Category Archives: Australian history

‘The Indomitable Miss Pink’ by Julie Marcus

2002 first edition NSW Press; 2005, 2nd edition Paul Fitzsimons , 305 p.

When Miss Olive Pink was commemorated among 200 Remarkable Territorians in a bicentennial mosaic in Darwin, her tile read ‘Olive Pink – Eccentric’. Her niece, Dame Phyllis Frost, was shocked to see her aunt memorialized in this way and arranged to have it replaced with a new tile reading ‘Olive Pink- Anthropologist’. But as Julie Marcus shows us through this biography, Olive Pink was indeed both an anthropologist and an eccentric, although the latter has tended to overshadow the former in popular memory.

For remembered she is, both in the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens and by people who knew her, both indigenous and European. She is spoken of as a tall, erect woman, dressed in white, with a long skirt and parasol. Neighbours and little children remembered her derelict hut with its idiosyncratic ‘museum’ and a straggly garden where she grew flowers for sale. Pastoralists saw her, and her activities, as a threat to their leases. Arrernte and Warlpiri had their own stories of Olive Pink from the time that she lived amongst them in the 1930s and 1940s, learning their language and customs. Bureaucrats and public officers had their own Olive Pink stories when they were on the receiving end of her remonstrations, delivered in person face-to-face or through long, underlined, parenthesized letters.

Olive Muriel Pink was born in Tasmania in 1884. She never married (although there was a story that ‘her very dear friend’ died at Gallipoli). After training in art both in Hobart and in Sydney, she was employed as a tracer in the drafting department of the New South Wales Government Railways and Tramways. In 1926, at the age of 42 she took advantage of her staff discount on the railways to travel to Ooldea, South Australia where she visited Daisy Bates. It changed her life. Like Daisy Bates, she was drawn back to outback Australia (in Olive’s case, in the Northern Territory) and studied and lived with indigenous tribes until 1946. In appearance and clothing the two women were not unalike, and both lived in harsh, austere conditions.

Olive Pink’s attitudes towards her indigenous friends – and I certainly think that she would have perceived them as friends – sit uneasily with us today. Her concern was solely for the “full-bloods”, a typology that we find uncomfortable, and she had little time for “half-bloods”. She used her considerable presence, which both intimidated and wore down her advocates as well as her enemies, to agitate for land rights for “full bloods”. She wanted land set aside, with no missionary involvement, with full ownership of minerals, water and the economic resources that attached to the land. She was critical of both missionaries and anthropologists who, in her view, manipulated and betrayed the tribes that they came into contact with, especially in relation to secret business. She opposed civil rights for ‘full-bloods’, because that would render them accountable under white-man’s law.

She fought with nearly everyone. She would gain the support of a person, only to harangue them with long, discursive, underlined letters until they either gave in or gave up. She battled against the competitive possessiveness of male anthropologists (although she was not beyond competitive possessiveness herself, either) and Theodor Strehlow was her particular adversary. She befriended A.P. Elkin, who despite provocation, remained her advocate with the anthropological community generally. She cajoled and alienated members of both the Anthropological Society of New South Wales, and the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science. Her formal training in anthropology was not extensive, and she needed to publish and speak at conferences to maintain her professional credibility. She was not always politic in what she chose to speak about, amongst ‘colleagues’ who barely accepted her.

She was not a rich woman, and for the early years of her career, when she was already a middle-aged woman, she had to move back and forth to Sydney to earn enough money to return to the outback. She needed all of Elkin’s support to obtain Australian National Research Council grants, which she eked out with her own finances and small donations from the Quakers and the Sheetmetal Workers Union, to buy food and supplies to support her research. Meanwhile other male anthropologists, with more secure reputations, research resources and qualifications, were circling. She was granted access to descriptions of secret rituals, which other anthropologists craved, but she refused to divulge her information because she had given her word that she would not. Not all other anthropologists were so honorable.

By 1946 she finally achieved a lease to develop a ‘secular sanctuary’, but it did not last for long. Drought, lack of money, and a bashing by a young Warlpiri man when she refused his demands for food forced her back into Alice Springs. By now destitute and 62 years old, she lived in a corrugated iron hut on Gregory Terrace, selling flowers and fruit from her garden and working as a cleaner in the local courthouse, where she monitored cases when Aboriginal defendants appeared before the court – an assistance that was often unwelcomed by the police and court officials. After losing her job at the court, she set up a museum in one end of her hut, until a quarrel with the fire station next door, a courtcase for assault, and the firing of her hut led her to shift again, this time to a tent. She lived under canvas until she moved to a small plot of land where she established, with the assistance of the Minister for Territories, Sir Paul Hasluck, the garden which bears her name. Hasluck, who was often on the receiving end of her denunciations as well, encouraged her to accept a stipend for curating the garden which just happened to be of the same value as the old age pension that she spurned. She died in 1975.

The book progresses chronologically, and draws heavily on Pink’s voluminous and lengthy correspondence. In both the introduction and the conclusion, Marcus discusses the mythologizing of Olive Pink, but the majority of the book is very grounded in Pink’s sheer hard work and determination.

Marcus has to tread a narrow line with this book, and she does it well. She clearly admires the moral clarity of Olive Pink, even if she distances herself from the racialised language in which it is expressed. She is well aware of Pink’s prickliness, stubborness and emotional stupidity, but there is a swell of respect for her grit and resilience – a much over-used word today, but completely appropriate for Olive Pink.

And that tile in the Darwin park? Well, after reading this book, I think that the tile should have read ‘anthropologist and eccentric.’

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: a friend of a friend. This is the second edition of the book, published by Paul Fitzsimons in Alice Springs,even though the original edition was published by UNSW Press.

I have included this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020.

‘The Seventies: The personal, the political and the making of modern Australia’ by Michelle Arrow

2019, 239 p plus notes

It’s strange when you read a history that is analysing events that you lived through yourself. The events are familiar, of course, but there’s also an element of surprise at things you didn’t realize at the time, and at the matters that the historian has placed emphasis on, when you weigh them against your own perspectives and memories. It’s also rather disconcerting to realize that your own lifespan is now considered ‘history’.

Of course, histories of a given decade or century do not neatly conform to calendars. Historians speak of the ‘long’ eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in this case, Michelle Arrow sets the start date for the ‘sixties’ with the retirement of Robert Menzies in 1966 (I don’t know if I agree with her here), and ends ‘the seventies’ with the election of the Hawke ALP government in 1983. As she points out, there has been relatively little scholarly interest paid to the Seventies in Australia, especially in comparison with the United States and the United Kingdom. The decades of the 1950s, 1960s and 1980s in Australia have all received book-length treatment, but the only stand-alone study of Australia in the 1970s was Frank Crowley’s Tough Times: Australia in the Seventies. The 1970s, she argues, have either been defined solely in political terms, most particularly involving The Dismissal, or as a gloomy economic narrative leading up to the 1980s and 1990s as a period of economic deregulatory reform (think Paul Kelly’s The End of Certainty or George Megalogenis’ work).

Her book does not pretend to be a comprehensive history of the decade, but it does emphasize social change rather than political events and economic policies:

Somehow the social movements and social change of the decade sit just outside the frame through which we see the 1970s…This book places them front and centre and positions them as key drivers of change…this book is primarily concerned with the ways new understandings of gender and sexuality transformed Australia, and as a result it focuses on the women’s movement and the gay and lesbian movement.

p.11

And so, having made the women’s movement and the gay and lesbian movement her main frames of analysis, this book traces these two themes through the 1970s, discussing social and political events of those years along the way. As has been the case with many of the decisions and programs of the Whitlam government (e.g. dismantling the White Australia policy, withdrawing from Vietnam), quite a few had already been set in train in the last years of the 1960s, although not prosecuted with the fervor of the Labor years. This was also true of the women’s movement and the gay/lesbian movement. There had been ‘women’s groups’ of different political hues throughout the twentieth century, pushing for ‘liberalism’ rather than ‘liberation’. The Homosexual Law Reform Association of the Act was formed in 1969, priding itself on the knowledge that ‘no member of our committee is a practicing homosexual’ (p. 30)

What changed in the 1970s was that the mantra ‘the personal is political’ was taken up by both the women’s movement and gay/lesbian rights groups. Consciousness-raising groups brought up individual stories which were then woven into a political analysis of systemic oppression. It’s hard for us to realize now, in our time when everyone has their ‘story’ and their ‘journey’, that 1960s Australia, along with other Western cultures, was content for uncomfortable stories to be kept private, out of the public eye, and certainly not the basis for political (as distinct from individual) action.

