Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

‘The Legacy’ by Kirsten Tranter


2010, 438 p.

Like all good titles,  the title ‘The Legacy’ is a double-barrelled one.  It could refer to the unexpected financial bequest that sets the chain of events in this novel into action, or it could refer to the aftermath of the news of a death.  Both interpretations work.

The novel opens with a prologue voiced by Ingrid, as her step-daughter  Fleur watches Ingrid emerging from a beating in what we assume is domestic violence.  Somehow – illogically – this violence seems incongruous with the New York affluence within which Ingrid is living.  This is the last we hear of Ingrid in her own voice.  From then on, the narrative is taken over by Julia, her friend from Australia, whose relationship with Ingrid oscillates between awe, jealousy, love and anger.

Told in retrospect, Julia’s life was financially straitened and emotionally unsatisfying. She worked at a video store while she was at university, and became friendly with Ralph, who called in at the video store and watched films behind the counter with her. Ralph was wealthy, and Julia was drawn into his wake, invited to lunches at his parents’ quietly opulent Kirribilli House, overlooking the Sydney Harbour. She was not the only young woman attracted to the Kirribilli enclave; so too was Ingrid, brought over from Perth by Ralph’s aunt Maeve when Ingrid’s parents diee.  Ingrid enchanted Ralph and his family, and when Ralph’s father died Ingrid was left a huge legacy- something encouraged by Ralph who was infatuated with Ingrid, despite his bisexual leanings. Ingrid used her legacy to travel to New York, and it was there that she met an older man, Gil Grey and his precocious young daughter Fleur, lauded as a prodigy for her artwork from early childhood.  She married him, despite the misgivings of her friends Ralph and Julia who were unnerved by his controlling nature.  The friends drifted apart.  But when news came of Julia’s death in the Twin Towers (and how telling that I just need to say ‘Twin Towers’ and you know exactly what I mean), the increasingly-ill Ralph dispatched Julia over to New York to find out what happened to her and to fill in the details.

This is a long book – 438 pages- but I didn’t find that it dragged.  The first 2/3 of the book reminded me of an Antipodean Brideshead Revisited or Great Gatsby, with the outsider narrator watching wealthy people living out their greed and insecurity. There is an artificiality and staginess to the lives of these wealthy and ruthless people, and the glamour of the New York art scene does not disguise the curdled ugliness of  these so-called ‘ beautiful people’.    The last 1/3 of the book took on the pace and tone of a mystery, although its ending was too open-ended to be really satisfactory on that score.  The descriptions of both Kirribilli and New York were well-drawn, and the dialogue flowed  so naturally that it was barely noticeable.  There were too many paranormal deadends – a neighbour who read tea-leaves and too many dream sequences- but she captured well the uneasy line between enterprise and exploitation, sexual adventureness and abuse.  The book was an amalgam of a coming-of-age love triangle, shot through with a mystery.  It worked for me.

My rating: 7.5/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup (the Ladies Who Say Oooh)

aww2017-badge I’ve posted this review to the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Wild Island’ by Jennifer Livett


431 p., 2016

From the opening lines of this book, you hear echoes of a book you have read before:

Reader, she did not marry him, or rather, when at last she did, it was not so straightforward as she implies in her memoirs. Jane Eyre is a truthful person and her story is fascinating, but some things she could not bring herself to say. Certain episodes in her past, she admits, ‘form too distressing a recollection ever to be willingly dwelt upon’ .. My name is Harriet Adair, and forty years ago on that ship I was Jane Eyre’s companion (xii)

Thus begin Harriet Adair’s own memoirs, written forty years later.  Readers of Jane Eyre have met her before, as Grace Poole, caring for the mad Bertha Mason at Thornfield.  But in this telling, Bertha did not die in the fire thus freeing Edward Rochester to marry our Jane.  The woman we knew as Grace Poole was really Harriet Adair, and Bertha was instead  Anna – not Antoinette as in Wide Sargasso Sea, a model for this book in extrapolating and subverting Jane Eyre into a new story. There was a way in which Edward would be free to marry Jane, but it involved sailing to Van Diemen’s Land to seek out Captain Booth, now a commandant at Port Arthur Penal Settlement, who was the only man who could confirm an earlier marriage that would invalidate Edward’s marriage to Anna (Bertha). Part way along the journey it is decided that Edward and Jane will return to England, and so off they sail back into the northern hemisphere to become shadowy, background characters who tether this book to its original inspiration but play no further role.

There have been other books that have sprung from a much loved story – Wide Sargasso Sea is one; Pemberley is another- but in this book Jennifer Livett has added another level of difficulty.  The opening pages have two lists of characters: the first a list of historical characters drawn from the real-life inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land in the late 1830s and early 1840s; and the second a list of fictional characters, some of whom have been taken from Jane Eyre, others created to mingle with the real-life Hobartians.  The research for this book is exhaustive- and exhausting.  In her acknowledgments at the rear of the book, the author mentions that this book has been forty years in gestation, and I believe it.

