by Elizabeth Lhuede
Examines whether Mrs J A Bode’s “A Tale of Colonial Australia” can be read as an example of nineteenth-century Australian irony.
When I initiated the Australian Women Writers challenge more than a decade ago, an Indigenous writer living in the Blue Mountains (Darug and Gundungurra lands) was kind enough to do a smoking ceremony by way of launching the blog. At the back of my mind was an awareness that I stand on ground that has had untold female storytellers stretching back millennia, and their silent contribution should be acknowledged, if only symbolically.
This year, with the change of focus to early Australian women writers, I began my contributions with the post, “Suffering, Resistance and Resilience”, which touched on a few colonial writers’ responses to Indigenous encounters. Some writers, like Eliza Dunlop and Marie Braithwaite, showed both first-hand knowledge of and a degree of empathy, compassion and respect for the peoples they and their ancestors had colonised and displaced; others, like Amy Staniforth, of more remote proximity, demonstrated far less respect. My feeling was that lack of proximity to Indigenous culture played a part in the mythologising of colonial experience which increasingly stereotyped, marginalised and silenced Indigenous experience and perspectives.
As we finish this year of focusing on early Australian women writers, we head towards the most important referendum of my lifetime: the recognition of Indigenous peoples in the Constitution and the establishment of an Indigenous voice to parliament. I’d like to think this blog can help to inform discussion of these issues by reflecting further on Australian female writers’ responses to colonial myth-making and Indigenous dispossession. In a spirit of truth-telling and reconciliation, I’ve chosen to end the year by examining a story written by South-Australian author, “Mrs J A Bode”, an author whose white privilege is made all the more obvious by her family’s English aristocratic connections.
Known throughout her life as “Ettie”, Mrs J A Bode, was born Elizabeth E Ayliffe in Exeter (Devonshire, UK) in 1838. Her parents brought her to Australia in the “Pestonjee Bomanjee” when she was two years old. An obituary for Bode describes a little of that journey and subsequent arrival in the colony:
The voyage out occupied six months. The family landed at Glenelg, where, after they had been carried ashore by the sailors, they pitched their tent beside that occupied by Governor Gawler (who had travelled on the same vessel) on the site where the Glenelg Town Hall now stands. Later the Ayliffe family settled on a sheep run, which extended from the Mountain Hut to Marino. They erected a wooden house which they had brought with them from England…
The obituary goes on to describe her education and literary contributions:
The late Mrs. Bode, who was a sister of the late Mr. G. H. Ayliffe, Registrar-General of Births, Marriages, and Deaths, was trained for teaching. She possessed a considerable literary gift, and was for years a contributor of short stories, poems and topical articles to the Adelaide and Melbourne papers.
That such obituaries are not always reliable is suggested by an inclusion in a separate account which states Bode trained as a teacher with T Ainsley Caterer, a biographical detail which has been disputed. However, there was a Miss Ayliffe who trained as a teacher and ran a boarding school for ladies at her home, “Saltram”, in Glenelg in 1875-76, and, as several of Bode’s female relatives definitely trained as teachers, it seems reasonable to assume Bode also took teaching as her profession, regardless of where she taught or the exact nature of her training.
In 1877, at the age of forty, Bode married “J A Bode, Esq., of Sunningdale Park, near Strathalbyn”. Her wedding notice states she was the niece of the Earl and Countess of Egremont, of Petworth Castle, Sussex. This family connection must have been important to Bode, and it’s not hard to understand why.
It appears that Bode’s great-aunt, Elizabeth Iliffe (an older version of the family name of “Ayliffe”) had been the Earl’s mistress before becoming his wife, and had borne him eight illegitimate children. She and Bode’s grandfather, Thomas Hamilton Ayliffe, had been orphaned and subsequently come under the earl’s guardianship. Elizabeth – after whom Bode may have been named – was reputed to have been a polymath and inventor, and may even have helped the artist Turner create his pigments. Bode’s s illustrious connection to aristocracy was strong enough, at least in the author’s eyes, not only to feature in her wedding notice, but also perhaps to give rise to her choosing a colonial aristocrat as her protagonist in her short story, “A tale of colonial Australia”.
