Barbara Baynton Essay - Critical Essays

Baynton, Barbara


Barbara Baynton 1857-1929

(Born Barbara Lawrence) Australian novelist and short story writer.

Baynton was a novelist and short story writer whose works examine the alienation and isolation experienced by women in the Australian outback during the late nineteenth century. Contradicting the romantic ideals of independence and mateship popularized in Australian fiction of the 1890s, her works provide realistic depictions of the hardships of bush life while presenting a grim, subjective vision of a malevolent landscape and the sinister figures who populate it.

Biographical Information

Baynton was the daughter of John, a carpenter, and Elizabeth (Ewart) Lawrence, Irish immigrants to Australia. Her early childhood was spent in the Scone district of New South Wales before the family moved to Murrurundi in the 1860s. Baynton later became a governess in the Quirindi district and in 1880 married Alexander Frater, with whom she had three children. After Frater eloped with another woman, Baynton moved to Sydney and took a position selling bibles door-to-door. In 1890 she married Thomas Baynton, a wealthy physician nearly thirty years her senior. Dr. Baynton was an avid reader, and Baynton began writing fiction and poetry during their marriage. Her first story, "The Chosen Vessel," also known as "The Tramp," was published in 1896 in the Bulletin, the leading Australian literary periodical of the era. In 1902 six of her short stories were published together as Bush Studies. Following Dr. Baynton's death in 1904, Baynton spent much of her time in England and published little fiction. She remarried in 1921, and was divorced three years later. Baynton died in Melbourne in 1929.

Major Works

Baynton's literary reputation rests primarily on Bush Studies, her collection of short stories examining the hardships of bush life in Australia. In such works as "The Chosen Vessel," "A Dreamer," and "Squeaker's Mate" Baynton focused on the difficulties faced by women in the outback, and her stories are perceived as contradicting what A. A. Phillips has called the "robust nationalism" prevalent in Australian fiction of the 1890s. Each of Baynton's stories centers on the isolation and terror that often dominated women's lives in rural districts. In "The Chosen Vessel," for example, a bush wife is raped and murdered by a traveling swagman while her husband is away, and in "Squeaker's Mate," a paralyzed farm woman is confined to a shed when her husband brings home his new "mate," a pregnant barmaid. Baynton's only novel, Human Toll continues in the grim mood of Bush Studies and shares its portrayal of the bush landscape as hostile and barren while presenting the bleak tale of an orphan in the outback. According to Shirley Walker, Human Toll is both "an exciting and disturbing text; exciting for its range of response to bush experience, for the passion of its presentation, and for the outrage of its tone."

Critical Reception

Baynton's works created a sensation among Australian readers but generated little interest abroad until English critic Edward Garnett championed the publication of Bush Studies in 1902. Called "stark" and "savage," her works have been chiefly valued for their unrelenting realism and uncommon vision of women's status in rural Australian life in the late nineteenth century.

Principal Works

Bush Studies (short stories) 1902; also published as Cobbers, expanded edition, 1917

Human Toll (novel) 1907


Vance Palmer (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "Barbara Baynton," in Overland, No. 11, January, 1958, pp. 15-16.

[In the following essay, Palmer reminisces about his acquaintance with Baynton.]

One of the most talented and original of our writers was Barbara Baynton, who created something of a sensation among readers by the daring and vigor of her Bush Studies at the beginning of the century. I very well remember the discussion aroused by her story, "The Chosen Vessel", which A. G. Stephens printed in his anthology, The Bulletin Story Book. It told of a woman left alone with her child on a remote selection and the night of horror she experienced when a crazy swagman appeared at sundown. The story was quietly told, but full of power, and reached its climax when the terrified woman escaped from her hut near morning and made through the dark bush to the road, throwing herself on the mercy of a solitary horseman coming home from the township. But this man, a superstitious fellow with a sense of guilt, had been drowsing half-drunkenly in his saddle; when he awoke to see the white-robed woman and her child he imagined it was a vision of the Madonna and galloped away in a panic, leaving her to her fate.

Other stories of Barbara Baynton's at the time were even more ruthless in their realism, but some had a robust masculine humor. How attractive and true to the spirit of the outback was that picture of the old hermit-shepherd apologising subtly to his dog for letting the ewe and lamb into the hut they shared. It was not the sort of writing you expected of a woman—especially in those days, when women were supposed to be concerned with little dramas of the drawing-room and the home. There was a good deal of curiosity about Barbara Baynton. What sort of a woman was she, people asked? Was she as mannish as her stories sounded? How had she gained her experience of this tough, primitive life which cut more deeply into the bone than anything written by Lawson?

My own curiosity was stimulated by a chance encounter with another boy a little older than myself, Bob Frater. We had been playing cricket in a little country town; we had missed the train home. And, sitting in a deserted park near the station, putting in time as best we could, we suddenly began talking about writing; or rather about the Bohemian world of Sydney which seemed a very dazzling place then to young people. Puffing at his cherry wood pipe (he was about eighteen) my companion spoke about it with a casual familiarity that took my breath away. He knew all about it; he had already had paragraphs in the Bulletin; people like A. G. Stephens and Albert Dorrington had been calling in at the family home since he was a youngster. There was a doggy assurance about him when he told anecdotes of such men that made me feel terribly envious; he seemed to have been brought up in a world quite different from my own.

