Reading Australia: Bush Stories by Barbara Baynton

imageRecently, I asked a couple members of the book blogging community for recommendations of Australian writers, and what I got will probably keep me busy for a while.

This post is on Barbara Baynton’s famous short story collection Bush Studies (1902), which was recommended by The Reading Life.

Baynton was a 19th century/early 20th century Australian writer who was known for her gritty realism and grim portrayal of the bush–in the Australian context, the bush is a populated area far from a major city or a not so populated area with lots of vegetation.

So far I’ve only read ‘The Dreamer’ and ‘Squeaker’s Mate’, but the word ‘studies’ in the title Bush Studies seems appropriate. Both stories offer brief glimpses into the harsh lives of women in the bush.

The Dreamer
‘The Dreamer’ is a dark and stormy story that rips expectations and memory away from reality. A woman returns from an up-country town to see her mother, but finds herself a stranger in a once familiar place, “Once she had known every hand at the station. The porter knew everyone in the district. This traveller was a stranger to him.”

When she arrives at the train station there is no one to meet her so she is forced to trek “…three bush miles to her mother’s home.” There is a kind of heartbreaking hopefulness in this, because the narrative oscillates between expectations of seeing her mother and the grim reality of the wet night-time trek where she begins to doubt whether she is on the right path.

In an effort not spoil it for anyone else, the only thing I’d add is that this story left me breathless and I had to calm down before I could read anything else.

Squeaker’s Mate
“The woman carried the bag with the axe and mail and wedges; the man had the billy and clean tucker-bags; the cross-cut saw linked them.”

Squeaker’s Mate is filled with patriarchal cruelty. The opening line in this story immediately highlights the point of conflict; a kind of disparity of the existing structure of gender inequality. Squeaker’s mate, Mary, doesn’t match what a woman ought to be in the short story’s patriarchal world, “The selectors’ wives pretended to challenge her right to womanly garments…”. So when she is no longer able to work, she has to put up with a kind of petty cruelty from Squeaker.

The story lists injustice after injustice, which only serves to highlight the weaknesses of Squeaker and the silent enduring strength of Mary. Definitely an uncomfortable read, but with a somewhat satisfyingly brutal conclusion.

Quick ThoughtsIMG_0525
I think what is disturbing about both stories is the sense of isolation that the women in both stories experience. The woman from the first story has no choice but to contend with the natural elements on her own, and Mary, from the second story, must face cruel neglect without any help from anyone else; her only companion is her dog.

At the same time there is a kind of strength in these women’s situations. In the the face of threatening environments and unjust social systems both women prove that they are not helpless damsels who need to be rescued, which is good since there aren’t any knights in shining armour.

So far Baynton’s collection is a little depressing, but also very powerful. At the moment I’m working my way through ‘Scrammy ‘And’, so next week I’ll post my thoughts about that and ‘Billie Skywonkie’.

Kwame

Image Credit 1: anzlitlovers, Image Credit 2: GoodReads

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7 Responses to Reading Australia: Bush Stories by Barbara Baynton

  1. I haven’t read many Australian writers but I like your review of these stories so I’ll keep an eye out for the book. Interesting titles.

  2. Great to see someone else reviewing these stories. They are certainly confronting. I love that Baynton was writing such fierce stories at that time.

    • I am really enjoying the writing so far. I read somewhere that her writings were a kind of response to the previous ‘romantic’ representations of the bush. I probably need to read some of those writings to really get a sense of what Baynton was trying to accomplish.

      • Whether they’re an actual response or just another perspective is an interesting question. She did experience life in the bush and was left by a philandering husband I believe so the bush wasn’t particularly romantic for her. If you haven’t read it and could fit in just one, read Lawson’s The drover’s wife.

      • Interesting. I will definitely check out Lawson’s work when I’m finished with Bush Studies. Thanks for another recommendation!

      • Always a pleasure! But do, it’s a short story so not hard to fit in and well worth reading to understand what people mean by “romance” of the bush. It’s not fluffy but more about idealisation.

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