The importance of colonial Australian women’s letters and journals

Colonial women’s letters and journals form a distinct literary genre that is an important component of Australian literature, providing unique insights into the challenges of settlement, domestic life, social and gender issues.

The letters and journals written by women in colonial Australia may not generally be thought of as an integral part of Australian literature, even if they are recognised for their historical importance. These texts were private in nature and neither formally published nor transmitted orally like the popular folk songs and ballads of the period. Despite this lack of wider recognition, these writings form a distinct literary genre and provide unique insights into colonial life which are often absent from the more popular works of the time. In particular, insights into the challenges of early settlement, domestic life, social and gender issues of the time.

The colonial period in Australia refers to the period from the initial British convict settlement in 1788 until Federation in 1901 (Wilde, Hooton and Andrews 178). The dominant literary genres of this time include convict poetry, songs and broadside ballads; colonial poetry and ballads; convict and pastoral novels; and gold-rush songs, ballads and novels. These works reveal an early national identity based around convict suffering and anti-authoritarianism, the natural environment, mate-ship, larrikinism, life in the Australian bush and political issues such as the Eureka stockade and immigration. Written texts were published either as novels or commonly in serialised form in newspapers or magazines, whereas popular ballads and songs were sung in public and spread mostly through oral transmission. In contrast to these, the letters and journals written by colonial women were unpublished items that have only been published and studied in modern collections such as The Letters of Rachel Henning (Choat) and No Place for a Nervous Lady (Frost). Letters were often written to family back home in Britain in order to maintain contact, and they provide descriptive accounts of the challenges faced in early colonial life. Journals were written as a family record and often shared with both family members and close friends, as illustrated in the following passage from The Letters of Rachel Henning:

Then we sat down to read and finished the letters before tea, and after we read the journal aloud. I cannot think why Annie made any excuses for it. It was a capital journal and most interesting to us. It was very good and kind of her to keep it, for I am sure it must be a very difficult thing to do on board ship among so many people.(Choat)

An example of the unique insight that women’s letters provide is in their descriptions of the voyage to and initial impressions of the new colony. A letter by Ellen Moger of 28 January 1840 reveals in great detail the risks and potential for tragedy inherent in the sea voyage from Britain. For example, the statistic of “thirty deaths during the voyage” on its own is a matter of factual record, but this is given genuine emotion in the letter when told beside the “very melancholy accounts” of her children’s deaths (Frost, 33-37). The detailed description of the trials encountered on the voyage serves both as a distressing tale and as advice and warning to others who may attempt the journey. Ellen’s first impressions of the colony are undoubtedly tarnished by her tragic voyage and melancholic state of mind. Having arrived in Australia, she writes another warning: “the English are greatly deceived with the many flattering accounts respecting the beauty of the country” (Frost, 33-37). The reference to deceitful flattering accounts brings to mind the flowery and nationalistic prose of William Wentworth’s Australasia, published in Britain in 1823, with its “graceful shrubs”, “beauteous wild-flowers” and grand style (Curtin University, “Colonial Poetry” 1).

In contrast, the journals of Louisa Clifton from 1841 reveal her admiration for the Australian landscape while also highlighting some of the hardships in settling, such as the time spent living in a tent while building a house. Describing the camp, she writes that she “never saw a more picturesque scene” but feels “unsettled, indolent and dull” when confronted with “the influence of rain, when dwelling in tents” (Frost, 67). A similar theme can be found in the early letters of Annie Baxter in 1840:

I entered my hut, when only half the bark roof was on – and to add to our discomfiture, it rained almost incessantly for the first three weeks.(Curtin University, “Women’s Experience” 35)

These journals and letters allow us, as readers, to understand the challenges faced by early settlers and their attitude towards their new situation and environment.

A particular attitude that shines through in these writings is the attitude of practicality and making do with what’s available in domestic terms.  The letters of both Annie Baxter and Rachel Henning discuss domestic concerns such as the price and availability of staple food items, and the trouble finding reliable servants, as compared to life in Britain. Annie Baxter writes of her and Mr Baxter being “determined not to get into debt” and so they “commenced feeding themselves on corn-meal” due to the high price of both flour and rice. Regarding servants, she refers to one who is “excessively dirty and wishing continually to argue”, stating that “these women are the pests of the country, they are such idling, tattling persons” (Curtin University, “Women’s Experience” 36). Rachel Henning writes that her sister Annie keeps very busy and “does something in the way of cooking every day”, explaining that “the Australian servants are very bad in general” (Choat). These concerns reveal some differences between their life in Australia and the life they would have led in Britain.

