Bush Studies continued to be admired through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s by a small but important group of writer-critics who saw themselves as the inheritors of what they characterized as the bush-realist tradition of the 1890s. By the time Bush Studies was brought back into print in 1965, critics in a newer tradition of criticism took the opportunity to read Baynton as a dissident figure whose grim and deeply skeptical representation of the ideology and social practices of late-nineteenth-century bush life was held in contrast to what was by then regarded as the more sentimental, jocular, and laconic representations by her near-contemporaries--Henry Lawson, "Banjo" Paterson, and Joseph Furphy. Many critics quickly observed, too, that gender played a part in this reevaluation, and Baynton's work became central to countercanonical and feminist readings of nationalist realism in Australian literature and history. Baynton's work was really quite central to the major reevaluation of "the nineties" (the 1890s), the most contentious and contested period in Australian writing and politics. This reevaluation began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the period in which the academic standing of the study of Australian literature in the rapidly expanding university sector was most substantially institutionalized. Baynton's work, then, was a keystone by which the new academic discipline of Australian literature distinguished itself from earlier ways of reading, and Bush Studies has become a familiar, almost canonical, part of the reading of Australian students.
Not surprisingly, realist readings of Baynton's work emphasize the presumed biographical elements in it. The events described in the fiction, so a standard version of this argument goes, are so extraordinary that they must be based upon the author's personal experience. As many feminist critics have noted, this reading strategy is much more often applied to women's works than to those of male writers, and its effect is to reduce the textual status of the work, which is thereby rendered merely a transcription of events. In recent years the interest in Baynton's life--at least as a key to understanding the fiction--has somewhat abated. Her writing is more likely today to be seen as exemplary of late-nineteenth-century developments in genre, especially of genres that were characteristic of women's writing in that period; this view has resulted in much more appropriate readings of work that had always seemed to many readers to fit oddly with the celebratory mode of bush realism and its ideological progenitor, romantic nationalism.
Nevertheless, Baynton's life remains interesting for many reasons. Her life was, quite simply, extraordinary, and it was a life that Baynton herself made into narrative (and increasingly fictionalized as her social circumstances altered) in formal public documents, in family memoirs and anecdotes, and, as studies have revealed, in her fiction as well. Until the publication in 1989 of Penne Hackforth-Jones's Barbara Baynton: Between Two Worlds, the relationship between Baynton's fiction and her life was little more than the subject of presumption and speculation. Indeed, the verifiable portion of Baynton's life was not large until some remarkable detective work by Sally Krimmer in 1976 brought to light many facts about Baynton's birth, marriages, and parentage. A memoir of Baynton by her grandson, H. B. Gullett, had been appended to the much-reprinted Angus and Robertson republication of Bush Studies in 1965, but it was based on family hearsay and owed much to Baynton's own self-dramatization and sometimes outrageous invention. The Hackforth-Jones biography, on the other hand, is meticulously researched and documented; she also took advantage of a family connection. As Baynton's great-granddaughter, Hackforth-Jones was able to draw on interviews with family members and papers and documents in private hands as well as the small but important collections in public archives. What she has shown is just how closely Baynton modeled character and event on family, acquaintances, and recollected experiences. Hackforth-Jones also records the extent to which, for her family, some of the stories functioned as romans à clef; some characters, including Baynton's first husband and neighbors, were almost instantly recognizable through thinly veiled disguises.
In one sense this study might merely reproduce a newer image of Baynton as manipulator, as trickster. It does, however, shed important light on Baynton's methods of writing, and it helps to identify the thematic direction that the writing takes away from its real-life antecedents. The other, more important, contribution that Between Two Worlds makes is to insert Barbara Baynton more securely into the literary and public milieu in which she lived and worked. Baynton was a literary colleague and social familiar of such important figures in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Australian cultural and political life as A. G. Stephens (the literary editor of the key periodical The Bulletin [Sydney]), Rose Scott (the leading feminist and pacifist), Miles Franklin, Vance Palmer, Ethel Turner, Martin Boyd, and William Morris Hughes (the wartime prime minister).
