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Rereading Barbara Baynton's Bush Studies
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The work of Barbara Baynton (1857-1929), a small number of short stories and the novella Human Toll, has prompted a kind of criticism unusual in Australian literary studies: a series of "revaluations" in which noted critics have focused on genre and thereby encouraged attention to a particular story or mode of reading. The difficulty with this approach is that the effect has been to make Baynton's small but canonical oeuvre seem monochromatic; the paradox, that those seeking to affirm Baynton's status as one of Australia's premier colonial writers have diminished it by implying that some stories from her signature collection, Bush Studies, are somehow uneven or atypical. And readings of Baynton as a feminist—which became popular in the 1980s—all too often portray her, implicitly or explicitly, as having produced work that is "ahead of its time" (Krimmer, "New Light" 430). By these means, Baynton is made to seem both culturally anomalous and stylistically problematic. This essay, in contrast, sets out an argument that the value of Baynton's work lies in the coherence of the stories in Bush Studies. The work should be read as a suite, the contrast between the six stories casting new light on each, rather than being simply contradictory or inept. This essay contends that the striking consistency of theme and topos, contrasted with the diversity of style that has so far been the main attraction and puzzle for critics, offers cues for reading the then emerging category of "bush" writing that was said to be distinctively Australian. In so doing, I am taking issue with much of the published criticism on Baynton, a disputation largely confined to footnotes.

Kay Schaffer argues that critical attention to Baynton in the 1960s was associated with the nascent professionalization of Australian literary studies. In this period, as Chris Lee has persuasively shown with reference to the reception of the work of Henry Lawson, the equating of realism (as a literary style) with the work of building a national culture meant a preference for writing which seemed to "record" and authenticate a distinctively Australian bush ethos. On the other hand, it is not clear that criticism of Baynton follows this pattern: A. A. Phillips, writing in the late fifties, set the direction for subsequent readings of Baynton's work with his observations about the predominance of maternal themes (74), the possibility of the stories' resonance with the findings of psychoanalysis (75), and the view that Baynton is "something more than a realist" (76). In fact it was later critics, notably Sally Krimmer and Alan Lawson, who claimed in their introduction to the standard collection of Baynton's writing that the stories "can be seen . . . as a record of Baynton's quest for reality" (xviii). They suggest that it is precisely "the stark reality of Baynton's stories" that makes her uncharacteristic of the 1890s (ix). It is a measure of the degree to which feminist criticism has been shaped by a general antagonism to the national that this apparently atypical quality should appeal to Schaffer, author of Women and the Bush. "Squeaker's Mate," Baynton's most anthologized and most criticized story, is for Schaffer "a superbly ironic critique of the Australian tradition and the impossible position of Woman as she has been constructed within it" (149).

Since this work of the 1970s and 1980s, a small group of leading critics, notably Susan Sheridan, Shirley Walker, and Laurie Hergenhan, have proposed nuanced readings which see Baynton's work in terms of a mixture of Gothic, fantasy, and horror traditions (Sheridan); as mixing realist, melodramatic, and modernist modes (Walker); and as naturalism (Hergenhan). Perhaps the key point here is this from Sheridan: that "Baynton has often been read as a realist writer, but one who offends by drifting out of control into melodrama or sentimentality or who distracts from the Gothic mode by being too satirical" (21). Just as important are Krimmer and Lawson, notably their assertion that "although the six stories are separate, the recurrent themes, imagery and situations help to unify the book. The stories form a composite symbolic narrative to which each contributes a distinctive and memorable part" (xviii). This view...

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