by Bill Holloway
A review of the ‘work’ constructed from the letters of Rachel Henning, an emigrant from England to New South Wales in the 1850s.
Rachel Henning (1826-1914) came out to Australia, in the wake of her brother Biddulph and sisters Annie and Amy, for the first time in 1854. Torn between England and Australia, she eventually settled in Australia, writing regularly to her sisters, particularly Etta who remained in England, all the while.
Her letters were offered to the Bulletin by her family almost forty years after her death. Edited by Bulletin editor David Adams into a continuous narrative and illustrated by the Bulletin‘s most famous artist, Norman Lindsay, ‘The Letters’ when published in 1954, was an immediate and ongoing success.
The publication history of The Letters is not as interesting as the letters themselves, but it is worth recounting. They were first serialized in the Bulletin between Aug 1951 and Jan 1952, with maps, a family tree, and Lindsay’s drawings, before being brought out as a quarto-sized book (to save resetting) in 1954 with a Preface by Adams.
In 1963 the rights were sold to Penguin who published The Letters under their Sirius imprint. At this stage, an Introduction by Norman Lindsay was added, but unfortunately, the maps were discarded. Then in 1988, Dale Spender, who in the 1980s was almost single-handedly responsible for the recovery of nineteenth century Australian women’s writing, much of which had been out of print for 100 years, included The Letters in her Penguin Australian Women’s Library series, and her Introduction replaced Lindsay’s.
I say in the summary above ‘a work constructed from the letters’. In 2012 an essay by Anne Allingham reveals how savagely Henning’s original letters were cut by Adams to create a continuous, readable, and some say novel-like narrative. Spender for one, sets Henning squarely in the literary tradition of Margaret Cavendish’s Sociable Letters (1664) and Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778) writing: “like her British sister, Fanny Burney, Rachel Henning deserves praise and prominence in Australia for her own literary achievement”. She adds: “the edition here has been admirably edited by David Adams”.
Adams in fact began with 179 letters and cut them down to 90; understandably topped and tailed each one to remove all but the most minimal family salutations; but then went on to delete all references to “women’s problems”; all Henning’s most scathing comments about her fellows and interestingly, the bulk of her complaints about ‘colonials’. He treated the original letters, even then almost a century old and now held by the Mitchell, as journalist’s copy, scoring through passages with a blue pencil and inventing linking phrases and paragraphs. None of this was ever acknowledged, and if Spender knew, she doesn’t say.
Henning’s story is a relatively simple one, and her great charm lies in descriptions of country and of nineteenth century country life. Henning was of the independent and educated middle class. Her father, a clergyman, died when she was about 12, and her mother seven years later, both of TB, leaving her in charge of her siblings, all younger. Her grandfather had been wealthy so they each had an income, and some capital which seems to have gone mainly to Biddulph.
Biddulph and Annie, went out first, in 1853, to Sydney, followed soon after by Rachel and Amy. Etta stayed in England and married a Mr Boyce. Biddulph seems quite restless, buying and selling properties west and south of Sydney. Annie goes with him as his housekeeper, and Rachel too, quite often. Amy marries and goes to live in Bathurst. Rachel’s descriptions of difficult early trips through the Blue Mountains are very reminiscent of those described 20 years earlier in Annabella Boswell’s Journal. As the Hennings have friends and relatives in Sydney they are often backwards and forwards between them.
Rachel homesick, returned to England in 1856, but by 1861, she was on her way back to Australia. Biddulph by this time had taken up a property, “Exmoor”, 40 miles square (over 1 million acres or 400,000 hectares) about 80 miles (130 km) inland of Port Denison (now Bowen) in north Queensland, on the Bowen and Broken Rivers.
There Biddulph constructed a homestead and shearing shed and began running sheep, Annie keeping house and Rachel keeping the books. This was an idyllic 3 years for Rachel, often out riding or walking, maintaining a large garden and with her own honour guard of pet lambs. Despite the distance to adjacent properties, there were always people passing through, plus the men living on the station – two or three managers, kitchen staff, shepherds, shearers.