Barbara Lawrence was born in the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales in 1857, the seventh child of Elizabeth (née Ewart) and John Lawrence. The version of her origins that Baynton circulated among her family and that gained some public credence with the publication of Gullett's "Memoir" in 1962 is that she was the illegitimate child of "Penelope" Ewart and a "Robert Kilpatrick," with whom her mother had allegedly formed a liaison while on board the ship to Australia. While Baynton's birth certificate records her parents as John and Elizabeth Lawrence, Hackforth-Jones speculates that Elizabeth Lawrence did indeed leave her farm-laborer husband, John, soon after arriving in Sydney to live in a long de facto relationship with Kilpatrick, a carpenter who had migrated from the same part of Ireland a few months earlier. To minimize the public fuss, speculates Hackforth-Jones, Kilpatrick took Lawrence's name and eventually, after the real John Lawrence died, married Elizabeth in 1862. A certificate of such a marriage between Elizabeth Lawrence, widow, and John Lawrence, bachelor, is indeed registered in Murrurundi.
Whatever the exact identity of her parents, Barbara's early life in the Upper Hunter around Scone and Murrurundi was neither comfortable nor cultured. During a period of economic depression in the colony, and with her father absent for long periods while working at various rural jobs and her mother in frequent childbirth, the family was mostly in straitened circumstances. At eighteen, Barbara made a long train journey to take up a position as a housekeeper on a station (farm) in the far northwest of New South Wales, only to find when she arrived that more than housekeeping was expected of her, and, judged to be insufficiently attractive, she was rejected. As Hackforth-Jones makes clear, this experience is the basis of the remarkable story "Billy Skywonkie." Soon after, she secured a position as a governess to the Frater family at Merrylong Park, about 100 kilometers northwest of Scone. This position was much more to her taste, and she developed a close relationship with the family and subsequently married the second son, Alex, in June 1880.
With Alex, she set up housekeeping on a small and uncleared property near Coonamble (a further 250 kilometers northwest) given to them by her parents-in-law. Alex spent little time at home, preferring droving and other rural labor to that of establishing a farm in poor country. When Barbara was pregnant with her third child, she brought her young niece Sarah to help with the children and the domestic and farm labor. A little more than a year later, discovering that her husband and her niece were now sexually involved, Barbara confronted them and soon after left for Sydney with her children in March 1887. For a short period around this time, she also supported herself as a milliner in the small tin-mining town of Emmaville in the north of New South Wales, near Glen Innes. The legal situation for marriages that had broken down in the colony of New South Wales was not helpful. There were three possibilities: an individual act of Parliament was required for a divorce; a formal separation might be obtained from the Church; or, for the majority, they could merely go their separate ways. In the 1880s, though, the Matrimonial Causes Act came into law, and the situation was relieved, especially for women and for those who wished legally to remarry. In August 1889 Barbara divorced Alexander Frater and gained custody of their children. On the day after the decree became absolute, she was married to Thomas Baynton, a relatively wealthy retired Sydney doctor for whom she had worked as a housekeeper. On her certificate of marriage to Alexander Frater, Barbara had given her birth date as 1861 and her father's occupation as contractor; on this occasion, she gave her birth date as 1862 and her father's occupation as "clerk in holy orders." (On a "second writing" of this certificate, her birth date was corrected.) By the time of her third marriage in 1921, her date of birth had moved to 1868, and her father had become a man "of independent means."
The marriage to Baynton was an exceptionally happy one; she now had the security she craved, and she was able to develop a taste for fine furniture and collectibles that she retained for the rest of her life. The financial, emotional, and domestic security also enabled her to write and to develop other intellectual interests. From 1896 Barbara Baynton had a small number of works published in The Bulletin--a story ("The Tramp"), five poems, and a short piece responding trenchantly to the indignation of the supposedly democratic and egalitarian magazine that a painting by George Lambert was to be reproduced on an ironmonger's Christmas calendar. What seems to have been Baynton's original version of "The Tramp" was privately published as a monograph with Baynton's preferred title, The Chosen Vessel (n.d.), by the well-established Sydney printing firm of Francis Cunninghame, who had been publishing the Sydney Punch since 1866. Only one copy of the book is known to exist, and the presses and records of the company are believed to have been dumped in the early 1980s.