Widowed in 1898, Bode died in 1920 after a long period of ill health following an operation for appendicitis, leaving a daughter and granddaughter.
During her lifetime, Bode published under both her birth and married names, “Miss Ettie Ayliffe” and “Mrs J A Bode”. The AustLit database entry for Bode attributes to her four works: Original poems (1885); a poem, “Lubra”, which was first published in Australian poets: 1788-1888 ed. Douglas W B Sladen (1890, p60); and two poems which appeared in South Australian newspapers, one in 1878 and the other in 1882. With the help of Australian Newspaper Fiction Database and Trove I have been able to track down more pieces, twenty-two in all, including fiction, poems and some social commentary (a list of these appears below the references). It is Bode’s “A tale of colonial life”, published in 1889, that I wish to focus on here.
On the surface, “A tale of colonial life” is a romantic tale concerning an early South Australian colonist, Clarence Dana, “Viscount St Oriel”. It is demonstrably retrospective, told nearly 50 years after the events which it relates, and opens with Clarence bemoaning his fate. That the author does not intend us to take the viscount at face value is suggested by the contrast between his excessive complaints and the true nature of his “ill fortune”:
“Fate once more! It’s all her handiwork! A fellow has nothing whatever to do with shaping his own career in life” — so spoke Clarence Dana, Viscount St Oriel. “Fate has been absolute with me from the first. Fortune has held her chalice, nectar-brimmed, to my lips, with smiling eyes and bounteous hand. Drink? no, not a bit of it! Fate at hand — angry and malignant fate. Down goes cup; one blow! nectar spilled; end of it!” And then more quietly, after a little thoughtful pause. “I’m off to morrow!”
No one would have imagined that the speaker considered himself so much aggrieved, and need this disconsolate tone because a large inheritance and a title had fallen to him at this juncture.
That the reader is perhaps encountering the gentle humour of an ironist is reinforced by various shifts in register as the story develops. A lyrical description of the setting, worth quoting at length, comes down with a prosaic thump when concluded by a reference to the viscount’s colonial sobriquet:
The speaker stood on the threshold of a rough slab bush hut away in the wilderness. There were no railways, no tramways, no omnibuses known to the colony at this early date, for it was as far back as 1840; and the scene was the South Australian scrub, deep in the interior; bullock-drays for carriage and the saddle horse for travel being all the means of transit available then. The hut stood in a small clearing, all sun-flecked and shadow-haunted; and when the weather was not too hot or too cold it was an exceedingly pleasant spot. Forest trees, wild and ragged, in the distance towered aloft, from whose heights rang forth the wild birds’ scream or swelled the sweet rich melody of our one lone singing bird with its monotonous cadence; gum, pepper mint, cherry, and the rarer blackwood grew here, and the dingo’s yell oft mingled with the sounds of the “bush”. A belt of wattles fringed the wood’s edge and made it just now gay with blossom and redolent of odor. A steep range of hills rose perpendicularly to the rear of the hut, under whose rampart-like walls the little dwelling seemed to nestle and lie secure. There was grass now, and flowers were adorning it, showing flashes of color and forms of beauty.
The Viscount, known more generally in the bush as “Dead-Shot Jack,” turned to his mate within the hut as he spoke.
The moniker, “Dead-Shot Jack”, becomes central to the story which goes on to describe a hostile encounter with a local Indigenous group, leading to the death of Clarence/Jack’s mate/brother Tom. But what are we to make of this encounter? Are we meant to view it ironically?
Clarence/Jack, whose bond of mateship with Tom has been forged through the shared hardships of outback life, is clearly torn at having to leave his friend/brother to take up his good fortune:
[A] mist suffused the speaker’s eyes, and a lump rose in his bare sinewy throat, from whose rough mahogany brown the regatta shirt fell away unbuttoned. “I say, don’t make a fool of a fellow;” and turning he wrung the slender hand of his companion hard, adding, “It’ll make no change in me. Our friendship has been very firm, old boy, hasn’t it? . . . Well, a few bits of yellow metal can’t change it. Why should they? Make up your mind and come too. No? My dear old man, I can’t leave you here alone.”
