by Alys Hungerford (1857-1934)

Alys Hungerford before 1882


Alys Hungerford has been described variously as “the blind poetess” and “blind authoress and playwright”. Two sources give us insight into her life. The first is a piece by Lesley Abrahams, published in a family genealogical pamphlet, the HAFS journal (2017); the second is a readable PhD thesis by J Hunt, Cultivating the arts (2001).

According to Abrahams, Hungerford was born in July 1857 in Country Cork, Ireland, and in 1877 married Francis John Beamish, a Justice of the Peace and landowner. This marriage ended in divorce in 1893, six years after Alys had migrated to Australia, arriving on the “Australasian” in 1887.

Having been welcomed into the family of distant Hungerford cousins as a governess, Alys married another Hungerford, Kenneth, in 1898, when Alys was 41 and Kenneth 32. The couple lived firstly in Newcastle (1899) and later in Neutral Bay (1913). Kenneth travelled widely for his work as a mining engineer, and Alys suffered from “sandy blight”, the treatment for which left her blind. This second marriage also hit strife and was dissolved in 1922.

Of Hungerford’s literary output, Abrahams summarises:

As well as her book of poetry, A Book of Songs, published under her name, some of Alys Hungerford’s poetry appeared in The Oxford Book of Australian Verse, chosen by Walter Murdoch. A number of her poems were first published in current newspapers and magazines during her lifetime, including Australian Worker, in the pages conducted by Dame Mary Gilmore; Evening News; The Triad; Murray Pioneer & Australian River; Stead’s Review; Woman’s World; The Spinner; The Wentworth Magazine; and The Sydney Morning Herald.

Alys also published short stories, and contributed plays to the Community Playhouse competitions, run by Kylie Tennant.

Jane Hunt, in her thesis, Cultivating the arts, shows how Hungerford’s blindness did not prevent her from participating in the literary life of her day. She was connected to a number of writers, including Mary Gilmore, Ada Holman and Connie Stephens, as well as “the liberal leaning New Zealand poet Jessie Mackay”. She was also an active correspondent:

From Leura [a village in the Blue Mountains], where Hungerford resided in the early 1920s, she sent long typewritten letters to friends, strangers and acquaintances alike. Carers and companions read her the replies of her many correspondents, as well as anything of literary value in the papers or in publications sent to her by her friends.

In 1933, according to Abrahams, Alys moved to Lawson, also in the Blue Mountains, where she died in 1934, aged 78 years.

The short story below, “Two simple letters”, was published in The triad on 11 February 1924, almost one hundred years to this day. Given the context of Hungerford’s unhappy marriages, and newly divorced status, it’s tempting to suggest it drew on her own life experience. Its theme hasn’t aged. (It’s a gem!)

Two simple letters by Alys Hungerford (1924, short fiction)

“I am up here, beloved, on the edge of the snow. My survey work cannot kill the romance of my surroundings. The men’s camp is some distance off. Rather than a gorgeous view, they prefer adequate shelter. This log hut has been left here by I know not whom. Probably by some forgotten survey party — maybe, some mountain climbers. The hut is of stout, upright, thick planks, almost half trees — the round side out in the air, and the floor is beaten earth, quite hard, and smooth. I have thrown several tanned skins of wild goats, over it, for warmth; and two black bear rugs on a stretcher make a comfortable bed.”

“There are two deck chairs near a roaring fire of logs — I sit in one, and look at the other. Why? Because I see your bronze head against the tawny leopard skin you carry with you on vacations. I see the brown, velvety folds of your gown, and smell the purple violets at your throat. Your little feet, such little feet, are resting on the back of Tim, the Irish terrier who is of much the same hue as your leopard. I even fancy that your hands, like two snow-flakes, are held out to me in a greeting of — welcome home.”

“Most dear, I cannot pursue these fancies night after night, while the flames roar up the chimney, without losing my grip on things. I long for exquisite cadences of your voice, your gaiety, stirring my blood like wine; the perfection of line and colour that wakens the stifled artist in me — these things belong to you, haunt me and make me smile, as I gaze in the fire when the wind, like a hungry wolf, is howling for admittance. I dare not think of your small, smiling lips, the soft clasp of your clinging fingers around my neck.”

“As I write, I hear you laugh at me — a gay ripple of laughter, like a song; you always laughed at my ‘heroics,’ as you called my very rare outbursts of sentiment. Yet, I know, I am sure, that you have a heart, somewhere about you, a heart that could be mine, if only I could find the hidden lock or spring that would open it; can you not give me the key, or secret of the spring? Will nothing induce you to come here to me? If you want the incense of worship, it is here, for the taking; adoration, love, everything of himself that a man can give; life if need be. As for more material things, there is rough comfort, and warmth, and air like champagne; also, there is a beauty you will find nowhere else in your life.

“Think of the sapphire-blue nights, and the great stars, globes of fire, hanging clear in the air; think of the wonder of the whiteness, when the moon blots out the stars, and makes the dazzling peaks —miles and miles of them — glitter against the sky. Have you ever heard the odd murmur of the snow, on a frosty night, queer little crackles of sound, as if it were laughing, an old, weird laugh? It is all as wonderful as you are yourself.

“If you shiver at these night pictures, think of ‘The Rose of Dawn,’ flooding all the sky and mountains. Our hut fronts the east; and it is a marvel to behold the sudden spring of the sun into the heavens. It turns the deep valleys below into a fathomless purple pit, and the far-off plains into a misty likeness of the sea; the sea which is too far away for the eyes to see. There are mountain flowers growing in the clefts of the chasm leading to the profundity at our feet. I could climb down and get you some to smell; though most of them are scentless. I will send you a box full of them before you come up; to encourage you.

