Louisa Atkinson

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Louisa Atkinson

Caroline Louisa Waring Atkinson (1834-1872), known as Louisa Atkinson, was an Australian writer, botanist, and illustrator; she is best known for her natural history journalism.

Atkinson was born on February 25, 1834, the fourth child of James and Charlotte Barton Atkinson. James, a successful farmer, was also a magistrate; Charlotte was well-educated and artistically gifted. Atkinson was born at her parents' estate, Oldbury Farm, in the lower Southern Highlands of New South Wales. She was born less than fifty years after the first British fleet arrived in Australia, carrying convicts to colonize Australia. At the time of her birth, she was one of only 12,000 people of European descent who were Australian-born. In the Australia of her time, convicts sent from England, Scotland, and Ireland were a common part of society. They labored on farms and in towns, and when they escaped, became "bushrangers," or outlaw bandits. Aboriginal people and the white settlers often had bloody clashes, and the Aborigines began to be pushed off their old territories by force and through attrition brought on by European diseases. Atkinson eventually wrote about all of these topics, as well as the gold rushes of the 1850s, the advent of large-scale sheep and cattle farming, and the native plants, animals, and birds of Australia.

As a child, Atkinson was greatly interested in nature, an interest encouraged by her mother. Charlotte, who was an artist and the author of the first children's book both written and published in Australia. The book was titled A Mother's Offering to Her Children (1841). Her father also set an example. He wrote An Account of the State of Agriculture and Grazing in New South Wales, a handbook for English people who wanted to emigrate to Australia.


Atkinson's father died just two months after she was born, and her mother took over the management of the family estate. This job was made more difficult by the lack of law and order in the district. Once, while riding to a remote sheep station, she and George Bruce Barton, the estate's superintendent, were held up by bushrangers. Charlotte evidently decided that the situation was too difficult for a woman alone, and in 1836 she married Barton. Barton, however, turned out to be mentally unstable and dangerous. In 1839, when Atkinson was five years old, her mother fled with her and her siblings to the Atkinsons' cattle station at Budgong. They spent the next six months in a rough shack in remote country. Later, Atkinson and her mother both said that despite the primitive accommodations, the time they spent there was a welcome refuge. While in the shack, Charlotte told her children stories and taught them to observe and draw native plants, animals, and birds.

Eventually, they were forced to move to Sydney and seek financial support from the Atkinson estate. A six-year court battle ensued with the estate's executors. At the time, mothers were not automatically considered their children's guardians, and Charlotte did not win custody of her children at first. The court used her actions in fleeing from her husband as proof of her unstable nature and her unfitness to keep her children. Eventually Charlotte did win custody of her children. The long legal battle left a mark on Atkinson, who included critical commentary on lawyers in several of her novels. Her novel Tom Hellicar's Children (1871) is semi-autobiographical.

When Atkinson was twelve, the family returned to the estate at Oldbury, where she lived for the next seven or eight years. Her older siblings were sent to a private school, where they won honors, but Atkinson, who had suffered from tuberculosis since childhood, was taught at home. Although there was no cure for the disease at that time, patients sometimes had spontaneous remissions of their symptoms. Atkinson used these healthier times to do her reading and nature exploring. She was noted for her cheerful, kind manner, which made her attractive to many people, especially children.

At Oldbury, Atkinson studied birds, animals, and plants and learned to study nature systematically. She eventually trained herself to be a natural historian; a collector of botanical specimens, animals, and birds; and an illustrator. She observed animals and birds in the wild, dissected them, and taught herself taxidermy. In a notebook, she recorded changes in the seasons, animal behavior, and plants and illustrated her observations with her own sketches. During this time, she also continued to read widely. Her interests included poetry and prose as well as works of natural history such as Samuel Griswold Goodrich's Peter Parley's Cyclopedia of Botany, Including Familiar Descriptions of Trees, Shrubs, and Plants (1838). She had similar reference books on geology and zoology.

Work Published

In 1853, when she was nineteen, Atkinson wrote and illustrated an article of nature notes, and offered it to the editor of the new Illustrated Sydney News. It appeared in the second issue of the paper on October 15, 1853. This began her career as a writer. Between 1853 and her death in 1872, she wrote many popular articles on natural history, for which she was known only by the initials "LA." These articles were published in the Illustrated Sydney News, Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney Mail, and the Horticultural Magazine. She also wrote about Aboriginal life and customs. In 1855 she began to draw a small income from her father's estate, which allowed her to have a small measure of financial independence.

