Essay by Judith Rodriguez

Barbara Baynton is a hero of Australian writing because, in a decade when readers preferred jokes or sentimentality about hard-luck cases in Australia’s difficult farming backblocks, she punched hard and direct to show bitter truths. For example, the poet Judith Wright in her essay ‘Women Writers in Society’ registers attitudes to bold writing by women and to landscape, that relate to Baynton’s work:

As I remember, it was the women of my mother’s generation who largely repudiated the daring independence and male-rejection of the novel [Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career]. They would, I think, have sided with Lawson’s sentimentalism rather than with his mother’s militancy, every time. . . . Barbara Baynton’s harsh fierce sketches, which exposed much of what women really suffered and from their dependence, were not any more popular, I think, with women than with men.

There was one interesting aspect of Miles’ rebellion, which was shared by the much later Eve Langley. She loved passionately the Australian countryside where she was brought up, and her femaleness disbarred her from any share in its life except the purely domestic.

Not that Baynton doesn’t make jokes, or invoke feeling. But the feelings are complicated, and the jokes ones that other writers were probably not keen to tell.

Moreover, though the ‘voice’ of the moment, through whose eyes and experience we see the story, is often a man, the focus is sharply and powerfully on women.

Baynton’s language can put the reader off. But in depicting bush society she faced real problems – problems she shared with Joseph Furphy and other writers of the time. It’s worth reading aloud, which clarifies seemingly impenetrable expressions. It’s worth persevering with the strange levels of pretentious and less affected language, and odd transcriptions of speech; they display colonial experience as culture shock beyond the class and culture differences evident in England.

Presenting what they felt was an alien and disordered society, writers were tempted to wax ‘philosophical’, to bring to bear a superior intelligence to analyse illogical or crude behaviour. For example, in ‘Bush Church’ – Baynton’s principal ‘study’ of community interaction and manners, rather than of the desperate situation of a single character – Ned goes on to his passenger, the preacher, about a vital issue: how the animal and human population can increase in the challenging environment. Here’s how the preacher hears it:

It was only when Ned had exhausted the certainty, probability and possibility of increase among the mares, cows, ewes and nannies of his and the other cockies’ flocks and herds, that he would descend to the human statistics, and the parson found that impending possibility and probability entered largely into Ned’s computation of these. (Baynton p. 113-14)

Animals come first to Ned’s mind, though the best demonstration of Ned’s theme is the company – ten adults and eighteen children – there’s even a joke about a suggested marriage between the two old people present, holding a likeliness of children. But a main subject of conversation is the death of a working animal – the overtasked mare Polly. Shock and pity are the general response, but not blame, except from outspoken ‘Jyne’.

Ned, as Jyne puts it, is a ‘blower’ – he talks and talks to hold and amaze his audience, with scant regard to demonstrable truth or any message he’s supposed to convey. Whether he predicts overpopulation or devastation doesn’t matter; wild conjecture is how he holds an audience. His blather is more relevant and more entertaining than the scratch church service, to which most of the company pay scant attention.

Reporting Ned’s eloquence through the preacher’s thoughts, in language very different from Ned’s own, emphasises the preacher’s distance from Ned and, while dignifying it with long words, also sounds a note of ridicule.

Another barrier to easy reading is the way the settlers mangle the pronunciation of English. Most writers about colonials, especially those living far from capital cities and schools, tried to record what they heard. New words, changed vowels, tactlessness and insult that would be impossible in polite society, mention of swearing – all were items of record for a literate readership holding tightly to their English-taught correctness of both pronunciation and manners.

The speakers are not idiots, though some are close to brutal in relationships and ploys for survival. They hear insult and approval with unerring sharpness. They are astute in attending to self-interest – yet the reader will detect unexpected consideration of others. There’s Jyne’s inviting the despised child Joey inside, and Billy Skywonkie’s initial tact (when sober and dressed to flirt, and relative to others in the story) in expressing his views about the half-Chinese woman, except for a chance remark about ‘Blankey bush Chinkies’ which passes without reaction or comment.