From my own research into Port Phillip at the time that this book was set, I know these historical characters and, for me, there was a little leap of recognition as if I’d seen Tulip Wright (who later turned up in Melbourne) in his brilliant-hued waistcoat, disappearing around a corner.  You probably know them too. We’ve met Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin in several books previously (see here and here),  and Mathinna from Richard Flanagan’s Wanting makes an appearance. John Gould the bird-artist and his wife Eliza are here too, and there’s even Mad Judge Montagu and Charles Swanston, the bank director whose finances propped up the Port Phillip expedition, now immortalized in one of Melbourne’s main streets.

Livett has a beautiful turn of phrase: take for example her description of black swans, heads-down feeding, looking “like black mops floating on the surface” (p. 245).  Her ear for dialogue and her historical felicity are first rate. The details are absolutely accurate but -oh- there are so many of them and I often found myself wondering if a reader less steeped in Tasmanian/Port Phillip politics would find them overwhelming.

One of my favourite quotes about Port Phillip society is the Port Phillip Gazette’s observation that “Melbourne boils over like a bush cauldron with the scum of fierce disputes”. It’s a characterization of colonial life which holds true for many of nineteenth century port towns across the British Empire including Hobart. In this book we are taken to the factional conflict  between Sir John Franklin and his colonial secretary John Montagu, an adherent of the Arthurite faction who had prospered under the long governorship of Franklin’s predecessor Lieutenant Governor George Arthur. We are taken to the politics of the transportation policy and its change over time, with the cessation of the assignment system.  At times the narrative becomes a vehicle for explaining the politics, and at this point, it threatened to collapse under the weight of so much didacticism and so many peripheral characters.

And yet, even for a reader familiar with this period of Tasmanian history, reading this book brings this history alive, especially the world of middle-class women who have been swept up into the circuits of empire through the postings of their husbands to official positions throughout the Empire.  Livett captures well the jostling for position, the grabbing at opportunities that opened up in a settler-colonial economy, the importance of patronage and   the censoriousness among women restricted to a round of visiting and levees and balls. She is completely at home with the ‘networks of empire’ conceptualization of colonialism that underpins much recent historiography:

…there are always more connections than we know about, across the widest spaces. So many links between the colony and England, most of them fluid. Water, ink, blood, each carrying its own cargo. Frail ships criss-crossing the seas, their holds packed with innocent-looking objects as dangerous as guns: china tea sets; bolts of flannel; packets of seeds and bank drafts. All bearing the message that there are certain ways in which life must be lived, and ways in which it most assuredly must not.” p 44

At the same time, the author is pulling the strings of the Jane Eyre connection, with the question of whether Rowland Rochester  (Edward Rochester’s brother) had ever lived in Tasmania providing the narrative pull of the story. St John Wallace, Jane Eyre’s rather wet (in my opinion) cousin is here with his wife Louisa, and Anna (the former mad Bertha) moves in and out of the story.

It’s a long book, but Livett has maintained Harriet’s narrative voice throughout the alternating chapters which switch between Harriet’s first person point of view and a third-person omniscient narrative.  It is this high-wire act of playing out a twist on the Jane Eyre story, while maintaining such historical integrity that most impresses me about this book. But then I find myself wondering: is there such a thing as too much historical integrity? I suspect that there is; and I think that the book threatened to be engulfed by it, even for someone familiar with and appreciative of its fidelity.

And so, my praise for Wild Island is not completely unalloyed.  Livett has aimed high, but much though I admire the accuracy and richness of her historical rendering of Van Diemen’s Land, I wonder if it ensnared her in details and explanations that stopped this book from really soaring.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8/10

I’ve posted this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge website. aww2017-badge

‘Bush Studies’ by Barbara Baynton


1999, 140 P

A funny thing happened on the way to reading this book. I’ve been aware of it for some time, and always thought that I’d read it sometime but I never actually did anything about doing so. Then, last December, it turned up as our read for CAE bookgroup, even though no-one had selected it. When the secretary for the group rang to complain, she was told that another book that we had selected would be sent if it returned on time.  We’d have two books to read over Christmas, but that was no problem. When the second box of books arrived she opened it, only to find another book we hadn’t selected (Reading in Bed reviewed here). And so, here I was finally reading Bush Studies, even though I didn’t really mean to.

The version that I read started with an introduction by Elizabeth Webby. I often don’t read the introduction until I’ve finished a book, figuring that I need to read the book first before I want to engage with someone else’s opinion about it.  However, in this case I did read the intro, and I’m glad that I did so, as Webby’s introduction was followed by a memoir of Barbara Baynton written by her grandson in 1965.  In Webby’s introduction she follows Sally Krimmer and Alan Lawson in virtually debunking the whole of the family story that Baynton had put about and that her grandson had swallowed.The effect of this debunking was to put me on my guard as a reader, and alert me to the fact that this was one slippery woman.

Bush Studies is a compilation of short stories, and as I have said many times, I struggle to review a volume of short stories, aware as I am that what I am reading has been consciously curated from a selection of material that was written as stand-alone stories.  The first story, A Dreamer, was about a daughter returning home to her mother in a storm.  It was all very dramatic and Wuthering-Heights-y, and rather predictable.

The second story, Squeaker’s Mate is probably her best known story and one of the strongest in the collection.  The woman, unnamed until the end of the story, has been the mainstay of a timber-cutting partnership, hardworking and stoic and quite frankly taken advantage of by her feckless partner, Squeaker. When she is injured, it doesn’t take him long to find a substitute. There’s no freedom in this bush: it’s grey and harsh, just like Squeaker’s Mate’s prospects.

