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

Agnes Gwynne – A Forgotten Australian Author

Do you know the name Agnes Gwynne? Hmmm … not ringing any bells?

How about Miles Franklin, Henry Handel Richardson or Mary Grant Bruce? Ah, yes, a few nods of recognition, especially if you had to study Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career or Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom at school, or if you are a reader of ‘a certain age’ who devoured Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong books in your youth.

Agnes Gwynne, like Miles, ‘Henry’ (a pseudonym for Ethel) and Mary, is an Australian woman writer who published novels in the 1920s. Unlike the other three authors, Agnes’s books are out of print and almost completely forgotten. She receives a scant 100-word entry in the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature and is not mentioned at all in either the Australian Dictionary of Biography or the Australian Women’s Register.

Beginning on Baraba Baraba Land

Agnes Mary Gwynne, the third of four children, was born into a prosperous ‘pioneering’ family at Werai on the Edward River, downstream from Deniliquin, in 1862.

Red River Gums, Edward River Crossing, the Riverina, NSW. Photo by Margaret R Donald.
Reproduced under CC BY-SA 4.0.

In the early 1840s, Agnes’s father, Henry Gwynne, had been one of a quartet of white men who claimed Baraba Baraba land in what became known as the Riverina region. The quartet also included Ben Boyd, speculator, banker and blackbirder. Another was Henry Lewes – later to become Henry’s father-in-law and therefore Agnes’s grandfather – a man who relieved ‘the monotony of his pioneer life … by well fought battles with the blacks, who became more troublesome as the white men increased’ (‘A Tour to the South’).

Henry used an Aboriginal word, ‘werai’, meaning ‘look out’, to name the land on which he farmed.

Daughter of an Entrepreneurial Father

Henry had a taste for the new and the untried. In 1849, prior to his marriage to Agnes’s mother, he had spent some time in California where he ‘underwent all the experiences of the wild life of the early gold-field days’ (‘A Deniliquin Pioneer’). He seems to have been regularly on the lookout for a new adventure.

When Agnes was four years old, the family moved to the outskirts of Geelong, a shift possibly prompted by Henry’s health needs. At Werai, he had established a successful irrigation system to water the household’s fruit and vegetable plots, but ‘the miasma constantly rising about his garden’ created a ‘moist atmosphere’, ‘endangering the health of himself and his family’ (‘A Tour to the Riverine District’).

Henry now turned his attention to a new undertaking – the development of the coastal township of Lorne and, in particular, the construction of the Grand Pacific Hotel.

Grand Pacific Hotel and Jetty, Lorne, c. 1876-94, W.J. Lindt. State Library of Victoria.

Henry Gwynne died when Agnes was in her late twenties; he left an estate valued at more than £14,000 (allowing for inflation, over AUD$2,000,000 in today’s terms). Agnes, her brother Charles, and sisters Grace and Alice received equal shares in the income derived from the estate. (A decade later, Charles and Agnes each also received £1,000 from the estate of their Uncle Francis, Henry’s brother.)

Extract from Henry Gwynne’s will, Public Record Office Victoria, 45/918

A Writing Career Takes Off at Lorne

Although Henry had attempted to sell the Grand Pacific Hotel in 1883, the popular Lorne establishment remained under the family’s control for decades to come. Agnes’s brother Charles took over proprietorship of the hotel after Henry’s death in 1890, and the remaining family members soon moved from Geelong to Lorne. (The hotel was eventually auctioned in 1922 following Charles’s death the previous year.)

During the 1890s, local newspapers list Agnes’s name (sometimes using the diminutive ‘Nessie’) as a singer at Lorne concerts. She sang solo and in a duet with the popular English tenor Charles Saunders at a concert to raise money for the building of All Saints’ Church, and she opened the programme at a fundraiser to aid the construction of walking tracks to the seaside town’s resorts.

Electoral rolls confirm Agnes’s residence in Lorne from 1903 to 1921, and it is during these first two decades of the 20th century that her literary career begins. The coastal strip stretching from Geelong to Portland would feature regularly in Agnes’s writing for decades to come.

