During this week, Bill of the Australian Legend blog is running Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week. He defines Gen 1 as “those writers who came before the 1890s and the Sydney Bulletin ‘Bush Realism’ school, although many of them continued writing into the first part of the 20th century.” To be honest, I was surprised when he asked me to write about Georgiana McCrae, whom I have generally considered as a source, rather than a writer. She did not write for publication, and had it not been for the efforts of her family (for good or bad), she may well have stayed in the shadows of family history. Nonetheless, let’s consider Georgiana McCrae.
During this summer break, tens of thousands of Melburnians traveling to the beaches of the Mornington Peninsula will pass the beachside town of McCrae, with its holiday houses nestling among the gums on Arthurs Seat and its caravans clustered along the foreshore.
It is named for Andrew and Georgiana McCrae, who lived there for just six years between 1845 and 1851. People today would be more familiar with Georgiana, rather than her husband Andrew, largely on the basis of her writings about Port Phillip, which have come to us thanks to the efforts of her family in protecting and promoting her legacy.
So, who was this Georgia McCrae? Her biographer Brenda Niall, describes her like this:
She was a Duke’s daughter, illegitimate but acknowledged by her father; she had been a child in Regency London; a professional portrait painter in 1820s Edinburgh; a lawyer’s wife in London and in Melbourne; the sole architect of the two houses she and her husband built; a central figure in Melbourne’s early social and artistic life; a settler’s wife on a Port Phillip cattle run; the mother of nine children; a witty, perceptive diarist and recorder of her times. (Brenda Niall, Georgiana, p. 2)
In many ways, Georgiana’s life reads like a romance novel. She was born in London in 1804 as the illegitimate daughter of the 5th Duke of Gordon. Her illegitimacy did not prevent her father the Duke from acknowledging her and financially supporting her, even if he was not involved in her day-to-day upbringing. Within the moral latitude that the aristocracy appropriated for themselves and among themselves, the Duke had fathered a second illegitimate family as well, likewise acknowledged and provided for.
Georgiana and her mother were installed at Somers Town in London, between St Pancras and Euston, where she circulated amongst the French royalist refugees who had fled Napoleonic France and congregated in the area. This immersion in French culture lent to her writing and world view a wealth of French expressions that were to later sit rather incongruously with her descriptions of little, burgeoning Port Phillip on the other side of the globe.
It was at Somers Town that she trained as a painter under the tutelage of John Varley, John Glover, Dominic Serres and portrait and miniature painter Charles Hayter. She exhibited at the Royal Academy, garnering several prizes.
After her mother was severely injured in an accident, Georgiana moved to live with her grandfather at Gordon Castle in north-east Scotland. After her grandfather’s death, her father and his childless wife took up at the Castle, and Georgiana lived with them, continuing to paint and exhibit. So- we have the Duke, and we have Gordon Castle: now add a vindictive stepmother (for lack of a better term, given the convolutions of her family tree ) who thwarted Georgiana’s romantic prospects with ‘Perico’, a Catholic kinsman of the Gordons. In September 1830 Georgiana married another Gordon relative, lawyer Andrew Murison McCrae instead, a relationship which never seemed to have had the passion of her relationship with Perico. After Georgiana’s father died, control of the family money passed to her stepmother, and with dampened prospects of an inheritance and on the basis of enthusiastic reports from Andrew’s friend Major Thomas Mitchell, they decided to emigrate to Port Phillip along with their four children.
Arriving on the Argyle on 1 March 1841, Georgiana then enters into the historiography of Port Phillip, then a newly-opened district of the colony of New South Wales. Georgiana’s Journal, edited by her grandson Hugh McCrae and published as part of the Victorian centennial celebrations in 1934, has long been seen as a witty ‘womans-eye’ view of Port Phillip society. But all is not as it seems. In her PhD thesis, Therese Weber painstakingly compares the original documents written by Georgiana McCrae with the published versions of Georgiana’s journal. Unfortunately Weber’s thesis is only available at State Library of Victoria, but Marguerite Hancock drew heavily on the thesis when writing her foreword to the fifth edition of Georgiana’s Journal, which is still the most readily available version of Georgiana’s writing that you can access today.
As Hancock (following Weber) points out, grandson Hugh McCrae was a poet and when he extensively edited Georgiana’s journal, he freely added his own artistic flourishes. Georgiana wrote in short sentences and phrases, separated by dashes, but Hugh McCrae transformed it into flowing prose, as you can see on p.9-12 of Hancock’s foreword, available through the LaTrobe Society here. Moreover, the colonial children and grandchildren of Georgiana McCrae were far more sensitive to her illegitimacy than she was herself, and her illegitimacy and aristocratic connections were carefully expunged. But murkier still: McCrae was not even working from the original manuscripts. Georgiana herself had rewritten the journals in 1864, burning the originals, including one volume that her son destroyed at Georgiana’s request. She did further work on her recollections in the 1880s. On the basis of these changes, both on the part of Georgiana and her grandson, Therese Weber asserts that the published Georgiana’s Journal edited by Hugh McCrae “can no longer be read as the journal of Georgiana McCrae”.
