She waited motionless, with her baby pressed tightly to her, though she knew that in another few minutes this man with the cruel eyes, lascivious mouth and gleaming knife would enter.
(The Chosen Vessel)
The man with the cruel eyes is a swagman, one of those who toted their meagre belongings in a rolled blanket (sometimes known as a Matilda) around the Australian outback in the late 19th century looking for work or handouts. In this story he successfully breaks into the woman’s hut and kills her as she flees into the night; it’s not spelled out, but he probably rapes her as well.
Along with small selectors and itinerant workers, swagmen were celebrated in the literature of the 1890s (and sentimentalised since) as good-humoured or eccentric survivors in harsh physical and economic conditions, where solidarity was a pre-eminent virtue. Think of Henry Lawson’s stories: ‘The Union Buries its Dead’, ‘The Bush Undertaker’, ‘Macquarie’s Mate’, and even ‘The Loaded Dog’. It’s hardly surprising that when A G Stephens published the Barbara Baynton story now known as ‘The Chosen Vessel’ in The Bulletin in the 1890s, he diverted attention from the murdering rapist’s identity as a swagman by naming the story ‘The Tramp’.
The six stories in Bush Studies provide an extraordinarily powerful counterpoint to the legend of the 90s: its men are vicious rather than eccentric, there’s precious little solidarity, and no one survives intact. Baynton’s women suffer appallingly, often at the hands of the men, and the men are generally twisted wretchedly out of shape – the rapist-murderer swaggie of ‘The Chosen Vessel’, the casually violent, drunken lascivious (sorry, I couldn’t think of a better word) station hands in ‘Billy Skywonkie’, the craven, lazy, opportunistic Squeaker in ‘Squeaker’s Mate’. That’s not to mention the bystanders.
I doubt if anyone could read those three stories and have the 90s legend remain intact in their minds. Of the other three stories, two share that same gothic sensibility, but don’t feature men doing women down: in ‘The Dreamer’ a woman struggles through the night in a terrifying storm – there is no malevolent human presence; ‘Scrammy ’And’ has a similar situation to ‘The Chosen Vessel’, but this time it’s an old man in the house under siege and the attacker’s motive is more economic. The remaining story, ‘Bush Church’, is a comedy of sorts, in which a minister of religion visits a small outback community and encounters remarkably energetic ignorance and amorality.
I bought my copy of Bush Studies in 1970 – Angus & Robertson had rescued it from oblivion in a 1965 edition, which included a biographical note by Baynton’s grandson H B Gullett. As a postgrad Austlit student, I wasn’t much interested in the biography – the stories had to stand by themselves, we told each other. Recently, when I read on facebook that Barbara Baynton had become an activist against women’s suffrage, my interest was piqued. How could someone who so graphically described women’s suffering actively oppose giving them the vote? When I came across Penne Hackforth-Jones’s biography, I seized it.
From the first page Penne Hackforth-Jones’s biography differs markedly from H B Gullett’s 1965 biographical note. Barbara’s parents came out from England in 1858 (Gullett) or 1840 (Hackforth-Jones), and were either Robert and Penelope Ewart (Gullett) or John Lawrence and his wife Elizabeth Ewart (Hackforth-Jones). Both versions agree that her mother had an adulterous liaison, though they differ on who, when, where and the upshot. In both, young Barbara had a difficult childhood, one of a large family in rural New South Wales near Murrurundi. In both she had a disastrous first marriage, which Hackforth-Jones persuasively surmises provided the core material for her stories. In both, the marriage ended when her husband took off with Barbara’s younger cousin who had come to help with their three children.
From that point on there’s less confusion. Moving to Sydney, she got a job as housekeeper to the wealthy Dr Baynton, who married her and took her children on. The new social status agreed with her. She wrote her old life out of her system. On Baynton’s death she became independently wealthy, travelled with her daughter to England to try to have her stories published, and on being successful became something of a literary phenomenon. (Hackforth Jones quotes many accolades as well as some snooty putdowns, and Thomas Hardy tells us on the 1965 dust jacket that he was ‘much struck with the strength of Bush Studies‘.) She wrote a novel, Human Toll, which no one seems to think is worth chasing up, but apart from some journalism in aid of worthy causes, she did no more writing.
Wealthy and with an entree into English and Australian society, she became a bit of a grande dame. She knew Nelly Melba and Billy Hughes, her daughter Penelope was painted by Tom Roberts. In her 60s she was briefly married to an English Lord who had converted to Islam and was offered the throne of Albania. To Barbara’s disappointment he declined, and she had to be content with being Lady Headley rather than Queen Barbara. Both Gullett and Hackforth-Jones tell family anecdotes of her eccentricities with some relish.
An answer to my question suggests itself, that is, an answer beyond her own proclaimed belief that women are too irrational to have a say in politics: Bush Studies’ powerful evocation of the mistreatment of women in outback Australia wasn’t a call to arms so much as a cry of anguish. Once she was out of there, and had confronted the horror of it in writing, she wanted to stay as far from it as possible. Who can blame her?
Penne Hackforth-Jones, who died too soon in 2013, is remembered as a television actor, but she was also a journalist and, just as relevant to this book, she was Barbara Baynton’s great great grand
motherdaughter. The book reads easily, and if at times one feels that the author is doing an actorly exercise in creating a back story from fragments of information, then at least it’s honestly done. It’s a lively version of Barbara Baynton’s life rather than a definitive biography.
These are the fifteenth and sixteenth books I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.