Perhaps more important than this slender publication list was an enduring friendship and professional relationship with A. G. Stephens. Stephens was by then already well known and highly influential, not only as literary editor of The Bulletin but also as a critic who effectively formed a manifesto of a new kind of cultural nationalism that coincided with the emergent political nationalism of the time. But Stephens was also an internationalist, and his columns were as likely to refer to Walter Horatio Pater as to "Banjo" Paterson. Stephens was a frequent visitor to the Bayntons' homes in Woollahra and later Ashfield, and remained a correspondent of Baynton when she later lived in England. Letters between her and Stephens in the weeks before the publication of "The Tramp" show her to be an inexperienced first-time author and eager to take the advice of the experienced and prominent editor. The exchanges between them about editing that story show great care and extreme attention to detail on both sides, and Hackforth-Jones is right to claim that some of Baynton's later work suffered from not having Stephens nearer to encourage that editorial attention.
At Stephens's urging, Baynton went to England in 1902, primarily to find a publisher for the volume of short fiction she had by then completed. With a degree of social assurance and confidence that could not have been suspected fifteen years earlier when she left her first husband, Barbara Baynton enjoyed England and the access to "society" with which her Sydney connections provided her; among her social successes was a seat inside the Abbey for the coronation of King Edward VII. Her efforts to interest English publishers in Bush Studies were not immediately fruitful--then, as now, a first volume of short stories by a hitherto unpublished writer was not an attractive proposition. However, an introduction to the writer and critic Edward Garnett--who had also helped Henry Lawson, Joseph Conrad, John Galsworthy, and D. H. Lawrence --brought an offer to publish from the well-regarded London firm of Duckworth and Company. The publication of Bush Studies was well supported by Duckworth, who advertised it strongly with resounding endorsements from a considerable number of notable literary figures. By and large, the book was reviewed favorably in England and in Australia, where it was released simultaneously.
One of Thomas Baynton's canny investments was to found the Law Book Company at a time when the newly independent nation of Australia had a greatly increased market for legal publishing. After his death in 1904, Barbara Baynton took an active role as a director and later set up her sons, Alexander and Robert, in the Brisbane office of the company. Barbara Baynton soon developed a strong interest in the share market and furthered her interest in antiques and precious stones, putting together some remarkable collections that, from time to time, she traded. At this time she lived more often in London than in Sydney, though she traveled extensively between England and Australia and maintained and developed her social and cultural contacts in each country. Her arrivals and departures were announced in the newspapers in each country, and in London she retained her associations with the large expatriate Australian community there. News of her activities, as well as a portion of her literary output, was published in the pages of The British-Australasian, a weekly magazine dedicated to news from Australia and news of Australians in England. For a time the magazine was edited by Baynton's friends the Chomleys, through whom she met their relative from Melbourne, Martin Boyd, who became, for a time, her friend. Boyd later based some recognizable features of Brangane Winter (Brangane, 1926) and Bridget Malwyn (Such Pleasure, 1949) on his memories of Baynton.
Baynton's social views were neither predictable nor restrained. A member of Rose Scott's New South Wales Womanhood Suffrage League from 1889 to 1900, she campaigned against woman's suffrage in England a decade later; she wrote and campaigned for support for the single mothers at the Crown Street Women's Hospital; she urged writers to form a union; she took in thousands of Australian servicemen on leave and in recuperation to her two homes in England during World War I; she railed against the "indignity of domestic service" (but was never without domestic help from the time of her second marriage until her death forty years later); and she was socially upwardly mobile in England, but she wrote a tribute to "The Australian Soldier" in The British-Australasian in November 1918 in which she referred to English officers as being "mostly selected from the mentally unfit of the aristocracy."
