Women's life and suffering in the Australian Bush. Challenging bush romanticism and the bushman myth in Barbara Baynton's "Bush Studies"

Seminar Paper, 2015

20 Pages, Grade: 2.0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction ... 1

2 Important theoretical concepts ... 2
2.1 The concept of gender ... 2
2.2 The Australian bush legend – A myth of pride, romanticism and mateship ... 3

3 Women and the bush – the outback as a space for a female? ... 5
3.1 Baynton's bush – gothic vs. romanticism ... 5
3.2 Baynton's women – does a female belong to the bush? ... 8
3.3 Shared suffering – analogies between women and animals ... 10

4 Women and men – psychosocial factors of bush life ... 12
4.1 Threatening and disloyal – interpersonal relationships in the bush ... 12
4.2 Muted and dehumanised – what does the bush make out of women? ... 14

5 Conclusion ... 16

6 Bibliography ... 17

1 Introduction

The Australian bush – a mythical and fascinating space that has been the setting of many films and all kinds of literature, and which is an interesting field for literary scholars, especially from the late 19th century, the time of national writing, onwards. During this time, the outback used to be described as a hostile, but also romantic environment, loved ad feared by the people who lived there. People, who were perfectly assimilated and happy with their lives in the bush. The legendary bushman myth was born; a myth that described the outward appearance and character of the typical Australian bushman, explaining why he adapted so properly to the hard environment. All these stories, including the origin of the bushman myth itself, were however made up and written down by male authors, who did not intend to include important female characters to their stories. The typical bushman was simply a man. Women and their lives in the bush did not play a big role in the literature of that time. One of the few female writers, who focused on the harshness of bush life, especially for women, was Barbara Baynton. She is said to depict the real bush life of pioneer women at the end of the 19th century instead of presenting a romantic male-centered myth. After Baynton's first published short story The Chosen Vessel had appeared in the national paper The Sydney Bulletin under the title The Tramp, the author was unable to find a publisher in Sydney for a collection of several short stories. It was said that she being a female writer does not know how to control her emotions, which was claimed to be obvious in her writing. In the end, this collection was published far away from Australia, in London, under the title Bush Studies.

This paper discusses the question in how far Barbara Baynton challenges bush romanticism and the legendary bushman myth by playing with gender roles and stereotypes with a strong focus on the real hard bush life of women. After a theoretical introduction to the whole topic, the realistic depiction of the bush itself as well as the bushwomen and the interaction between both are discussed in Chapter 2. Thereafter, Chapter 3 focusses on the social factors of bush life, on how Baynton describes the relationship between men and women in the bush and how all this influences the female bush inhabitants. The analysis is based on an online version of Bush Studies from 1997.

2 Important theoretical concepts

The study of Barbara Baynton's short stories requires the critical analysis of the theories that are important for the issues to which the author wants to lead the reader's attention. Due to the focus on Baynton's women in this paper, gender roles in the postcolonial Australian society in the late 19th century must be discussed, as well as the myth of the Australian bush legend, that especially male authors around the turn of the century used to spread.

2.1 The concept of gender

The concept of gender is still today often used equivalently with the term sex and although both terms are related to the human masculinity and femininity, they are not to be confused with each other. While one's sex is genetically determined and therefore a biological phenomenon, gender is a social concept determined by society, rooting in medicine and psychology, which does not define what you are but rather the social role you have to fulfil as a male or female in a given society. Dr. Ann-Maree Nobelius from Monash University adds that sex is simply connected with the biological male or female whereas gender deals with the masculine and feminine and “describes the characteristics that society or culture delineates as masculine or feminine”1. This also means that sex is an universal term but the definition of gender includes cultural diversity and the fact that in different cultures and environments different attributes, characteristics and behaviours are required to fulfil a gender role. Also the American Psychological Association offers a similar definition in which gender:

refers to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex. Behavior that is compatible with cultural expectations is referred to as gender-normative; behaviors that are viewed as incompatible with these expectations constitute gender non-conformity.2

Gender roles, however, do not only relate to cultural differences per se but also depend on circumstances, e.g. political forces. In postcolonial Australia of the late 19th century women did not play a big role and thus the concept of gender is practically non-existing in written histories of that time. Also Ann Curthoys states in her essay Identity Crisis. Colonialism, Nation, and Gender in Australian History that “nationalist history is presented as entirely male”3 and defines

the 1890s search for an Australian identity as a masculinist quest, based on a militant assertion of anti-feminist principles and a yearning by city-based journalists and writers for what they thought was the free, unencumbered, yet convivial lifestyle of the itinerant outback white single male.4

Therefore, the requirements for and characteristics connected with the male gender played a much bigger role in Australia during that time than the female one and will be discussed in chapter 2.2. Not much is written about females in Australian postcolonial 19th century society, but it is clear that femininity and the woman herself was not part of the public space. A woman belonged to the domestic sphere and was supposed to fulfil the role of wife of a working man.5 Isolated from the world outside their homes and all public affairs “women were supposed to be concerned with little dramas of the drawingroom and the home”6, which shows that the given society was purely male and the concept of gender therefore almost totally limited to the idea of the typical Australian bushman.

