johnnie was a part of the dying of all the Bunurong. (p.197)

What a difference a couple of decades makes.  There is no way – if she were writing this book now – that Niall would implied the extinction of the Bunurong people – who are still very much a presence in Melbourne and Victoria.

Author: Brenda Niall
Title: Georgiana, a biography of Georgiana McCrae, painter, diarist, pioneer
Catalogue of the illustration plates by Caroline Clemente
Publisher: Miegunyah Press, 1994
ISBN: 9780522845136
Source: Kingston Library

Availability: Out of print, I think.  You might pick up a second-hand copy from Fishpond: Georgiana: a Biography of Georgiana Mccrae or Brotherhood Books, (they had a copy for $8.50 on the day I looked) or else try your library.


  1. What made you decide to read this book Lisa? That it was by Niall? That McCrae is an Aussie pioneer? Anyhow, I guess I won’t be jumping to this given my challenged reading times. Interesting point about the Bunurong people. How many of us are revisiting past ideas and assumptions in the light of improved knowledge now. How wonderful it is that we are, finally, hearing more (and more from indigenous people themselves) about their history, their lives.


    • Somebody recommended it to me so I hunted out a copy at the library, but I forgot to note who it was. It might have been after I read the bio of Mary Gaunt?
      And yes, it is good that we are revisiting past assumptions, preconceptions, received information, and stuff we knew from our school days and so on. Just last week we had a conversation in my French class about the dictionary translation of the word mestizo where the class explained to our French teacher that we in modern Australia would *never* use the word ‘half-caste’ or ‘quarter-caste’ or the other derogatory words given in the dictionary as the English meaning of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The Resident Judge wrote a very good piece on Georgiana McCrae for my AWW Gen 1 Week, in which she pointed out that Georgiana’s journal had been ‘polished up’ to the point of being unreliable. An interesting woman I think despite her pretensions to nobility.


    • Ah, it might have been Janine who suggested it. But I would have read it at some time anyway, I am a big fan of Brenda Niall and I have three of her bios (True North, Judy Cassab & Father Hackett) waiting patiently on the TBR,
      It’s interesting to speculate about what might be missing, but the ‘honest’ diary begs caution too. If people write to express in private the inevitable irritations of everyday life, and then look back at the trivial things they got worked up about and realise how they might be interpreted after they have died, they might indeed do a bit of tidying up if with the passage of time they think that the diaries have some sort of historical significance so shouldn’t just be burnt. You mentioned (on another post) mothers misbehaving in front of sons, but parents who leave nasty surprises for their children can be quite cruel too. Imagine children finding diaries of the first difficult adjustment years of a marriage, or even worse, the rage and distress of a marriage falling apart when parents have otherwise tried not to argue or speak ill of the other partner in front of the children. Which is the real person, the one who vented feelings savagely in a diary, or the one who behaved well with family and friends?


      • It all makes you realise how fragile history is. It is really just the stories you are fed/choose to read.


  3. What an interesting range of subjects Niall has chosen over her career. Your review makes me ponder what it takes to write an enjoyable biography about an unsympathetic subject. Coincidentally I am just looking at Hugh Mccrae – Georgiana’s grandson?; he was close to Katharine Susannah Prichard.


    • Yes, I think he was, but dammit, I’ve just this morning returned the book to the library so I can’t check. Sorry!


      • He was Not sure if he played a part in the publication of Georgiana’s Journal


        • Niall mentions two descendants in the back of the book, one of whom ‘edited’ and published the journals and the other bought the house and then left it to the National Trust. But without the book in front of me (sorry, it was due back today and I couldn’t renew it), I can’t even say which one it was.


          • RJ says “Georgiana’s Journal, edited by her grandson Hugh McCrae and published as part of the Victorian centennial celebrations in 1934 … As Hancock (following Weber) points out, grandson Hugh McCrae was a poet and when he extensively edited Georgiana’s journal, he freely added his own artistic flourishes. ”

            I should have looked there first:


            • LOL Well, Janine is a proper historian, not like me!


  4. I read this one too long ago to be able to comment on it sensibly, now, although I do remember enjoying it. But given your thoughts about how Niall discussed the Bunurong, I’ll be very interested to hear what you have to say about True North (where I would have liked more discussion of the issues around cultural appropriation).