In 1921 Baynton married for the third time--to George Allanson-Winn, Baron Headley, a widower two years her senior. A civil engineer and president of the British Muslim Society, to which religion he had converted many years earlier while in India, he had been a friend of Baynton for some time, but he was not a congenial husband. Her money and his title seemed to be more mutually attractive than their personalities. They lived together for only a short time, and in 1924, after what promised to be publicly scandalous divorce proceedings, they agreed to settle for a judicial separation.
Returning to Australia, Baynton settled into a house in Toorak next to her daughter, Penelope. Since the two new stories, "Trooper Jim Tasman" and "Toohey's Party," that, together with the original Bush Studies pieces, made up Cobbers (1917), a volume marketed to the large number of Australian servicemen in London in that year, Baynton had written nothing for publication except a couple of undistinguished poems; a bleak story, "Her Bush Sweetheart" ; and a short sketch, "Australian Spring"--the latter two appearing in the pages of The British-Australasian , edited by her friends the Chomleys, in 1921. Hackforth-Jones refers to, and quotes from, a few other pieces--some of them apparently quite substantial--that Baynton wrote after Bush Studies and Human Toll, and some of them have the same qualities, but they have never been published and may never have been finished.
After a serious fall in her garden, Baynton died of "cerebral thrombosis and pneumonia" on 28 May 1929. As well as distributing her considerable fortune, her will specified that her funeral "be as private and unostentatious as possible and none of my relatives to be present thereat" and that a tombstone be made for her and her second husband, Thomas Baynton, which would record merely the dates of his and her deaths and the words "and his wife Barbara." Her request to have the date of her death included was not observed. The monument is certainly unostentatious, but the grave, in the Waverley Cemetery of Sydney, overlooks the Pacific Ocean.
Bush Studies is a remarkably coherent, carefully crafted volume, structured around loss, betrayal, revenge, rejection, alienation, and finally and explicitly, rape and death. The central characters in these stories--four women, one man, and a small community--are nameless, largely defenseless, and certainly without any social and personal support. Their lives play out in the margins of the great themes, and although the dangers that threaten and overcome them are hardly ever petty or trivial (except, perhaps, in "Bush Church"), they occur in an environment in which, in the chilling sentence from "Billy Skywonkie," "Little matters became distorted, and the greater shrivelled."
The title is perhaps a clue to the way in which the stories may be read. Short fiction, in the form recognized today, is a relatively modern genre. Though it has long antecedents in various forms of short fictional and semifictional prose back to at least Elizabethan times, the "short story" really emerged as a common literary form in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was a form especially well suited to the growing periodical press and to the enlarged reading class formed by the growth of public education. In a relatively small market such as Australia (like the markets of Canada and South Africa) the periodical press was an especially significant outlet for local writers' work. In Australia, as in the United States, the "sketch" had emerged in the latter part of the nineteenth century as a notable and popular form; it was favored by The Bulletin, and Henry Lawson was one of its great exponents. The sketch was often impressionistic, always brief, and attempted to capture a glimpse, a "slice," of the typical. The other favored form was "the yarn," much more strongly narrative-driven and based, often, upon the character of the anecdotalist. At its best, as in some of Lawson's work, it focused on the act of storytelling and became reflexive in ways that are interesting to modern critics. Baynton's title distances her work from either of these modes. These studies are distilled essences of bush events, patterns of bush character and behavior, and topics for examination, study, and investigation. Each sets out to explore a particular situation, to diagnose a particular emotion, and to develop a particular motif. This book is not just a collecting together of stories written so far: it is a carefully arranged and coherently composed volume, a livre composé.
The first of the pieces is "A Dreamer." Irony, although not always deftly handled, is one of Baynton's trademarks, and this story is a kind of nightmare. A young pregnant woman living in the city returns by train to a small bush town to visit her mother. She is unexpected and therefore unmet; apart from the stationmaster, there is only an ownerless dog present on this wet and windy night. She is a stranger and apparently estranged. Her only hope seems to be that "there is atonement in these difficulties and dangers" she faces in the attempt to reach her mother. When she reaches her former home, she is met by strangers, who take her to the room where her mother has recently died. The story includes many of the narrative tropes of the quest; the long journey, the physical threats and hardships, the ominous sound of the coffin maker, a hostile and testing physical environment, and anthropomorphic images of flora and fauna are all common-enough elements of the quest allegory. The reader expects, then, a reward, a reconciliation, after the struggle, but "the sweat of her body" does not relieve "the sin of her soul." This story makes no specific reference to its Australian setting, and it is the most overwrought of the pieces in this volume, but it includes all of the memorable elements of the Baynton narrative, and it sets the tone of loss, betrayal, and waste for those stories that follow.