In Scrammy ‘And  an old shepherd is left to mind the selection. He talks to the dog to quell his fear that Scrammy ‘Hand- a bushman thief- would rob him. I found myself reading this book as a historian, mindful of John Hirst’s work on ex-convicts and their place amongst small selector society.  She’s writing from experience here, and it’s historically pitch-perfect.

The story I admired most was Billy Skywonkie, where a Chinese girl travels out to a selector. Racism is an unsettling undercurrent that runs through the story, and there’s no heroic bushman here. The story thrums with menace.

I have no idea how to read Bush Church at all. Is it a comic piece?

The final story The Chosen Vessel reminded me, as it does most readers, of Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife in the isolation and stoic vulnerability that being left behind in the bush engenders.  It’s not a snake she’s frightened by, but a man – not unlike the old convict in Scrammy Hand, but she has more to fear that mere robbery. I’m not sure about the Virgin Mary twist at the end though, and the story was chilling enough without it.

No wonder Barbara Baynton has been placed in the constellation of late nineteenth-century ‘bush’ writers but it’s a different bush that she’s writing about in her stories. There’s no ‘legend’ here. There’s isolation, racism and menace in this bush, and it brutalizes men who brutalize women in turn.

Sue at Whispering Gums has written several separate posts on Bush Studies, where she writes far more thoughtfully than I have done, as I’m writing some two months after I read the book. Both Squeaker’s Mate and Billy Skywonkie have stayed with me, which speaks to their strength I think, because short stories tend to wash over me a bit. and I must say that I’m glad that I’ve finally read Bush Studies (even though I didn’t mean to!)

Source: CAE bookgroup


I’ve posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.


‘Births Deaths Marriages: True Tales’ by Georgia Blain


2008, 224 p.

When an writer dies, I often make a point of reading one of their books. It’s an act of tribute, I suppose, even though the reality is that all books live on beyond their authors eventually.  Although the book has to stand on its own merits, the recent death of the author probably does affect the way I read it. With an older author I read the book as the affirmation of a career, and with a younger writer it’s with a sense of lost opportunities and books not written.

This is particularly the case when the book is a beautifully crafted memoir, as Georgia Blain’s Births Deaths Marriages most surely is. As the daughter of the writer Anne Deveson, Georgia Blain died recently with a brain tumour at the age of 51, one day before her mother also died after many years living with dementia. In this series of autobiographical essays, we have met the whole family- mother, father, husband and daughter, and the overwhelming feeling that I am left with is: “I think I would have liked you”.

The book starts and finishes with a chapter titled “A Room of One’s Own”. In the opening chapter, Blain returns to her childhood home, now up for auction, and remembers her mother typewriting in the 1970s as her children waited resentfully in the doorway, for the tip-tap of the typewriter to finish. In the essay that closes the book “A Room of One’s Own II”, she is now the writer, jostling with her husband Andrew for space in the shed at the back of their ugly house to use as a workroom.   The essays between these two bookends are arranged roughly chronologically, as she writes about her years in an ‘opportunity’ class for gifted students, travelling with her mother and brothers to Adelaide after her parents separate, losing her virginity, establishing a relationship with film-maker Andrew after other unsuccessful relationships, marriage counselling, having a child, buying a dog.  Her description of her ambivalence about motherhood is one of the most honest and raw accounts that I have read. Her descriptions of place are almost cinematographic: you can feel the hot prickle of the Adelaide summer; smell the salty tang of Sydney beaches and the dust of Terowrie, a disintegrating outback town, seems to coat your skin.  As with Helen Garner’s work in sketching both people and place, I liked the sharpness of her vision, as if she is looking through a window that is cleaner than the one I’m behind.

The book itself is not new: it was published nine years ago in 2008. Even though as the title suggests, the book is about relationships, it is also very much about the act of writing itself.  In an interview with Sophie Cunningham in Meanjin in 2008, she explains that the book started as a Ph D and that several chapters had been published in a range of literary journals, each with different editors. At the time of writing it, she had already published four novels and she reflects on her decision to write from her own life:

There is a private space and a public space, and within each there are many layers. I wanted to hold the private up to the light, to look at it and put it out there on the table for public viewing, but I need to think carefully about how I wanted to do this. (p. 128)… I believed and still do, that if I wrote about my own life and lives of those I love, I had to tell the truth. But foolishly, I believed the truth lay only in the immediate. (p 130)

It’s an odd mixture of the very ordinary  set alongside the particular circumstance of being the child of two journalists who had their own public personas, and as the sister of a brother whose schizophrenia was explored publicly in her mother’s own book Tell Me I’m Here. Most particularly, the essays are a conversation on paper with her parents as professionals.  She listens, with embarrassment, to an old tape of an interview her father conducted with Germaine Greer and realizes how ineffectual he was as journalist.  She describes her ambivalence over her mother’s writing about her brother, Jonathan, thereby making his story public property, in much the way that she has herself done in this book.