Atkinson wrote six novels, using the pseudonym, "An Australian Lady." These novels, according to Elizabeth Lawson in the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, are notable for "their close observation of colonial life from a domestic point of view." Her first novel, Gertrude the Emigrant: A Tale of Colonial Life was published when she was twenty-three and was the first Australian novel written by a native born Australian woman, as well as the first to be illustrated by its author. The novel, set at an estate similar to Oldbury, stars Gertrude, a young immigrant woman who is "making a life in a colony which is itself in the making," according to the publisher of the modern edition. Drawing on her own experiences as well as family stories, Atkinson set her novel in the convict and immigrant culture of Sutton Forest, Sydney, and the Shoalhaven in the late 1830s and 1840s. The novel is both a traditional romance and a murder mystery, and according to the publisher, Atkinson as journalist and writer "cannot avoid a wandering mode of picaresque which allows her recording eye free play."

Readers of the time enjoyed the novel because it was one of the first that depicted their own Australian colonial society. It was sympathetically written by a woman who was born and raised in that society. The novel was first published in serial format: twenty-four sections, each eight pages long. Each section sold for threepence. It took six months to release the entire serial. The story appeared in novel form in 1857 and was published by J. R. Clarke of Sydney. The book included over twenty woodcut illustrations by Atkinson.

According to the publisher, the novel's value for modern readers lies in its detailed description of Australian life of the time, as well as its description of forests and ecologies that are now lost to development. In addition, the novel presents Australian life as a culture in and of itself, not simply an example of transplanted European culture. It is also an example of early feminism: most of the important characters are women who are independent, strong, and capable.

Atkinson followed Gertrude the Emigrant with Cowanda, the Veteran's Grant: An Australian Story (1859). Also published by J. R. Clarke, it was set in a different part of New South Wales, based on Atkinson's new home at Kurrajong Heights in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Atkinson and her mother had moved there hoping that the fresh mountain air would improve her health. The book is set on the estate of an old veteran, Captain Dell, but some scenes feature the gold fields west of Sydney, Dell's outback sheep station, and offices in Sydney. The novel follows the lives of Dell's grandchildren: Rachel, who is strong and courageous and Gilbert, who is ruined when he gives up his job and joins the gold rush. Beginning during the gold rush, the novel later depicts their romantic relationships with others.

Like Gertrude the Emigrant, the novel was attractive to contemporary readers, most of whom knew someone who had gone to the gold fields and who enjoyed seeing their own communities and experiences in fictional form. Both novels shared flaws in structure, character development, and had intrusive authorial commentary on religion, but many readers were willing to overlook these for the sake of reading about contemporary Australia.

Became Expert Botantist

While living at Kurrajong Heights, Atkinson's tuberculosis went into remission, and she spent a great deal of time exploring the outdoors and collecting plants and animals. Beginning in 1860, she wrote a series of articles, titled "A Voice from the Country," for the Sydney Morning Herald. Although she was untrained and a woman, she became an expert botanist in a time when the unusual flora and fauna of Australia was a topic of great fascination for natural scientists all over the world. She often took two days to explore, riding and walking and collecting plant specimens in a pouch that she had designed herself. On returning home, she wrote articles about what she had seen. She also spent much of her free time visiting sick people and teaching Sunday school in her home.

A local schoolmaster, William Woolls, introduced Atkinson to some of the well-known scientists of her time, including Ferdinand von Mueller, who was director of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens; naturalist William Sharp Macleay; and geologist/clergyman William Branwhite Clark. She sent von Mueller three hundred specimens of plants she had found in Kurrajong. Von Mueller realized that Atkinson had discovered plants that were unknown to European science, as well as plants that were so rare that they had been seen only once or twice before. One orchid that she found had not been seen by anyone since the early days of the nineteenth century. When von Mueller published his twelve-volume compendium of Australian plants, Fragmentia Phytographiae Australiae, between 1858 and 1882, he named several plants after her. These include the Loranthaceous genus Atkinsonia, as well as the plants Erechtites atkinsoniae and Epacris calvertiana. When British botanist George Bentham published his seven-volume work on the plants of Australia, Flora Australiaensis, he mentioned Atkinson's work 116 times. In addition, a fern, Doodia atkinsonii, was named in her honor.