"Squeaker's Mate" is one of the better-known stories, and, as well as being anthologized many times, it was also made into a short (and apparently controversial) film in 1977 with a fine cast--Myra Skipper, Kerry Dwyer, and David Mitchell. The opening description of Squeaker and his mate establishes their relationship in writing of extraordinary economy:
The woman carried the bag with the axe and maul and wedges; the man had the billy and clean tucker bags; the cross-cut saw linked them. She was taller than the man, and the equability of her body contrasting with his indolent slouch accentuated the difference.
While he pretends to chase wild honey bees, she goes to work felling a tree for fenceposts, but unknown to her the center of the tree has been eaten by termites, and it falls, trapping and injuring her seriously. Squeaker leaves her there for the rest of the day until a passing honey dealer recognizes the gravity of her situation and summons help. For Squeaker, the accident merely means that some of the labor will fall to him. The woman's back is broken, and she will never walk again. Squeaker leaves her unattended and even unfed during his increasing absences. He moves her to an older, unused hut and soon after returns with a new mate, although this town girl is shocked by the conditions in the lonely bush hut and by his expectations of her. The new and younger woman's obvious pregnancy is a further blow to "the old mate," who, the narrator tells us, is childless.
The key term in this study is mate, and the word is given a more complex treatment than in almost any other Australian work. By the time Baynton was writing, "mateship" had become ideologically charged and a key cultural signifier in Australian literature, as well as in life and politics. In the work of many writers in the 1890s mateship was held to be a distinctive, defining characteristic of Australian men, and especially of Australian bushmen. It signified a special bond, a selfless charity toward one's fellowmen, as well as generosity, and above all, loyalty in the face of hardship. Mate, of course, also signifies sexual partner. Each of these meanings is thoroughly explored in "Squeaker's Mate."
"Squeaker's Mate" is followed by "Scrammy 'And," a tale that, uniquely in Baynton's work, has a male central character. The most "humane" responses are exhibited by the protagonist's dog. In a mode that is by now familiar to even a first-time reader of the volume, the motifs of loss, desertion, and potential violence are established. What is more remarkable than the often shadowy exogenous menace is the much more intense sense of vulnerability that is evoked in the protagonist. The shift from female to male victim, moreover, is important in showing that while danger in the bush may be gender-specific, in its particular forms it is not gender-limited. "Scrammy 'And" has other notable Baynton features: the central character is most vulnerable at home, in the place where one expects to be safe; the safety and security of the hut are violated; and, in a neat rearrangement of the terms of "The Dreamer," the father has been left alone by son and daughter-in-law while they travel to town for the birth of their first child, and they return too late.
Baynton's transcriptions of the accents and dialects of vernacular speech, restrained in the earlier stories, are here constant and require careful reading: "Oh I'm a ole liar, am I! Yit's come ter thet; ez it? Well better fer I ter be a liar 'n fer you ter lose yer manners--Sir." The old man has a hoard, and he has an enemy, or rather a nemesis, called "Scrammy 'And" (a reference to the hook that has replaced a maimed hand). A former convict, Scrammy functions as a figure of cultural memory of Australia's violent foundation as a penal settlement. The old man dies, seemingly, from fear rather than from an actual attack--thus reinforcing the perception that vulnerability is more dangerous, more terrifying, than the real threats that evoke it.