In 1866 Rachel and Annie return to Sydney, where they marry two of the station mangers. Rachel and her husband, Deighton Taylor buy 150 acres near Wollongong; sell up after a few years; move to Myall River (Bulahdelah), and then nearby to a property outside Stroud. By 1872 they are back in the Wollongong region, where they stay for 10 years,
During this time Biddulph has prospered, returned to Sydney and married. The letters come to an end with Rachel in her late 50s and feeling old. Adams provides an epilogue in which we see Rachel, Annie and Biddulph, their spouses having died and children grown, living out their final years together in a handsome house in Hunters Hill.
Rachel, on the surface, lived a quite Austen-esque life. She is always busy, but by the same token there is always someone doing something for her. But, to her credit, she enjoyed the adventurous side of Australian bush life, was often out and about, riding, in a buggy fording flooded streams, happily camping out while making the long trek from Rockhampton to “Exmoor” (400 miles/640 km) for instance, making do with short supplies and uncertain access, not just to the south, but to the nearest town.
Finally, there is one matter which no modern review can overlook, and that is Henning’s attitude towards and relationship with the Indigenous peoples on whose land she was living. Some examples –
The blacks are not allowed to dine with the white aristocracy [workers]. They “takes their meals in the wash-‘ouse”, or, in other words, on a bench oustide the kitchen door.
[Biddulph] takes with him Alick, one of the blackboys – they are always called “boys”, though the said Alick must be thirty-five at least.
We had the wild blacks down on the run last week. They … robbed the shepherd’s hut at the Two Mile, carrying off everything he possessed… Biddulph and the two station blacks gave chase and tracked the tribe to their camp among the hills… They burnt the camp, and brought away all their weapons … but Biddulph would not allow the boys to shoot them as they were very anxious to do.
Allingham notes that in 1861, when she was still in Bathurst, Rachel wrote in support of the reprisals following the killing of the Wills family on Cullin-la-Ringo station in Qld, which led to the massacre of over 100 Aborigines. “I should like to put the men who write comfortably from their snug dens in Sydney on a frontier station in the middle of native tribes …“.
Allingham believes that once she was up there, Henning “became party to the pastoralist’s pact to maintain silence on frontier conflict, the hope being that silence would imply that it simply did not exist.” Queenslanders have also always been silent about their other dark secret, slavery. Rachel’s letters include an account of ‘runaway’ Aboriginal workers, calling in for food while making their way back to their own Country.
The next morning when they were peacefully eating their breakfasts up rode Mr Uhr, the officer of the native police in this district … There was not a chance for the blacks, as the mounted troopers had surrounded them on all sides …
Biddulph retained two of the ‘run-aways’ to work on his property and the remainder were taken away to work with the native Police in Port Denison.
Last month I reviewed Louisa Atkinson’s Gertrude The Emigrant which is set in the country near Sydney where she grew up in the 1840s. The Letters of Rachel Henning are are an even closer, and eminently readable, look at the day-to-day lives of a family ‘who were there’, both in and around Sydney and on the frontier in north Queensland.
David Adams ed.
The Letters of Rachel Henning
serialized in the Bulletin 1951,1952
first pub. Bulletin Books, Sydney,1954
Bryony Cosgrove, ‘The Creation of Rachel Henning: Personal Correspondence to Publishing Phenomenon’, Australian Literary Studies, 1 Oct 2012
Anne Allingham, ‘Challenging the Editing of the Rachel Henning Letters.’ Australian Literary Studies, 1 May 1994
Queensland Government, History of Bowen Indigenous Community (here)
The Australian Legend, Australian Women Writers Gen 1 (here)
Annabella Boswell, Annabella Boswells Journal, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1965 (here)
Bill Holloway, the author of this review, blogs at The Australian Legend. He is an old white guy the subject of whose (very) mature age M.Litt thesis was ‘The Independent Woman in Australian Literature’.
Fascinating post Bill on a book I have always meant to read. I was going after your opening that we’d been left with something a little anodyne, but clearly some politically (as well as domestically) interesting content has been left in. It’s interesting to think about the time it was edited – the mid-50s – and what different decisions might have been made by editors in different times.
BTW I’m not sure I like the “Austen-esque” reference because I think too many people do not really know what Austen’s life was like, and her heroines varied quite a bit from the poorer Dashwoods to the wealthy Emma and, essentially, Anne Elliot?
I’ve had all day to think about it and I’m sticking with Austenesque. All of the people she (JA) wrote about were either gentility or people from the middle middle class able to live like the gentility.
