The Mistress of Windfells – A Novel for Our Time?

Agnes Gwynne’s novel The Mistress of Windfells was published 100 years ago in 1921 when Gwynne was nearly 60 years old. The novel was barely noticed in newspaper reviews of the day. Given that it elicited scant attention when new, is it still worth reading today?

Gwynne’s first book of fiction had been published in 1916 by John Lane in London, but for her second novel she turned to a local Australian publisher, E. W. Cole’s Book Arcade.

The Book Arcade, creation of English-born E. W. Cole, was better known for its bookselling emporium in Melbourne. At one time, the vast bookstore was estimated to have held ‘two million volumes on the shelves’ stacked along ‘half-a-mile of walkways’ (Kirsop), but the Book Arcade also ran a publishing arm. Its first book, published in 1867, was of Cole’s own authorship and the company went on to publish some 150 titles, including about 30 novels. Of those novels, only two were written by women – Esther Hacknay’s slight volume A Question of Taste (1900) and Agnes Gwynne’s The Mistress of Windfells.

What’s It About?

The Mistress of Windfells centres on 24-year-old Joan Fetherston. Joan is ‘tall and fair and comely’, and her ‘hair of ruddy gold’ shines like ‘burnished copper in the bright sunlight’ (1). Physical attributes aside, she is also the sole owner of Windfells, a 13,000 acre sheep property in Victoria’s Western District. The novel, set in the first years of the 20th century, opens during the shearing season. There is disquiet amongst the shearers – a union rep has been active in the district, disrupting the usual salary agreements between workers and property owners.

Over the course of the novel, Joan survives an attempt to burn down her shearing shed, with her inside it; makes regular excursions to a neighbouring property, home to the Davenant family; loses one station manager and gains another; and, not uncoincidentally, rejects one marriage proposal and accepts the second.

Woven through Gwynne’s tale are references to the economic, cultural and social events of the time – the economic fallout from the 1890s depression and the rise of the union movement; the pressure on young women to marry; the popularity of Adam Lindsay Gordon’s poetry; and the Spring Carnival in Melbourne, with its obligatory stay at the Menzies Hotel.

‘All [Mrs Davenant’s] friends were to be met with in town at Cup time – not her Victorian friends only – but those from Sydney and Adelaide as well. She could be sure of seeing a number of them at Menzies’, where Stephen and she always stayed when in Melbourne’ (108).

I want to focus on Gwynne’s handling of the class divide, as evidenced in the friction between pastoralists and shearers.

‘Beastly’ Shearers

There’s an air of disgruntlement around the sheds at Windfells when shearing gets underway. An agreement – drawn up between Windfells’ manager, Tom Rawlins, and the shearers – is subject to dispute following the intervention of the union representative. Becoming aware of the situation, Joan calls the shearers ‘beasts’ which Tom considers ‘an insult to decent beasts’ (5). He wishes the ‘confounded Union “Rep” [had] never set foot on the place’.

Joan thinks the shearers, rouseabouts and shed-hands are ‘all united for one purpose, the robbing of a helpless girl!’ (9-10). Exasperated by their demands, she cries out: ‘I hate them! Oh, how I hate them!’ (10). Life would be much better if the union rep would ‘try and find some honest work to do instead of living on the money [the shearers] earn and travelling about the country making mischief’ (15).

The ‘Confounded’ Union Rep

Who would this ‘union rep’ have been? And why would he be present on a sheep station in Victoria’s Western District?

Gwynne’s fictional mischief-maker reflects the reality of life in Victoria in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1886, the Australasian Shearers’ Union was founded in Creswick in the state’s rural heart. The following year, that union joined with a similar NSW-based union to form the Amalgamated Shearers Union of Australasia (ASUA). By the early 1890s, the ASUA was ‘fighting a battle of survival in strikes that spread across the colonies’ (‘Amalgamated Shearers Union of Australasia: 1887–1894’).

To counter the union’s influence, pastoralists formed the Western Districts Sheepowners’ Association. Relationships between the two groups were not cordial. In 1888, a meeting of the Sheepowners’ Association in Hamilton considered ‘the ill success of the attempt of the Ballarat sheepowners to come to terms with the Shearers’ Union’. In light of that failure, the Hamilton group ‘resolved that the Association ignore the Union, and that all members shear under their own agreement’ (‘Rural Topics and Events’, The Australasian, 28 July 1888).

‘Bitter Class Hatred’

Gwynne uses a clever technique to straddle the views of the working and propertied classes. One of her characters, Wilfred Davenant, is the black sheep of Joan’s neighbouring family. Having received only half of his older brother’s share of the family property, Wilfred has recklessly frittered away his inheritance and fallen into destitution. He works at all manner of menial jobs and, when unemployed, dosses down on the benches in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens ‘with other men equally penniless and out of a job’ (230).

Wilfred’s experiences of both labouring work and abject poverty broaden his understanding of human society. Whereas Joan believes that ‘the promised reward … of joy and wealth, and happiness’ is available to ‘those who strive … in this golden land’ (56), Wilfred views life rather differently.

Speaking of those who live in financially constrained circumstances, Wilfred declares:

I have felt with them in their bitter class hatred of the rich man of the city, against the big land-owner, against the laws that appear to such men only made for the rich and prosperous on earth. I’ve joined their meetings; have stood up and preached the doctrine of the strike. (116)

Where Do Gwynne’s Sympathies Lie?

There is little evidence on the public record of Gwynne’s personal views about the relationship between employer and employee. Certainly, she dwelt in a world of privilege and wealth. She made her home in affluent parts of Victoria, including the Melbourne suburb of Toorak; she received considerable sums of money via inheritances; and she took several extended trips to England. But she also wrote regularly about matters of economic inequality. Whatever her personal sympathies, she was well informed about the issues of her day.

For myself, I’ve decided that reading The Mistress of Windfells 100 years after its publication is worthwhile. Yes, it includes a healthy dose of early 20th century romantic love (with all its assumptions about the place of women in marriage and society), but it shines a light on a period of Australian history when unions had begun to agitate for better wages and conditions for casual workers – an issue that is still pertinent today.

Links and Sources

Sheep at Shearing Shed [ca. 1900-ca. 1925]. Jones, S. J., & Newton & Co. State Library of Victoria

2 thoughts on “The Mistress of Windfells – A Novel for Our Time?

  1. Pingback: Agnes Gwynne – A Forgotten Australian Author | Thoughts from an Idle Hour

  2. Pingback: Classics and Literary Round-up: February 2021 | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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