In some respects "Billy Skywonkie," the next story in the volume, is the most scandalous critique of bush behavior. With the exception of "Bush Church," which follows it, "Billy Skywonkie" is the most heavily populated of the studies. It is also the one that is known, as a result of Hackforth-Jones's research, to be most directly drawn from Baynton's personal experience. Like the young Barbara Lawrence, the young woman in "Billy Skywonkie" has experienced a long and tedious rail journey to take up a job in a remote region. Before the young woman reaches her destination, the narrator emphasizes the impression of waste and barbarity. The drought is so bad and the pasture so poor that the train line is unfenced to allow sheep some opportunity to graze, although this situation slows the train to a snail's pace. The journey is also punctuated by the sound of cattle collapsing in the vans while the drovers play cards, sing "lewd songs," and tell obscene jokes to fill the time. But the language of the man at the stop before the young woman's is even worse. She has arrived at a place beyond the pale of any form of civilization that she can recognize.
The man who meets her is "Billy Skywonkie" (a skywonkie, as Baynton's footnote informs readers, is a weather prophet). In this story all of the traditionally positive social features of the Australian bush are impoverished, parodied, and perverted. Soon after her journey from the rail siding to the property where she expects to work, Billy engineers a short stop so she can be inspected by his "mate," Billy the Konk, so-called for his extraordinary nose. He is the first of the many physical and social grotesques she is to meet. The next stop is a "wine-shanty" selling illegal grog to shearers and drovers. Here she meets the maternal pair Biddy and Mag, an obscene parody of a mother-daughter dyad. While Billy "courts" Mag by trying to flick her eye with his kerchief, Mag first tries to steal money from the inebriated kangaroo-shooter on the floor in the corner and then intimidates the young woman into giving her money.
With the fascination of horror the woman looked at this creature, whose mouth and eyes seemed to dishonour her draggled grey hair. She was importuning for something, but the woman in the buggy could not understand till she pointed to her toothless mouth (the mission of which seemed to be, to fill its cavernous depths with the age-loosened skin above and below). A blue bag under each eye aggressively ticked like the gills of the fowls, and the sinews of the neck strained into basso relievi. Alternately she pointed to her mouth, or laid her knotted fingers on the blue bags in pretence of wiping tears. Entrenched behind the absorbed skin-terraces, a stump of purple tongue made efforts at speech. When she held out her claw, the woman understood and felt for her purse. Wolfishly the old hag snatched and put into her mouth the coin, and as the now merry driver, followed by Mag, came, she shook a warning claw at the giver, and flopped whining in the dust, her hands ostentatiously open and wiping dry eyes.
But Mag has not been fooled, and as the buggy drives away, the town-woman glimpses Mag holding the old woman's head between her knees so she can extract the coin from Biddy's cavernous mouth. "A giddy unreality took the sting from everything." The situation can and does get worse. After arriving at the farmhouse, the young woman is inspected by the Chinese cook and then by "the boss," whose disapproval of her appearance and her age is neither refined nor restrained. The next morning, as she is informed that she is to "sling yer 'ook. To do a get," she watches as a lamb is prepared for slaughter.
In "Bush Church" the fierce denunciation of bush life and morality seems to relent. But the opening signals simply a change of domain: "The hospitality of the bush never extends to the loan of a good horse to an inexperienced rider." This story takes up the perception in the preceding story that "Little matters became distorted, and the greater shrivelled." The story depicts the visit of a parson to a bush community, which initially mistakes him for someone important--the government inspector. This community derives neither succor nor consolation from religion; their lives are unrelentingly pragmatic. Their joy that a hen has resumed laying overwhelms the celebration of the baptism. People who live by no calendars at all are merely baffled by the parson's request for dates of birth. This study is the lightest in the volume; there is no overt violence, but the humor does not disguise the horror of the circumstance.