Books and Themes

Between 1908 and 1935, Agnes Gwynne published two plays and five novels, the last of which, the historical romance High Dawn, was published posthumously. Her protagonists are generally wealthy, independently minded women.  

Agnes’s first publication, for which she won first prize of £25 in the literature section of the Women’s Work Exhibition for a ‘play of three acts, scene laid in Australia’ (‘Women’s Work Exhibition’) was A Social Experiment. The play pits two men – one a fervent socialist, the other an avowed capitalist pastoralist – against each other; the main female character, Muriel Mannering, sees value in both perspectives. The juxtaposition of political ideologies recurs in two of Agnes’s novels, The Mistress of Windfells (1921) and The Mystery of Lakeside House (1925), and in her second play, The Capitalist.

Another recurring theme in Agnes’s books is the flow-on effect of a man’s bequest to a female relative via the stipulations of a will. In An Emergency Husband, the will decrees that the deceased’s niece, Gwendoline Vaughan, must marry within six months or the whole of a sizeable estate will be re-directed to distant relatives. Other women in Agnes’s fiction are less encumbered by the terms of a will: upon marrying, Muriel Mannering (A Social Experiment) uses a portion of the inheritance left to her by her father to cover the mortgage on her husband’s heavily indebted farm; Joan Fetherston (The Mistress of Windfells) is the sole heir to her father’s 13,000-acre sheep property.

Extract from a review of The Mistress of Windfells, The Herald, 3 November 1921

A Puzzle

Given that Agnes spent most of her life living in, or on the edge of, towns and cities, I am curious about the credible depictions of sheep farming in Victoria’s Western District in several of her books. How did she gain such a detailed knowledge of the annual recruitment of shearers, the art of shearing, and the workings of woolsheds?

A possible answer lies with her wealthy brother-in-law Archibald Johnson, husband of Agnes’s younger sister, Alice. Agnes spent long periods with the Johnsons, even accompanying them on three extended journeys to England and, closer to home, on voyages to Java and Papua. In her later years, she lived a 10-minute walk from their residence, Toorak House (an impressive mansion that had previously housed Victoria’s colonial governors).

How is time spent with Alice and Archibald relevant?

Archibald Johnson owned the extensive and profitable Western District property, Chetwynd.

A property that ran …


I shall write more on Agnes’s sheep-property settings another day.

Agnes Gwynne’s signature as it appears on the application for probate of her mother’s will. (Agnes, along with her sister Grace, was executrix.)

Links and Sources

Agnes Gwynne’s books (note that although Agnes’s books are out of print, some are freely available online ):

Red River Gums, Edward River Crossing, the Riverina, NSW. Photo by Margaret R Donald. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Riverina regional history: Aboriginal Occupation

Quote about Henry Lewes from ‘A Tour to the South’, Australian Town and Country Journal, 1 June 1872, p. 17

Quote about Henry Gwynne’s experience in California from ‘A Deniliquin Pioneer’, Riverina Recorder, 20 August 1890, p. 2

Quote about Henry Gwynne’s irrigation system from ‘A Tour in the Riverine District’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 July 1865, p. 2

Grand Pacific Hotel and Jetty, Lorne, circa 1876-94, W.J. Lindt, collection of the State Library of Victoria

Extract from Henry Gwynne’s will, Public Record Office Victoria, 45/918

Prize for A Social Experiment, ‘Women’s Work Exhibition’, Chronicle (Adelaide), 9 May 1908, p. 38

Examples of musical activities: ‘Lorne’, The Colac Herald, 14 August 1894, p. 3 and ‘Bendigonians at Lorne’, Bendigo Advertiser (Vic. : 1855 – 1918), 15 January 1897, p. 3

Review of The Mistress of WindfellsThe Herald, 3 November 1921, p. 13

Agnes Gwynne’s signature, as it appears on the 1918 application for probate of Margaret Ann Sayers Gwynne’s 1909 will. Public Record Office Victoria, Wills and Probate, 158/144