Born Jessie Huybers in London in 1848, Tasma (as she later styled herself) came to Hobart, Australia, with her parents in 1852. Her family was apparently among the more prominent in Hobart, with their friends including successful author Louisa Meredith (1812-1895) and her husband Charles. In 1867 Tasma married the 25-year-old Charles Fraser moving to Melbourne with him. However, the marriage was troubled and Tasma returned to Hobart in 1872, leaving her debt-ridden husband behind. The following year she sailed to England with her mother and youngest siblings, and spent the next couple of years soaking up European culture with her family. Returning to Melbourne and her husband in 1875, she discovered that he’d had a child with a servant. With divorce, particularly initiated by women, rare, they remained married but lived mostly separate lives.
According to an obituary in The Mercury, her first article was published in Garnet Walch’s Annual in 1877 (an article that she later included in her collection, A Sydney Sovereign). She took the pseudonym Tasma to honour the colony of her youth. In 1879 she returned to Europe with her mother and some siblings, determined to earn her living as a writer. This also marked the final break with Charles, and they were divorced in 1883.
And here I’ll quote biographer Patricia Clarke:
Tasma’s life deserves to be much better known, and not only because of her now almost forgotten fame as a novelist. Just as interesting and more gender-defying, she was also an acclaimed public lecturer in Europe, and a foreign correspondent for the London Times, both roles that contradicted the perception of women as solely homebound. In her personal life also, Tasma defied all the stereotypes of the nineteenth-century woman by separating from, and divorcing, her first husband.
DPAC’s article (see below) describes her as “a celebrity lecturer” on the “geography, history, industries, culture and social progress of Australia” and says that her lectures were reported in French, Belgian and other newspapers. She met the eminent and more compatible, albeit significantly older, Auguste Couvreur in 1881, and married him in 1885, but before that, writes Clarke:
For six years before her second marriage, Tasma lived the life of a ‘New Woman’, the independent woman then beginning to appear both in real life and in fiction. From her base in Paris she earned her own living and was involved in the radical issues of the day. An interviewer wrote, ‘She was not a woman to hide the light of her militant radicalism under a bushel. When pressed to talk about her method of writing, she spoke instead of the latest developments in collectivism, and made an impassioned plea for the poor’.
Sadly, Jessie Couvreur died in 1897 of coronary heart disease, just before her 49th birthday. Way too young for someone who clearly gave a lot to her times.
What did she write?
During her life, Tasma wrote, according to the DPAC article, 7 novels, 20 short stories (several set in Tasmania) and over 36 articles on a variety of subjects, including for The Australasian, The Melbourne Review and Nouvelle Review in Europe. Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, her first novel, was published in 1889, and her last, A fiery ordeal, was published, posthumously, in 1897, the year she died.
In her chapter in Debra Adelaide’s A bright and fiery troop, Margaret Harris quotes 20th century poet and novelist Winifred Birkett’s claiming Tasma as Australian
… in spite of her Dutch-French parentage, English birth, Belgian marriage, and long continental residence and professional career! She has been called by people who cannot get away from systems of category and comparison, “the Australian Jane Austen” and “the Australian George Eliot”, but without bringing her under the patent of any other writer’s name we may remember her simply as the “Tasma” of her own titling, and Australian enough by such an implication.
Interesting! Of course, I did my own bit of research in Trove and found some similar references from her 19th century contemporaries. One article in Tasmanian News (11 August 1892) reported on an interview conducted for a “Celebrity at Home” column in The World journal, writing that “Her interviewer credits her with much of the spirit of Thackeray and George Eliot, which, in combination with marked originality, is the secret of her success.” And an article from the year before in Tasmania’s Mercury (21 January 1891) writes that
The favourite Christmas book of 1888 [Uncle Piper] went through three editions before January, 1890. The success of her last two works has been equally marked, and Mr. Edmund Yates, the most competent of judges, regards her as a story writer of extraordinary power. “Uncle Piper” may very likely live as long as “Charles O’Malley,” and it is not impossible that one of “Tasma’s” literary efforts in the Chaussée de Vleugrat [sic] may yet attain the immortality of “Villette.”
Strong praise! As I see it, her style owes more to the late Victorian than to Jane Austen’s Regency/Georgian era, but there is a cheekiness in her writing that also points to Austen.
However, she disappeared into obscurity sooner than, but ultimately just like, many of her peers, about which Clarke writes:
The usual explanation for her obscurity is that, like other Australian women writers who wrote about love, marriage and domestic relationships and whose main characters were women, her reputation has been overtaken and submerged by the Bulletin school of almost exclusively male writers who emerged in the 1890s. These writers glorified the traditions of mateship and the bush to establish what came to be seen as the authentic picture of Australia. Perhaps Tasma’s later obscurity was influenced by the fact that she died at a relatively young age, that for the second half of her life she lived in Europe, and that she had no direct descendants to keep her memory alive. Other nineteenth-century Australian women writers, such as Ada Cambridge and Rosa Praed, lived much longer, the former in Australia and survived by children, but this has not saved them from a similar, if perhaps less marked, obscurity.
If you’d like to know more, check out the sources below.
Beilby, Raymond. ‘Couvreur, Jessie Catherine (1848–1897)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1969.
Clarke, Patricia. ‘In the steps of Rosa Praed and Tasma: Biographical details: A lecture by Harold White Fellow, Patricia Clarke‘, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1993
‘Couvreur, Jessie Catherine (1848–1897)’, Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. Also available in the original form at Trove, titled “The late ‘Tasma’ Courvreur”, The Mercury, 27 October 1897.
Harris, Margaret. ‘The writing of Tasma, the work of Jessie Couvreur’, in A bright and fiery troop (ed. by Debra Adelaide), Ringwood, Penguin Books, 1988.
‘Tasma (Jessie Couvreur nee Huybers)’, in Signifiant Tasmanian Women, Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPAC) (Tasmania). (Entry based on Patricia Clarke’s Tasma: The life of Jessie Couvreur, 1994)
I enjoyed this summary of Tasma’s life, WG, and had been unaware of her career as a public speaker in Europe. She clearly deserves a much more prominent place in my list of independent women in Australian Lit.
My first reading of Uncle Piper, during the ‘Dale Spender’ revival of the 1980s, was of an Australian JA, but I like the other comparisons, especially with Villette. I hope we can locate, I hope Australian publishers publish, her later novels, which apparently depict in some detail her bust up with Fraser.
Thanks Bill … I agree that would be great. I still have to read Sydney Sovereign. Some of those women around then were pretty courageous it seems to me.
Bill, which later novels are you thinking of?
Great to have these insights into the life behind the name, WG, thank you. I’ve come across a couple of later writers who settled in Europe, gave lectures, and held salons for expatriates there. Maybe Tasma set the tone?
Hmmm, I replied to this, Elizabeth, but it didn’t take. It would be interesting to know wouldn’t it?
Thanks, WG. Who knows what happens sometimes with our replies!