Indeed, much of the book is a dialogue with her mother as writer. After years of writing non-fiction, Anne Deveson tried to write a novel but was frustrated because it kept turning into autobiography or reportage. Blain, already a published novelist, decided to switch in the other direction:

We had switched places, my mother and I. And we looked at each other. Both mothers. Both writers. Both trying on each others shoes, taking a few steps back, eyes on our feet, before we glanced across, once again, curious as to how this had happened. (p 158)

Even though the chapters are self-contained, there is a real unity to the book, best captured by the circularity of the opening and closing chapters. She writes about the narrative problem of ‘finding’ the ending in a memoir, when life that still offered more. She found that she had reached the end of the book, almost without realizing it:

There was no need to search for it. It is right here where it had all looped back on itself, complete in this moment. Here is the place to stop, to pause before the next swoop of the arc continues following the path of all that has gone before, the same shape but a different line. (p. 163)

And a different line it certainly was to be, nine years later, even though she did not know that at the time.  Last year Georgia Blain began contributing a column to the Saturday Paper, talking about the brain tumour and the world of illness that she had been plunged into. The columns stopped late in the year.  Her friend, Charlotte Wood, wrote a beautiful tribute in the last edition for 2016. Yet in many ways and unconsciously at the time, Blain herself leaves us with her own words of comfort:

Because this is the place where I am, like my mother, writing about us. And I have so much more than I ever hoped for; I have love, work that I want to do, and a couple of rooms to move between each day.

My rating: 9/10

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library as an e-book.


I have linked this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017


‘Hunt Them, Hang Them’ by Kate Auty and Lynette Russell


2016, 78 p.

This slim book of  78 pages stands in its own right as the account of a historical incident – that of the execution of Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener in Melbourne on 20 January 1842- but it is also (and perhaps more importantly) a contribution to the present-day debate over marking and commemorating the frontier wars in Port Phillip.

First- some background. In 2016 the City of Melbourne launched a public memorial to Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener on the corner of Franklin and Victoria Streets in Melbourne, close to where the two men were executed on 20 January 1842.  This was the culmination of a long campaign by activist Joe Toscano, who had been marking the anniversary of the execution of these two ‘freedom fighters’ over many years.  In laying the ground work for this memorial, the City of Melbourne commissioned a booklet by Claire Land available at  .


[Image attribution: By Canley (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons]

In response to this proposal for a memorial, historian Marie Fels, former Aboriginal Affairs Victoria heritage operations manager David Clark and Mornington Peninsula local historian Rene White published an article in Quadrant magazine titled ‘Mistaken Identity, Not Aboriginal Heroes’ available at   .  In speaking out against the proposal to commemorate Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener, they wrote:

Our problem with it is that it is history-lite, based mainly on secondary sources, with little primary research. It reads as an argument that Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner were resistance fighters deserving of memorialisation. Our research, based only on primary sources, demonstrates conclusively that they were not resistance fighters: on their own personal testimony, they shot and killed two whalers by mistake.

I have reviewed Marie Fels’ work previously (here and here) and I have seen her described as one among a number of  ‘benignist’ historians who, while not denying settler violence and injustice towards indigenous people, also point to co-operative strategies between settlers and indigenous people in early frontier history.  The journal in which their article appears, Quadrant,  is a right-wing publication which strongly supported Keith Windschuttle when he accused historians of ‘fabricating’ aboriginal history.  An interview with Fels, Clark and White reported in a Frankston local newspaper notes that when they had difficulty in having their criticisms of the Melbourne City Council memorial publicized (most particularly in the Age)  they turned to Quadrant which, perhaps not surprisingly, took up their article with alacrity.

This, then, is the context in which Hunt Them, Hang Them has been published.  The authors, Kate Auty and Lynette Russell, note Fels’ public opposition to the City of Melbourne commemoration, on the basis that Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener were convicted on the basis of ‘their own personal testimony‘.  In making their own argument they claim:

The events outlined here are just one part of an unfolding tragedy- race relations and the judicial process in Australia.  The ultimate question is whether these men received a fair trial and whether they should be memorialised.  We answer ‘no’ and ‘yes’. (p.7)

In making this argument, they delve deeply into the details of the arrest and trial of the Tasmanian prisoners. In particular, they raise questions about the manner of the arrest of ‘The Tasmanians’, an event I described in my ‘This Week in Port Phillip’ entry for 25-30 November 1841.  They ask why the Assistant Aboriginal Protector William Thomas, who was present at the arrest, was not called at the trial, and raise questions about the ‘admissions’ of guilt.  They question whether Judge Willis was biassed, most particularly  in his decision to force the trial in the absence of an important witness and against the application of the prosecutor, and they ask whether there was a conflict on interest on behalf of their legal counsel, Redmond Barry.

Their argument is framed very much within a consciousness of the intertwining of Port Phillip and Van Diemen’s Land history, an awareness strongly reinforced by Lynette Russell’s earlier work on sealers and whalers along both sides of the Bass Strait (see my review of Roving Mariners). They note that Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener were part of a ‘family’ (loosely defined) of indigenous Tasmanians brought over by Aboriginal Protector George Augustus Robinson, who had made his reputation as a ‘conciliator’ in Tasmania.

