by Elizabeth Lhuede
The final article in this year’s series on forgotten Australian women authors.
This coming Monday, it’ll be 100 years since the death of Rosamond Agnes Benham (married name Taylor), poet, public lecturer, single mother and medical doctor. It seems a fitting time to mark the passing of this extraordinary Australian woman writer – though not because of the size of her output. The AustLit database credits Benham with only 18 works: 17 poems and one short story; and to that modest list, I’ve only been able to add one poem. What strikes me when researching Benham on Trove is that her life exemplifies the challenges some women face: juggling multiple jobs to earn a living, surviving a violent and controlling husband, single motherhood and illness; challenges that must have proven doubly difficult when seeking to pursue a literary career.
Rosamond Agnes Benham was born in 1874 to Agnes and Jack Benham. Her mother Agnes (nee Nesbit) is described in the Australian Dictionary of Biography as a “socialist and advocate of sex reform” and was cousin to the radical English author Elizabeth Nesbit. Her father Jack Benham, an immigrant to Australia in the 1850s, reputedly walked overland from Queensland to settle in South Australia, where Rosamond grew up. In Adelaide, the radical Benhams were met with a conservative society.
According to the AustLit database, Rosamond Benham was educated at Mrs Kelsey’s Dryburgh House School, followed by a year at the Advanced School for Girls. Then, following two years of private tuition, she matriculated with English, French, Latin and Maths, before studying Medicine at the University of Adelaide (1896-1902). As a new graduate, Benham found employment in a private practice in Western Australia, earning the following descriptive note in The swan express on her appointment:
We have to congratulate the residents of Guildford on the advantage that doubtless will accrue to the district through the regular visits of Dr. Rosamond Benham, a lady physician and surgeon. Dr. Benham, a South Australian by birth, is a foremost type of the intellectual woman. She has attained, in addition to her professional degrees, considerable literary repute, and as a public speaker has given evidence of the possession of a large fund of wit and original ideas. A tall, svelte, athletic-looking woman, reminding one of the pictures of the bush heroines Rolfe Bolderwood [sic] and J. D. Hennessy’s novels, with a cheerful face, modest manner, and an earnest, clear-toned voice, go to make up the interesting personality of one of Australia’s brainiest women. Dr. Benham will attend every Monday afternoon at the residence of Mrs. J. K. Ask, and may be consulted daily at her own residence, Hay and Axom streets, Subiaco. (Medical)
In March 1903 she married Thomas Gilbert Taylor, Secretary of the W.A. Social Democratic Federation, a marriage that was to prove a sore trial. The couple lived firstly in Western Australia, before moving to Adelaide in 1904. There Rosamond gave birth to two daughters, Lalage in 1904, and Anthea in 1906. After the second birth, Benham – now Taylor – applied to practice medicine in Victoria. There they lived until 1908 when she moved again, this time to Queensland to practice in country towns.
At some point, Benham’s marriage suffered a catastrophic breakdown. In 1913, she endured a widely-reported and sensational divorce case and, after successfully arguing cruel treatment, was granted a decree nisi and given sole custody of her daughters. Contemporary articles reporting the case give a vivid picture of what the young wife and mother suffered at the hands of her husband:
The plaintiff was a medical practitioner, and respondent had practically lived on her earnings ever since. He was of an ungovernable temper and had practised most refined cruelty on the petitioner. His method of obtaining money was not by brute force, but he would commence asking for money, and keep on talking all night till she gave way. This caused her to suffer very much in her health. There were also certain acts of physical violence. Respondent had thrown plates at her; and had struck her in the face. His general behavior had resembled that of a lunatic. He then got sick, and confessed that he had committed adultery, and asked for forgiveness. She replied that she intended taking divorce proceedings, and he then wrote her a most cruel letter, telling her of various acts of adultery. (Refined cruelty: case in divorce)
He would threaten her often with a Browning pistol, which he would point at her head, saying that he would shoot her. At Toogoolawah [Qld] he kept her awake the whole of the first night they were there by talking to her, and on the second night he threatened to shoot her with a revolver. (A lady medico’s martyrdom).
It would be interesting to know the law regarding women’s finances in Queensland at the time: did Benham have the legal right to deny her husband her earnings? Whatever the legal case, she showed extraordinary courage and fortitude in resisting his threats.
In 1918, after a decade in the sunshine state, Benham returned once more to Victoria, where, unable to reestablish herself in private practice, she found employment as the Resident Medical Officer at Kew Asylum, Melbourne. After suffering a long illness from chronic nephritis, she died on 11 Dec 1923 at Lilydale, her country home. She was survived by her mother and her daughters.
