by Whispering Gums
This month we have featured Barbara Baynton in a few posts – two articles (a review of Penne Hackforth-Jones’ biography, and a review of Baynton’s novel Human toll), and two pieces of Baynton’s own writing (“Indignity of domestic service” and an extract from Human Toll), so far. Baynton’s output was small in terms of published books, just one novel, Human Toll, and one short story collection, Bush studies, but her impact was strong. In her Introduction to Sydney University Press’s edition of Bush studies, Sheridan quotes Alan Lawson from the Dictionary of literary biography. He describes Baynton as having “a small oeuvre and a large reputation”.
Bush studies, the first of Baynton’s two books, was published in 1902 by the English publisher Duckworth & Co. Only the last story in the collection, “The chosen vessel”, had been published before – in The Bulletin in 1896. For this post, I have chosen to discuss the collection’s first story, “A dreamer”, even though it differs from those that follow it in some interesting ways.
The plot is simple: a young pregnant woman arrives at a remote railway station, at night, expecting, having written ahead, to be met by someone with a buggy. When that proves not to be the case, she decides to walk “the three bush miles” despite the windy, rainy night because it was “the home of her girlhood, and she knew every inch of the way”. Except that, as it turns out, on a dark rainy night, she doesn’t. Baynton recounts the drama of the young woman’s walk – a wrong choice at a fork, near drowning on a creek crossing – and in the process idealises the mother-child relationship against hostile nature:
Her mother had planted these willows, and she herself had watched them grow. How could they be so hostile to her?
How indeed? This story is another example of Baynton’s gothic, of her non-romantic view of the Australian bush which she describes as alienating and forbidding, particularly for women. If the language of the opening paragraph is unsettling – “night-hidden trees”, “closed doors”, “blear-eyed lantern” – it only gets worse as nature seems to conspire against the woman. The wind fights her “malignantly” and the water is “athletic furious”, but it’s not all negative. The woman sees “atonement in these difficulties and dangers”. Atonement for what is not made explicit but it relates to her having, it seems, gone against her mother and having been away for too long: “Long ago she should have come to her old mother”. Visions of her mother and memories of her childhood keep her going: “soft, strong arms carried her on”. And so the story continues with the horror of the bush at night set against maternal love. As she arrives at the home, our young woman finds signs that things aren’t quite right. The ending probably won’t surprise you as the plot is not an unusual one even if the setting is. However, to avoid spoilers, I’ll leave the plot here. The text will be published in full in our next post.
A major point of difference in this story, from those that follow, is that men do not play a significant role in the action or denouement of this story’s plot. It’s interesting to consider why Baynton chose this as the collection’s first story. Is it for this reason, and that this story offers an effective introduction to Baynton’s gothic-style and women-oriented themes without confronting her readers straight off with her full fury?
Contemporary responses, and beyond
The collection attracted generally positive responses from the newspaper reviewers of the time and into the following decades, albeit these reviewers also recognised the strong degree of horror conveyed in the stories. Sydney’s The Australian Star reviewed the book on 15 January 1903, saying that:
Miss Baynton in her sketches of bush folk may be said to belong to the realistic school. But her realism is not of the hard and dry kind. It is relieved by many little touches of pathos, and humour is not absent either. The imaginative element in Miss Baynton finds good play in the’ opening sketch, entitled “The Dreamer.”
Nearly three decades later, 1931, over two years after Baynton’s death in 1929, The Brisbane Courier (17 October) published an article about her, commencing with:
Henry Lawson and E. G. Dyson, in their short stories, portray their characters with humour. They are realists, but romantic realists, for they see the adventure and the fun as well as the struggles and tragedies of the bush. Two other important short-story writers of the ‘nineties have not their breadth of vision, although they have a compensating intensity to some extent—Barbara Baynton and “Price Warung.” They concentrate on the harder facts of life and ignore the rest. The “Bulletin” encouraged the presentation of the raw and ruddy in bush sketches as an antidote to the sentimental. Yet it is no truer art to exclude the gentle and gracious side of life in the name of realism than to obliterate the harsh and repellent in the name of the romantic. Barbara Baynton is a grim realist, and her “Bush Studios” are powerful but unpleasant.
This article goes on to describe the stories in this collection as “surely the grimmest tales of Australia ever told”. However, the writer does like “A dreamer”, which it says is told with “graphic strength and simplicity”. The next story however, is “more gruesome than Gorky, with whom she has been compared”.
Other reviews over the first three decades of the century reflect on the grimness and meanness of the portrayals in these stories, but many of them also see some value in the writing. Another review from 1903, in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph (17 January), writes that two of stories, “A Dreamer” and “The Chosen Vessel,” are “notable examples of a rare faculty of pourtrayal [sic] and suggestion”, and describes “A dreamer” as “a singularly true and moving, study in an unhappy incident”. Overall, though, this writer would like to see Baynton try her hand at “brighter colors” for other aspects of Australian bush life.
Journalist and naturalist Charles Barrett wrote about Baynton in Melbourne’s The Herald on July 20, 1929, a couple of months after her death. Heading his piece, “Barbara Baynton’s books: An appreciation”, he says that she “possessed an intimate knowledge of outback Australia, of the bush and its fauna, and of settler and station life”. He says that while her novel Human toll may be forgotten, Bush studies “will not, while the best of the realism in our native literature is read”. That said, he recognises the challenges involved in reading many of the stories due to their use of “the vernacular of the outback that … may be too intrusive to please some tastes”. “A dreamer”, however, “is simply told, a tale for pity that has often been told, with less art, in two or three hundred pages”. Fine praise that recognises the power of a good short story. Barrett closes his piece with Bush Studies is “literature because in it an artist looks keenly at samples of life”.
To end, I’ll return to Susan Sheridan’s introduction which surveys the responses to Baynton’s stories over time – from the early understanding of her graphic portrayals of the reality and cruelty of bush life, through feminist critiques looking at Baynton’s representation of women and the way male culture projects women, to a discussion of her naturalism and the idea of both humanity and nature oppressing the weak. My takeaway from all this is just how rich an experience it is to read Barbara Baynton. Sheridan ends her introduction with:
Bush studies is an extraordinarily powerful little book, offering insight into an earlier period of settler Australian life through the lens of a deeply different original imagination.
“A dreamer” which in some ways treads a familiar narrative path nevertheless reflects, in its writing and imagery, the original imagination to be found in the stories that follow.
Barbara Baynton, “A dreamer”, in Bush studies, Sydney University Press, 2009.
Susan Sheridan, “Introduction”, in Bush studies, Sydney University Press, 2009.
Whispering Gums, aka Sue T, majored in English Literature, before completing her Graduate Diploma in Librarianship, but she spent the majority of her career as an audio-visual archivist. Taking early retirement, she engaged actively in Wikipedia, writing and editing articles about Australian women writers, before turning to litblogging in 2009. Australian women writers have been her main reading interest since the 1980s.