However, ‘The personal is political’ did not translate into electoral success for women in the 1972 election that swept Gough Whitlam to power after 23 years of Liberal-Country party government. (An amazing thought: people voted in that election who had never seen any other government than a Liberal-Country party one). There were no women in the House of Representatives, and the only two women in the Senate were from the Liberal Party. As a result, Gough Whitlam appointed Elizabeth Reid to be his advisor on women’s affairs, from a short list that included Anne Summers, Eva Cox and historian Lyndall Ryan. It was a tough gig. She had no staff but she became the public face of the women’s movement (p.93). Many in the women’s movement objected to her appointment by a man. She embarked on a listening tour and inviting women to write to her, hearing women’s stories- there are those stories again- in order to develop policy ideas to turn the personal into policy. Equal pay for equal work, the introduction of the single mothers benefit, and improving the quality and availability of child care emerged as the most important needs. There was an uneasy relationship between the Whitlam government and the women’s movement, and between Elizabeth Reid and the women’s movement as well.

In 1972 with Helen Reddy’s ‘I am Woman’ ringing in their ears, the UN General Assembly declared 1975 to be International Women’s Year. In the leadup, Spectrum research had conducted a research report into the status of women that both provided a snapshot into women’s lives but also revealed a widespread lack of interest in feminist issues and the women’s movement more broadly. A grants program set up as part of IWY further exacerbated this schism (although many of the projects and women creators who were supported through these grants have stood the test of time). The headline event was the week-long Women and Politics conference in Canberra, which was opened by Gough Whitlam on the evening of the 31 August. Arrow notes that in many ways it was an exemplary feminist project, with subsidized fares for low-income participants and free child care. But it also highlighted the fractures in the women’s movement between white feminists and migrant women, working class women and particularly Aboriginal Women, led by Marcia Langton, many of whom had different priorities to the largely middle-class white feminists. But as the political temperature rose in 1975, Reid’s power was reduced; there was a suggestion that she be moved into the bureaucracy, and she tendered her resignation.

‘The Personal is Political’ was writ large in the Royal Commission on Human Relationships, headed by Justice Elizabeth Evatt, journalist Anne Deveson and Brisbane Anglican archbishop Felix Arnott, which was established by the Whitlam government in late 1974. By the time it reported on 28 February 1978, the Fraser government wanted no part of it. It was not the first government inquiry into human relationships – the Royal Commission on the Decline of the Birth-Rate and on the Mortality of Infants in New South Wales of 1903-04 was a world-first – but unlike that earlier commission which mainly heard from men, the 1974 commission actively sought the views of women. The files of this Commission form the heart of Arrow’s book, where she describes some of the evidence collected in the submissions, both in relation to women’s issues and homosexuality, and traces through the muted response once the government had changed.

Australia had become a “nation of bank tellers” in the second half of the 1970s, as the role of women’s adviser became circumscribed, the Women’s branch had its resources cut, and funding for refuges dried up. The National Women’s Advisory Council was established in 1978 ‘to assist in policy making’. Chaired by the vice-president of the Victorian liberal party, Beryl Beaurepaire, it included an Aboriginal woman, a migrant woman, a representative of the ACTU, the President of the Family Planning Association, law lecturer (and later Governor General) Quentin Bryce and a representative of the CWA. Only Wendy McCarthy, the Family Planning president, was part of the women’s movement. Arrow argues that it replicated much of the work of the Commission on Human Relations, and although it developed a comprehensive policy agenda, none of the initiatives came to fruition until the Hawke Labor government. There was backlash over abortion reform (think Margaret Tighe and the Right to Life); religious conservatives became more organized (think Festival of Light) and groups like the Women’s Action Alliance and Women Who Want to be Women formed a visible anti-feminist front. Sex education became bitterly contested, especially in its approach to homosexuality. The first Mardi Gras parade, held in June 1978 opened up a new more confrontational phase in gay and lesbian politics. (p. 220)

Reflecting the ‘long’ Seventies that Arrow deals with, the book closes with the Women Against Rape collective protests at Anzac Day commemorations in the early 1980s – a reassertion of the ‘personal is political’ trope into national affairs. In her Afterword Arrow picks up on the Hawke Labor government, and the emphasis on the economy that has largely obscured the importance of using individual story-telling as the basis for political action. But there is no great triumphant ending here. Perhaps the most important legacy is the continuation of the recognition that the personal is political, as seen in the Human Rights Commission Bringing Them Home report in 1997 and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2017. But, as Arrow points out, too often “personal stories are told without political activism to animate them…the political is all to often reduced to the personal.” And there is still much unfinished business of the 1970s.

This book won the Ernest Scott Prize for 2020, awarded annually “to the book judged to be the most distinguished contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand or to the history of colonisation published in the previous year.” It is carefully footnoted and researched, but it maintains a light tone which is personal at times. It is well-structured in a narrative sense with chapters divided into discrete sections, and ‘hooks’ at the start and end of each section to drive the argument forward.

But, having lived through the seventies myself, I do wonder about the difference between the historian’s view and the perspective of those who lived at the time. In Arrow’s book, a documentary archive (i.e. the correspondence of the Royal Commission on Human Relationships) takes on an importance for a historian that I’m not really sure it had for the general public at the time. Was I even aware of it? I certainly didn’t contribute to the commission- in fact, did I know anyone who did? Maybe my obliviousness to this Royal Commission reflects nothing more than my own sheltered, middle-class, conservative, politics-free life at the time.

But perhaps even the visibility of, and participation in, inquiries then and now signals a change. I think of inquiries held today into what would previously been seen as ‘personal’ matters, most especially the Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse inquiry, and I think that there is a high level of public buy-in (e.g. the animus against George Pell; the ribbons on church railings) that I don’t recall existing in the 1970s. But perhaps the importance of an inquiry doesn’t rest in its creation or impact at the time, but the use that is made of it in the years and even decades following.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I have included this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Vida: A woman for our time’ by Jacqueline Kent

2020, 284 p.

Perhaps biographies are like buses….nothing for ages, and then two or three arrive all at once. Vida Goldstein, the subject of this 2020 biography by Jacqueline Kent, did not receive a full-length biography until 1993, when Janette Bomford published her book That Dangerous and Persuasive Woman: Vida Goldstein, which I reviewed here. She featured in Claire Wright’s You Daughters of Freedom in 2018, and appears as a minor character in Caroline Rasmussen’s recent joint biography of Maurice and Doris Blackburn The Blackburns (2019). She has always appeared as part of the network surrounding Stella (Miles) Frankin and Catherine Helen Spence, but in terms of full length biographical treatment, the two main works have appeared in the last 27 years.

In her introduction to this biography, Jacqueline Kent notes that Goldstein is briefly mentioned in almost every history of women in Australia, but “her name is not particularly well known outside scholarly circles”. (Voters in the federal seat of Goldstein, in the bayside areas of Melbourne might beg to differ. As Kent points out, the electoral division might be named after her, but it has never sent a female MP to the House of Representatives). Kent writes that her biography

…seeks to show how much Vida was not simply a woman of her times, but someone whose views and beliefs are refreshingly contemporary – and so who is equally a woman of our time.

(p.xv)

Kent has written other biographies, but she is best known for her biography of Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard The Making of Julia Gillard (2009) and a smaller work Take Your Best Shot: The Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard (2013). Gillard remains a touchstone throughout this biography of Vida Goldstein as well, with Kent inserting present-day comments drawing parallels between Goldstein and Gillard’s experiences in parentheses in various places throughout the text. This connection comes to the fore in the epilogue, where Kent claims that Vida and her colleagues would have been “delighted to see Julia Gillard confirmed as the country’s first woman prime minister” which she follows with a four-page summary of Gillard’s prime ministership. This presentism is foreshadowed in the subtitle ” A woman for our time”.