Be that as it may, Georgiana’s Journal does capture Port Phillip from the point of view of a well-connected, intelligent member of ‘good’ society. The whole McCrae family of brothers and sisters emigrated across to Australia, as was common particularly amongst Scots migrants. We gain an insight into the webs of connection among the women of an extended family and their husbands’ networks amongst the commercial and professional milieu of a small colonial settlement. After a period of renting a house right in the middle of town, Andrew and Georgiana built a house ‘Mayfield’ to Georgiana’s design in Abbotsford. I stand amazed at the energy of these women and their children who would think nothing of striding across the fields for a three kilometre walk into town. Georgiana attended all the balls and levees and was a friend of Superintendent (later Governor) La Trobe and his French wife Sophie, although her grandson-editor embroidered this relationship somewhat. She had another three children in Port Phillip, the births of whom she describes in a matter-of-fact fashion. In her entry for December 28, 1841 (in Hugh McCrae’s version) she wrote about the visit of Captain Cole, the suitor of Georgiana’s sister-in-law Thomas Anne, who was also present:
Captain Cole [came] to tea, and whether for the sake of prolonging his stay beside his lady-love, or from actual thirst, he took no less than nine of our small teacups full of tea. While pouring out the seventh cup I could hardly conceal the effects of a twinge of pain, but the captain and Thomas Anne didn’t make a move till 10.00 p.m. The moment they were gone, I hurried off to my room at Landall’s, and sent Jane for Dr Myer (his house at the end of Great Bourke Street East- Gardner’s Cottages.) Soon after eleven, Jane and the doctor arrived. At 3.00 a.m. I gave birth to a fine girl. The doctor, on his way home, tapped at the window of Mr McCrae’s bedroom and hold him what had happened while he had been asleep.
Like many others in Port Phillip during 1842-1843, the McCrae family was seriously affected by the 1840’s depression. Andrew McCrae made several poor financial decisions during his life and in 1843 he ‘took up’ – that famous Australian euphemism- the 20,500 acres (8,296ha) Arthurs Seat run on Bunurong land on the Mornington Peninsula. Although a very beautiful location, it is poor quality farming land and the pastoral enterprise was not a great success. Andrew built a homestead there, again to Georgiana’s design, and she very reluctantly lived there between 1845-1851. It was a considerable distance from Melbourne, but it was enlivened by frequent visitors from the cultural elite of Port Phillip.
The marriage between Georgiana and Andrew was not a particularly happy one, and it’s interesting to observe a lukewarm marriage under the Marriage and Matrimonial Causes Act of 1864. They had spent a considerable time apart during their marriage: Andrew had travelled to Port Phillip two years before she joined him with the children; he shifted to the Arthurs Seat run almost two years before she joined him there, and in the 1850s he accepted the position of police magistrate at Port Albert and Kilmore, leaving the family in Melbourne. Even when they were living together, Andrew was often absent for social occasions. In 1867 Georgiana looked into obtaining a judicial separation, but it was not possible to meet the stringent grounds available. The situation was alleviated by Andrew leaving Australia for ‘home’ for a seven year period. He did finally return to Melbourne, but died soon after.
After Andrew’s death, Georgiana lived with her children, as was common practice. Although she could have made a sufficient income through her painting to alleviate the family’s financial distress, Andrew and the extended McCrae family took a dim view of painting ‘for money’. It’s possible that had she done so, she would be widely celebrated as an Australian artist. It is pleasing to see her listed on the Design&Art Australia database.
Georgiana was a prolific and lively correspondent, and the reminiscences that she brought together as an extended narrative are evocative and couched in that formal, ‘old-lady’ tone of the nineteenth century. Her diaries, especially before grandson Hugh got to them, have a brusque matter-of-factness about them. The literary waters are muddied by her descendants’ attempts to promote and protect her legacy, but it was largely because of Hugh’s publication of his reworked grandmother’s diaries in the form of Georgiana’s Journals that McCrae Homestead was saved from demolition. Apparently the mother of the developer had read Hugh McCrae’s book, and insisted that the house should be retained. The house was later purchased by the family who donated to the National Trust as ‘McCrae Homestead’, even though the family who followed the McCrae’s brief six year sojourn stayed there for eighty years. Dromana West was renamed as McCrae in the 1930s.
Despite the reworkings of her manuscripts, Georgiana McCrae gives social historians of early Port Phillip a glimpse into the cultural, commercial and professional elite of a newly-forming colonial district from a strongly-networked woman’s perspective. It’s a refreshing counterbalance to the more common narratives of rural isolation on the one hand and entrepreneurial masculine boosterism on the other.
Georgiana’s Journal ed. Hugh McCrae, 2nd edition, 1966
Georgiana’s Journal 5th edition. Foreword by Marguerite Hancock, 2013 available through LaTrobe society website here.
Norman Cowper, ‘McCrae, Georgiana Huntly (1804–1890)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mccrae-georgiana-huntly-2392/text3157, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 16 January 2018.
Design and Art Australia Online Georgiana Huntly McCrae
Leo Gamble, Georgiana McCrae Kingston Historical Website http://localhistory.kingston.vic.gov.au/htm/article/577.htm
Brenda Niall, Georgiana: A Biography of Georgiana McCrae, painter, diarist, pioneer, 1994