The depiction of bush life in the works of female colonial Australian poets

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2019

25 Pages, Grade: 1,3



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The masculine nature of Australian society

3. The bush as portrayed by contemporary male poets

4. Female writing
4.1. Female poetry
4.2. The significance of periodicals
4.2.1. The Dawn
4.2.2. The Bulletin
4.3. Challenging bush romanticism
4.4. Themes and motifs
4.4.1. Dissatisfaction with the organisation of marriage
4.4.2. Mutual love and respect as the basis for marriage
4.4.3. Female independence
4.4.4. Geographic alienation and loneliness
4.4.5. Religious doubts and moral issues
4.4.6. Depiction of female role models
4.5. Poetic devices

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

This paper will examine the works of some Australian female colonial poets1, who, in contrast to male authors, have critically examined their situation in their writings and in this way offered a realistic view on life in Australia at the time. To begin with, the culturally specific concepts of femininity and masculinity in literature are to be inspected and how the male myth is embodied in the bush legend. The essay examines the contemporary Australian literary production and analyses the role of women authors.

Secondly, the function and role of poetry for the feminist movement in literature will be demonstrated. Although women’s prose has received more attention than their poetry has, and prose writers were central to literary culture, I chose to focus on poetry, since it has been suggested that poetry tended to exhibit the clearest record of the feminist movement (Bennet 1998: 42). Since many female writers turned to fiction, as poetry was considered men’s territory, women poets had to struggle against male attitudes. The essay will research the circumstances of female productions, how they were reviewed by fellow writers and which obstacles women poets had encountered. Although journals do not relate directly to this topic, I feel motivated – due to the fact that poetry was especially dependent on periodical publications – to call attention especially to the significance of The Dawn, opposed to the Bulletin.

Furthermore, the main aim of this paper is to illustrate the thematic range that was relevant to female poetry. The question of which themes and motifs had preoccupied their verse will be discussed. Main themes such as marriage, love, independence, loneliness, religion and the potential for future female influence will be illustrated in poems by authors such as Louisa Lawson, Ada Cambridge, Emma Anderson, Caroline Leakey, Mary Hannay Foott and Emily Manning.

The essay will end with an examination of poetic devices which female poets have used to express their feelings about issues which they identified in the society. Based on a cultural-historical approach, the last chapter is centered around the questions what these poets are attempting to illustrate in their works and how they are doing so. In contrast to the tendency of male authors to celebrate romantic love, women poets challenged this picture of the Australian bush with particular writing strategies.

2. The masculine nature of Australian society

Early colonial Australia was a masculine society, not only concerning men’s social status, but also regarding their prevalence in number, which lead to a serious gender imbalance. The dominance of men was displayed in the strict separation of sexes and social spheres. This manifested itself regarding careers, the workplaces being sex-differentiated, as well as at home (Elder, 2007: 67). Culturally specific concepts of masculinity and femininity evolved in colonial Australia. The ‘typical Australian’ was a practical, harsh and boisterous man, who was shaped by the celebrated image of aggressive masculinity (Hodge 1991: 163). Among men, the doctrine of mateship was praised and gave them a sense of mutual respect and absolute support in their shared efforts. The outback was predominated by masculine values and was not a hospitable environment for women and children (Macintyre 2016:134). Australia was a “land where gaunt and haggard women live alone and work like men Till their husbands, gone a-droving, will return to them again.” (Henry Lawson, cited in Macintyre 2016: 98). In the domestic sphere, women accepted the central position. Their existence was acknowledged within the bounds of a marriage (Featherstone 2012: 715). Besides, the national dream of “white Australia” expected women to bear children. Thus, the planning of their private lives was not entirely in their own hands (Elder 2007: 82). Furthermore, domestic violence was a big issue. Linked with aggressive and violent masculinity, which was a fundamental part of the culture, violence was the norm (Biber 1999: 29). Paradoxically, in a society where women’s role was passive and dependent on men, the conditions demanded of them to learn new skills and do heavy physical work, thus to be strong and self-sacrificing (Moore 2014: 96). As Dixson (1976: 17) noted, men and women in colonial Australia commonly shared a dislike of the opposite sex.

