The last decade of the nineteenth century produced some of the most famous works of Australian literature – mostly all by men. Writers such as Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson defined our culture and somehow managed to either portray women as simple objects or just left them out completely. The Australian legend, as it was formed in the literary works written by the men of this time, depicts a strong, masculine bushman with no fear of adventure and a good sense of humour. However, some of the female writers of the 1890’s painted a very different picture.
By including women in their work as more than just objects, shows how women themselves viewed the Australian legend – and it generally was not in a positive light. Although a lot of women’s writing from this time had and has been rejected as important Australian literature, “writing by women in the period needs to be recovered as it has a lot to tell us about the social and cultural significance of women in the emerging Australian society and it is often at odds with the work of male contemporaries. ” (Lee, slide 7). Barbara Baynton is one of the women whose work needs to be considered.
Although her work was not cast aside by publishers in her own time, it had “been modified or reinterpreted for inclusion in the bush tradition. ” (Lee, slide 13). Her (unedited) short story The Chosen Vessel is a perfect example of why this type of writing must be recovered and why a lot of ‘male literature’ from the time presents a false identity of this country. The Chosen Vessel, first published in the Bulletin as The Tramp in approximately 1896, is the story of a woman – the nameless wife of a bushman – left alone with her child in their shanty.
She meets her fate at the hands of a passing swagman who rapes and kills her. The Bulletin’s edited version of the story, although intended to make the story fit the ideal of the Australian legend, serves to prove Baynton’s point. The story was “savagely edited by the Bulletin’s A. G. Stephens because its murderous swagman was seen as a threat to the national legend of the clean-living bushman. ” (Schaffer 149). By simply changing the title, an attempt at altering the story’s meaning is made. A ‘tramp’ is a British term for a male vagrant.
Although the story is not about this tramp (read: swagman) at all, the publishers take the focus off the woman – who is ‘the chosen vessel’ and the character which the story is actually about – and move it to the man, making him the centre of attention. It also serves to take the Australianity away from the murderer and rapist, for the Australian Legend – The Bushman – surely would never commit such crimes.
This particular edit was intended to protect, “by substitution, the reputation of one of the Australian Legend’s favourite sons, the Swagman. (Lee, slide 14), but the theme of Baynton’s story (that is, Australian society’s repudiation of women at the time) is conveyed nevertheless by the very people who endeavoured to change it – the men of this country. On it’s own, the original unedited story presents a male view of women from the time that isn’t deliberately presented in men’s literature from the same period. Baynton shows that women were viewed as objects – stupid, senseless beings whose only purpose was to serve a man – an object to be ignored until needed.
In the first paragraph, the woman is making an unsuccessful attempt at chasing a cow. This leads her to remember another time when this occurred and her husband was present. The husband was displeased with her inability at the task at hand – … the woman’s husband was angry, and called her – the noun was cur. It was he who forced her to run and meet the advancing cow, brandishing a stick, and uttering threatening words till the enemy turned and ran. (Baynton, 291) Rather than being mad at the cow for disobeying it’s owner, her husband becomes angry with and insults his own wife.
The woman is treated worse than an animal by her own spouse. The difference between woman and animal as viewed by a man is continually reiterated in this story. Baynton begins the story with “She laid the stick and her baby on the grass while she untied the rope that tethered the calf. The length of rope was all that separated them. ” (291). Later she explains that the husband is working away from home: “He was a shearer, and had gone to his shed before daylight that morning.
Fifteen miles as the crow flies separated them. ” (291). Fifteen miles at shortest distance is what separates the woman from her husband, but a length of rope is all that separates her from the cow. The detachment from her husband is greater than that from a farm animal. Here it is shown that a woman is denied a part in the Australian legend though animals are not. The fact that Baynton’s character is nameless also serves to prove this point – “women are not identifiable, as individuals, in the bush. (Marsh, screen 1).
However, a woman’s view is also presented in the story as it wouldn’t be deliberately presented in a man’s story from the time. Instead of being a good and content mother as it was viewed women should be, Baynton’s woman is afraid of motherhood and is also afraid of showing it. Baynton writes, “… she had been a town girl and was afraid of the cow, but she did not want the cow to know it. ” (291) and “… she was not one to provoke skirmishes even with the cow. ” (291).
The cow represents the idea of motherhood, a daunting and intimidating responsibility that was expected of a woman at this time – a responsibility that no good woman should feel the need to boycott. Although Baynton’s woman does feel this need, and she cannot reveal it for society would not accept her. Baynton’s woman also fears her place in said society. As her home is being invaded by the criminal swagman (the representation of an Australian men’s relation to women), she does not utter a word of protest for fear of being attacked: “.. he sound of her voice would wake baby, and she dreaded that as though it were the only danger that threatened her. ” (293). The woman remains silent until finally she flees from the house in an attempt to escape her attacker. It is at this point, when she does scream for help, that she meets her demise at the hands of the man. It seems that The Chosen Vessel is a better presentation of Australian culture than the ideal of the Australian legend presents it in most other works from the time.
Writers such as Henry Lawson barely acknowledge the danger for women and children in the bush. (Marsh, screen 1). Baynton’s story includes the woman as a person and not as an object or simple background character. Baynton does not accept what now appears to be the false representation of the legend, “instead she challenged the nationalist myth of the pure, unsullied bush” (Schaffer, 156) and this is why hers and other women’s works from this time are just as valid to be considered good Australian literature as any idealistic, nationalist man’s.