The opening chapter begins with a description of the historical actors most pertinent to the trial: George Augustus Robinson, who they (along with many others) portray  as a vain social climber; the vainglorious and unpredictable Judge John Walpole Willis (a view I also share) and mineowner William Watson, the shadowy ‘charlatan and liar , the only witness called during the trial.

Chapter Two ‘Context, conflict, cases, confessions’ describes the frontier resistance with the ‘settlement’ of Port Phillip, fraudulently presented by John Batman (another Tasmanian) as a consensual, treaty-driven process.  In particular, they look to Major Lettsom’s ‘dispersal’ of  ‘Goulburn black’ men, women and children, a little over a mile from Melbourne in late 1840. This action, involving 58 armed troopers, culminated in the death of two indigenous men and the wounding of another, and the detention of 300 people in the Melbourne stockade. A dozen indigenous men were charged and nine were sentenced to ten years transportation. This occurred prior to Judge Willis’ arrival in Melbourne, and he  overturned all the verdicts on a technical miscarriage of justice. However, Willis’ findings in other cases highlight the unpredictability of Willis’ stance in indigenous cases.  The authors correctly identify Willis’ direction that his neighbour Bolden be acquitted as an important factor, occurring almost simultaneously with the Tasmanians’ trial.

Chapter Three ‘Hunting stories’ triangulates the accounts of three of the men involved in the pursuit of the Tasmanians in different capacities: the journals of  William Thomas and George Augustus Robinson as Aboriginal Protectors (albeit with professional differences in approach), and  military ensign Mayor Rawson who wrote an undated account ‘ Journal of an expedition after some Van Diemen’s Land Blacks who were committing depredations at Western Port on the Southern Coast of New Holland October and November 1841.’ As well as highlighting the bumbling farce that the pursuit became,  they remind us  that this occurred during the visit of Governor Gipps- an important event for Port Phillip pride and identity.

Chapter Four  ‘The Dispersal- a thrice-told  tale’ again takes the approach of triangulating three accounts: those of Frederick Powlett, the Commissioner of Lands and J.P. responsible for the Border Police contingent, Ensign Rawson as one of the military troops involved in the pursuit, and the Assistant Protector William Thomas.  The discrepancies between their accounts are most pertinent in the varying accounts they gave of ‘Truganini and the grave’ in Chapter Five where, along with the evidence of Corporal Johnson of the Border Police, there are different opinions over whether or not Truganini took her captors to the grave of the murdered men and ‘admitted’ the murders and the varying involvement of the indigenous men and women who were now being charged.

Chapter Six traces through the committal before a bench of magistrates, which was attended by Judge Willis, a permissable but unconventional practice that he undertook, claiming oversight of all justice in the Port Phillip District as its only resident Supreme Court Judge.  Moving on to the Supreme Court trial in Chapters Six and Seven, Auty and Silver stress the significance of the absence of three important witnesses who were present for the committal but not the Supreme Court trial.  In particular, they ask why and by whom Assistant Protector Thomas was prevented from attending – a point now revealed by the recent and very valuable (but prohibitively expensive)  publication of Thomas’ journals by Marguerite Stephens. They highlight the inappropriate interaction between George Augustus Robinson and Judge Willis, and Willis’ indulgence of sloppy testimony from Commission of Lands Powlett, (especially in the light of the lambasting he had recently given Aboriginal Protector Charles Sievewright in the Bolden case).  The authors suggest that Willis may have been smarting under the criticism of George Arden from the Port Phillip Gazette, but as I have shown through several This Week in Port Phillip postings, Willis well and truly had Arden’s measure.  I don’t dispute that Willis was very aware that this was a ‘hot-button’ case, but he didn’t need Arden to tell him that.  They finish their book with a brief description of the hanging.

Have they convinced me about the shortcomings of the trial?  Yes- most particularly in regard to Assistant Protector Thomas’ absence, who would have provided a completely different angle. In other cases where Willis had an interest in seeing a particular outcome- in the case he heard against Bolden, for example- he would have picked and picked until it all unravelled. But Auty and Russell, along with Claire Land in the Melbourne City Council publication, sidestep the issue that Fels has emphasized: that two whalers were murdered.  The Tasmanians admitted this, and said that it was a case of mistaken identity because they intended retribution against William Watson instead.I think that the jury understood this, whatever the shortcomings of the trial. I have always been struck by Willis’ rejection of the jury’s recommendation to mercy when he called for the death penalty, to which Gipps agreed.

Auty and Russell’s argument for memorialization is based on the insufficiencies and failures of the trial:

This case is tainted.  It unfolded at a time when ‘near enough was good enough’ for Aboriginal people in legal settings.  We no longer should accept that reasoning. If there is a memorial to Redmond Barry, a street and a river named for Powlett, an inlet named for Anderson, a creek named for Watson and a town named for Rawson, then Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener should have their own travails recognized. (p.73)

While they have convinced me about the shortcomings of the trial, I’m not convinced that they should be memorialized for this alone. I should imagine that this justification would rankle with Fels, Clarke and White too, who suggest that Winberri, who was shot in Major Lettsom’s raid is a far more fitting “Melbourne hero” to merit a memorial. For myself, I have never been comfortable with the ‘freedom fighter’ frame that has been placed on this episode- a point well made in the Fels article.