The described predominantly masculine nature of Australian society is embodied in the myth of the bush, which “has been seen as the archetypal Australian place and the bushman as the archetypal Australian (Elder 2007: 73). The following section will demonstrate which attributes have been systematically accentuated in literature and how the “Australian myth of manliness” has been embodied in the bush legend and subsequently in the construction of the nation (Crozier-De Rosa 2014: 41).

3. The bush as portrayed by contemporary male poets

In popular literature of that time, a gender framework was constructed which could be observed in a system of pairing. Features were separated into masculine and feminine ones, producing pairs, for example active-passive and mobile-immobile. Advocated manly characteristics were courage, toughness, steadfastness and independence (Wilde 1985: 569). The exemplary man in narratives lives an insensitive, loveless life and is described as a “larrikin, knock-about single man” (Elder 2007: 86). He was not involved in romantic relationships with women, who in this conceptual framework were associated with domestic life and not belonging to the public sphere (Elder 2007: 73). The bush was often portrayed as “no place for a woman”2 (Crozier-De Rosa 2014: 38). Moreover, women have characteristically not been depicted as capable of shaping their own lives (Ackland 1994b: 51). They are often depersonalized and only seen as helpmates.

The bush allowed men to prove their self-sufficiency and granted them the opportunity to experience the outback freedom away from their families (Crozier-De Rosa 2014: 42). While bush life in general has been portrayed favourable to men, negative qualities of the bush were often visualised as feminine. The land was figured as harsh and unwelcome to man’s desires (Crozier-De Rosa 2014: 37). Popular bush songs typically presented direct, concrete and plain stories, in which only rarely a reference to women was made (Green 1974: 191). In the gendered construct of the Australian legend the woman is absent. Although the female is omitted in the national stereotype, it does seem to arise in a modified form, namely as the land itself (Hodge 1991: 164). An ancient mother is seen as a metaphor for Australia, sometimes visualised as a “damned whore” (Schaffer 1988: 63). In that way, the land itself is gendered by male authors, who express their unfavourable feelings against women through the depiction of the landscape (Hodge 1991:165).

While popular masculine self-imaging has portrayed fathers as absent from home and not attentive to their children (Elder 2007: 86), the ideal form of femininity was a pleasant, well-mannered, indistinctive mother (Dixson 1976: 12f). According to society’s standards, a woman was to be a helpmate to the man, but not to argue, contest or strive for more rights (Ackland 1994b: 75). However, even in the early colonial period some women poets objected to these gender inequalities (Ackland 2000:78) and produced verse which explored their situation, strained the limits of social conventions and challenged patriarchal prescriptions (Elder 2007: 92). In what follows I will turn to female verse in colonial Australia and describe how these gender models, which were tightly enclosed in the Australian legend, shaped the productions of Australian women poets and which forms female poetry took.

4. Female writing

In the first half of the 19th century it was almost impossible for anyone, male or female, to support his livelihood only through writing. Many male authors, however, found a solution by seeking a second career in politics, which for women at that time was out of question (Ackland 1994b: 8). Besides, it was somewhat unmanageable for them to find enough time to write. This condition gradually changed and some women gained prominence as writers. Yet, most female productions of that period were published under a pseudonym, a husband’s name, or anonymously (Vickery 2002: 34). Unorthodox women authors had to be careful to remain within the bounds of expediency because of the social risk involved. Besides the possibility of facing incomprehension and “stereotypes of female irrationality”, they endangered their safe status as a wife (Ackland 1994b: 80). If they wanted to write about issues which could possibly threaten the status quo, they were forced to take an outwardly traditional approach and use “palliating strategies, eloquent language and creative compromises” (Ackland 1994b: 80). After publishing her unconventional volume Unspoken Thoughts, Ada Cambridge suppressed its further publication. The volume’s objections to sexual discrimination may had led reviewers to read her poetry autobiographically and to make unwelcome conclusions about her private life (Vickery 2002: 41). In this way, poetry was closely linked to politics, which sometimes constrained poets in using authentic language (Sheridan 1995: x).