When writing her biography, Janette Bomford bemoaned the lack of a cache of personal papers that would reveal the inner Vida Goldstein. Kent has had to work from the same straitened resources, and a quick glance at the footnotes reveals Kent’s debt to Bomford’s earlier biography. As a result, I’m not going to reprise Goldstein’s life here – instead I refer you to my review of Bomford’s book – because the events are much the same, which is to be expected when both authors are working from the same sources. Kent briefly raises, but then shuts down, speculation that Goldstein may have had a lesbian relationship with her friend and colleague Cecilia John. I’m not sure that it is a useful suggestion as there is absolutely no evidence for it, but perhaps it was prompted by Kent’s attempt to frame Vida as “a woman for our time”.

So where, then, does the difference lie in the two biographies? Unfortunately, I must have borrowed Bomford’s book because I can’t find it on my shelves, so I don’t have the two texts on my desk to compare. I can only work from impressions.

First, Kent’s book seems more Melbourne-oriented than I remember Bomford’s book being. Although she travelled to both U.S. and U.K, and although she had connections with feminists in other states, Goldstein lived and worked at the Victorian level in trying to get female representation in Parliament. Although given importance in the text and forming stepping stones in her life’s chronology, these national and international personal networks do not play an integral part in Kent’s narrative. Instead, Goldstein comes over as rather isolated and toiling away single-handedly here in Victoria, estranged both from party politics (which she abhorred) and by her conflicts with other feminist groups and political forces.

Kent gives us a good picture of Victorian political and intellectual life in the first twenty five years of the twentieth century. Paradoxically, Victoria was the last state to grant female suffrage in 1911, and the right to stand for State Parliament in 1923, even though white women had been able to vote in federal elections and stand for Federal Parliament since 1902. Although the first suffrage society in Australia was the Victorian Women’s Suffrage Society in 1884, and despite Victoria’s relatively progressive intellectual life, the Legislative Council was able to stymie women’s suffrage and representation long after South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales had granted it. As a result, Goldstein’s many attempts to stand for Parliament involved federal elections, not state ones.

However, her main base of support was in Victoria, centred on the Book Lovers Library, run by her sister and brother-in-law in the city, and Oxford Chambers at 473-481 Bourke Street which for a while, became “something of a Goldstein compound” where the family members lived and worked. Her two newspapers, the Australian Woman’s Sphere (1900) and the later The Woman Voter (1909) were published in Melbourne.

Second, Kent gives full weight to Goldstein’s spiritual commitment, first to Rev Charles Strong’s Australian Church and then to First Church of Christ, Scientist, which was to remain her lodestar throughout her life. It was a commitment that caused tension with her friend Stella (Miles) Franklin, and it became increasingly important to Goldstein in her later life as a conscious choice in career direction. Perhaps it’s because I too am a Woman of a Certain Age, but I’m increasingly interested in how biographers deal with the latter years of their subject’s life. Kent handles this well, tracing through Goldstein’s contributions to public debate long after she had given up on unsuccessfully standing for Parliament.

Third, Kent’s biography has a lightness of touch that was less evident in Bomford’s more academic book. This is partly because of the parenthesized present-day asides, but also because Kent has a good eye for the visual image and the lively event. I’m not sure, though, that she has moved our understanding of Goldstein forward by much beyond what Bomford had already told us. But through the striking cover, the title with its present-day hook and the engaging writing style, Kent has probably broadened awareness of Vida Goldstein to a wider audience.

My rating: 7.5- maybe 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020.

‘Searching for Charlotte’ by Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell

2020, 304 p.

On a mid-summer day, established Australian authors Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell are in the Queen Elizabeth Hall at Southbank, London. They had planned to meet outside to share a gin and tonic and conversation with Emma Darwin, Charles Darwin’s great great grand-daughter. Emma has written several historical fiction novels, but she has also published This is not a book about Charles Darwin, a hybrid of memoir, family history and fiction. Forced inside by pouring rain, Emma has words of advice for the two sister authors, who were embarking on a similar challenge:

In fiction I am empress of all I survey. I can make up my own rules. I only need make my story seem authentic. The problem with non fiction is that a well-documented archive can be a potential censor…The kind of book you are writing is akin in fiction in many ways, and that means that the inner life can be explored as well as the outer. The interior life is the novelists’ true work.

(p.162)

This book is, as Emma Darwin noted, “akin to fiction”. Or as Kate Forsyth noted “We are taking historical fact and framing it within our own personal lives, creating what might be called a hybrid memoir.” (p.241) I am glad that as authors, they are clear-eyed about what they are doing. This jointly-written book is not a straight biography: instead, like a Who Do You Think You Are? episode, this is just as much about the searchers and the search as it is about the quarry. As in Who Do You Think You Are? there is an emotional attachment through ancestry that draws out empathy, and a degree of identification that arises only because they are family.

In this case, the two authors, who are sisters and each a published author in her own right, feel a particular affinity for their great-great-great-great grandmother, Charlotte Waring Atkinson who wrote the first Australian children’s book A Mother’s Offering to her Children by a lady long resident in New South Wales in 1841. Charlotte’s daughter, Louisa Atkinson, published two books also under the name “an Australian lady”, as well as serialized works, and is recognized as a botanist and illustrator.

But there was more than this professional connection amongst authors set 180 years apart from each other. The story of James Atkinson, early settler and agriculturalist, his marriage to Charlotte, and the construction of the family property ‘Oldbury’ in the Southern Highlands of NSW was part of family lore. Much of the book involves the sisters travelling overseas in a type of investigative pilgrimage, visiting homes, churches and inhaling the spirit of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, whom they mentally link with Charlotte. There is a lot of imagination in this book, but it is clearly identified as such. I must confess to not feeling comfortable with these flights into fiction, but I would have bridled more if they weren’t edged with qualifiers like “perhaps” and “maybe”.

There is an almost innocent transparency about their speculations, even if I find myself balking at them. Historians and biographers weigh evidence all the time, but don’t often show the workings. In the chapter ‘Changing the World’, Kate Forsyth speculates about the possibility that Charles Darwin may have met with Charlotte during his trip to New South Wales. The genealogical origins of the Forsyth/Murrell project are very obvious here. Charles Darwin’s great great grandmother Anne Waring was the third cousin of Charlotte’s great grandfather Richard Waring, making Charles Darwin the 5th cousin once removed of Charlotte – surely a connection that only a genealogist could love. (p144) In family lore, Charles Darwin met with Charlotte in Sydney. However, there is no hard evidence that he did. His diaries are silent about it and the timing for him to ride to Berrima to visit her for just one night is tight. The clues that she offers are just that: clues, based on Darwin’s interest in the Waring family, and his use of Waring as a middle name for a child. Forsyth provides her evidence and holds it up for scrutiny, admitting that it is slight. It is.

Nonetheless, there is considerable research that has gone into the book, although the lack of reference to the footnotes section in the body of the work tends to obscure this. There is rich material here, without needing to be bolstered with the present-day framing narrative. Charlotte came out to Australia with a job lined up as a governess with Hannibal Macarthur, the nephew of John Macarthur and son-in-law of former governor Phillip Gidley King. On board, she met James Atkinson, one of the well known Atkinson brothers who were early settlers in New South Wales. They married, and had four children. Two years after her husband died she remarried, apparently hurriedly, to George Bruce Barton, a man who along with Charlotte suffered a bushranger attack. Forsyth and Murrell struggle to make sense of this hasty marriage to her fellow crime victim. Whatever Charlotte’s motives, it was a poor choice, as the marriage was abusive and they separated. This thrust Charlotte into the public eye as the defendant in a significant court case mounted against the executors of her first husband’s will over Charlotte’s fitness to be appointed guardian to her children (see Atkinson v Barton). She received a sympathetic hearing from Chief Justice Dowling and was granted guardianship (had my own Justice John Walpole Willis still been in Sydney at the time, I do wonder if she would have received the same outcome). Disapprobation attached to a remarried and separated woman fronting the courts against the highly respectable executors of the will, and it may have been this need for anonymity as well as income, that led her to write her book for children under the coy nom de plume “a lady long resident in New South Wales”.