2.2 The Australian bush legend – A myth of pride, romanticism and mateship

In order to get deeper understanding of Barbara Baynton's characters and her women's situation, one has to discuss the world, these characters live in. An important issue of the 1890s in Australia, that also influenced all kinds of literature around the turn of the century, is the so called bushman myth. It provides a romanticised and sheer male vision of life in the Australian outback, describes a very stereotypical bushman as the typical Australian and deals with mateship, love and fear of the bush and a strong pride in national identity. Women play hardly any role in this idealised world.

An important co-founder of these images and especially of the stereotype was Russel Ward, who described the Australian man identified in convicts and bushmen in his work Australian Legend. Typically, the bushman is a practical individualist but loyal to his mates, anti-authoritarian and of course a white man.7 He also represents the national self-image as egalitarian, while this egalitarianism does not include both genders but is more what Kay Schaffer in Women and the Bush: Forces of Desire in the Australian Cultural Tradition calls an “egalitarian democracy built on the doctrine of mateship.”8 This mateship, according to the Australian National Dictionary, is the bond between close friends or equal partners with comradeship as an ideal. A man can trust his mates in each situation and goes with them through thick and thin. This definition makes clear that each form of equality was just given among men, not women, who were not even a full part of public society and thus never a mate. Generally, the bushman was regarded as the ideal Australian that was reportedly represented in a misleading way by Barbara Baynton in her Bush Studies. The literary critic A. A. Philips claims that “Baynton's male characters are not bushmen at all […] but selectors, against whose negative image the true bushman forms an ideal identity.”9 Philips calls Baynton's characters peasants, who are much more violent against women than a true bushman. Also A. G. Stephens, literary editor of the nationalist Sydney Bulletin, attempts to differentiate between his own and Baynton's image of the bushman by renaming Baynton's short story The Chosen Vessel The Tramp and also using this term throughout the story, instead of the by Baynton originally frequently used term swagman. This change of vocabulary creates a certain distance between the Australian bushman and the character in the story, which was quite welcome among the strong outback readership of the bushman's bible – a widely adopted title for the Bulletin, that played a strong role in the national pride of the 1880s and 90s by offering a decidedly optimistic and romantic view on the bush and by demonstrating a radically national and male-centered attitude.10 This was very popular among radical nationalists, who “argued that the Nineties are to be characterised by an optimistic and egalitarian spirit, based on a mythos of nineteenth-century outback male nomadic workers, possible ground of a proud, distinctive, independent Australia”11, that was supposed to include a strong love for the bush, a sense of unity and racial purity in the country; a spirit that offered a perfect ground for all kinds of national writing, e.g. the very popular bush ballads. This writing showed an enthusiastic bush romanticism with (only male) characters perfectly assimilated and adapted to the outback, while at the same time the hospitality of the bush was an important myth. Schaffer claims that “Baynton's fiction provides a superbly ironic critique of [this] Australian tradition.”12 Her female writing indeed offers descriptions and plots that are not at all nationalistic. Baynton does not provide romanticism but realism with a “depressing, sombre, nihilistic quality”13 without appearing unreal. How the author challenges the male-centered myths of the late 19th century in detail will be discussed in the following chapters.

3 Women and the bush – the outback as a space for a female?

An important part of Australian literature is the depiction of the bush and its inhabitants. Baynton's depiction of the land is different from the one that male authors wanted to illustrate: more realistic, not totally hostile but gothic. In the following chapter, the image of the bush is analysed with a focus on the outback as a living space for women, as well as the interference between the bush, its animals and Baynton's women in their role as bushwomen.


1 Nobelius. 2004. http://www.med.monash.edu.au/gendermed/sexandgender.html

2 American Psychological Association. 2011. http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/sexualitydefinitions.pdf

3 Curthoys. 1993. p. 173

4 Ibid.

5 cf. The Oxford Companion to Australian History. http://www.oxfordreference.com/

6 Palmer. 1958. p. 15

7 cf. The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (2 ed.). http://www.oxfordreference.com

8 Schaffer. 1988. p. 148

9 Ibid. p. 160

10 cf. The Oxford Companion to Australian History. http://www.oxfordreference.com/

11 Curthoys. 1993. p. 169

12 Schaffer. 1988. p. 149

13 Merkt. n.d. p. 1

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Women's life and suffering in the Australian Bush. Challenging bush romanticism and the bushman myth in Barbara Baynton's "Bush Studies"
University of Bonn  (Institut für Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Keltologie)
Postcolonial Literatures and Cultures: Theories, Histories, Selected Texts
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depicting, women, life, suffering, australian, bush, barbara, baynton, studies
Quote paper
BA Nicole Eismann (Author), 2015, Women's life and suffering in the Australian Bush. Challenging bush romanticism and the bushman myth in Barbara Baynton's "Bush Studies", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/319158


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