Certain colonial matters were experienced by female as well as male authors. Due to the distinct social circumstances, however, women have expressed those themes in different, modified forms (Bennet 1998: 40). Literature by women authors was commonly classified as secondary to men’s works, because females were not expected to enter the “sphere of imagination and of lasting immorality” (Vickery 2002: 33). Instead, their supposed natural ability lay in portraying emotional, familial and devotional themes. Only in doing so could their works potentially be anthologised, but generally they were overlooked and not considered to be part of the Australian literary heritage (Crozier-De Rosa 2014: 37).

In spite of these pressures they had to conform to, a few highly articulate female writers found ways to address their views on controversial subjects as well as on daily matters (Ackland 2000:75). They became aware of the neglect of women’s poetry and increased the range of female action. They attempted to reinsert women back into the national narratives, make them visible in the bush and challenge the earlier described myths (Crozier-De Rosa 2014: 38). Their motives, insights and aims are reflected in their writings, however, less is known of their lives and careers, since at that time they have not been well-known (Ackland 1994b: Preface). A self-determined, rebellious and independent “new woman” is often presented in their work (Tonkin 2014: 58).

4.1. Female poetry

Poetry played an important role in empire-building and was dominated by men (Ackland 1994b: 20). Charles Harpur believed that “poetry had a clear social as well as an aesthetic function, and that the foundations of a new society must include, indeed be based on, its own poetic voices.” (Bennet 1998: 42). Since these voices were preferably male, poetry was not as suitable for women writers as other forms of literature (Ackland 1994b: preface). Not only was women verse a subject to artistic inspections (Ackland [1994b: preface]), but it was also widely neglected and did not receive as much attention as their prose and journalistic output (Vickery 2002: 51). Although female prose writers were central to literary culture, Bennet (1998: 48) argues that, on account of the smaller and to an exceptional degree discriminating readership, poetry tended to exhibit the clearest record of cultural taste.

Ada Cambridge serves as an example to illustrate the significance poetry had for authentic female literary expression. While her prose is highly conservative, her poetic work shows criticism and rebellion (Green 1974: 171). This incongruity reveals that poetry was used by women writers for the purpose of “exposing or satirizing perceived abuses of power” (Webby 2000: 57). For Ada Cambridge, poetry was an instrument which she used to express her deepest and most profound perceptions (Ackland 1994b: 159).

Genres were used by women in certain ways for particular political effects. The preferred feminine form of light entertainment was the romance (Sheridan 1985: 54), but some diverged from this feminized genre and wrote in more realist forms (Sheridan 1995: xii). Others continued writing romances, while simultaneously contradicting gendered assumptions of the genre. Thereby, they experimented with poetic form and combined domestic realism with romance and social satire (Vickery 2007: 81). As women in cultural production, unconventional poets had to write simultaneously within and against social conventions (Sheridan 1995: xi and xii). They skillfully used, or simply avoided their speaking-position. Armstrong (1993: 342) notices their “capacity to conceal as well as to reveal.” Ada Cambridge, for instance, continued writing romance and “used the romance formula to question and ironize the position of women, the institution of marriage and, frequently, the conventions of romance itself.” (Webby 2000: 70). Reviewers generally failed to perceive these complexities, which were also not appreciated in colonial poetry. Paradoxically, female writings were often criticized for an absence of innovation (Ackland 2000: 76).

4.2. The significance of periodicals

For women poets, the press was a rare and significant opportunity to publish verse (Sheridan 1995: 73). As mentioned before, their possibilities of establishing a literary reputation were limited, but journalism provided an opportunity for greater literary independence and it offers valuable documentation of early women poetry. In fact, works of some outstanding poets, for example Rose Scott, are only available to us because of her contributions to journals (Sheridan 1995: xiii). Thus, print culture was closely connected to female poetry production and of great significance in giving women a voice of their own.