Whatever my reservations about the design of this memorial (and yes, I do have reservations), I absolutely love the image of the Wurundjeri elder, Barak, that has been shaped out of the white building behind.

[Image attribution: By Leighblackall (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons]


I am posting this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge page.  In a way, it’s a 3-for-1 review, because all three texts that I have mentioned in this review are written by women, which is in itself interesting. I strongly suggest that you dip into all three. Hunt Them, Hang Them is available for $28.95 through Justice Press, while Fels’ Quadrant article is available here,  and Claire Land’s City of Melbourne booklet is here.  Auty and Russell’s book and Fels’ article both draw heavily on primary sources, and there is much commonality between them until the political implications are drawn out. Even if you just read the two online sources, you’ll see historians at work, raising good questions about the rationale and impetus for memorializing in the present-day.






‘Australian Women War Reporters: Boer War to Vietnam’ by Jeannine Baker


2015, 272 p.

Each night I sit down to watch the ABC news and just accept as a matter of course the presence of Lisa Millar in London, or Anne Barker in the Middle East telling me what new tragedy has occurred or which new crisis is emerging. Yet, when I think of reporters from far-off places in the past (and particularly in war zones) my mental picture is of a male reporter: Charles Bean in WWI,  or Neil Davis in Vietnam, Greg Shackleton in East Timor or more recently, Eric Campbell.  When did it become commonplace for a woman to be a foreign correspondent, even and especially in a conflict zone?   I’m also conscious  of the recent death of Claire Hollingworth, the famed (and very old) British WWI war correspondent.  I wasn’t aware, until I read this book, of any Australian women war correspondents that I could name from the top of my head.

In this book, Jeannine Baker argues that there have been female journalists in all the conflicts in which Australia has participated since Federation.  Their numbers are, admittedly,very small but not insignificant: she estimates that between 1900 and 1975 more than thirty Australian women reporters wrote for a range of London-based and Australian-based publications. They have been largely overlooked and do not have the prominence of male Australian journalists, and their role is seen as minor compared with their American and British female counterparts.  However, this, she suggests, is not so much a reflection of their ability but because the experiences and writings of women journalists were largely shaped by their national identity as Australians first and foremost, with the Australian armed forces particularly resistant to female war reporters, right up to the Vietnam War.  Partly this was a result of the “shut it down” reaction to publicity still exhibited by the ADF to this day, but it also sprang from a belief that the war front was no place for a woman; that they would have inconvenient toileting requirements; that they would distract the men and provoke them into a misplaced chivalry at times of crisis. Other countries changed their thinking about women reporters long before Australia did.

The book is structured chronologically, bookended by an introduction and afterword.  While she does namecheck probably most of the thirty female war correspondents across the length of the text, she focuses on several women journalists in particular. As the title suggests, she starts with the Boer War, the first war to which Australian colonies sent troops. The book title concludes with the Vietnam War, but Baker’s analysis stretches beyond declared wars to encompass female journalists sent to conflict zones ostensibly under the watch of Australian troops as peacekeepers and ‘trainers’.

Several of these women journalists ended up reporting on wars -albeit from behind the frontline- under their own initiative. Agnes Macready was the first nurse to travel from Australia to South Africa, where for two years she worked as a nurse during the Boer War and, as a sideline, contributed articles to the Catholic press under the pen-name ‘Arrah Luen’. A convert to Catholicism, she found herself an outsider as an outsider in her religion, as an Australian and as a woman. She opposed Britain’s imperialist expansion and was sympathetic to the Boers from the start. A second ‘lady war correspondent’during the Boer War was Edith Dickenson, who wrote for the Adelaide Advertiser and the Chronicle, who travelled widely and alone throughout South Africa.  At first she was strongly pro-British but over time became more critical of the war and more sympathetic to the Boers. She was the only Australian journalist to give a first-hand account of the concentration camps into which the Boers were corralled, and this work was taken up by the British activist Emily Hobhouse.  During WWII Lorraine Stumm, already a journalist in London, followed her Australian-born husband when he was sent to Singapore, where under American accreditation, she reported on New Guinea.

Other Australian women journalists were able to gain access to conflict zones because they were already employed with overseas newspapers, a reflection of the greater mobility for a particular class of young, unmarried and independent Australian women. Just before World War I Louise Mack (who, as it happens, Sue at Whispering Gums has been reading in a different context) was working in London and persuaded her London newspaper editor to send her to Belgium, where she travelled as a free agent. Likewise, Katharine Susannah Pritchard, who had based herself in London prior to the war, was unable to convince her editor to send her to Serbia, so instead travelled to France to cover the Australian Voluntary Hospital there. During World War II Elizabeth Riddell from Sydney, worked at the Daily Mirror and was asked to open a New York branch. In that capacity, she travelled to Britain, where she wrote about the ‘war weariness’ of the Brits, an observation at odds with the ‘brave Londoners’ stance being promulgated by other local newspapers.

