NO PLACE FOR A WOMAN
The Australian author Barbara Baynton had her first short story published under the title “The Tramp” in 1896 in the Christmas edition of the Bulletin. Founded in Sydney in 1880, the Bulletin was instrumental in developing the idea of Australian nationalism. It was originally a popular commercial weekly rather than a literary magazine but in the 1890s, with the literary critic A.G. Stephens as its editor, it was to become “something like a national literary club for a new generation of writers” (Carter 263). Stephens published work by many young Australian writers, including the short story writer Henry Lawson and the poet “Banjo” Paterson and in 1901 he celebrated Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career as the first Australian novel. 2
… Stephens deemed her “too outspoken for an Australian audience” (Schaffer 154). She was unable to find a publisher in Sydney willing to print her stories as a collection and it was not until 1902 that six of her stories were published in London by Duckworth’s Greenback Library under the title Bush Studies. It was, on the whole, reviewed favorably. She subsequently published a novel, Human Toll, in 1907 and an expanded collection of stories in 1917. Yet, although individual stories were regularly included in anthologies of Australian literature, by the time of her death in 1929 she was better known as an antique collector and her collected stories were not reprinted until 1980. 3
Until the advent of feminist criticism in the 1980s, Baynton remained a largely forgotten figure, dismissed as a typical female writer who did not know how to control her emotions and who was unable to put her “natural talent” to good use. As late as 1983 Lucy Frost could talk of “her unusually low level of critical awareness” (65) and claim that she “relies … on instinct … In order to write well she needs to write honestly out of intuitive understanding. … As art it makes for failure” (65). For a long time reading the implicit in Baynton’s stories consisted in identifying the autobiographical elements and attempting to piece together her true life. She notoriously claimed, even to her own children, to be the daughter not of an Irish carpenter but of a Bengal Lancer and in later life tried to conceal the hardship of her childhood and early married life. The stories were read as “true” accounts of what it was like for a poor woman to live in the bush at the end of the nineteenth century. This paper argues that far from being a natural writer whose “talent does not extend to symbolism” (Frost 64), Baynton is a sophisticated writer who uses obliqueness simply because this was the only form of criticism open to a woman writer in Australia at this time. The apparent inability of readers to engage with the implicit in her stories stems from an unwillingness to accept her vision of life in the bush. 4
In order to understand Baynton's technique and why earlier readers consistently failed to interpret it correctly, it is important to replace her stories in the context of the literary world in which she was working for, as Brown and Yule state, when it comes to reading the implicit: “Discourse is interpreted in the light of past experience of similar discourse by analogy with previous similar texts” (65). In 1901, the year of federation and the height of Australian nationalistic fervor, A.G. Stephens wrote: What country can offer to writers better material than Australia? We are not yet snug in cities and hamlets, molded by routine, regimented to a pattern. Every man who roams the Australian wilderness is a potential knight of Romance; every man who grapples with the Australian desert for a livelihood might sing a Homeric chant of history, or listen, baffled and beaten, to an Aeschylean dirge of defeat. The marvels of the adventurous are our daily common-places. The drama of the conflict between...
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