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...
(The entire section is 1848 words.)