- The Reflected Eye:Reading Race in Barbara Baynton's "Billy Skywonkie"
When Barbara Baynton's volume of short stories, Bush Studies, was published by Duckworth in 1902, critics lauded and deplored the realism of the work, often in the same breath.1 In the majority of contemporary reviews, admiration is tinged with shock and concern. These stories were powerful, surely, but what might they reveal, and to whom? Australian critics were particularly concerned about how Baynton's "sordid" portrayal of life in the outback might be taken as representative of Australian life by readers overseas.2 The stories in Bush Studies are deeply unsettling, not least because they are deliberately ambiguous. This ambiguity is one reason the stories have been subject to the process of continued critical reevaluation and dispute noted by Leigh Dale. "Billy Skywonkie" is a story the ambiguity of which seems to have infected its critical reception. This essay seeks to make explicit what is often left unclear in discussions of the story: it is remarkable for presenting a narrative told in part from the point of view of a woman experiencing racism in its intersection with sexual and economic vulnerability in the early years of the twentieth century.
As Elizabeth Webby points out, "Billy Skywonkie" reveals Baynton to be a "pioneer" not only in terms of her representation of sexual exploitation in the Australian outback in the nineteenth century,3 but also in terms of her examination of the relationship of this exploitation to race. In light of this, there has been a surprising lack of critical attention paid to the story and more generally to the representation of race in Baynton's work.4 This may be because the narrative uncertainty driving "Billy Skywonkie" is about the race of its protagonist: we are never sure whether this is a tale of racial recognition or mis-recognition. It is difficult even to ascertain what is happening in the story because the action hinges on the judgments of characters whose perspectives we are denied, and vital clues are delivered almost entirely via a vernacular so thick as to be deliberately bamboozling. Baynton controls point of view to spring the suggestion of race upon the reader as a hinted-at after-the-fact explanation of people's [End Page 387] behavior toward the protagonist. In the process, she draws us into precisely the same kind of classificatory tangles the protagonist elicits from the character Billy Skywonkie and his fellow inhabitants of this version of Australian bush-as-nightmare. Reading race in "Billy Skywonkie" therefore also reveals something of Baynton's textual strategies in the collection as a whole. These stories limit our access to the perspective of their protagonists. The effect is to unsettle the reader by refusing to normalize or explain the often terrible behavior of the characters. Baynton's stories render the bush strange, and they focus our attention on the position of these characters as witnesses to the violence of their society. "Billy Skywonkie" is, like many of Baynton's stories, about people who challenge the apparent passivity of their position by bearing witness.
"Billy Skywonkie" follows an unnamed woman's journey from Sydney to a station (a large outback property) to take up a position as housekeeper. She is picked up at the train station by Billy Skywonkie, a comic figure who becomes her guide in an increasingly fantastic and frightening environment. Much emphasis is placed on people's scrutiny of the would-be housekeeper and their surprised reactions to her. She is clearly not what they expected, and we are a fair way into the story when we receive intimations that this might be because of assumptions about her race. Tied to this is the realization that "housekeeper" is very clearly, in this instance, code for "mistress." She is rejected by the "boss" and at the close of the story is poised to return home.
Webby suggests that critics may have steered clear of "Billy Skywonkie" "because it has been seen as primarily 'comic' or 'farcical'" (10). The apparent generic incoherence of the story, which teeters between comedy, realism, fantasy, and horror, may account for some of the unwillingness of critics...