As Ned’s harangue suggests, Baynton’s subject is birth and death. Four stories in Bush Studies centre on a death – two, a death by shocking violence; in the third, murder and theft are averted by the previous death of the intended victim, but his faithful dog is butchered instead. The two remaining stories are shocking in their departure from what we would consider norms of manners.

Part of the impact of the stories comes from the reversal involved in focusing on women. Squeaker’s Mate takes responsibility for their lives together as well as the lead in daunting physical tasks. Her vengeful seizing on the substitute ‘mate’ is a revelation and reminder of her claims as a woman. The apparently peripheral return of the mother in ‘Scrammy ‘And’ preoccupies the old man – probably her father-in-law – almost as direly as the prowling Scrammy; his talk shows he is painfully wrenching his feelings round to the presence of a woman and baby, long absent from his life.

Another mode of difference is race – not a topic most early writers explored. In Furphy and others, depiction of Chinese-ness or Aboriginality often includes difference of language, with a multiplied effect of ridicule. But, in ‘Billy Skywonkie’, a study of a racially-various, serial community from railhead to settler’s home, Baynton has the daring to show a well-spoken, independent, part-Chinese young woman seeking work, who from arrival to departure maintains her dignity. And this despite contempt, overt in the settler who has engaged her services, raucous in Meg, diluted with wonder in the carter. But even he treats her to disparaging remarks on ‘yeller satin’ and ‘red black-gins’ after an afternoon of continual drinking. The Chinese cook who offers partnership with himself as a substitute for a sexual arrangement with the settler is neither funny nor crude but almost pathetic, though he too has ingrained racist attitudes – casual relationships with white women being top of the range and a salve to injured pride when his offer is rejected.

Women depicted by Baynton range socially from the squatter’s wife in ‘Bush Church’ to the pub prostitute Meg and the grotesque old woman in ‘Billy Skywonkie’; but if we measure standing by autonomy, their power to decide and to act, they range from Jyne in ‘Bush Church’ and Squeaker’s mate before her injury, to the cipher of a woman in ‘The Chosen Vessel’. Jyne speaks her mind; as midwife she presides over matters of life and death; her contempt and her concern are freely expressed in mixed company. Vulgar, yes, but an acknowledged pillar of society. Squeaker’s mate is less secure. She is the perfect bushman, handy and hardy, but despite her self-controlled tolerance of Squeaker’s laziness and stupidity, she is a victim of their partnership – and disablement spells disaster.

In her useful discussion of the stories, Susan Barrett (2003) points out how completely the woman in ‘The Chosen Vessel’ is victimised by men. Even the passing horseman fails to treat the mother-and-child image – for him, a religious trope – as human beings needing help. Despised and abandoned by her husband, a temptation to sexually greedy passing travellers, her death comes from her one willed act – emerging from the hut to seek help.

Her disillusion and death are directly tied to Peter’s conviction that he is reborn (as his mother devoutly hoped), redeemed, chosen by the Lord to receive visions. Rapt, consumed with unseemly pride, he proclaims the glorious event to the priest and is denounced. Is this pendant to the murder – and it is a section of Baynton’s story that her editor A.G. Stephens felt able to cut in the first publication of the story – is this an attack on the Church’s teaching, which inspired the perversion of what Peter actually saw? At a distance, the title ‘Chosen Vessel’ comments on Mary’s role as simply the bearer of God’s message in Christ (John 15:16: ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.’). An ambiguous message, framing the sexual attack on the woman sacrificed as a ‘chosen vessel’ for lust. Only the survival of the baby points to some more benign influence – or is it just chance?

