Barbara Baynton

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Barbara Baynton

Barbara Baynton (1857-1929) was an Australian novelist and short-story writer. Her work is notable for its rejection of Australian nationalism and the Australian bush, especially tales of women struggling to cope with the harsh realities of bush life.

Conflicting Stories

Baynton was born in Scone, in the Hunter Valley area of New South Wales, Australia, on June 4, 1857. For many years, the date of her birth and the identities of her parents were uncertain, because Baynton altered her birth date and disguised her parents' identities. She claimed to have been born in 1862, to Penelope Ewart and Captain Robert Kilpatrick, who were supposedly Irish immigrants to Australia and fell in love on the ship en route to Australia. Although Penelope Ewart was supposedly married at the time, she began a relationship with Kilpatrick and later married him when her husband died. This story, which was believed even by Baynton's own grandchildren, was later proven false. Her parents' names were John Lawrence and Elizabeth Ewart. Baynton was born Barbara Lawrence, not Barbara Kilpatrick, and her father was a carpenter, not the rich landowner she claimed him to be.

As Sally Krimmer and Alan Lawson commented in Barbara Baynton, it is not clear why Baynton invented these things. In particular, her motives for saying that her parents were not married when they began their relationship are especially difficult to understand, especially since she lived in an era when unmarried relationships were considered scandalous. The authors speculated that Baynton and her social circle may have found the story romantic, or that she preferred people to think that her father was wealthy. Contemporary Authors Online quotes Baynton's grandson, H.B. Gullett: "She was a highly imaginative woman with no strict regard for truth. She told her children many conflicting stories of her early years … and it rather seems as if the truth to her was what she chose to believe it ought to be at any given moment… ."

However, Baynton's family life as a young girl may have helped with her fantasy about her parents. She was the seventh child of John and Elizabeth Lawrence, but when she was three years old, her mother had another child. This child was not John Lawrence's, although he raised the boy as part of his family.

Despite these stories, Baynton grew up in the Scone district, where her father did carpentry work. In the early 1860s, her family moved twenty-five miles north to Murrurundi, where one of Baynton's brothers established a blacksmith shop. Two other brothers set up a sawmill in Spring Ridge. Meanwhile, Baynton became a governess at Merrylong Park, in the Quirindi district, where she met Alexander Hay Frator, a selector. The couple married in 1880; Baynton was 23. They had three children, Alexander Hay, Robert Guy, and Penelope. However, Frater left Baynton for one of her cousins while the children were still young.

Began to Write

Baynton moved to Sydney and took various jobs, including selling Bibles door-to-door, in order to survive and provide for her family. On March 4, 1890, she and Frater officially divorced; she married 70-year-old Dr. Thomas Baynton the next day. On the marriage certificate, she wrote that she was widowed not divorced. Their marriage lasted fifteen years, and they had one son, who died in infancy. Thomas Baynton supported his wife and her children and introduced her to a wide variety of people. By 1903 she was friends with one-time Australian prime minister Billy Hughes; High Commissioner for Australia in London George Reid; and Federal Chief Justice Sir Samuel Griffith, among others.

Baynton's husband was an antique collector, a hobby she picked up as well. Her collection was famed throughout Australia, as was her collection of black opals. The couple bought "Fairmont," an impressive house in Sydney. Baynton, with her new financial security and high social standing, began to write. Despite the fact that she was now far removed from her rough childhood in the Australian bush, she drew most of her ideas from that time. Her first story, "The Tramp" (later retitled "The Chosen Vessel"), was published in the Bulletin in 1896. The Bulletin's editor, A.G. Stephens, became Bayton's friend and encouraged her to keep writing.

Baynton wrote a short story collection titled Bush Studies but had trouble finding a publisher in Sydney or in London. Edward Garnett, a critic and publisher's reader, persuaded Duckworth & Company of London to publish Bush Studies in 1902. Her later works, Human Toll (1907) and Cobbers (1917), were published by the same company.

Thomas Baynton died in 1904, after which Baynton moved to London and frequently visited Australia. She divided her time between writing and collecting antiques. By 1917 Baynton had written two more stories, "Trooper Jim Tasman" and "Toohey's Party," which she added to Bush Stories to make Cobbers. These stories arose from Baynton's experience of hosting "open houses" for soldiers at her homes in London and in Essex during World War I.

In 1921, Baynton married Lord Headley in London. Headley was the fifth Baronet of Little Watley, Essex. He had converted to Islam, was the president of the Muslim Society, and had made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1923. When they married, Baynton received Ardoe House, a gracious mansion in Ireland, but the marriage did not last long; they were separated in 1924 after a year and a half of legal wrangling. Baynton continued to live in London and Melbourne and kept up her passion for antiques. Her health, never robust, began to deteriorate, and she spent several periods in health resorts and nursing homes between 1905 and her death in 1929.

