by Bill Holloway

The intense isolation and fear that Baynton felt, alone in the bush in the outback as a young mother, is reflected in all her (relatively few) stories, her bleaker view a counterpoint to the mostly male Bulletin school with all its mateship and good cheer in adversity.

Barbara Baynton (1857-1929)  began working as a governess in outback NSW in 1875. In 1880 she married Alex Frater, older brother to some of her charges, and they took up a largely uncleared property near Coonamble in western NSW. Frater was often away, droving or drinking, leaving her partially blind, isolated, with her children and the property to manage, and prey to passing travellers.

By 1907 when Human Toll, her only novel (or novella, it’s 180 pp), was published, Baynton was a widow, living in London (see last week’s Barbara Baynton). AG Stephens was not available to provide advice or editing as he was for Bush Studies (1902), her earlier collection of short short stories, which I think had all appeared in the Bulletin during the previous decade, and this might account for the structure of the story being relatively difficult to follow, although individual passages are excellent.

Human Toll commences with a little girl, variously Lovey, Ursie and Ursula, already motherless, coming to terms with the death of her father. She is on a remote, semi-arid sheep property in the care of her father’s mate Boshy and an Aboriginal couple Nungi and Queeby. Boshy wishes to continue as the girl’s guardian but their nearest neighbour, Cameron and his daughter Margaret come and take her (and all the father’s papers). Ursula is sent to Cameron’s sister, a widow in a small country town, who also has the care of Cameron’s son Andrew, a few years older than Ursula, to attend school.

The widow marries a grasping Presbyterian preacher, Mr Civil. Andrew often has to stand between Civil and Ursula when the former is handing out punishments. Boshy sometimes comes to town and later provides the money for Ursula to attend boarding school. Mrs Civil dies and Civil becomes ‘nicer’ to Ursula when he thinks she might inherit her father’s property (which Cameron seems to have taken over), or Boshy’s mysterious “fortune”.

Spoilers: It all comes to a head at a town dance when Andrew ignores Ursula, gets drunk, and in the morning is found to have “married” Ursula’s friend, Mina. Mina is thrown out of home and Andrew and Palmer, his brother in law, take the two girls back to the original property (where Nungi now has a new and less amenable wife). There the two young woman – with no love at all lost between them – are abandoned; Nungi refuses to continue seeing to the sheep; his new wife is of little assistance around the house; Mina has a baby which she attempts to kill; Ursula runs off with the baby and becomes hopelessly lost in the bush.

Human Toll makes clear – by contrast – how much Australian fiction is written with a niceness, a middle class sensibility, that underplays people’s essential selfishness. Ursula is your ordinary moral, right-thinking heroine but all the supporting cast are nasty and brutish. Cameron apparently steals Ursula’s property; the preacher lives off the money Cameron pays for Ursula’s support, and later enters her bedroom:

He advanced to her, misled by her passiveness. She aimed a heavy blow at his leering face with the candlestick, but he dodged it, and, terrified of a noisy scene, he rushed to his room.

The townspeople are all at each other’s throats, though at least at the dance, they enjoyed themselves:

Then Neddy Neale, dragging his dazed partner, swished past where Palmer and Ursula stood. Gus Stein, with Pat the Jew’s daughter and Andrew with Mina, still kept the floor, but now the rat-tat-tat accompaniment knuckled from the bottom of a tin dish by Dave Heeley, Neale’s drover mate, till, tired out, even he ceased.

Then the dancing husband of the singer, importuned, momentarily disengaged his partner to grab his concertina, and with this resting on the girl’s back, he kept the dancers going, till he, though much encouraged, wearied. Dry-throated and panting, some of the wine-maddened performers tried to hoarsely bellow independent tunes, which in turn yielded to impotent yells.

The one great difficulty is that throughout, all speech is rendered as dialect, and between a childish Ursie, the Aussies, Aboriginals and the Germans, this is often quite hard to follow.

