Barbara Baynton Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.