Kate Forsyth contributes several chapters discussing A Mother’s Offering, taking it largely on its own merits and within the context of Australian literature. In fact, the question-and-answer format within a framing domestic story occurs in other settings across the empire in the mid 19th century as well. For example, here I reviewed Tales of a Grandmother by Mrs. A. Carmicheal, based on stories of St Vincent in the West Indies, published at exactly the same time- 1841- and also dealing with plant life, climate and geography, as well as the benefits of slavery. For many years the identity of the “lady long resident in New South Wales” was thought to be Lady Gordon Bremer until booklover and bibliographer Marcie Muir identified Charlotte as the author in 1980. Patricia Clarke’s biography Pioneer Writer: The Life of Louisa Atkinson, Novelist, Journalist, Naturalist publicized Muir’s discovery even further.

Forsyth reads A Mother’s Offering closely, noting Charlotte’s excursions into paleontology, mineralogy, conchology and cetology (p.243). She winces at Charlotte’s depictions of indigenous people and the imperial bombast of stories of shipwrecks and the death of “little Sally the black child”. She moves beyond A Mother’s Offering to examine P.P’s tales, mentioned briefly in a newspaper advertisement and which she suspects may be Amusing and Instructive Tales by Peter Prattle, reviewed in 1837 but given as a gift in 1832. A second Peter Prattle book Instructive Tales by Peter Prattle was listed as a ‘new publication’ in British newspapers in 1842. The evidence for Charlotte’s authorship of these other two books is, as Forsyth admits “circumstantial evidence, but suggestive nonetheless”(p.271). The book has been generously illustrated with colour plates from Charlotte’s sketchbook, showing her skill in drawing plants, birds and insects.

But Charlotte’s story is only one aspect of this book. Like Kate Grenville’s Searching for the Secret River, it is the story of a search. It is also the family story of two sisters who have their own careers as authors, and as such, it is also story about writing, both in the 1840s and in the 2020s. Their childhoods, their parents, unexpected family secrets and their responsibilities as part of the ‘sandwich generation’ between children and elderly parents are also interwoven into their search for Charlotte.

Ten of the chapters are written by Belinda, particularly at the start of the book, and eight by Kate. The chapters blend together fairly seamlessly, and I was not particularly aware whether I was reading a Belinda chapter or a Kate chapter. There are, for me, too many descriptions of food and sightseeing and at times it reads like a travel diary. Just like the television program Who Do You Think You Are? the search, and not just the discovery, becomes the story.

I think that a reader’s response to this book will depend heavily on how strictly they interpret the ‘rules’ of biography. For myself, I found the present-day family history rather unnecessary, the imaginative writing superfluous and the speculation unstable. However, for other readers I’m sure that the humanizing and integration of the past and present would have a strong appeal. The authors claimed to be taking historical facts and framing them within their own personal lives. That’s exactly what they have done.

Source: Review copy from NLA via Quikmark media

I have included this on the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Up Came a Squatter: Niel Black of Glenormiston 1839-1880’ by Maggie Black

2016, 292 p. plus notes

The term ‘squatter’ has had different connotations over time. In the 1980s it suggested young people living in empty houses. In the song ‘Waltzing Matilda’, written in 1895, we had the squatter riding up mounted on his thoroughbred, accompanied by the troopers. And even further before that, in early 1840s Port Phillip we had squatters who were often young single men from wealthy families, who went up country, lived rough in huts, grew beards and came back to Melbourne to drink and carouse before heading back outback again. Generally, the squatters have had bad press in Australian history, seen as selfish landgrabbers, oblivious to the destruction of indigenous culture on the land they had appropriated, keeping the little man off the land, and using their power in the Legislative Council to protect their interests.

Much of the celebration of squatters has sprung from familial and parochial pride at our ‘forebears’: men celebrated by their families for establishing the family wealth, and communities grateful for the extensive but often patriarchal contribution made by squatters as civic characters. As Tom Griffiths showed us in his excellent Hunters and Collectors, these tributes to great men, which spawned books and statues (e.g. the 1920s cairns to the squatter Angus McMillan in Gippsland) were particularly created in the late 19th and early 20th century when it was felt that ‘the pioneers’ were passing away. Consciously framed as celebrations, the inconvenient matter of expropriation and massacre was framed as ‘clearing’ and ‘dispersal’. Even Margaret Kiddle’s beautifully written Men of Yesterday, which I discussed here, is silent about the indigenous groups that most certainly lived in, and fought for, the Western Districts of Victoria.

And so enter Niel Black. A 35 year old tenant farmer from Argyllshire, Scotland, he arrived in Melbourne 1839 as part of a Scots-based syndicate that aimed at taking leasing land, raising sheep, selling the wool, making money and then getting out and heading back ‘home’. One of the striking things about this book is its demonstration of Scottish capitalism at work. The sleeping partners of the syndicate back in Scotland wanted their dividends from their investment and were less interested in buying up land to create one unified landholding. But Niel Black, being the partner on the spot, increasingly saw things differently, developing a desire for his land after living and working here and becoming involved in politics to maintain squatter primacy in Victoria.

Black was very much in the ‘improving’ mindset, and fits in well with the descriptions of Scots Presbyterians who established early churches in the Port Phillip area that I read last year. He brought his own farmworkers with him, and maintained an interest in Scots-based emigration schemes that provided indentured labour to work on pastoral properties. In this, he adopted a patriarchal stance, but was happy to support good workers who established their own properties.

Writing about an early pastoralist inevitably raises questions about the relationship between the squatter and the indigenous people that he displaced. By moving into the Western District, Black was shifting to an area where there was a great deal of settler/aborigine conflict. He was keen to buy land that had already been ‘pacified’ and ‘cleared’ of aborigines because of his discomfort with the violence that new settlement entailed. At first he seems to be relatively critical of the harsh treatment of these “poor ignorant” creatures, and adopted a frighten-away policy of galloping after them or discharging his gun in the air when they encroached onto his land. However, over time, he became more sympathetic to settlers who had ‘clashed’ with aborigines, including the Whyte brothers who perpetrated a massacre near Wando Vale in March 1840, and was himself involved in a posse searching for those responsible for the death of a shepherd on an adjoining run. Gradually he joined in the general disparagement of ‘blacks’ and late 1842 he joined in the squatters’ criticism of La Trobe’s inactivity. Like many squatters, he felt that the Aboriginal Protectorate was a misguided, incompetent scheme, but he had quite good relations with Protector Charles Sievwright, even though many others did not.

Instead, most of his clashes occurred with either the Commissioner for Crown Lands Foster Fyans, or with neighbouring squatters. Particularly once the government began passing legislation forcing squatters to pay for some of their land, he was often reluctantly engaged in the same shady practices as other squatters in trying to gain control of contiguous expanses of land. This drive to consolidate land holdings was not understood or supported by some of his Scotland-based partners, and a breakdown in the relations with one of the partners in particular forced him to abandon his home to shift to another subdivision of the run where he built another, grander, home. It was largely to protect his holdings that he went into politics, but he seemed to be a rather diffident politician, operating behind the scenes but not publicly prominent. Lobby groups are always unlovely when you look at them close up, and the squatter lobby is no exception. Maggie Black is clear-eyed about the anti-democratic tendencies of this group of men acting politically in their own interests.

His story demonstrates the mobility of wealthy settlers who, even while achieving prominence in the colony, still viewed the UK as ‘home’. Black journeyed ‘home’ twice in search of a wife, and his business interests with his partners kept him financially tethered to Scotland, even though his wealth was entirely accrued in Victoria. His partners were happy to send their sons out to Glenormiston for the pastoral experience, and his nephew Archie, sent across from Scotland after his father suffered from mental illness, became a trusted, but later embittered, fellow squatter.

Niel Black wrote journals and voluminous letters – particularly to his business partner T.S. Gladstone, and these have been drawn upon heavily by historians of the Western District. They were all very nearly lost to history during the paper shortages of WWII, but were squirrelled away and later shown to Margaret Kiddle when she was researching for her Men of Yesterday. The wealth of his writing has enabled Maggie Black to write a well-rounded biography that makes explicable the convoluted Selection Acts legislation that tried to curb the power of the squatters. In his writings we see the mechanics of imperial – in this case Scottish – capitalism at play, and the emotional tensions that emerged when finance, family and competitive pressures made their demands.

