Baynton, Barbara (Lawrence)

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BAYNTON, Barbara (Lawrence)

Nationality: Australian. Born: Scone, New South Wales, 4 June 1857. Education: Home. Family: Married 1) Alexander Frater in 1880 (divorced 1890), two sons and one daughter; 2) Thomas Baynton in 1890 (died 1904); 3) Lord Headley in 1921 (separated 1922). Career: Governess, Bible salesperson, briefly; writer from late 1890s; antique collector. Lived in Melbourne and London after second marriage, traveling between England and Australia. Died: 28 May 1929.


Short Stories

Bush Studies. 1902; as Cobbers, 1917.


Human Toll. 1907.


The Portable Baynton, edited by Alan Lawson and Sally Krimmer. 1980.



"A Bibliography of Baynton" by Sally Krimmer, in Australian Literary Studies 7 (4), 1976.

Critical Studies:

"Baynton and the Dissidence of the Nineties" by A. A. Phillips, in Overland 22, December 1961; "Baynton" by Vance Palmer, in Intimate Portraits and Other Pieces, edited by H.P. Heseltine, 1968; "A New Light on Baynton" by Sally Krimmer, in Australian Literary Studies 7 (4), 1976; in Three Australian Women by Thea Astley, 1979; in Who Is She? Images of Women in Australian Fiction edited by S. Walker, 1983.

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Barbara Baynton's single collection of short stories, Bush Studies, represents a small but unusual contribution to Australian literary history. Like Miles Franklin, who wrote My Brilliant Career, Baynton's work tends to defy that mood of cheery optimism asserted as central to the Australian tradition. It casts an ironic pall over Australian notions of egalitarian democracy built on ideas of mateship by emphasizing the physical and psychological hardships of life in the Australian outback, which, in Baynton's work, dehumanizes its inhabitants. In Baynton's stories there is no nationalistic pride, no affinity between the landscape and its people, and no mateship. If the work of male writers of this period in Australian literary history is redolent with the metonymic relations of man to the land, to his fellows, and to the freedom of an egalitarian democracy, Baynton's work depicts a different Australia. It is a world of women who are the innocent victims of men, who are as brutal and pitiless as the land from which they scratch their living.

In "The Chosen Vessel" an unnamed woman is murdered by an itinerant swagman whose restless way of life directly opposes the possibility of female socialization. The woman and her baby are left in their hut on an empty landscape by her husband. Her background is clearly that of the town dweller; she is afraid of the cow, but the nearest "dismal drunken township" offers no protection, for the pursuit of the material means of survival is all engrossing to its inhabitants. The meaninglessness and malice of the landscape is reflected in its human inhabitants, the cruel and indifferent husband and the swagman, sure of his capacity to inspire fear, who demands food, money, and tobacco. It is similarly reflected in the imagery of the story, as the man and his dog, in direct correlation, worry victims and sheep respectively.

At the center of this story lies some small affirmation. The maternal instincts of the woman survive even death, and do move the man who finds her body. There is also the hut, which often serves as an image of socialization in Australian literature. This hut also functions as an image of the woman's body within the text, which her pursuer determines to breach. Its violation by the swagman signifies a breakdown of even this small and ugly attempt at communal life. As the woman is raped and then murdered, her calls for help are ignored by a man on a horse. When her body is found, she is still clutching her living child, and is mistaken for a fallen ewe and lamb savaged by a dingo.

The analogies between animals and humans are rarely complimentary in Baynton's work, and the dissonance between love and sex is often used to exemplify the moral chaos she depicts. In the harsh Australian outback even the church is ineffectual. In "The Bush Church" the preacher, who has managed—through fear of consequences—to gather together a bush congregation for the purpose of baptizing children, fails against a landscape that allows only the practical. Here "little matters become distorted and the greater shriveled," and as the congregation realizes that there is nothing to fear from this man the service degenerates into noisy altercation. The waterless outback is matched by spiritual aridity, and those who dream are rendered ridiculous. Thus the man on the horse, in "The Chosen Vessel," who ignored the woman's cries for help, did so because he imagined that he had been granted a vision of the Virgin Mary, sent to persuade him to follow his mother's wishes in the matter of casting his vote. Influenced by this idealized vision of motherhood, the man becomes "subdued and mildly ecstatic … feeling as a repentant, chastened child" until informed of his error by an enraged priest. The ironic reverberations cast upon the title of the work, "The Chosen Vessel," and the savagery of the woman's death, render all such idealizations ridiculous. In these circumstances the category of woman has become little more than that of a hollow signifier.

Baynton's female protagonists often remain unnamed, and the promiscuity of bush life, which appears in the form of lewdness and obscenity in her work, is, in part, created by the absence of the feminine in all that she describes. In "Billy Skywonkie" an ugly, aging, and sick woman hopes to find employment as a housekeeper. At that time the advertising of such a post was little more than a thinly veiled request for a mistress. The woman, unaware of these possibilities, travels to the outback in the hope of employment. Imaged as victim, sheeplike and passive before the predatory instincts of men, this woman is entirely at the mercy of the land. Animals and humans alike are "drought-dulled" in this story, dialogue is sparse, and only the sun is "tireless and greedy." When the would-be housekeeper is rejected for her ugliness at the end of her long and exhausting passage into the world of men and the outback, she watches the slaughter of a sheep and notices "that the sheep lay passive, with its head back, till its neck curved in a bow, and that the glitter of the knife was reflected in its eye."

Women, in Baynton's Bush Studies, are the vulnerable victims of isolation and fear, and it is this unified vision that makes of her story collection a complex symbolic narrative that fluctuates between harsh social comedy and a search for realism in the empty malevolence of a hard land.

—Jan Pilditch