The potential danger Tom faces if “left alone” soon becomes apparent when a tribe of blacks appears demanding flour and other provisions. Bode’s description of the small band again has a lyrical quality, and creates a dual sense: it has an almost scientific-like precision of observation (the word “specimens” leaps out to a modern reader, but it was also applied in descriptions of the working classes and other white characters); but it nevertheless endows the subjects with a sense of nobility:
These stood grouped — two tall fellows, one lubra, one boy, some dogs. The men were fine specimens; athletes, with sinew, muscle, and bone, but little superfluous flesh. Their coal-black hair was greased and tasselated round the forehead over an oakum band set with white kangaroo teeth. Their breasts and arms were tattooed. The men, wholly nude, armed with spears and waddies. The woman had an opossum rug fastened to her back by bands of grasses, and slung from her shoulders were some baskets made of woven rushwork. She had on her head a sort of cap of the same plait, coming low down on the brow, and fitting the skull quite closely.
Dead-Shot Jack’s response to the blacks’ appearance at his hut is hardly warm: “’Well, what do you want?’ said the occupant of the doorway in no welcoming tone”. The reason for his belligerence: “sheep killing had been going on rather extensively lately, and several frays had occurred within a short time between squatters and natives”.
Elsewhere I have touched on the effects of writers transcribing pidgin English: it can serve to entrench stereotypical views of Indigenous speakers as somehow inferior to fluent English speakers, and can create a sense that the white protagonists are patronising them by communicating in this way. Of course we can turn this around and acknowledge that it is the blacks who are smart enough to learn and speak what is for them a foreign language, with the English speakers the ones who show less agility and intelligence by failing to reciprocate. In this story, more than the potentially de-humanising effect of transcribing pidgin, is the implied menace of the blacks’ demand for flour. If we view this through a contemporary lens, we could argue that, even within a western, transactional framework, what they are demanding – the odd sheep included – is little enough in exchange for use of their land, water, food and minerals; that the colonists’ view that such “gifts” are instances of their largesse, rather than a paltry fraction of what is owed, is made more than evident by Jack’s begrudging response. From the perspective of these colonial “heroes”, such demands could well appear unreasonable and potentially life-threatening. Nevertheless, the fact that Dead-Shot Jack meets a mere shaking of a spear with a round of fire which wounds the thigh of the spear-shaker must give the reader pause. That Jack himself deems this a proportionate response is not overtly questioned, but what the author herself thinks of his actions is open to interpretation.
I suggest Bode is painfully aware this response was disproportionate, and intends for the reader to see it as such, but her irony – if that’s what it is – may even now be too subtle for most readers. In 1889, one wonders whether readers took her story at anything other than face value.
The consequences of Jack’s disproportionately violent response are dire:
An ominous sound from all, and “Jemmy” raised his spear.
“None of that;” and Jack’s pistol was fired at the leader. There arose a scream from the lubra and a groan from Jemmy, and he rolled over, the blood spouting from a bullet wound in the thigh.
It had all been so sudden that Tom only now came on the scene. Ere the blacks took their departure another spear was raised, flung with deadly aim, and they turned and fled.
Looking round to his friend, the cry that arose on Jack’s lips died ere it was uttered; and those lips turned ashen, as with the pallor of the dying. Then followed a deep and awful execration, as he saw Tom fall backward, the spear last aimed having entered at his left eye!
Tom is mortally wounded; Jack abandons him to risks his life to rescue his beloved who – seemingly in retaliation – is kidnapped by the tribe; and Jack is rewarded by having a local landmark named after him. Is it a stretch to read this story as anything other than an unredeemably hagiographic account of a “heroic” early settler’s “bravery”?
Perhaps, but I’d still like to tease out this idea further.