Atkinson's four subsequent novels, including Debatable Ground, or the Carlillawarra Claimants (1861), Myra (1864), Tom Hellicar's Children (1871), and Tressa's Resolve (1872) were published as serials in the Sydney Mail and the Sydney Morning Herald. All of these except Tressa's Resolve were reprinted in the 1980s and 1990s by Mulimi Press and Books on Demand. Mulimi Press has also published two collections of Atkinson's natural history journalism, A Voice From the Country (1978) and Louisa Atkinson, Excursions from Berrima and a Trip to Manaro and Molonglo in the 1870s (1980).

Marriage and Death

In the mid-1860s, Atkinson's health deteriorated. At the same time, her mother fell and broke her arm in several places, dislocated her elbow, and suffered a spinal injury. Atkinson spent all her meager energy tending to her mother, with great strain on her own health. In the meantime, however, she had met James Snowden Calvert. Calvert had been injured in an Aboriginal attack while exploring with an expedition in northeast Australia. When he returned from the expedition after being given up for dead, he became a farmer and engaged in botanical research. Although Atkinson wanted to marry him, her mother objected, partly because she did not want her daughter to leave her and partly because she was worried about Atkinson's health.

In October of 1867, Atkinson's mother died, leaving her free to marry Calvert. More than a year later, on March 11, 1869, the couple married and moved to Calvert's property, named Cavan, on the Murrumbudgee River. She took up writing nature columns again and continued writing when they moved to Oldbury and then to Winstead, near Berrima. Atkinson's brother James and his wife lived in the main house on this property, and Atkinson and her husband lived in a small cottage. Their marriage was happy, and Atkinson's health and creative energy improved. She wrote her nature columns and continued to collect plants.

When Atkinson was thirty-seven, she became pregnant. Because of her age and her precarious health, this was a matter of some concern to her and her husband. She gave up her botanical excursions to rest and worked on her last novel, Tressa's Resolve. On April 10, 1872, her daughter, Louise Snowden Annie Calvert, was born. Eighteen days later, however, Atkinson suffered a shock when she saw her husband's horse gallop into the yard without a rider. Fearing that he had fallen from the horse and been killed, she had a heart attack and died. Some time later, her husband, who had fallen but was not hurt, came home to find her dead. She was buried in the Atkinson family vault at All Saints' Anglican Church in Sutton Forest. Tressa's Resolve was published in the Sydney Mail after her death.

During the last year of her life, Atkinson wrote and illustrated a major work on Australian plants and animals. She sent it to von Mueller, who passed it on to other scientists. Unfortunately, due to the turmoil of the Franco-Prussian war, most of the manuscript was lost. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Patricia Clarke wrote, "If she had lived to see this project through to publication, possibly it would have gained for her an international reputation as a naturalist and illustrator."


Jones, Joseph, and Johanna Jones, Australian Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1983.

Lawson, Elizabeth, "Atkinson, Louisa," in Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, edited by William H. Wilde, Joy Hooton, and Barry Andrews, Oxford University Press, 1994.

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

Samuels, Selina, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 230: Australian Literature, 1788-1914, Gale Research, 2001.


"Atkinson, C. Louisa W. (1834-1872)," in Australian National Botanic Gardens: Biography,http://www.anbg.gov.au/biography/Atkinson-louisa.html (February 1, 2002).

"Atkinson, Caroline Louisa Waring (1834-1872)," in Bright Sparcs, University of Melbournehttp://www.asap.unimelb.edu.au/bsparcs/biogs/P000072b.htm (January 21, 2002).

"The Gentle Arts: Australia's Women Pioneers in the Fields of Literature, Music and Fine Art," National Pioneer Women's Hall of Fame,http://www.pioneerwomen.com.au/gentlearts.htm (January 31, 2002).

"Gertrude the Emigrant," Australian Defence Force Academy University College Web Site, http://idun.itsc.adfa.edu.au/ASEC/CTS-books/gertrude.html (January 30, 2002). □

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