Niel Black has had not one but two moments in the sun during the 2000s. There is this book, published in 2016 by Niel Black’s great-granddaughter, and an earlier book Strangers in a Foreign Land released eight years earlier, based on Black’s journal and other voices from the Western District, written by Maggie MacKellar. (I will confess to wondering at one stage if they were both the same author using different surnames, but this is not the case). I know that an erstwhile reader of this blog, Kevin Brewer, has been working on Niel Black for some time and he is acknowledged in Maggie Black’s book.

In the wake of the conflict with his former partners, the Glenormiston holding was split up between them, and lots were drawn for the different portions. Although his house was on the other section, Black had to settle for the Mount Noorat section, and after living for some time in Melbourne, in 1875 he decided to build a grand house that even he acknowledged would be “the crowning folly of my life”. The 38-room, two-storey, stuccoed Italianate mansion, which took years to construct, was better suited for a town, rather than a pastoral estate in the Western District. He was to live in it for only two years before his death in 1880. Despite its grandeur, it was demolished in the early 1940s – a life shorter than that of its builder.

Niel Black lives on through his journal and letters, never intended as public documents, that draw and inspire historians – particularly the three Margaret/Maggies (Kiddle, MacKellar and Black)- to write so beautifully about him, and in the case of the MacKellar and Black books, to be able to contextualize him in the light of later historiography.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020.

‘Dancing in my dreams: confronting the spectre of polio’ by Kerry Highley

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2016, 177 p. plus notes

I admit that it might seem rather perverse to read about polio epidemics during our own coronavirus pandemic. But with the government’s attempt to highlight COVID infections amongst younger people as well as in older populations to highlight the seriousness of the situation, my mind has been turning recently to the polio epidemics of the past, and particularly the significance of age during a pandemic.

My father was the second child of the family, with a much older half-brother born to a previous marriage (as was too often the case, my grandfather’s first wife died in childbirth). Effectively brought up as a much-doted only child, my eight-year old father was sent to the family property up in Healesville to stay with his grandparents when the polio epidemic of 1937 struck, far from the contagion of the city. 

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My father with his father (left), grandfather and mother at Healesville

Through Highley’s book Dancing in My Dreams: Confronting the Spectre of Polio, I now know that the government tried to discourage parents from doing exactly this, no doubt fearful of spreading polio even further. The streets in 1937 were deserted, she writes, and the picture theatres empty. Schools were closed, and states rushed to close their borders, something that the Federal Minister for Health, Billy Hughes, declared was unconstitutional. (Federal politicians obviously don’t like to be reminded that state borders still exist.) I still shake my head in disbelief that I have seen the same thing in 2020.

But, in fact 1937 was not the most virulent polio epidemic that Australia has seen.  That distinction belongs to the early 1950s, when polio affected 32.30 in every 100,000 of population and affected states across Australia (compared with 14.10 in 1936-40, which mainly affected Victoria.) Nor was it necessarily infantile paralysis, as it was more formally known. The improvements in sanitation in the early twentieth century meant that very young infants, who seemed to be less severely affected, were less likely to catch it. Instead, older children from about 6 and up, teenagers and young adults contracted it. In European, industrialized countries, it changed from an endemic disease to an epidemic one, and one that affected middle class children and young adults, and not just ‘the poor’.

Epidemics prior to 1951 affected particular states, rather than the country as a whole. In 1904 it was Queensland and NSW; in 1908 Victoria; and then in New South Wales in 1931-2. During 1916 New York was afflicted with an epidemic that evoked many of the public health responses we have seen recently: six (!!) weeks quarantine of patients and contacts; food delivered to the front door, funerals held in private, schools closed, public meetings banned.  The public perception that there was a correlation between polio and dirt was challenged when Franklin D. Roosevelt became President. That myth may have been crushed, but the perception that to be “crippled” (to use the terminology of the day) was a matter of shame continued for decades.

During (and after) the 1937 epidemic, there were two competing treatment regimes and much of Highley’s book describes the personalities, history and politics that affected the dominance of one regime over the other.  These clashes took place within a particular historical context.  The 1908 Medical Act established the dominance of the medical profession over the chemists, dentists, midwives, herbalists and homeopaths who had operated in the medical sphere previously.  Nurses, although trying to emphasize their professionalism through groups like the Australian Training Nurses Association,  were very much under the control of doctors and the British Medical Association in Australia organization was very powerful. Interestingly, due to the influence of Christian Scientists and chiropractors in the United States, this strict delineation was not a feature of the American medical scene. In Victoria, the ‘fever hospital’ (later Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital) opened in 1904, and in 1937 all polio cases were sent there.

The official response was headed by Dr. (later Dame) Jean Macnamara, who graduated from the University of Melbourne in the stellar year of 1922 (along with pediatrician Dr. Kate Campbell, hematologist Dr Lucy Bryce and medical scientist Dr (late Sir) Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet). She was appointed resident of the Children’s Hospital the following year, then became clinical assistant to the Children’s out-patients physician and entered private practice specializing in poliomyelitis in 1925. When a polio outbreak occurred that year, she began testing the use of immune serum in her patients and continued to do so even when other international results called its efficacy into question. (Another resonance today- serum is being tested for COVID as well.) Her method involved the splinting of children into a Thomas Splint – a flat, almost crucifix type structure-  for months if not years until the damaged nerves had recovered. Her preference for splinting also extended to treatment for knock-knees and postural problems. In Highley’s somewhat critical depiction, she took a rather utilitarian view of illness, with an emphasis on the economic costs of the ‘cripple’ who would need an invalid pension in the future.

The competing treatment was pioneered by Sister Elizabeth Kenny,  a nurse – not a doctor- from Townsville. Instead of waiting for the inflammation to subside, the Kenny treatment involved hot flannels for the pain (something that Macnamara’s treatment did not prioritize) and early massage and manipulation of the muscles. As Highley points out, Kenny was in many ways her own worst enemy. She was evasive about her own background, which did not include general nursing training, and it  was her experience during WWI that qualified her to call herself ‘Sister’. She was adamant in distancing herself from what might be construed as ‘quack’ medicine, which meant that she did not ally herself with the increasingly-accepted discipline of physiotherapy, which probably would have been to her advantage. Not part of the medical establishment Kenny herself was pugnacious and often alienated people who could have assisted her. Her methods were more accepted in America, where the medical establishment did not have the same stranglehold, and in New Zealand. Although some of her methods were integrated into Australian treatment, the Kenny-dedicated clinics dwindled, and ‘Kenny-like’ treatments diluted the significance of early intervention.

So much was not known about polio at the time: how it was transmitted, its effect on the body, the prognosis for an individual. Just as today, there was a frantic race to find a vaccine against polio, and the tragic mis-steps in this process bring a note of caution to our current world-wide race to find a COVID vaccine.

But the focus of this book is very much on the individual, and his or her  experience of polio. She traces through the diagnosis and early crisis of the disease, the responses of child and adult patients to this rupture in their lives, the differing experiences under the Macnamara and Kenny treatment regime, the long period of rehabilitation and family and societal responses in the years and decades afterwards. The text has liberal quotations of oral testimony, drawn from a variety of sources, and you never forget that you are reading about people. It is engagingly written, with equal attention to personality, politics and science.

And no, it wasn’t depressing reading during a pandemic.  It was oddly reassuring to read that communities had been frightened by a disease that was unknown, and that the current measures of quarantine, isolation and, yes, border closures are not some 21st century draconian infringement on our liberties or a conspiracy dreamed up on the edges of the internet. It was interesting to see two women competing within the medical sphere, and the power dynamics at play. There were mis-steps and misapprehensions, but knowledge of polio as a disease gradually expanded. The book captures attitudes towards illness and disability that are best left in the past.  The story of the polio vaccine and its tragic failures prompted by haste carry a warning (I’m speaking to you, Trump), but eventually confirm the importance of vaccination and rigorous testing. I’m glad that I read this book.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: read online through State Library of Victoria.

I have read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020

‘Truganini: Journey through the apocalypse’ by Cassandra Pybus

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2020, 336 p.

