Barbara Baynton

Barbara Jane Baynton (1857-1929), writer, was born on 4 June 1857 at Scone, New South Wales, the youngest daughter of Elizabeth (born Ewart) and John Lawrence, carpenter. Her parents were bounty emigrants from Londonderry, Ireland. Throughout her life she alleged she was the daughter of Captain Robert Kilpatrick and Penelope Ewart and she gave her age as five years younger than she was. Her claim that her father was a landowner may have seemed more advantageous socially than his real occupation of carpenter and, in the bohemian circles in which she moved after 1890, her invented background was more romantically enviable than the truth.

Between 1861 and 1866 the Lawrence family moved to Murrurundi, north of Scone, where Barbara was presumably educated at either the national school or the local private school. In 1880 she was employed as a governess at 'Merrylong Park' in the Quirindi district; here she met Alexander Frater, a selector, whom she married on 24 June 1880. They had three children - Alexander, Robert and Penelope. After her husband deserted the family Barbara and the children moved to Ashfield, Sydney.

On 4 March 1890 she was granted a divorce, and on the following day, stating she was a widow, Barbara married Thomas Baynton, a retired surgeon. Although he was 70 years old, he had a lot to offer a young woman with three dependent children: he gave her financial security. He had a fine collection of antiques and Georgian silver, and her passion for antiques dates from this period. The one son of the marriage died in infancy.

Barbara appears to have spent some happy years with Thomas. She had the time and the means to begin her literary career. Her first story, 'The Tramp', was published in the Bulletin in December 1896; A. G. Stephens, the Bulletin's editor, became a close friend. In 1902 Bush Studies was published, after many unsuccessful attempts to find a publisher; her novel Human Toll followed in 1907. Cobbers, containing the Bush Studies and two new stories, appeared in 1917.

Baynton was one of Australia's most powerful short story writers, and among the earliest, after Marcus Clarke, to achieve literary recognition abroad. She drew most of her inspiration from her early hard existence in the bush. Whereas Henry Lawson writes about a harsh but lovable landscape, Baynton's stark and sometimes shocking stories are strikingly different. They are a record of her quest for a unifying vision of the bush; she uses recurrent imagery and themes - the strong maternal instinct, the loyalty of a dog, the isolation, the unreality of religion, a bitter insistence on men's brutality to women - to lift the stories above the plane of simple realism to something nearer the metaphysical. She penetrates the depths of the primeval emotions of fear, loneliness and pain.

When Thomas Baynton died in 1904 she was left financially secure and her circle of friends included many influential people. She invested successfully in the stock exchange and at one time was chairman of directors of the Law Book Co. She was one of a small group of women highly critical of the society in which she lived, as is seen in her article on 'The Indignity of Domestic Service' and in other writing deploring conditions at Crown St Women's Hospital, Sydney.

Baynton divided her time between Australia and London, while continuing to add to her fine antique collection. In 1921 in London she married Rowland George Alanson-Winn, fifth baron Headley, but the marriage failed. Baynton's last years were spent in Melbourne, although she returned often to London. She died on 28 May 1929 and is remembered today for her brilliant short stories and as a women with a compelling personality and an independent viewpoint.

Sally Krimmer

Barbara Baynton edited by Sally Krimmer and Alan Lawson 1980.