Other women map the territory between Jyne and the murdered woman. The married women of ‘Bush Church’, dealing gingerly with points at issue between them and their husbands; Lizer, the half-caste ‘missus’ whose nagging keeps Billy Skywonkie in line; the town woman who supplants Squeaker’s mate – hardly to blame for her double victimisation by worthless Squeaker and fear of the disabled woman; the young mother who returns to a lonely hut menaced by itinerants such as Scrammy ‘And; and the pub women – at least thieving Mag gets some fun out of life. Conclusion: the bush – for which Billy Skywonkie drunk provides the most excoriating description – is no place for a woman.

Baynton’s sympathetic depiction of animals and their relationships with humans is purposeful. The first half of ‘Scrammy ‘And’ is a sketch single-mindedly devoted to interaction between War (or Warder, or Loo) and his apprehensive master. If some think War is shown as just too closely understanding and replying to his master’s words, let them read here the dog’s feeling for mood and also his master’s interpretation. He has complete faith in the dog’s intelligence; he is dependent on its companionship. This permits the ‘conversation’ to yield ample information and narrative development. The old man’s death is a merciful release from his panic – but the dog’s fate, ribs bashed in, the wounds fly-blown, ends the story with a full measure of horror. As the old man’s mate, the dog can easily be read as a parallel case with the isolated woman in ‘The Chosen Vessel’.

In the same way, in ‘The Chosen Vessel’ the ewe and lamb mimic the human situation. The living baby held by the dead woman’s hand is spoken of as a lamb – a religious note to add to the others. Baynton further blackens the scene by finally showing that the rapist’s dog has killed the ewe. The dog’s guilt, the man’s horror of blood are hardly a consolation.

If Baynton is a ‘realist’, what does that term mean? Confronting the seamier aspects of life? Dealing with people of no distinguished class, victims of circumstance? Yes, but Baynton was clearly preoccupied with a continuous vision and concern which unite her six stories and constitute their strength. These are not just scattered observations. They are, rather, a serial working-out of the eventual, extreme fate of disempowered bush people – and women are amply shown to be disempowered, not just by an environment poorly resourced for immigrants lacking bush skills, imperilled by childbirth, doubly responsible for households and children, but by male attitudes and priorities. Isolation exacerbates the plight and brings on crisis.

Deprivation of a beloved parent starts the series, followed by disillusionment in ‘mateship’, in seeking employment and social place, and in seeking help from the passer-by. The insecurities of the women in ‘Bush Church’ and the small value put on respect or feelings sketch in a social fabric as hostile as the landscape.

And indeed the landscape is a psychic indicator. The framing stories – ‘A Dreamer’ and ‘The Chosen Vessel’ – play out in phantasmagoric scenery. The deceptive once-known route and the struggle through flood, the distance between the barricaded hut and the fatal creek – each has its frantic figure of a woman hastening under the pressure of a mother-and-child relationship – remembering and yearning for her mother in ‘A Dreamer’, in desperate fear for herself and the baby in ‘The Chosen Vessel’. One might join Scrammy ‘And, after loot and in flight from his past, to those night visions.

These stories, far from being the ‘dun realism’ Patrick White deplored, work on the reader more like Edvard Munch’s The Scream – the figure on the bridge with agonised expression and open mouth, earth and sky somehow thrilling with his or her emotion. Munch is an Expressionist – depicting mood and atmosphere with single attention – subjecting literal representation to psychological reality. Victorian ghost and horror stories use some of the same material – frantic posturing, chase or flight, ‘It was a dark and stormy night’. But here, these tropes are linked to a social and regional depiction – an association which doubtless startled readers of other ‘bush yarns’ – was this, then, Australia?

Baynton, inspired by her early experience, in this short work created a corrective alternative vision which still holds us with its undeniable and complex reality.


Referenced works

Barrett, S. “No Place for a Woman? Barbara Baynton’s Bush Studies. Journal of the Short Story in English 40 (2003): 83-96.

Baynton, B. Bush Studies. HarperCollins: Sydney, 2001.

Wright, J. “Women Writers in Society.” Australian Author 8.2 (1976): 15-19.

© Copyright Judith Rodriguez 2014