“I know you will come. Such a drawing force as my love is surely stronger than any reasons you may have for not coming. The men in my survey party are a good lot; they could get you wood and all that sort of thing, and be no worry to you at all; while Tim will be your devoted slave, and companion, while I am absent at work.

“You will come; won’t you? Of course you will; if not, the whole earth will slip from beneath my feet.

“I shall send down for more stores to-morrow. You like olives, don’t you, and asparagus, and plovers’ eggs in aspic? I can’t, for the moment, remember more. Ah, and yes, I have some of the Hashish cigarettes that the Prince fellow gave me in Egypt — the sort you like. I have kept them for you; won’t that tempt you?”

“My dear Maurice, anyone reading your priceless document would know at once that you were a whole year, younger than I am. A whole year, did I say? It is more like several life-times. Perhaps my rather nauseous marriage has made me shy of further aspirations in the same direction. These months of freedom (over a year now) have been to me like the Peace of God. And you ask me to rivet shackles, once more, on my happily emancipated limbs!

“You think, perhaps, that a modern wife is free, as free as her husband. Perhaps she is so legally — I do not know. But the long centuries of submission to the will of an overlord have produced an attitude of mind, I, at least, cannot cope with, or resist. Were you my husband, and came round the corner of the verandah suddenly, the wifely urge, as I will call this attitude of mental submissiveness, would drag me to my feet to meet you, with a coo of, ‘Oh, dearest, how hot and thirsty you are — let me take your hat — what will you have to drink? How hot your forehead is,’ and so on. And so would I speak whether I still loved you or not. I should need to be merely on good terms with you; whereas, under existing circumstances, if you so came, I should hold out my hand, even though my heart might have rushed forward and laid itself at your feet, and I should say to you, ‘Ring for Sarah — whisky and soda, or tea? Is it not blazing?’ You see, I should not have the anxiety of the slave to please her master.

“Certainly you have not even mentioned marriage, in the whole of your rhapsody — but I gather it was bien entendu. Oh, I can feel you quivering and raging over what you are certain to dub the cynicism of these remarks; but you have always heard the truth from me, and you are going to have it always.

“Yet, I think I love you: do I, I wonder? Anyway, your letter rather thrilled me. But under the thrill, surges up sane criticism.

“For instance, where is the bath-room? Of course, there is not any. Imagine me, if you can, without a bathroom and a maid to turn on the hot water, and bring stacks of warm, clean towels, and help me dress. I am not all English, you know, and perhaps, lack the fibre that sustains women of that race in their revolting Alpine, and other mountain, escapades; powderless, red-nosed, and unwashed. I know you want me — it all rings true. Even the dear, ridiculous stores for which you are sending, you nice Thing, prove that.

“But, but, but, who is to cook the breakfast? You, maybe, for the first few mornings, but I have a sort of sleepy conscience, somewhere about my person, and then I should arise, and unwashed, and uncomforted, and with untidy hair, grovel among the cinders, and cook your chops — and mine, if I could swallow chops, cooked in a bedroom. I should probably have a black streak across my nose, and greasy fingers; the artist in you, that you mention, would be stifled again after such a sorry spectacle. When you had gone off to work — at whatever mysterious work takes place on The Roof of the World, as they call your Hills of Dream — I should, I suppose, go out, and standing on the snow, rub myself down with it, to take off the evil stains of domesticity.

“My whole materialistic Me shudders at the mere idea. No, don’t call me a Toad, and a Beast — l am only sensible; and, shall I tell you a secret? I value your admiration, and, yes, love, — too much to put them to a trial to which most silly women would gladly set them.

“I have paused to contemplate my golden garden; the roses, the fountain, the blood-red carnations, and all the other summer gems. I have stretched my feet into a patch of sun- shine, flecked with the shadow of wistaria [sic] leaves. Am I so little ethereal that I cannot love without comfort? Yes; and yet, no. Suddenly a wild longing leaps up in my heart to spring to my feet, and run to you; run to you, just as I am, in a silk tea-gown and black satin slippers with gold heels. The folly of it! Can’t you see the folly of it, the crass idiocy of it? I can — though the feeling is not a momentary spasm caused by your letter; but a strong impulse, coming from I know not where.

“Suppose I go, suppose I go, how will you receive me? With open arms? I almost feel the roughness of your tweed coat on my cheek, and on my lips. . . . What use to go on? I shall remain here, unless I walk in my sleep, and climb through my window, and run bare-foot the fifty or so miles, uphill, into your arms. I am NOT coming to you. I am a sensible woman. A woman who has lived. Let that phrase explain all. Good-bye, Maurice.




Abrahams, Lesley, “Australian poetess – Alys Hungerford”, Journal of the Hungerford & associated families society Inc. vol 14, no 2 (Nov 2017): 1-6. accessed 4/2/24

“Catty communications”, Smith’s weekly, 20 Dec 1930: 11. accessed 31/01/24

Community playhouse,” Sydney mail, 29 Oct 1930: 3. accessed 31/01/24

Hungerford, Alys, “Two simple letters“, The triad vol 9, no 4 (1924): 21-22; accessed 31/01/24

Hunt, Jane Elizabeth, Cultivating the Arts: Sydney Women Culturists 1900-50 Chapter 4: ‘Fellowing’ Australian women: Mary Gilmore and Women Writers of the 1920s (Macquarie University, 2001): accessed 29/01/24

Image source: Journal of the Hungerford & associated families society Inc. vol 14, no 2 (Nov 2017): 3. accessed 31/01/24


Introduction by Elizabeth Lhuede

Elizabeth Lhuede has a PhD in Australian Poetry from Macquarie University. In 2012, she instigated the Australian Women Writers Challenge, as a contribution to overcoming gender bias in the reviewing of works by Australian women. More recently she has focused on bringing to light the life and works of forgotten Australian women writers.