Krimmer and Lawson wrote that Baynton was "a grand lady with a strong character," and commented that her friends said she was "lovable, rash, clever, impulsive, generous," as well as "quick to anger, liable to be unjust, but always ready to forgive and make friends." She was also notably tasteful in her dress and memorable for her "dramatic nature."

Critical Response to Stories

The tales in Bush Studies reflect some of Baynton's intensity. The stories emphasize the brutality and violence of the bush, as well as the starkly unequal relationship between men and women there. In Baynton's tales, men are associated with the bush and its malevolent nature, and women, as representatives of civilization and gentleness, are forced to succumb to their exploitation. Unlike other Australian literature of the time, which celebrated the bush community as a place of hospitality, camaraderie, and compassion, Baynton mocks bush people and their ways. However, she balances this negativity by emphasizing motherhood as a source of hope, redemption, and creativity. Contemporary Authors Online explains: "Considering Baynton's own experience of motherhood … it is scarcely surprising that ambivalence toward the maternal haunts Baynton's fiction."

Krimmer and Lawrence wrote of Baynton's work that her "stories are powerfully expressed and closely unified. Her vision is communicated through a straightforward yet intense style. Each story has a clear, almost single-minded impulse and each contributes to a cumulative effect which is memorable and convincing." They also commented that each story "sets out to investigate a particular situation, to explore a particular emotion, and to develop a particular motif. … Each story has an inexorable progress towards a dire conclusion—death, rape, rejection or some combination of these—and the progress itself is in the form of an ordeal which serves to heighten the victim's … perception of the horror of his or her vulnerability."

One of Baynton's most famous stories is "Squeaker's Mate." The title character of the story is married to Squeaker, a farmer. She is described as "the best long-haired mate that ever stepped in petticoats." A branch falls and breaks her back, and she is incapacitated, although her husband is too self-absorbed to notice. Forced to lie in bed, she must now rely on her husband for subsidence. As Squeaker brings his mistress into the home, his wife is forced to stay into a lean-to. However, she can still use her upper body, and when her husband's mistress comes to the lean-to to take away her food and water, she relies on it to strangle the other woman. Her loyal dog, in turn, attacks Squeaker. In A History of Australian Literature, Ken Goodwin commented, "Here is rage externally suppressed and then breaking out in a more positive and frightening way… ." and that this violence is "approved of by the author, not the fierce predatoriness of a peripheral marauder." The two stories that Baynton added to Cobbers are, according to Krimmer and Lawson, "of little interest in themselves," but they do show Baynton's interest in using local dialect as well as dark humor.

Human Toll

Baynton wrote only one novel, Human Toll, which was published in 1907. It has never been reprinted and is consequently rare and little known. Like her stories, it is drawn from her life in the bush, but it is difficult to determine how much of it is autobiographical. It does not have a strong structure but presents many short scenes of bush life. Ursula, the main character, wants to write but feels that she cannot do so until she moves away from the bush. The novel examines the effect of the bush on the men and women who live there, especially the toll the environment takes on them. Like her short stories, the novel also emphasizes women's vulnerability and men's exploitation and greed. It also emphasizes the positive value of maternity. Krimmer and Lawton commented that although the book is sometimes slow or discursive, some of the scenes "have a self-contained unity and intensity which echo the achievements of Bush Studies." They also wrote that the most vibrant scene in the book is the last one, with Ursula lost, carrying the dead baby through the trackless bush. A.A. Phillips of The Australian Nationalists, praised Baynton's grounding of her fiction in very real life; the "bread-and-butter directness" of her style, her clear visualization, and her skill in exposition. Baynton begins her stories at points of crisis, and shows events though characters' actions and dialogue, rather than through authorial explanation.

Baynton died on May 28, 1929, at her home in Melbourne, after breaking her leg and contracting pneumonia. Phillips wrote that Baynton represented "with rare directness, [a] revolt against self-confident Australianism, despite the fact that she is not a social writer." Krimmer and Lawson summed up Baynton's literary impact by writing that although she has long been unknown and unread, "in the past decade she has been enthusiastically 'discovered' by a large number of readers. … Now that her name is relatively well known the time is ripe to make available for assessment the whole range of her literary work."


Goodwin, Ken, A History of Australian Literature, St. Martin's Press, 1986, pp. 43-44.

Krimmer, Sally, and Alan Lawson, editors, Barbara Baynton, University of Queensland Press, 1980.

Pierre, Peter, editor, Oxford Literary Guide to Australia, Oxford University Press, 1993.

Phillips, A. A., "Barbara Baynton and the Dissidence of the Nineties," in The Australian Nationalists, edited by Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Oxford University Press, 1971. □