The novel ends with an astonishing tour de force, a stream of consciousness, over 20 or so pages, as Ursula struggles, increasingly crazed by thirst, disoriented and incoherent, through the bush:

What a most peculiar thing that was, the leaning tree which earlier she had passed – oh, surely long ago – days and weeks ago; and why did she pass it? Why? she wondered, and her enfeebled mind rested in this futile query. Oh – screaming – she knew why. She was lost in the Bush, and, as long ago she called, “Andree, Andree!” Now, now, she was growing like a child. A child! Worse, for when a child she had conquered herself …

Below, I have reproduced extracts from a review that originally appeared in the (London) Bookman, a trade publication, in 1907. Edward Garnett (1868-1937), the author, was a writer, reader and editor who worked variously with Joseph Conrad, Ford Maddox Ford, DH Lawrence and TE Lawrence. He knew Australian writing well enough to champion Henry Lawson, and he puts Baynton in exalted company.

Barbara Baynton
Human Toll
first pub. 1907
republished in Sally Krimmer & Alan Lawson eds, Barbara Baynton, UQP, Brisbane, 1980

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’.

(By EDWARD GARNETT, in the “Bookman” for March.)
There are as many methods of writing a novel as there are of painting a picture. All are legitimate If the result be artistic. Mrs. Baynton’s method in “Human Toll” will probably be severely criticised by those who demand clarity, form, and grouping from an artist whose style, intensely Impressionistic, aims primarily at etching on our consciousness a sinister human drama of ordinary life in a bush township.
We can conceive the conventional mind urging two objections to “Human Toll,” saying in effect,
“(1), the development of your plot is unskilful;
(2) your characters are unpleasant people, and we cannot sympathise with them.”
To this it may be replied that commonplace people condemn Dostoievsky’s novels on the same grounds,not seeing that the artistic appeal lies in the originality and cunning force of the revelation of human life, granted obvious flaws and excesses In the manner of the telling.
Mrs. Baynton presents her characters by a series of rapid, incisive strokes, her scenes do not form any coordinated whole, but are a string of salient episodes and psychological links in the running chain of the story. As with Dostoievsky, there is little or no perspective, but compelling atmosphere.
But any mental fatigue that may assail the reader who has the wit to concentrate his attention on “Human Toll,” will be compensated for a hundredfold by the strange dominancy of this absolutely original vision.
The surprising economy of means by which Mrs. Baynton gets her grim effects, points to her genius working without consciousness of that host of commonplace details of which most men’s “impressions” are composed. There is not a line of commonplace in her novel, and scarcely a hint of sentiment.
The terrible earthiness of human instinct, the underlying egoism of our desires, the determining force of a mean environment, the gauntness and squalidness of decivilised Australian life, are portrayed remorselessly in the figures of half a dozen characters.
It is probable that the art that, metaphorically speaking, sinks the deepest of shafts into the fundamental animalism of our being will be exceedingly unwelcome to the middle-class reader who is always struggling to keep his ideals on the soothing and unreal plane of, say, Burne Jones’ “Love Among the Ruins” or Watts’ “Love and Life“. But Mrs. Baynton’s art, dealing with the stern harshness of an unlovely life, an art that is nourished by no desire for illusions, has the property of making the examples we have cited seem what indeed they are — glorified Christmas cards, inspired by noble sentiments.
The functions of art are, of course, various, and the function, incidentally, of the unerring, remorseless, realism of these “ugly pictures,” is to destroy the fancy pictures of our moralists and our sentimentalists whose name is legion. That is the beauty of an art that accepts unhesitatingly the ugliest facts of nature. Its sincerity shows that the idealists are, in general, too much out of touch with Nature. . . .
We have said enough here to show that if the art of “Human Toll” is to be assessed, It must be judged on the artistic plane of the work of Balzac, Maupassant, or Dostoievsky.
There is nothing in recent English fiction that is so psychologically remarkable as this book. It is an unequal performance, fragmentary and uncertain in some of its effects, perhaps a little too nebulous and confused here, and a little too overstrained there. But it is a work of genius indisputably, disconcertingly sinister, extraordinarily actual.
In the last third of the story the authoress throws aside the objective method of the early pages, and concentrates herself on a pathological analysis, of her heroine Ursula’s mind, while bearing the unnatural strain of isolation in the bush, with the criminal Mina, and [Nungi and his new wife].
The intensity of horror is developed to the point of delirium in the final scene, where Ursula wanders, lost in the bush, with Mina’s dead baby, a prey to raging thirst. It is difficult to appraise the power of this scene, though perhaps it is, artistically speaking, too sustained and a little overdone.
Our readers should examine the book for themselves, though, to speak candidly, we must own that it will not please one man in twenty. But for that we must blame not the author’s genius, but our public’s aesthetic limitations.