In addition to these domestic insights, Rachel Henning wrote in 1864 of the wider social problems of drink, a concern that still lives in Australian society to this day:

It is fortunate there is no public-house here where they can “cure” themselves with brandy. The nearest is at the Twenty Mile crossing on the Broken River. It was a terrible nuisance at Marlborough having a public-house on the station, and gave Biddulph more trouble than anything. Mr Robertson tells a story of Biddulph’s once trying to effect a little gentle reasoning upon a tipsy shepherd who replied that he couldn’t live without rum. (Choat)

The above passage demonstrates a quite different attitude to that found in bush songs such as Lazy Harry’s, which are written from a male perspective and celebrate the drinking culture:

Oh! I’ve seen a lot of girls, my boys, and drunk a lot of beer, And I’ve met with some of both, chaps, as has left me mighty queer; But for beer to knock you sideways, and for girls to make you cry, Your must camp at Lazy Harry’s, on the road to Gundagai. (Curtin University, “Some Classic Ballads”, 5)

According to Patricia Clarke, colonial letter-writers shed light on the fact that “colonial society was much more complex than it appears in official reports, social statistics or newspapers, to name a few sources” (Clarke). An example of this is the complexity of changing gender relations as the Australian colony formed its own culture. The journal of Louisa Clifton in 1841 reveals her mixed feelings when she “really enjoyed the excursion and felt quite at home with our new male friends, though I did not quite like our going alone” (Frost, 47). This is followed with “another agreeable excursion” undertaken “sans chaperone” and mention of the “exquisite beauty of the colony” (Frost, 47). The journal illuminates a conflict between British standards of appropriate behaviour between men and women and the practical realities of life in a new land.

Later examples of shifting attitudes to gender can be found in 1889, published in The Dawn, a journal edited and published by Louisa Lawson and produced solely by women. The Dawn was “boycotted by male printers in its early days because of Lawson’s policy of employing women where possible” and had a “reformist and feminist outlook” (Wilde, Hooton and Andrews 223). Examples of the feminist and reformist outlook of The Dawn are evident in statements from Lawson, such as “marriage means in these days the acceptance by her of a position full of work, restricted by many grievous limitations, and implying an abandonment of individuality”, and that while many in mainstream society believed that “corsets are really necessary to the due support and bracing together of a woman”, they are in fact “just as unnecessary as they are injurious” (Curtin University, “Women’s Experience” 43-44). The Dawn had a relatively large “circulation of 30,000” and “was politically radical, but was also just a regular women’s household journal – the politics were intertwined with more mainstream content” (Savage). The writing found in The Dawn heralds a shift from the unpublished women’s journals and letters to a wider audience and increased opportunities for female writers as part of the women’s suffrage movement.

The letters and journals of Colonial Australian women give readers insights into many aspects of this historic period, including the arduous voyage from Britain to the colony, impressions of the natural environment, domestic details, social concerns and changing gender relations. These are unique insights written from female perspectives that are not found in other literature of the period. The majority of these writings were unpublished at the time, but were a creative literary outlet that these women otherwise did not have. For these reasons, they deserve to be recognised not just for their historical worth, but also as an important literary genre in their own right that provide valuable documentation of the growingly distinct Australian national identity.

Works Cited

Choat. The Letters of Rachel Henning. Project Gutenburg Australia. Web. Accessed 21st Dec 2011.
Clarke, Patricia. Private Lives Revealed: Letters, Diaries, History. National Library of Australia. Web. Accessed 16th Dec 2011.
Curtin U. Colonial Poetry. LCS12 course materials, accessed in SP4, 2011.
Curtin U. Some Classic Ballads. LCS12 course materials, accessed in SP4, 2011.
Curtin U. Women’s Experience: Women’s Letters and Journals. LCS12 course materials, accessed in SP4, 2011.
Frost. No place for a nervous lady: voices from the Australian bush. Queensland: U of Queensland P, 1995. Print.
Savage, Ellena. “Bluestockings and Ladybloggers”. The Lifted Brow: Middlebrow (No. 13, 2011). Print.
Wilde, Hooton and Andrews. The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature. Melbourne: Oxford U P Australia, 1994. Print.

2 thoughts on “The importance of colonial Australian women’s letters and journals

  1. I have a collection of over 100 letters, written by The wife of Sir Joseph Abbott, mainly sent to the Murrurundi Solicitors office, 1870-1890
    Not sure what to do with them,
    Google the name and see how important Sir Joseph is

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