Another in our series of classic or forgotten Australian authors, Morgan Burgess features Barbara Baynton. Thanks, Morgan.
Barbara Baynton has become one of Australia’s most celebrated colonial writers despite her relatively small oeuvre. The daughter of Irish immigrants, Baynton was born in Scone, New South Wales on 4th June 1857. In 1880 she married Alexander Frater with whom she had three children. In 1887, however, Frater deserted his family for another woman and Baynton took her three children to Sydney where she filed for a divorce. In 1890 the divorce proceedings were finally concluded and Baynton married the wealthy retired surgeon Thomas Baynton (ADB).
It was after her marriage to Thomas that Baynton began her literary career. She made an extensive network of literary friends and allies including literary critics A.G. Stephens and Edward Garnett, likely assisted by her husband’s literary connections. She wrote articles, short stories, poetry and a novel and found publication for them in the influential Sydney literary magazine, the Bulletin, the home of literary nationalism in Australia at the turn of the twentieth century. ‘The Tramp’, her first short story, was published there in December 1896 (ADB). She published a collection of six short stories, Bush Studies, in London in 1902 having failed to find a publisher for the collection in Australia. In 1907 she published a novel, also in London, called Human Toll.
Human Toll traces the life and experiences of orphaned Ursula Ewart who, upon her father’s death, is sent away from the station hands who know and dote on her to be fostered in town. Here her life changes dramatically and she finds herself with few friends. In the novel Baynton makes heavy use of the colonial Australian vernacular which can make it a difficult read for modern audiences. Bush Studies, on the other hand, makes for more accessible and equally moving reading. Baynton’s prose is tight and deliberate: each word intensifies the complexity of her narratives and creates meaning in the story. Praised by her contemporaries for depicting life as it was really lived in colonial Australia, with all its difficulties, Baynton’s works have been attached to the realist, Bulletin school of writers.
At the turn of the twentieth century in Australia, realism was celebrated as innovative, exploratory, and emblematic of the Australian nation, taking its subject matter from life outdoors, mateship, and the working man. It was associated with masculinity and was the preferred genre of well-known writers like Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson, and Joseph Furphy. It was constructed as being the antithesis of romance fiction, which was seen as being feminine and preoccupied with romantic love, marriage, and women’s lives.
Baynton’s stories certainly feel realist. They lack framing devices and launch directly into the narrative, thus removing any distance between the story and the reader. The narrator’s voice is disguised from immediate recognition, making it appear that the stories ‘just happen’ without an intermediary voice (Webby, 5). The definition of realism, however, does not wholly encapsulate Baynton’s fiction. Baynton’s stories in Bush Studies are bleak snapshots of difficult lives that build internal tension through a layering of precisely and selectively disclosed information. In some instances, her short stories tend towards the gothic genre. In ‘A Dreamer’, for example, the gathering storm and darkness warps the familiar landscape so that the traveller is “uncertain, near-sighted, with all the horror of the unknown that this infirmity could bring” (47) and hallucinations taunt her as she searches for her mother’s home. Thus Baynton’s narratives reconfigure and complicate realism, disrespectful of strict genre divides.
Just as Baynton muddies the clear demarcations of genre, traditional realist subject matter is also problematized in her work. Unlike Lawson and other colonial realists, who glorify the masculine experience in their realist work, Baynton uses the genre to interrogate the Australian feminine experience. Baynton’s protagonists are women: a paralysed woman, a young mother alone in her bark-hut home, a daughter travelling on foot through a storm. These women’s lives in the bush are complicated, endangered, and problematized, often as a result of men and men’s actions. They are women marginalised by their geographical isolation in the bush, by virtue of their race, their gender, or how they perform their gender (Lamond, 387). The narrative structure of many of the stories often collude in this feminine marginalisation, by way of underscoring it, and render the women’s inner lives inaccessible to the narrator, as in ‘Billy Skywonkie’ and ‘Squeaker’s Mate’ (Webby, 8).
The difficulty and isolation of Baynton’s women’s lives are exemplified by the story ‘Squeaker’s Mate’. Mary, the protagonist, is a capable, fiercely independent woman who upsets gender norms and lives and works in the dominant role in her heterosexual relationship, doing the lion’s share of the brute manual labour on the selection she and her husband tend. The men gather to share their sorrow when she is injured by a falling tree, sorry for the “hard luck of that woman who alone had hard-grafted with the best of them”, yet they return to their homes “without a word of parting” and no more than “a cowardly look towards where she lay” (59). Though Mary might be “the best long-haired mate that ever stepped in petticoats” she is not fully a man and is therefore excluded from full membership in their community. She also finds no friendship among the womenfolk who “challenge her right to womanly garments” (54) and who, after visiting her “the first day” of her injury, leave “her severely alone” (59).
Baynton republished Bush Studies under the title Cobbers in 1917 with an additional two stories. After Thomas Baynton’s death in 1904 Baynton became a business woman, investing his fortune, which he left to her, and trading in antiques. She married again in 1921 but after a time lived separately from her husband. She died on 28th May 1929 (ADB). The literary legacy she left is an exciting and enriching part of Australian cultural heritage.
Note: Links to AWW reviews of Baynton’s work can be found on the database here.
Baynton, Barbara, Bush Studies, Harper Collins Publishers, Sydney, 2001.
Baynton, Barbara, Human Toll, University of Sydney Library, Scholarly Electronic Text and Image Service, Sydney, 2000, accessed online 28 May 2017.
Baynton, Barbara Jane (1857 – 1929), Australian Dictionary of Bibliography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, accessed online 29 May 2017.
Lamond, Julieanne, ‘The Reflected Eye: Reading Race in Barbara Baynton’s “Billy Skywonkie”’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 53, No. 4, Winter 2011, pp. 387 – 400, accessed online 30 May 2017.
Webby, Elizabeth, ‘Introduction’ (1993), Bush Studies, Harper Collins Publishers, Sydney, 2001, pp. 1 – 16.
About: Morgan Burgess is a doctoral candidate in literary studies at the University of New South Wales in Canberra. The focus of her research is the literary representation of the women’s suffrage campaigns in Australia and New Zealand. She has spoken about her research at conferences in Australia, the US, and Europe. In 2016 she was the recipient of the Seymour Scholarship at the National Library of Australia.
I enjoyed your writeup of Baynton Morgan, particularly your discussion of Squeaker’s mate. Such a powerful story. And such an antidote to the more “heroic” pioneers of male writers of the time. It’s good seeing Baynton’s stories being read again – at least I feel they are.
Hello whisperinggums, I’m glad you share my love for Baynton and her work. Squeaker’s Mate is one of my favourite of Baynton’s short stories. It says so much but does so very economically – Baynton really makes her words work hard!
Oh yes it is, I agree, such an excellently told story with such punch.
Oh, it’s such a great story, on multiple levels, isn’t it?
Thank you for your interesting analysis of Baynton, Morgan. I re-read Billy Skywonkie recently in a collection of short stories and was struck by how brave she was to tackle the taboo issue of sexual aggression against women and how vulnerable women must have been at the time of her writing.
Hello Jan, Billy Skywonkie is a fascinating read, isn’t it. The story leaves it open to interpretation, but there is a convincing argument for the protagonist to be a person of non-white descent and that the other characters’ bizarre reactions to her are a result of their assumptions about her race. So Baynton was not only hitting on some serious issues about the exploitation of women – she was also calling out racist exploitation as well.