The front cover of Cassandra Pybus’ biography of Truganini shows Peter Dombrovski’s photograph of the sinuous, black ribbons of kelp at Macquarie Harbour in Tasmania. It’s a beautiful and yet unnerving photograph that is just right for this story of a black, evil period of Australia’s history that still congeals and clogs our sense of ourselves as Australians.

Truganini is a story based on historical sources, but Pybus has chosen not to write history here, with footnotes and forays into the historiography and secondary source material about Tasmanian indigenous history. As a historian, I regret that.

The approximately 250 km of Bass Strait that separates Victoria and Tasmania is not a wide expanse of water, but Victorian and Tasmanian histories have tended, until recent years (e.g. James Boyce’s 1835; Lynette Russell’s Roving Mariners ) to have been told as two separate histories of development. This is particularly true in the consideration of Truganini,  for a long time wrongly described as the “last Tasmanian Aborigine” as one story, and the story of the “Van Diemen’s Land Blacks” (as they were described at the time) who accompanied the Aboriginal Protector George Augustus Robinson to the Port Phillip settlement in 1839 as a separate story. I have read of Robinson’s activities in Tasmania through Plomley’s work (most recently revisited in Johnston and Rolls’ collection of essays in Reading Robinson, and in Leonie Steven’s beautifully written Me Write Myself) and I have also read in more details of his activities in Victoria ( most particularly in Auty and Russell’s Hunt Them, Hang Them). But until now, I haven’t read another work that sees the Tasmanian and Victorian experiences as a unified event, part of this unfolding ‘apocalypse’ that swept away all the certainties of a long-established lifestyle in an environment that could be bounteous, but also unrelenting.

Cassandra Pybus’ own life story is tied up with that of Truganini. Her family history in Tasmania starts with the grant of Neunonne land  on North Bruny Island  to her great-great grandfather Richard Pybus, thus implicating her own family directly in the dispossession of Truganini’s own land. She had heard family tales of an old woman picking her way across the land – her traditional Neunonne land, (although the Pybus family wouldn’t have seen it that way) and Pybus herself  purchases and lives in her uncle’s house built directly adjacent the old convict station at Oyster Cove where Truganini spent the last thirty years of her life.

Perhaps because it is a story personal to herself that Pybus has decided to write this as a narrative biography, rather than an academic history. As with any other writer working in this area, she relies heavily on the journals of George August Robinson, the self-appointed ‘Protector’ of Aborigines. Written in an almost illegible scrawl, these journals are a mixture of bombast, ego, information, sketches, occasional introspection and frequent obliviousness.  In her introduction, she writes:

In writing this book, I have deliberately confined myself to first-person accounts from people who saw her and heard her with their own eyes and ears, then – ideally- made a contemporaneous record of it. Such sources are very few and they are all culturally loaded. Robinson’s journals, however narcissistic and ideologically driven, are the best sources available , which bestows on this highly problematic man an outsized role in her story that he doesn’t really merit. (p. xix)

She doesn’t hold back on her own opinion of Robinson- an opinion much more critical than many other historians who are alternately repelled but puzzled by him:

Truganini and her companions are only available to us through the gaze of pompous, partisan, acquisitive, self-aggrandising men who controlled and directed the context of what they described. The challenge I have set myself is to somehow release these people from entrapment in a paternalising and self-serving account of the colonial past.  I want to redirect the lens to find the woman behind the myth (p. xix)

And this is where my regret that she has chosen not to write a history comes in: that without footnotes, and without acknowledging the work of historians with whom she has clearly talked – her friend Lyndall Ryan for just one- as a reader, I cannot tell where Robinson and the other observers end, and Pybus takes up, especially in ascribing Truganini’s motives and responses.

But I am in danger of letting my desire for a different book obscure my pleasure in the book that we do have. In Pybus’ Truganini – as distinct from the ‘last Tasmanian aborigine’ Truganini- we have a flesh-and-blood woman who swims and dives, who struggles through harsh landscapes and complains of having to walk instead of taking the boat, has friendships, loves children, uses her body and her sexuality to get what she wants, and resists being corralled into Robinson’s vision of a compliant, dying race.

I hadn’t realized just how far Robinson and his ‘guides’ walked on the different ‘missions’ between 1830 and 1834. They literally circumnavigated Tasmania, across varied terrains in often appalling weather. Pybus’ writing glows in describing landscape: you can just see them sinking into wetlands, scrabbling up and down rocky slopes.  Then there were the ‘missions’ back and forth, trying to ‘conciliate’ particular tribes – or what was left of them- all part of Robinson’s plan and purpose,  none of which he could have undertaken without them.

By “reading against the archival grain” in Robinson’s journals, you can see how resistant Truganini and his other ‘guides’ were to his mission. There was a whole tribal political and economic network in operation to which Robinson was oblivious and excluded. In a ‘search’, it was dubious who was seeking and who was sought.  Women were ‘rescued’ from the Bass Strait sealers, but refused to go with Robinson, preferring to stay with the sealers. There was a sexual trade in operation – and Truganini was a participant – and Robinson was powerless to stop it.

The two-facedness and betrayal in Robinson’s behaviour is breath-taking. He ‘brought in’ people of the varying nations with promises that he did not keep, often pleading that he had sought permission but been denied.  He promised to rescue daughters from the sealers, but did not (and could not) do so. He held out the promise of fertile land on the north-east tip of Tasmania, near the Bay of Fires, knowing that the eventual outcome was not this rich territory, but instead a windswept Bass Strait island.

His abandonment of his ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ family in Port Phillip, after bringing them over by various ruses, is reprehensible. Robinson had  arrived in Port Phillip well before Superintendent La Trobe arrived, and by then he had virtually washed his hands of their charge, more intent on bolstering his career by building the bureaucracy of the Protectorate in Port Phillip. His ‘Van Diemen’s Land family’ simply just falls out of his journals, and his conscience.

It was Truganini’s longevity that leaves her at the end of a dismal story of betrayal and illness, as gradually the people around her sicken and children are never born. It is difficult to find ‘agency’ in this slow denouement, but there is instead a steady resistance as Truganini refuses to fit into the fairy tale ending of an arranged marriage and a cottage in a simulacrum of “civilization”.

The book closes with a series of short biographies of the various indigenous people who Truganini encountered, either as part of her pre-Robinson days, during the so-called ‘Friendly Missions’ or through their enforced proximity on Wyballenna and Oyster Cove. These are arranged by nation, reflecting the importance of country as identity. They highlight that Truganini, like all of us, played various roles amongst the people she knew: friend, sexual partner, fellow expeditioner on the so called ‘Friendly Missions’. They make daunting and depressing reading.

The book has excellent maps at the start, which I found myself consulting often. The text rarely mentioned places not shown on the map, and it was easy to locate where the action was taking place. There are two sets of colour plates, but unfortunately no index, which made the biographies at the end of the book awkward to negotiate if you were unaware of the tribal origins of each individual. Her primary sources are cited, but no secondary literature at all.

I come to this book as a historian, and so I regret the lack of footnotes and engagement with the huge body of scholarship and the historical debates. The research has been done and her passion is clearly apparent.  Her work is, as historian Henry Reynolds blurbs on the back cover “of unquestionable national importance” but by her choices she has moved it out of the historiographical realm.

But there is no gainsaying the beauty of Pybus’ prose in describing landscape, and her sensitivity to Truganini’s agency and cohesiveness as an intelligent, resilient woman in a maelstrom of disruption and under a burden of grief. Perhaps eschewing the footnotes attracts readers other than historians, and that is important.

As a reader -whether a historian or a general reader-  you leave the book agreeing with Pybus that after all this dispossession, resistance and sorrow, that the “very least we can do is pay attention and give respectful consideration when the original people of this country tell us what is needed” (p 270).  It is, as she says “not too much to ask”. Indeed.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: Difficult to say-  commenting as a general reader, 9/10

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I have included this in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020

 

‘Beyond the Ladies Lounge’ by Clare Wright

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2014, 256 p.

My parents were teetotalers, and even though I’m not  a teetotaler by any stretch of the imagination (cue laughter from my husband), I was certainly influenced by my parents’ distaste for the dull roar and acrid smell of beer that emanated from the corner pubs of my childhood. Growing up in the time of the ‘six o’clock swill’, and with the quaintly lettered ‘Ladies Lounge’ etched into the stained glass of pub windows, the pub seemed a threateningly male place. But as Clare Wright reminds us in this book, this was not always the case. Female publicans have a long history, right back to the earliest days of white settlement, and at the end of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century, over half of Melbourne’s hotels had a female licensee.