If "Bush Church" takes its cue from the vision of the absurd universe in the middle of "Billy Skywonkie," the final story, "The Chosen Vessel," starts from the image of meaningless sacrifice at the end of it. The knife at the throat of the lamb is at the core of the narrative of "The Chosen Vessel," and the perverted Christian imagery of the meaningless sacrifice is at the heart of its interpretative frame. The story has, according to some editors, two parts. In the central narrative a young mother left alone in an isolated bush hut fears, with good reason, the predation of a representative of that archetypal Australian bush type, the swagman--that traditionally carefree, itinerant bush laborer-wanderer. After the story was published for the first time (in The Bulletin), Baynton added a telling sentence: "She was not afraid of horsemen; but swagmen going to, or worse, coming from the dismal drunken little township, a day's journey beyond, terrified her." In the second narrative, a young man named Peter Hennessey is considering going against his priest's voting advice from the pulpit and experiences something of a crisis of faith as he struggles to draw his understanding of his political interests and beliefs out from under the priest's dogma and proscription. As Hennessey rides through the night to cast his vote, he sees the terrified woman (in a white nightgown with babe in arms) flee from her attacker and believes that he has seen a vision of the Madonna and Christ Child. Responding to this sign, he rides on even faster and votes for the priest's candidate. The woman is murdered, and Peter, who might have saved her, sacrifices his political belief to save his soul.
When Baynton submitted the story to The Bulletin in 1896, she accepted the advice of the experienced editor Stephens and allowed the Hennessey story to be excised. When she published it privately as a monograph and later in Cobbers, she restored the Hennessey section. The woman in "The Tramp" (as it is called in that form) is a victim merely of the violent lust of one man, a social outcast at that. The woman in "The Chosen Vessel" is a victim of the patriarchal tendency to turn "woman" into symbol, to depersonalize her and make her the recipient of male fantasy, whether sexual or religious. The story is violently direct compared to the symbolic inference in the fiction of Baynton's contemporaries, a characteristic that probably led earlier readers and critics to call her work realist.
To read Human Toll , Baynton's only novel, as a realist text is a perilous undertaking. Although there are some finely observed passages of social event and natural description, they are not what really characterizes and drives the novel. Susan Sheridan in "Gender and Genre in Human Toll," published in Australian Literary Studies in 1989, reveals what kind of book it is. Most of those who had commented on it before her saw it as a terribly confused and confusing realist novel, a valiant failure or a troubled and troubling near-success, overwhelmed by the interminable dialect, the absurd hidden treasure hoard, the symbolic quest for reconciliation with the old man Boshy, and the melodramatic triangle of Ursula, Andrew, and Mina. Sheridan, however, relates the novel instead to the strong tradition of the female bildungsroman, or narrative of development to maturity, in which a young woman undergoes tests and trials and moves through various rites of passage into either adulthood, full subjectivity, autonomy, or in another variation, marriage. Drawing on the earlier work of Ellen Moers, Sheridan draws attention to some of the narrative conventions of this genre: the "loss" of parents, the uncongenial or unsuitable guardians, female malice as well as male cruelty, an emphasis on social rituals, and the true and false suitor, as well as the female doppelgänger, who often functions as the heroine's mad/bad double. There are gothic as well as domestic forms of these romances, tragic as well as comic modes, and Sheridan argues that Human Toll represents a particularly complex combination. Her reading adopts a second strategy for showing how far the novel is from the realist conventions by showing how, within the context of an unreliable narrator who is participant-observer, the authority of the narrator of the text is open to question. In a sense, then, the reader is firmly in the universe described in "Billy Skywonkie." This universe is not one in which either meaning or moral judgments are easily established.
Baynton's relatively small body of fiction has had an especially disturbing effect on readers and on the reading of Australian literature. It has been disturbing in the psychological impact it has on readers because of the genuinely confrontational material. It has forced readers to reconsider many stereotypical representations of "the bush," its characteristic social practices, and its beliefs. It has led many critics and cultural historians to reconsider their view of the literary output of what is still in many ways considered a key period in Australian literary history; it has also made possible a more productive rereading of some of the apparently more conventional figures of the period, most notably Henry Lawson. And it has made thinking about the genres of writing (and the relation to gender) necessary in ways that are not easy but are productive.
From: Lawson, Alan. "Barbara Baynton (4 June 1857-28 May 1929)." Australian Literature, 1788-1914, edited by Selina Samuels, vol. 230, Gale, 2001, pp. 27-37. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 230.