Rachel and Annie were independent and educated. That they chose sometimes to work is to their credit. That they both married ‘down’ is interesting, and anyway it wasn’t very far down.
Of course Austenesque was also suggested by Dale Spender’s reference to Fanny Burney.
My mother had this book Bill and I know I read at least some of it as a teenager. There’s an article if you Google, (under Religion, Literature & the Arts), “Place and Identity: the Letters of Rachel Henning” (I think it’s British? Sorry not much time to check)- but it talks briefly about her feelings of displacement from the English countryside and her description of Bathurst at the time (and from photographs I’ve always thought what an ugly place it was until all the trees were planted!)
My comment didn’t go through then I retyped so it’s repeated Bill – can you remove the second one? Cheers.
Done. Your first comment was waiting to be ‘approved which is why you couldn’t see it. I saw the second one pop up but I waited till I got home to delete it.
I don’t suppose your mother had the original quarto edition, that would be worth something! I’ll check out your search tomorrow and hopefully will be able to comment at more length.
The paper (which Sue mentions) is downloadable here –
https://core.ac.uk › download › pdf › 229403175.pdf
It is of a talk given by Anne Lear to a conference in 1999, about 6 or 7pp
I’ll read it ‘soon’.
Well done, thanks Bill! I’d say my mother would have had the original – it certainly would have been a hard cover edition and from memory yes quarto size -but alas it’s not among any books I kept from her. I think virtually all my parent’s’ books were hard cover and that meant heavy to pack – what a shame! It’s interesting that I do remember it, it must have made an impression on me – but I think I delved into my mother’s library a lot as a teenager, she was very interested in Australian history & frustrated she never got to university.
When I first came here I was appalled at the old photographs of Bathurst last century with nary a tree in sight – it looks very bleak and harsh. It’s interesting to wander the old cemeteries here, as life at the time when she would have come here must have been very tough, and most of the graves show folk dying young.
I would love to read this again now. Thanks for the fascinating review.
I just Googled around and I didn’t expect a copy of this to be so readily available Bill, so I’m definitely purchasing a used copy! I’m so glad you reviewed this!
This explains it. I thought when I was drafting the extract from the Exmoor letter it read like a novel!
Yes, the book has always had good reviews. It really flows along doesn’t it.
It’s a pity about the editing Bill – I don’t subscribe to Australian Literary Studies but I notice the Anne Allingham essay is there – tantalisingly I can only read the start of it.
Do you know why her family kept her letters so long before they were allowed to be published? And I’m rather horrified that her letters were edited so much as to cut out a good deal of her essence. And yet I’ve tried to read a book couple books of author letters, and they don’t make sense. The audience is originally intimate, not general, so either we’re clueless or footnotes abound and clog up the work.
I have had that same problem with books of letters Melanie. Bill, I wonder did you find this with the Rachel Henning letters at all?
To answer Sue first, the Letters is very easy reading and well constructed as a continuous narrative. That is why I have given the author credit to “David Adams ed.” which I don’t think has been done before.
But yes, some of her “essence” was cut and if the letters were edited today rather than in the 1950s they would read differently – and maybe Henning would come across as a bit snobbish about having to live amongst colonials.
I don’t know how you would maintain that intimate feel of letters between sisters and still maintain general interest. Michelle Scott Tucker, writing elsewhere, suggests that letters from Australia were often intended for a much wider audience than just the named recipient, anyway.
As for timing, publication was only 40 years after Rachel’s death and there were probably others who needed to pass too before their affairs could be made public.
Thanks Bill, for a very comprehensive reply. I did notice your author credit but didn’t realize the reason for it.
Reading what you’ve said about the letters, and being a blow-in as far as this particular part of the world is concerned, I’ve got a copy of Beyond the Barrier: Class Formation in a Pastoral Society (Bathurst 1818-1848) by Ken Fry – it may give me a better idea of the society Henning would have found here at the time; I’m disappointed that it has only one chapter devoted to the Indigenous population however! I
As much as I join with others who wish that the letters hadn’t been so drastically edited, I can also sympathize with the writer/publisher folks who felt compelled to make those selections. I heard Elizabeth Waterston speak about the process of editing down L.M. Montgomery’s diaries (author of Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon etc.) and how painful she felt it was to do so. Years later, no doubt partly due to the success of the initial publication of these edited diaries (over five volumes), the unedited versions (at least of the earlier volumes, I’m not sure they’re all yet complete in unedited formats) were published and I felt how happy she must have been, to know that they were available in their entirety at last.