Other women happened to be in London when war broke out and offered to send their reports back to Australian newspapers. Margaret Gilruth, who wrote for a range of papers including the Courier Mail and the Mercury Herald, travelled to Europe before the Nazis invaded the Low Countries.  She held a pilot’s licence, and had good contacts with Charles Kingsford Smith and  Australian aviator Nancy Bird.  She attended and reported on Nazi rallies.   Sydney-born Ann Matheson from ACP travelled to Prague in 1938 and was in London during the Blitz, which she reported for the Australian Women’s Weekly.

But in general, the Australian armed forces were very reluctant to allow women anywhere near the frontline: more resistant even than the British and certainly more resistant than the Americans.  The Australian army did not permit women journalists to be accredited, issuing them only temporary passes on application.  Male journalists were not welcome on the front either, for that matter, but there was a strong view that the only role for a woman in war was that of a supporter or aide, through nursing or the female auxiliary service.  It was the relatively relaxed American attitude that eventually nudged Australia into allowing female journalists in war zones during the Vietnam War.

Women journalists in the Australian newspaper industry had had a very circumscribed role prior to WWII. Although women were granted equal pay in 1917, they were usually restricted to the lower grade payscales, with few opportunities for progress, and newspaper proprietors were keen to dismantle that equality.  I had not realized the significance of the advent of women’s magazines, most particularly the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1933. Although I don’t particularly think of the writers for the Womens Weekly today as journalists, during WWII its editors looked for ‘a woman’s view’ on the war.  Through this, and the enlistment of many male journalists with the outbreak of WWII, opportunities opened up for women to move beyond the ‘women’s pages’ to write about crime, courts, sports and stock exchange.  Male journalists did not take this quietly: there were criticisms of the quality of their writing and accusations of flippancy and it was made quite clear that men expected to resume their positions at the end of the war.

During WWII Tilly Shelton Smith from the Australian Women’s Weekly was the first woman journalist to travel from Australia to report from an overseas military theatre with the sanction of the Australian government and armed forces. However, it was a posting that almost destroy Shelton Smith’s career when the Women’s Weekly misjudged its audience and the military botched the organization of her tour. She wore civilian clothes, thus marking out femininity and difference from the troops, and she was charged with reporting “with a woman’s eyes” on the men at the garrison and training base at Malaya,who were awaiting deployment elsewhere. Shelton Smith was central character of her own reports with titles like “How I Met the Sultan of Jahore” or “I go to Curry Tiffin”. She revelled in the exotica of Malaysia and highlighted the physicality of the Australian soldiers. She was not allowed to accompany the troops, so she was restricted to reporting on the domestic conditions in the training camp, and her social contacts were largely amongst the officers. When she portrayed the living conditions of the troops like a holiday camp, she incurred the wrath of the troops; when she publicized the ‘taxi dancers’ (Malay women who were paid a small fee to dance with the men) she roused the enmity of the wives and mothers at home.  Many troops remained bitter about Shelton Smith’s reporting for decades after the war, although there was some acknowledgement later that some of the trenchant criticism was unfair.

Shelton Smith’s experience served as a salutary warning for other female war journalists. When Dorothy Jenner, who wrote as ‘Andrea’ in the Sun visited Malaysia in Shelton Smith’s wake, she was careful to avoid repeating such errors and wrote a much more positive approach, still from ‘a woman’s eyes’ but she was treated as ‘one of the boys’. She was captured and interned, and kept a diary during her interment, at great personal risk. Likewise when Ida Drain from the Australian Women’s Weekly visited Hiroshima after the deployment of the British Commonwealth Occupation force in Japan between 1946-52, she had learned from Tilly Shelton Smith’s experience. She devised her own official-looking uniform (even though it had no standing whatsoever) and only gently reproached the government over living arrangements for Australian men. She carefully avoided photos of Australian soldiers with Japanese women. Nonetheless, she too, was criticized.

However, as the authorities found, women journalists writing ‘with a woman’s eye’ had their uses when they wanted to stimulate enlistment in the women’s auxiliary forces.  On the homefront during WWII ‘lines of communication’ correspondents wore official uniforms and were taken as a group on a four-week tour of factories and auxiliary bases to report on women’s wartime contributions throughout Australia, at a time when interstate travel was restricted.

By Vietnam, women reporters were no longer kept on the periphery. Australian journalist Jan Graham from AP and Kate Webb from United Press International spoke Vietnamese and French respectively,although neither had Australian military accreditation, and these skills gave them entry to reporting the Vietnam conflict.  The ABC – with whom I started this review- was slow to embrace female foreign correspondents let alone conflict reporters, but they have gradually become more common. Australian soldiers were no longer warriors but peacekeepers or trainers, working in hot conflict zones across the globe.  At this point Baker moves to interviews with current practising reporters- Monica Attard in Moscow, Iris Makler in Afghanistan, Ruth Pollard, Ginny Stein etc.  Female correspondents are no longer allocated different types of stories: their editors now want stories not through ‘women’s eyes’ but through the eyes of the people who are experiencing the conflict. It’s almost the opposite of ‘drone’type reporting from above.

