‘Shafts into Our Fundamental Animalism’: Barbara Baynton’s Use of Naturalism in ‘Bush Studies’

Of all works by earlier women writers it is Barbara Baynton's collection of stories, Bush Studies, that has been the most successfully rescued from neglect by modern criticism. Discussion has concentrated on their content, their dissent from the male national ethos, on gender rather than genre. This is not the case with revaluations of her only novel, Human Toll. It has been variously reread in contexts beyond local bush realism, especially Lawson's, so as to invoke women's romance, Gothic, melodrama and 'protomodernism' (Walker 148 and Schaffer 15-18). Instead of focussing on 'the contradictory constructions of femininity', like Kay Schaffer in studying the stories, Susan Sheridan has analysed 'the positioning of the reader as the major source of disorientation and dissidence in the novel' (Sheridan 21-22). In this article I shall argue that despite an apparent straightforwardness the stories offer not so much disorientation as a symbolic elusiveness, almost a concealment, possibly to evade censorship. I shall also argue that Baynton's much commented-upon dissidence, criticising either a national ethos (Phillips) or a male-dominated bush society (Schaffer) - on the one hand an anti-nationalist reading, on the other a feminist one - has its truth but both aspects are partial. My aim is to present an alternative reading. This involves a rereading in terms of the particular deployment of naturalism. To date naturalism has been overshadowed by romance' in discussions of the genres to which earlier women's writing is related, possibly because romance and realism were so dominant. Baynton appears to be the only early writer with strong but not so obvious naturalist affiliations. This is another confirmation of her originality, as naturalism is not a genre with which women writers in Europe and elsewhere have been strongly linked - indeed it is often treated as a male preserve (as in Furst). Other exceptions would include outstanding Australian writers H.H. Richardson and Christina Stead. Like Baynton, they were, in their very different ways, not 'pure' naturalists, but they too saw themselves as related to this genre, so that a study of the formidable trio, who have not been linked, from this point of view would be rewarding and might also include the Miles Franklin of My Brilliant Career.

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Published 1 May 1996 in Volume 17 No. 3. Subjects: Characterisation, Gender - Literary portrayal, Narrative techniques, Naturalism.

Cite as: Hergenhan, Laurie. ‘‘Shafts into Our Fundamental Animalism’: Barbara Baynton’s Use of Naturalism in ‘Bush Studies’.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 17, no. 3, 1996. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.90c1a5e89f.