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’ 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.
“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.
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’.