This book, republished by Text Publishing in 2014 has had a longer life than you might think. The original 2003 book was originally drawn from Clare Wright’s PhD thesis from 2002, which itself grew out of her honours thesis which utilized oral histories with female publicans and their descendants. These academic antecedents are still here in this 2014 version of the book, but Wright’s lively writing style, even more pronounced in her later books The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka  and You Daughters of Freedom, ensures that the academic analysis enhances, rather than suffocates, the text.

She starts her book with an evocative pub crawl around Melbourne in 1889, from one hotel to another, where the publican is a woman. Right from the earliest days of convict settlement, the authorities were prepared to condone hotel-keeping by young single women.  During the gold rush, when liquor was ostensibly banned from the diggings, the sly-grog tents that flourished were often owned by women. Some women made sufficient money from sly-grogging to build hotels on the roads to the diggings where they became legitimate, respectable traders.

The legal framework regulating the liquor trade in Victoria was distinctly favourable to women because they were seen to ‘keep orderly houses’, reflected in the language that spoke of the licensee as ‘he or she’.  Most importantly, the requirement for pubs to offer accommodation (something that was not the case in Britain) meant that women were involved in creating a domestic, as well as drinking establishment. Nonetheless, with time, this came under threat.  The 1876 legislation, which aimed at cleaning up the trade after the gold rush, changed the language to ‘he’ and favoured male licensees, and in 1884 there was a courtcase that ruled that married women were prohibited from holding a publican’s licence.  This verdict threw the hotel industry into turmoil, but an Amending Act the next year preserved married women’s rights to renew their licences. Support for married women as licencees came from two unexpected quarters: the Licensed Victuallers Association who were ambivalent at first,  but were swayed by wanting to demonstrate the ‘respectability’ of their profession; and more importantly, the brewing companies who owned a number of hotels outright under the ‘tied house’ system, often using female licensees. In the midst of the temperance campaign around WWI, even the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which campaigned vociferously against barmaids, was largely silent about female publicans with whom they probably had more in common than they wanted to admit.

‘Respectability’ was used by women publicans as both an attribute to make themselves valuable as licensees, and as a way of embedding themselves and their hotel as integral parts of the community. It was used as a way of controlling behaviour, too, by insisting that men not swear in front of them, and by not drinking with the men (as male publicans were wont to do) in order to maintain a respectable distance.

Because of the requirement for the publican to live on the premises, the pub was a home as well as a business. In the chapter ‘Mapping Elizabeth Wright’, she looks to the inquest records of the aforenamed Elizabeth Wright, who was murdered in her own hotel’s dining room by her business partner. Through these records, Wright (the author, not the victim!) is able to map out the Frankston Hotel spatially, and the dual and ambiguous family/business uses of many of the spaces. Female publicans, bringing up their families within this shared zone, did not have a separate work life but instead their children saw how they operated with authority and efficiency, as oral history testimonies demonstrate. In the final chapters of the book, she brings the female publican into the 21st century, with examples of female publicans in inner-city hotels (e.g. the Curry Family Inn in Collingwood) and  gastropubs (e.g. the Grace Darling, also in Collingwood).

I enjoyed this book. It is written with the same warmth and wit of Wright’s later work on Eureka and suffrage, which tie far more into the bigger historical themes of Australian history. It is not just a paean of praise to female publicans, because it has academic ‘grunt’ as well, although some readers may find this off-putting. There are enough personal vignettes for you to remember that you are reading about real people as well, and the sheer number of examples of female publicans drawn from right across Victoria reinforces that she is writing about a widespread, if overlooked, phenomenon.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library e-book

 

‘Oil Under Troubled Water’ by Bernard Collaery

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466 p. 2020

This blog post is actually an amalgam of two blog posts. The first one explained why I didn’t finish reading this book. This second post is written after I gritted my teeth and did finish it after all.

I’ve become more interested in international politics over the last twenty years. This interest was spurred by my outrage at the oleaginous Alexander Downer’s airy dismissal of concerns about Australia’s behaviour over East Timorese oil resources, waving off the whole question as a merely a matter for foreign aid, rather than principled policy. I decided then that I needed to know more about the world around me.

I still feel that way, particularly about East Timor and West Papua. I watched a Readings ZOOM session where former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks launched this book and decided that I should read it. Bracks describes it in a blurb on the front cover as “Essential, if difficult, reading for all Australians”. I assumed that it was difficult from a moral/political point of view (which it is), but for me it is difficult because of the way it is written. It is very detailed : nearly 400 pages of very dense foreign policy with different departments and diplomats and acronyms. It’s a lawyer writing, not a historian, and fact after fact is rammed through, lest nothing be left out. This is a real insider’s book, for someone who already knows the lie of the land and the big picture. That reader is not me.

Bernard Collaery is a former Attorney-General of the Australian Capital Territory and worked for many years as legal counsel to the government of East Timor. He makes no secret of his admiration for and allegiance to Xanana Gusmao, the first President and fourth Prime Minister of the newly-independent East Timor. The black and white photographs sprinkled through the book, often including the author, show that he is not just a commentator but a participant in the events. In May 2018 he was charged by the Australian Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions with conspiracy to breach the Intelligence Services Act of 2001, introduced in the wake of September 11. He, and Witness K, a former senior ASIS agent, have been effectively gagged over a claim that ASIS had bugged the offices of the East Timorese team during negotiations over Timor Sea oil.

This, then, is a history of Australia’s dealings with East Timor and Indonesia over the oil resources- and more importantly, the helium reserves- in the Timor Sea. It moves chronologically, but it is a lawyer’s argument rather than a historian’s. However, as a historian, I learned much: about the way that England’s treaty with Portugal affected how England wanted to hide behind Australia in taking action in Timor during WW2; the strategic importance of the Azores in the middle of the Atlantic for British defence and hence its concerns about getting Portugal offside over Timor; about the Whitlam and later Fraser government assumptions that Indonesia would take over East Timor, in preference to independence. In Collaery’s telling, Australia’s foreign policy reached its high point with H.V. Evatt, and from then on has been underhand and coercive, and largely and inexplicably beholden to the petroleum industry (although, as he points out, Alexander Downer’s almost immediate employment by Woodside Petroleum is telling).

Australia does not come well out of this. The Australian government was quick to act when the new nation of Timor Leste was just finding its feet; it has played hard ball with questionable geological and cartographic ‘facts’ , and yet ineptly managed to lose the benefits of the ‘inert’ helium commodity not only for Timor Leste but for Australia itself.

I did manage to finish this book, but I found it very hard to read. Inexplicably, there is no map until page 362 and in a book that bristles with acronyms, there is no glossary.  It is meticulous, with every fact noted, but it groans under the weight of so much detail. My gut feeling all those years ago was that Australia was acting like a bully, and this book only confirmed it further.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

 

‘Friends and Rivals’ by Brenda Niall

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2020, 288 p.

In her most recent book Friends and Rivals, Brenda Niall has gone almost full circle. One of her early books was Seven Little Billabongs: The World of Ethel Turner and Mary Grant Bruce, published in 1979 and here she is, some forty years later with another group biography, this time linking “four great Australian writers”: Ethel Turner, Barbara Baynton, Henry Handel Richardson and Nettie Palmer. This book is more a quartet of essays rather than one integrated study. Indeed, it might be more appropriate to speak of two twinned biographies, as she was able to pinpoint a documented link between Turner and Baynton,  and likewise between Richardson and Palmer in a literary quest of degrees-of-separation.

I have come across three of these writers over my lifetime. We did not have a lot of books in our house, but my mother did give me three books from her childhood. One of them was the 1935 Children’s Treasure House, a book of 768 pages on very thin paper, full of English stories and full-length fairy stories, with beautiful Art Deco black-and-white illustrations and colour plates.  In Australia, the rights were reserved by the Australian Women’s Weekly and it cost 5/- plus 1/- postage to buy a copy. I still have the one my mother owned.