Bode goes to some length to demonstrate the power imbalance between Jack and the Indigenous group, not only in terms of weaponry, but also in perceived authority. When the tribe seeks once more to retaliate for the injury done to one of their number, Jack’s response bears out his sobriquet:
One big fellow, the tribe’s man of prowess, led; the others followed closely, whooping and yelling. The first head that protruded through the doorway fell back, smashed through the forehead by the butt end of Jack’s rifle. Then that hero presented himself revolver in each hand, and commenced a deadly fire among the foremost of the assailants. An instant panic ensued. No little of the dread, horror, and consternation with which the blacks precipitately retreated was due to the appearance of a pair of handcuffs that Jack brought adroitly into view. These he had kept for such emergencies, having been once a trooper in the mounted police force, and all the awe of that function hung about him still. In fact, among the natives he was regarded as yet in office, and invested with all the terrors that a trooper inspires among them. The dread of the police they entertain is immeasurable. Howling, moaning, yelling, they retreated, their movements quickened by the ninepin-like exercise that Jack kept up with his revolvers and the dreaded sight of the ready “bracelet.”
How heroic is it to meet spears with the power of a revolver? The reference to the “ninepin-like exercise” suggests that there is something of sport in Jack’s shooting; more cowardly and cruel than heroic. And the terror he is able to engender in the blacks’ response to the manacles suggests the cruel history or oppression and terrorising he himself has been part of.
The “sport” reference continues in the depiction of Jack’s rescue of his beloved Myra. He employs a trick which involves him donning the pelt of a red kangaroo and terrorising the blacks in their encampment, something he and Tom have done before:
The two friends had often played on the superstition of the natives, and he remembered how they had rigged up a skin to represent a red kangaroo when drawn over the human figure. He had worn it, and terrified the natives for fun by appearing at their camp thus disguised. It is the object of their unutterable dread — the awful, the ill-omened, the doom-portending herald of woes unimaginable, the whisper-named Kupirri — the red kangaroo.
“Terrifying the natives” for fun? Again, hardly heroic – and this time, surely, Mrs Bode intends us to see the “hero’s” cruelty for what it is, along with his flagrant disrespect for their traditional beliefs and customs. As a method for liberating his captured beloved, his “trick” proves effective:
Not a spear was aimed, not an attempt at essaying to hunt the red kangaroo could be thought of by the hardiest, so deep was their awe of the semi-supernatural apparition that embodied a prophecy of every possible form of evil.
The embodiment of “every possible form of evil” – that is the blacks’ perception of “Dead-Shot Jack” and his ilk, a man who took possession of their lands, denied their just claims, fired on them with the barest of provocations, shot at them “like ninepins”, and used the skin of a sacred animal to terrorise them for sport.
Does Bode depict the blacks as blameless? Clearly not: they kidnapped Jack’s betrothed. But are we meant to see Jack as an unqualified hero? I don’t think so.
As a postscript to the romantic reunion of the lovers, and the sad burial of Jack’s friend/brother — the author adds the following:
There is a railway now to that part of South Australia. A township has been laid out on the Warrabirri, and roads and conveyances traverse the country in all directions. The locality has been opened up rapidly, being rich in mineral, and there is a gap there still called “The Rescue.” Tom and Jack Dana, sons of Viscount and Lady St. Oriel, are now the proprietors of Lone Valley.
Without ceremony, this paragraph effects the erasure of the tribe whose country this was, effacing a story of colonial violence and casual cruelty, and inscribing onto the land itself the dominant, white narrative of a “heroic” sacrifice and rescue.
The fact that Mrs Bode’s family name of “Ayliffe” has been enshrined in numerous place names in South Australia invites us to make a connection between the characters of her story and her own family legacy. The “tale” is reminiscent of a family legend, perhaps told unselfconsciously by the teller, but in relating it with the benefit of hindsight, I believe we can detect the more critical view suggested above.