I had always been interested in writing, but had never met any writers. How had this Bob Frater managed to become familiar with so many of them? Well (it came out without any particular boastfulness on his part), his mother was a writer. She was, in fact, Barbara Baynton.

It was this fillip of personal contact that led me to make a special study of Barbara Baynton's stories. I didn't like them at first; there was something savage and remorseless about them; and yet they fascinated me by their unshrinking honesty. Such a woman, I felt, would never be daunted by anything.

Three or four years later when I was in London, trying to earn a living by free-lancing casting about for things that might interest editors, I wrote an article about Barbara Baynton's work, and though it was really about as unlikely a subject as could be imagined, it happened to gain publication in the Book Monthly, a journal that had some literary prestige at the time. One surprising result was an impulsive letter, written in a large, imposing hand that allowed very few words to a page.

"Who are you that you know my work so well?" it asked challengingly. "Where do you come from? All the time I've been over here I've never had such encouragement. Won't you come and have dinner with me at my club?

It was an exciting letter for me to get in my little back room in Bloomsbury—exciting, but more than a little embarrassing. Could I screw my courage up to accept this warm invitation? How would this woman who...

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A. A. Phillips (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: "Barbara Baynton and the Dissidence of the Nineties," in Overland, No. 22, December, 1961, pp. 15-20.

[In the following essay, Phillips assesses Baynton's works in the context of Australian writing of the 1890s.]

In terms of the Legend, the Australian period of the nineties was distinguished by its fervent celebration of a robust nationalism, particularly manifested through its belief in the value of the Australian personality; but "periods" have an untidy habit of contradicting themselves, and there is also discernible in the writings of the nineties an undercurrent of revolt against the barbarous fate of being an Australian. The ambivalent attitude is...

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Sally Krimmer and Alan Lawson (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: An introduction to Barbara Baynton, edited by Sally Krimmer and Alan Lawson, University of Queensland Press, 1980, pp. ix-xxxiii.

[In the following excerpt, Krimmer and Lawson discuss themes and imagery in Bush Studies and Human Toll.]

Barbara Baynton died on 28 May 1929 leaving one slim volume of short stories, a short novel, and a few poems and stories, some of which have never been collected. On her death her name was linked more closely with the world of fine china and antique furniture than it was with the literary world. Though her literary work has not gone without acknowledgment it is mainly in recent times that Baynton has emerged as an...

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Kay Schaffer (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Barbara Baynton: Woman as 'The Chosen Vessel'," in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1, May, 1983, pp. 25-37.

[In the following essay, Schaffer analyzes "The Chosen Vessel."]

When critics of Australian literature focus on the writers of the Bulletin school of the 1890s in terms of a tradition of democratic nationalism, they seldom mention women. A. A. Phillips however, in his 1966 revised edition of The Australian Tradition, includes a new chapter on Barbara Baynton, author of Bush Studies (1902). Phillips applies the label 'dissidence' to the character of Baynton's writing, along with that of Miles Franklin's My Brilliant...

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Lucy Frost (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Barbara Baynton: An Affinity with Pain," in Who Is She? edited by Shirley Walker, St. Martin's Press, 1983, pp. 56-70.

[Frost is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, she identifies emotional pain as the primary inspiration for Baynton's works.]

In these days when pain is fashionable Barbara Baynton is widely admired for writing accurately about the terrible lives endured by women in the bush. She is commended for having fractured the rose-coloured lenses through which Australians peered reverently at their pioneer mothers. However understandable this version of Barbara Baynton may be, it is also highly ironic. The woman herself was no...

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Susan Sheridan (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Gender and Genre in Barbara Baynton's Human Toll," in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 14, No. 1, May, 1989, pp. 66-77.

[In the following essay, Sheridan discusses Human Toll in the context of nineteenth-century women's fiction and in the tradition of realistic narrative.]

It is not surprising that Human Toll, which was recently reprinted for the first time since its original publication in 1907, should have received little critical commentary; but what there does exist by way of comment is remarkably homogeneous. Beginning with A. G. Stephens' review in the Bulletin, and continuing through H. M. Green in 1930, Arthur Phillips in...

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Shirley Walker (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Barbara Baynton's Human Toll: A Modernist Text?" in Southerly, Vol. 49, No. 2, June, 1989, pp. 131-48.

[In the following essay, Walker focuses on Modernist narrative techniques in Human Toll.]

Although Barbara Baynton's short stories have attracted considerable critical attention, her novel Human Toll, first published in 1907, but largely inaccessible to modern readers until the Krimmer and Lawson Barbar Baynton (Portable Australian Authors) in 1980, is usually either disregarded or dismissed as a flawed anti-climax to the controlled savagery of the stories of Bush Studies. For instance Sally Krimmer, in her introduction to the 1980...

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Further Reading


Krimmer, Sally. "A Bibliography of Barbara Baynton." Australian Literary Studies 7, No. 4 (October 1976): 430-33.

Includes primary and secondary material.


Krimmer, Sally. "New Light on Barbara Baynton." Australian Literary Studies 7, No. 4 (October 1976): 425-30.

Corrects earlier romanticized accounts of Baynton's life.


Kirkby, Joan. "Barbara Baynton: An Australian Jocasta." Westerly 34, No. 4 (December 1989): 114-24.

Examines evocations of maternity in Baynton's fiction.


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