Baker’s book is based on her PhD and the several academic articles which arose from that work, and it is eminently readable. She has been allowed space to identify historians whose work she has drawn on by name, and her extensive bibliography reveals the breadth of sources she has used.  She has drawn on the newspaper and magazine articles that the women wrote, and interviews recorded with the journalists themselves over several decades, as well as interviews with descendants and current-day practising journalists. For the Shelton Smith chapter, she uses soldiers’ letters from the time and interviews with old soldiers who were in Malaysia when and after Shelton Smith visited.  Several of the journalists wrote their own books about their experiences, but Baker is prudently wary of journalistic ‘war stories’ in a professional sense: it is not only men who are prone to exaggeration or underplaying their professional ambition. In the case of Louise Mack in World War I,  Baker’s caution over the veracity of Mack’s claims is prompted by her analysis of Mack’s writings alongside established facts, and her critique of the highly coloured mythology that Mack wove around herself when she returned to Australia and embarked on lecture tours full of patriotic fervour and boosterist claims.

As Baker points out, the war  reporter often frames him or her self as ‘I’ in telling their story, but only male reporters were able to write ‘we’ by identifying themselves with the troops they were describing, even though this was often fanciful and based on exaggerated proximity.  The journalistic one-upmanship of claiming to be the ‘first’- a professional competition indulged by both male and female reporters- meant that individual women reporters did not have a sense that they were acting in a longer tradition of female reporters.  However, the change in the nature of war reporting by focussing on the human response (both for soldier and victim) meant that the type of  behind-the-lines, participant-based reporting that women had previously been restricted to creating by editors and army personnel who refused to allow their presence at the front, now became the genre of choice and an integral part of how we understand war.

As Baker argues, Australian women war reporters were at a particular disadvantage in their work because of the tight control that the defence forces exerted over their movements – far more than was the case with British and especially American female journalists.  Australia may not have a Claire Hollingworth or a Martha Gellhorn, but through this book Australian women reporters are brought out from the ‘women’s pages’ and the women’s magazines Australian Women’s Weekly and Women’s Day assume a significance not readily apparent at the checkout in the supermarket.  The women who wrote ‘with a woman’s eye’  provided a view of war probably far more congruent with our current conception of war than the military bluster of manoeuvres and patriotism that constituted much war reporting at the time.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

aww2017-badge I have posted a link to this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017 site.

‘Extinctions’ by Josephine Wilson


2016, 280 p.

My library has taken to identifying fiction books by a label on the spine denoting categories like ‘Australian fiction’ or ‘Romance’ or ‘Science Fiction’.  (They’ve also taken to grouping non-fiction by broad themes that leads to the ludicrous situation where a book about the Holocaust ends up in the ‘Travel and Culture’ section- but that’s a complaint for another day.) Misled, perhaps, by the title and the curious egg-shaped image on the front cover, a librarian has labelled  Josephine Wilson’s book Extinctions  as ‘Science Fiction’. Once you’ve read it, you’ll know how inappropriate that classification is.

Professor Fred Lothian is a sixty-nine years old former engineer, and has recently moved into a retirement village following the death of his wife Martha.  Despite his relatively young age (a statement, I suspect, that says more about me than him!), he is thoroughly encased in old-man-curmudgeonliness, hemmed in by the modernist furniture from his large former home that he was unable to relinquish, disdainful of his neighbours and generally not looking after himself.  He is estranged, for varying reasons, from his adult children Caroline, a museum display curator and Callum, once a promising sportsman and architect.  Looking out his window, he sees another resident collapse in the courtyard, and this sparks a conversation with his next-door neighbour Jan.  All he knows of Jan is that she keeps many budgerigars, much to his disgust.  He comes to find that she is much more than this, and she brings him to the point where he is forced to face many of the silences and blockages in his life.

It’s not common to have a book set in a retirement village, with such fully realized older characters.  (I wonder if we’ll see more as the baby boomer generation ages?) The story is set over a one-week period in January 2006 in Perth.  The author, herself resident in Perth, captures the starkly sun-bleached and open nature of the Perth suburbs well, and her ear for dialogue is finely-tuned.  It is suggestive of Fred’s own mental scattiness that the book jumps abruptly in time and perspective, and Wilson succeeds well in withholding and revealing information, making the reader work hard in establishing events.  You don’t have to work too hard, though, and I realized at the end of the book just how cleverly Wilson had constructed the narrative.

There’s multiple themes and metaphors woven throughout the book- teetering almost on too many.  There’s the Stolen Generations, genocide and extinction, adoption, domestic violence and its intergenerational effects, regret and the fissures in family relationships.  This sounds a rather grim menu, but it’s leavened by little touches of humour over our shared human foibles.

The narrative time-frame of the book was tight and specific (15 January – 23 January 2006) but tendrils extended back into Fred’s childhood, his marriage, and his relationship with his children.  This 8 day frame seemed implausibly tight for the ending, although Wilson had drawn Fred’s impulsivity and mental flailing vividly enough that, as a reader, I could suspend my disbelief enough to be satisfied enough by the ending.

Reminiscent of a W. E. Sebald book, Extinctions contains many photographs which relate at a tangent to the narrative, and they’re a powerful and effective addition to the text. I haven’t heard much about this book beyond Lisa’s review of it at ANZLitlovers, which surprises me. It’s a very accomplished book, and its apparent ease belies careful plotting and a nuanced reading of regret and experience.  I hope that it’s there on the Miles Franklin shortlist next year.

My rating: 9/10

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

I have linked to this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.