I think the published letters were read and reviewed without reflection and so it came to be accepted that this is was how Henning wrote (and thought). Allingham sought to bring the excised material back into the discussion, to point out the rose-tinted view that the published letters give of early white settlement.
All of this only has a very small readership of course but is all part of lifting the 1950s veil – everything Britain did was perfect – that separates us from an objective view of our own history.
One of our blogging friends, Kimbofo/Reading Matters has been back in Australia for a couple of years after 20 years in London. She remarked recently on the astonishing changes to the public’s view of Australian history in the time she was away.
Hello Bill, the editing of Rachel Henning’s letters is a shame, especially considering only 90 of 179 were published. My interest in her story goes back to my childhood and teens. My paternal aunt Henning, who was born in Sydney in 1909, wrote to me some bits and pieces about the family history in Dorset, so I came to know I was distantly related to Rachel Henning. In the last couple of years I decided to undertake an in-depth study of the Hennings of Dorset and I am in the final stages of completing that project.
Rachel and her siblings weren’t the only members of her branch of the Dorset Hennings to migrate to Australia in the 19th century – and also to New Zealand and South Africa.
I am descended from Cecil Henning, a chemist in Charters Towers in the 1870s and 1880s.
Cecil’s great-great grandfather (Robert Henning, mayor of Poole 1739-41), was the brother of Rachel’s great-great grandfather Edmund Henning.
The published letters of Rachel make no reference to other members of the Henning family except her direct relatives, but I would be very interested to know if there are references to other Hennings in her unpublished letters – good, bad, nice or nasty!
Do you have any information in relation to that?
Hi Peter, Rachel Henning’s original letters are held at the State Library NSW.
Peter, I’m sorry that I missed this – and thank you Lucy for your answer to Peter’s question.
I hope you find that Rachel was in contact with her wider family.
My father’s mother’s family – Tregear – were in the mines at Charters Towers from 1875, and my great grandfather APW Tregear was later mining registrar there. I’m afraid it’s too late to ask my father for help, which is a shame, as he was a great collector of family information. I probably have an unlabelled photo somewhere of the house in Hodgkinson St, Charters Towers.
Hello, just a few quick notes. The first edition for paperback was in 1952, the reprint 1954. When the book was published by Angus & Robertson in 1963, from this point on the editing has been attributed to David Adams.
It must also be remembered that the original publisher was the ‘Bulletin’ magazine, who were known to be nationalist and paternalist. At the time of publishing the magazine still had the masthead “Australia for the White Man”. Keeping this in mind caution needs to be applied when quoting “Rachel” from ‘The Letters.’ Are you really referencing the thoughts and feelings of Rachel Henning, or are you referencing the heavily edited version of Rachel Henning, via the lens of David Adams, editor of the Bulletin?
Lucy, thank you for your ‘quick notes’. I have two copies of The Letters, both Penguin. The first, from 1969 has ‘Edited by David Adams’ on the cover and confirms what you say about the first paperback –
First published by the “Bulletin” 1951-2
paper-covered edition 1952
First published in Sirius Books 1963 by A&R
The second is the Penguin Australian Women’s Library edition from 1988, published by Dale Spender
No David Adams on the cover, though his Preface is retained. And no mention of the 1952 edition.
I follow Allingham in accepting that Adams edited the letters to create a narrative acceptable to 1950s Australia (at a time when the Bulletin’s worldview was pretty mainstream).
The editing and publishing history of The Letters is quite fascinating. When the first paperback version was published in 1952 the text, as edited by David Adams, became fixed. The only exception being a children edition. However, even this text was still edited from the David Adams copy. As such, the text found in The Letters, regardless of publisher, are from the 1952 edition. The only difference in book editions are things concerning front and back matters, etc.
Rachel Henning and the editing of her letters is my current subject of research and I invite any comments or questions regarding this subject:
Good to hear from you again Lucy. Good luck with your research. And if you ever feel the urge to contribute an essay on this or a related topic – any topic to do with early women’s writing – write to me (Bill Holloway) at
You will probably have seen that we have just published another UNE linked essay, from Jo-Anne Reid on Kylie Tennant’s Tiburon.