4.2.1. The Dawn

In 1888, Louisa Lawson founded Australia’s first women-centered journal The Dawn, which provided female writers with the opportunity to raise conflicting issues and female discourses (Ackland 2000:79). Apart from her significance as a poet, Louisa Lawson was an important figure in women’s emancipation and the suffrage movement (Hansord 2013: 188). The newspaper’s ambition lay in providing a forum and presenting a female voice in the Australian society, as the founder stated in the first issue:

“Men legislate on divorce, on hours of labour, and many other questions affecting women, but neither ask nor know the wishes of those whose lives and happiness are most concerned. Here then is The Dawn, the Australian Woman’s journal and mouthpiece.” (The Dawn, 15 May 1888)

The newspaper included themes relating to women’s private lives, such as household advice or dress patterns, but also political discussions about the future of marriage or the suffrage campaign among others (Sheridan 1995: 77f). In addition to a wide range of salient issues, The Dawn featured a “Poet’s Page”, which was of crucial importance for female poetic production (Hansord 2013: 189). It included the feminist literary culture, featuring a few poems in every issue and allowing women to move into journalism as a profession (Sheridan 1995: 73). Sheridan (1995: 79f) emphasizes that throughout its publication, The Dawn ’s aim was to feminize the public life and to free women of their role as passive companions. It featured stories of women who succeeded in the public sphere and demonstrated their abilities and power.

With The Dawn’s growing popularity and influence, several organisations tried to pressure Lawson into suppressing her journal (Matthews 2013: 35). Numerous conflicts were created for the purpose of demonstrating to women not to try and participate in male domains. Although Lawson’s journal was boycotted by the Typographical Union (Sheridan 1995: 77), she engaged in those conflicts with enthusiasm and the newspaper remained a success throughout its seventeen years of publishing.

4.2.2. The Bulletin

A more influential and widely spread newspaper of that period, The Bulletin, was an important factor for the neglect of female poetry. It was powerful in forming public opinions, producing imaginary constructs and influencing the readers’ literary preferences (Green 1974: 351). Contrary to the Dawn, The Bulletin’s readership was predominantly male and its content was masculinist (Sheridan 1995: x).

The Bulletin not only purported to feature “the brightest and best writing”, but also “to speak for the emerging nation”3 (Sheridan 1995: 79). However, women were clearly omitted from this image, which can be deduced from the newspaper’s subtitle, namely ‘Australia for the white man’ (Treagus 2014: 188). The Bulletin favoured a traditional view of gender relations (Featherstone 2012: 719). As a misogynistic newspaper it generally excluded women writers from the canon as well as from its discourse (Sheridan 1985: 54). Furthermore, A.G. Stephens, the literary editor of the newspaper, devalued female literary endeavours by claiming that “women’s work has (naturally) neither the mass nor the quality of the men’s work”4. The journal’s position was supposedly democratic and it tended to blame women for hindering the progress of democracy (Sheridan 1995:75). Regarding ‘The Woman Question’, it openly opposed feminist demands and claimed that, due to the female’s irrational personality, women could not engage in male spheres (Sheridan 1985: 55f). Sheridan also notices that the newspaper represented women’s independence as a step towards men’s enslavement (Sheridan 1995:76).

It is not without reason that The Bulletin was known as “The Bushmen’s Bible” (Macintyre 2016: 136). It conveyed the desire of an unrestrained life of men and celebrated masculine values. The Bulletin’s writers supported the notion of the bush symbolising the Australian man and the woman belonging to the home (Lake 1994: 266). Furthermore, Lake notes that according to the newspaper, a domestic life “trammelled a man’s spirit and sapped his energy”. Thus, the Bulletin, being the primary medium of this masculine self-image, championed masculine licence and obstructed female poetry (Macintyre 2016: 134ff).


1 All references to female writers are to be understood to mean “white” colonial women.

2 An expression often used at the time, also the title of one of Henry Lawson’s short stories (Crozier-De Rosa 2014: 38).

3 Bulletin credo (instituted in 1893) and description quoted in ‘Australian Writers and the City’, The Australian City, Deakin University Press, Geelong, Vic. 1987, pp. 9, 11.

4 “Australian Literature I” (1901), reprinted in Leon Cantrell, ed. A.G. Stephens: Selected Writings (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1978), pp. 84, 88.

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The depiction of bush life in the works of female colonial Australian poets
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