The other books she gave me were her copies of  Family at Misrule and Flower O’ the Pine– long since gone (unfortunately, because they were first editions I see, although of no great value).  These were both written by Ethel Turner, and I loved them. I borrowed Seven Little Australians from the library as well, and I can remember being heartbroken when Judy died.  I was never a Billabong girl- only ever Ethel Turner.

In contrast, I only encountered Barbara Baynton’s Bush Studies three years ago (my review here) and the stories are still etched in my mind, so different were they from the Bulletin/Lawson/Paterson nationalist bush stories of the turn of the twentieth century.  Elizabeth Webby’s introduction to the 1999 edition  really piqued my interest in this shape-shifting woman, whose final presentation of self was more fictional than her work was.

I read The Getting of Wisdom as a teenager, but was deterred from ever embarking on The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by a friend at the time who was made to read it at school (interestingly, she went to PLC – perhaps the school had forgiven HHR by then). She warned me that it was the most boring book ever written and to be avoided like the plague. I took her at her word, and did not read it until the summer of 2008, down at the beach. I just loved it, and it’s right up there on my list of favourite Australian novels.

Nettie Palmer I have only ever encountered as part of the two-for-one partnership of “Vance-and-Nettie-Palmer”, public intellectuals and champions of Australian literature. But I have encountered her often, through my interest in her uncle Henry Bourne Higgins, whose biography she was commissioned to write, and I’ve wanted to know more about her. In fact, it was Niall’s study of her that led me to read this book.

The book starts with an introduction ‘Women’s Work’, which I found a little lacklustre. The introduction didn’t explain why she chose these four women in particular (rather than others), because, as she points out, they did not make up a group, as such.

The lives of Turner and Baynton, Richardson and Palmer criss-crossed one another from the 1890s through the Federation period to the late 1920s. Their writing careers differ widely, as does the quality of their work. The writer of children’s books, the short story writer and the novelist, all were doing something new, as was Nettie Palmer, literary journalist and public intellectual. Their achievements, against the odds, were substantial and surprising. They didn’t make up a group; there were no groups for them to join. How did they do it?Each life story illuminates the others. (p. 10)

However, there were themes that arose her analysis of all four women. One such theme was that of reinvention. Ethel Turner was evasive about her childhood and parentage. There has never been documentary evidence of the man who was named as her father on her birth certificate, and she took the name of her stepfather, Henry Turner, a 39 year old widower with four sons and two daughters. Her mother had falsified both her own age, and the ages of her children. When Turner died her mother remarried quickly to Charles Cope, a bachelor ten years younger than her mother, and he was to take an unhealthy interest in his step-daughters. Niall observed that “Turner was strangely tolerant; it is as if she was blinkered to the sexual desire that he so plainly felt for her” (p. 35)

Barbara Baynton was even more evasive about her own history, giving her own family a completely fictional account of a Captain Robert Kilpatrick, who seduced Penelope Ewart away from her husband, and finally married her just before Barbara’s birth, thus rescuing her from illegitimacy.  No trace of this Captain Kilpatrick has been found. Instead, her father was a bush carpenter, and Barbara and her six siblings were all illegitimate, although her parents married later. She became a governess to the Frater family, close to Scone in NSW, and married her employer’s eldest son – shades here of My Brilliant Career. Her husband, however was a “shiftless, neglectful and unfaithful husband” (p.86) and she initiated divorce proceedings against her husband. She found security with her second marriage, to the elderly, wealthy Dr Thomas Baynton. Educated by her husband into the appreciation of furniture and porcelain, she took her place within Sydney social circles. When he died  in 1904, just after the publication of Bush Studies, he left her a substantial estate which she had a free hand in administering. She moved to London, and after WWI married Baron Headley, an eccentric peer but this was an unhappy marriage. When they divorced, she retained her title, and still had her money, and returned to Australia.

Henry Handel Richardson did not try to hide her background- indeed, she mined it heavily for The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, but she did manipulate her name. Ethel Richardson adopted the name ‘Henry Handel Richardson’ with the publication of her first novel, Maurice Guest as a sort of game – would anyone detect it as a woman’s work? Although married to the scholar J. G. Robertson, no one was allowed to call her Mrs Robertson, going by ‘HHR’ and ‘Henry’ amongst family and friends.

Nettie Palmer was probably the most straight-forward of them all, with an open and uncomplicated liberal Melbourne upbringing. She happily took her husband’s name, and was happy to be known in tandem with him.

When it came to publication, the three writers turned their eyes to British publishing houses, as was common at that time. Ethel Turner was probably the most put-upon amongst the three, with her publishers demanding a Christmas book each year, setting her up in competition with Mary Grant Bruce, and changing the endings and pruning the plots so as not to alienate a Sunday School prize market.

Baynton was already in England when she started looking to publish the short stories she had written back in Sydney, but even with her husband’s position in society, she could not find a publisher. Then, in keeping with her already fantastical life, she had the fairy-tale luck to be rescued from the slush pile at Duckworth’s publishing company through Edward Garnett (husband of the famous translator Constant Garnett), who had also discovered Joseph Conrad, John Galsworthy and D. H. Lawrence.  However, after this start, she struggled with her novel Human Toll, which received a few respectful reviews among mainly lukewarm ones.

Henry Handel Richardson began her first novel Maurice Guest while living in Strasbourg, and The Getting of Wisdom was also written and published overseas. Her husband took charge of most of the business side of publication, and was willing to pay for the publication of the third part of the Richard Mahony trilogy himself, when Heinemann rejected it. That volume,  ended up Ultima Thume being received with acclaim.

Most of Nettie’s work in reviewing books appeared in Australian newspapers and her survey of Australian writing in Modern Australian Literature 1900-1923  was published in Melbourne. She did, however, have a London publisher for her first book of poems The South Wind, followed by a second book of poetry in Shadowy Paths also published in London.

Another theme that comes through the essays is that of patronage and support. Both Barbara Baynton and Henry Handel Richardson had husbands whose interest and connections (and in Baynton’s case, money) supported their writing. Niall suggests that J.G. Robertson sacrificed his academic career for HHR’s writing success, and the incorporation of a young woman Olga Roncoronis into their household further left space for HHR’s own writing – (Niall leaves open the question of a sexual attraction between the two women). With Nettie Palmer, the tables were turned, with her assiduous promotion of her husband Vance’s work within literacy circles – a devotion which Niall feels to have detracted from her own career as critic.

A biography, if it is to be more than a chronology of facts and actions, is an argument or judgment, based on a reading of documents, conversations and actions. These are not necessarily accepted on their face value: sometimes they are ‘read against’ or set up in opposition to one another.  Especially when dealing with writers, there are not only the writer’s own works, and sometimes an autobiography written with varying degrees of deprecation or self-regard, but often there is also a body of correspondence with other writers, who in turn write to other writers. The retention of such correspondence is sometimes a matter of chance, at other times the target of ruthless culling or assiduous gate-keeping either by the author herself or her literary executors. For good or ill, these remaining letters are mined by biographers, giving them a life and significance far beyond the original intent.

The crafting of a biography as an argument is particularly apparent in a multi-essay volume like this one, where the same author deals with multiple and interlinked characters. Niall’s reading of Henry Handel Richardson is censorious, while she clearly admires Nettie Palmer and feels that she has not been sufficiently recognized as part of the Vance-and-Nettie-Palmer partnership. In dealing with Ethel Turner, she also examines the British-dominated publication culture of the day, and with Barbara Baynton she finds a paradox, interlaced with reinvention.  New material is always being uncovered, additional links discovered, and historical ‘turns’ invite historians and biographers to stand in a different place to re-evaluate their subjects. That is why there are no definitive biographies.

I admire Brenda Niall as a biographer. She is deft and efficient, and attuned to the nuances of relationships.  She paints a broad canvas for her subjects, but also hones in on details that give definition to her subjects, helping you understand why this particular person was distinctive.  That said, I was somewhat startled by the abrupt ending of this volume. In fact,  I felt a little short-changed by both the introduction and the absence of a conclusion. While I know that her focus is on her four subjects, I found myself wishing that Brenda Niall herself had come back on stage to draw out further the contrasts and commonalities in these four lives.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8/10

aww2020

I have included this as part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2020