Did Mrs Bode intend her readers to detect this double narrative? If so, she arguably made them work hard for it. I must admit, when I first read this story, I wasn’t expecting or looking for subtleties. It was only when I began to reflect on the language that I began to see traces of a duality. What convinces me that the author might have been employing irony isn’t this story alone; rather, it is Bode’s poem, “Lubra”, that helps to persuade me. In that poem, published a year earlier in an anthology marking 100 years of colonisation, Bode shows an awareness of and sympathy for Indigenous suffering and dispossession, even while demonstrating a romantic simplification of Indigenous people’s connection to the land. In “Lubra”, the tribes are acknowledged as the original “possessors” of the land; the white men are seen as plunderers, likened to animals – the predatory eagle and dingoes who feast on carcasses – and compared to the murderous Cain, the biblical figure who killed his brother. Having read this poem, it’s hard to read “A tale of colonial Australia” without detecting more than a touch of irony. I’d be interested to know whether you agree.
Mrs Bode’s poem, “Lubra”, will appear here in full on Friday.
Advertisement, Evening Journal (Adelaide) 1 Nov 1875.
Australian Poets: 1788-1888 ed. Douglas W B Sladen, New York: Cassell Publishing Company 1890: 60 (this can be accessed via an online pdf, page 60).
Death notice for J A Bode, Express and Telegraph (Adelaide), 25 Jul 1989.
Elizabeth Ilive (or Illiffe), Wikipedia entry (accessed 18/10/22).
Image source for painting of Elizabeth Iliffe by Thomas Phillips ; National Trust, Petworth House.
Image source for photograph of Petworth Castle, Wikipedia entry for Earl of Egremont (accessed 18/10/22)
Obituary, The Advertiser, 10 Aug 1920.
Obituary, The Register, 10 Aug 1920.
Thomas Hamilton Ayliffe, Wikipedia entry (accessed 18/18/22).
Wedding notice, South Australian Register, 31 Mar 1877.
Bibliography for Ettie E Ayliffe, Mrs J A Bode:
— “A Christmas Sonnet” (1890, poem)
— “A Tale of Colonial Life” (1889)
— “An Idyl” (1891, poem)
— “Christmas” (1893, poem)
— “Christmas” (1894, poem)
— “Christmas Carol” (1898, poem)
— “Christmas Lines” (1897, poem)
— “Christmas Sonnet” (1885, poem)
— The Flaw in the Diamond (1885), ch1; ch2; ch3; chs 3 (cont.) and 4; ch5; ch6; ch7; ch8; ch8 cont. (conclusion).
— “Help!” (1893, poem)
— “The Islander”, in Hopkins, F. R. C (ed.), The Australian Ladies’ Annual, M’Carron, Bird & Co., Melbourne, 1878, pp. 53-63. poem. Link to Australian Popular Fiction Digital Archive. Also: La Trobe digital collection.
— “Lubra” in Australian Poets: 1788-1888 ed. Douglas W B Sladen, New York: Cassell Publishing Company 1890: 60 (pdf)
— Old Love Letters (1870), serialised in The Adelaide Observer, ch1; ch2; ch3; ch4; ch5; ch6; ch7; ch8; ch9; ch10; ch11; ch12; ch13; ch14.
— Original Poems (Adelaide: Mrs J A Bode, 1885) – links to State Library of Victoria Digital collection
— “Sighingsweet: a fairy tale” (1891, short story)
— “The Story of Cree and Cri: A Fairy tale” (1885, poem)
— “Too Much Governed” (1891)
— “Then” (1889, poem)
— “Tomorrow” (1888, poem)
— “Want” (1885, poem).
— “Woman; or Fidelity: by Ettie Ayliffe 1870” (1882, poem)
— “Words” (1889, poem)
Elizabeth Lhuede first published poems and short fiction in the 1990s while working at Macquarie University as a tutor and research assistant. After completing her PhD, she took a break before returning to Macquarie to teach English and Creative Writing. More recently, Elizabeth instigated the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge and, under the pen-name Lizzy Chandler, has had two e-novellas published with Harper Collin’s Escape imprint (romance and romantic suspense), one of which has been anthologised in print.