Regarding her literary career, Benham showed promise while still in her teens. In 1888, at the precocious age of 13 or 14, Rosamond placed third in a short story competition run by Australian town and country journal. The story, “Dorothy’s Daughter”, was the only short fiction she was ever to publish and appeared under the pseudonym “Lalage”, a name she later gave to her first-born daughter.
The story tells of the early marriage of a girl in her teens who sacrifices a chance to move to New Zealand with her new husband in order to look after her invalid mother. Interestingly, considering the author’s future studies and choice of career, the husband is a medical doctor and uses a type of mesmerist “laying on hands” technique to calm his distraught wife. The couple part and, during the separation, the protagonist gives birth to a daughter. When the mother eventually dies, the young mother and babe begin a journey from Hobart to New Zealand via Melbourne, but disaster strikes.
The competition organisers, perhaps sensing the piece was written by a juvenile, but wanting to encourage a budding literary talent, described the story as follows:
This tale will be found sufficiently romantic for an ardent lover of changes and chances of hopes unfulfilled and of sudden surprises. (Our prize story competition)
After this early promise writing fiction, Benham turned her attention to poetry. In the late 1890s, while studying Medicine, she had six poems published, all in The bulletin. Some appeared under her pseudonym, “Lalage”, and others under “Rosamond Benham”. She also commenced as a public speaker, lecturing on a number of topics including the “Nature of Death” (1899), in which she discusses science to support an argument for the immortality of the soul, and later, “The Mistakes of Women” (1903), a talk which appears to have attracted the attention of the press primarily because she was against the use of corsets.
From 1901 to 1907, Benham had another seven poems published, not only in The bulletin, but also in The bookfellow, Australia: the Australasian weekly magazine and Bairnsdale advertiser. Her single prose publication, a pamphlet, Sense About Sex, appeared around 1905. In 1911, another poem appeared, this one in The Bunbury herald. After that, her literary output dried up, perhaps due to the stress of the divorce, the demands of working and single-motherhood and the beginnings of her long illness.
Benham’s output, though modest, attracted some critical attention. In a 1914 essay on “Some Australian women writers”, “Sydney Partridge” remarked she was regarded as having penned “some of the finest Australian love poems”. Benham’s final poem, Last thoughts, published posthumously by The bulletin in 1931, is more to my taste. It’s a beautiful little poem, and worth quoting here:
Last thoughts (1931)
When you are coming near life’s last desire
And all the little voices of dead days
Tell whom you’ve helped or hurt, and what the praise
And what the blame that’s due to you, conspire
With memory for a moment to retain
The pride of having all Time’s joy defined
For one at least. Though all the rest were blind,
For one at least you had not lived in vain.
Then let that shadow pass, and so forget
The one whose world you were—and then renew
Your thoughts of those who made a world for you,
Of those in whom your own delights were met.
Rest in peace, Rosamond Agnes Benham, the centenary of whose death occurs next Monday.
“A lady doctor”, Sense About Sex (c 1905, pamphlet)
Agnes Mary Matilde Benham (1850-1932), Australian dictionary of biography.
Fair and unfair, Quiz and the lantern, 7 Dec 1899: 11 [mentions Benham’s lecture on death].
“Lalage”, Dorothy’s Daughter, The Australian town and country journal, 18 Feb 1888: 32.
“Lalage”, Last thoughts, The bulletin 2 Dec 1931: 29.
Medical, Swan express, 3 Oct 1903: 2.
News and notes, The west Australian , 14 Dec 1903: 6 [mentions Benham’s lecture “The mistakes of women”].
Our prize story competition, Australian town and country journal, 11 Feb 1888: 18.
Partridge, Sydney, “Some Australian women writers”, The mail 18 Apr 1914: 9.
Personal, West Australian, 11 Jan 1924: 8 [death announcement].
Rosamond Agnes Taylor, entry on AustLit. Requires subscription access available via public library.
Source of image: Doings in divorce, Truth, 8 Jun 1913: 11.
Elizabeth Lhuede first published poems and short fiction in the 1990s while working at Macquarie University as a tutor and research assistant. After completing a PhD in Australian poetry, she taught English and Creative Writing, initially at Macquarie and later at TAFE (NSW). In 2011-12, Elizabeth instigated the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge, and has continued supporting the project in some capacity ever since. Under the pen-name Lizzy Chandler, she has had two e-novellas published with Harper Collin’s Escape imprint (romance and romantic suspense), one of which has been anthologised in print.