    • HI Michelle, I’ll get round to reading that one sooner rather than later, but I remember thinking, reading your bio of EM and its treatment of indigenous issues, that I could see the influence of that two-day Writers Victoria Bruce Pascoe workshop that we both attended (it’s where I met you f2f!)
      And it crossed my mind that Niall with this bio of GM could hardly be expected to have the same understanding of the protocols unless she’d done something similar.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That workshop was very powerful, and useful, but I’d already written the relevant indigenous parts before I attended. I guess I was seeking confirmation that I was on the right track. But you’re right, awareness of the necessary sensitivities (among white writers) is a pretty new phenomenon.


        • Wow, your achievement is even more impressive then! I think Bruce would be very pleased, because yes, not too many authors even think about it.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I love it when you review books about Australian history, Lisa. Perhaps you’ll be interested in my own feedback about this book, posted on Goodreads back in 2012;

    “Brenda Niall’s 1994 biography of the cosmopolitan artist Georgiana McCrae, the illegitimate daughter of an English Duke and an unwilling pioneer of primitive Melbourne, Australia in the 1840s, was once hugely popular among book clubs in Melbourne. Accordingly, I was interested to meet Brenda at the last Melbourne Writers Festival and contrast her approach with my own.

    Georgiana’s diaries and letters and family memorabilia enabled her biographer to meet the challenge of evoking ‘the drama of personality’ (Brenda’s words). My own books about the convict settlers of earliest colonial Australia are set in the period fifty years before Georgiana’s arrival in Melbourne. The challenge to discern any kind of personality was much greater because the subjects left virtually no personal records.

    However, the silences in official records helped a great deal with my efforts to draw inferences. With administrative records for convicts remaining so well-preserved in the archives, no news was often good news.

    By contrast, no news was bad news for Brenda, as she tried to interpret Georgiana’s silences about the nature of her marriage to Andrew McCrae. This gap in Georgiana’s extensive writings is a constant theme of Brenda’s book, somewhat thwarting her quest to gain a full understanding of Georgiana. This was the Holy Grail for Brenda – finding written evidence of Georgiana’s attitude to her husband Andrew, and his attitude to her. Brenda was disappointed to find so little.”

    Like you, Lisa, I didn’t warm to Georgiana either. But it was interesting to read a book covering this period in our history.


    • Hello Louise, and thank you!
      I read your thoughts at Goodreads, and actually wanted to link to them here, but while my internet is playing up so badly I found it almost impossible. I’d click to go to your review to get the URL and the page would freeze and I’d be looking at a blank screen. (This week, after four weeks of this, Telstra has finally tested and discovered that there’s a fault in the line, and they’ve reported it, and well, who knows what may happen after that, eh? Maybe they will fix it in a week or so!)
      It’s interesting to contrast this bio with Eleanor Limprecht’s novel about WW2 war brides which I read earlier this week. The tricky thing with both fiction and non-fiction IMO is to create convincing and historically authentic depictions of the subjects/characters. Limprecht, for her book, was able to interview still living war brides and that is why her characters are so convincing. Had she tried to write her book ten years from now, she would have had to rely on papers (journals, letters etc) and it would have been a very different book because she would have had to rely on imagination – and as I’m sure you know better than I do, it’s not easy for a 21st century mind to imagine the thinking of past times!
      Now… having composed my thoughts, to see if I can post this comment. I’ve copied it to my clipboard just in case, sometimes it takes three or four tries before I succeed!


  6. Fixed, and will now delete your second comment:)


  7. Good luck with Telstra! We are so reliant on technology now that it’s hard to remember how we coped prior to the internet.
    I enjoyed your review of Eleanor Limprecht’s novel too. The ‘love story’ of how people meet, forge bonds and choose to stay together or break apart, incurring consequences for those around them, has an enduring appeal to most of us. Hence Brenda’s frustrated fascination with Georgiana.


    • Louise, I’ve just bought a new NF book that might interest you. It’s called The Battle Within by Christine Twomey and it’s about POWs in postwar Australia. There’s a whole chapter on POW marriages, which I can see from scanning it shows that some marriages did not survive.


      • Thanks Lisa, based on your suggestion, I’ll add it to my TBR list. :)


  8. […] Another gem is the article about Georgina McCrae, with a reminder that Brenda Niall wrote Georgiana: a biography of Georgiana McCrae, painter, diarist, pioneer – which I really should try to chase up because I enjoyed her biography of the Boyds so much.  (Update: here’s my review of that bio). […]


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