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 …

sheep.

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

A Name and a Voice for the Drover’s Wife

Cover image courtesy of Penguin Australia

Leah Purcell’s novel The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson takes Henry Lawson’s 1892 short story of the same name and infuses it with female wisdom and understanding.

A story originally set in a parched and lifeless terrain is relocated to the fertile country of the Ngarigo people—the high country of the Snowy Mountains. And the ubiquitous ‘wife’ who features in Lawson’s story is, in Purcell’s reimagining, granted a name and a voice and a properly fleshed-out life.

The novel is framed around themes of motherhood, family violence and Aboriginal dispossession  but, as I read, two further underpinnings caught my attentionthe importance of names and the role of storytelling.

 

Names and Naming

Extract from The Bulletin, 23 July 1892

In Lawson’s story, the main character—the drover’s wife—is never named. Her son (Tommy) is named, her dog (Alligator) is named, but she is not.

Lawson’s protagonist is an adjunct to her husband: ‘The drover—an ex-squatter—is away with sheep. His wife and children are left here alone.’

Purcell begins her story with a prelude set in 1913. A thirty-two-year-old man flicks through the pages of a notebook he has kept since boyhood.

Contained between the pages of the old notebook is the story of a great woman, strong, steadfast, reliable and loving: his ma, Molly Johnson, nee Stewart. Daughter of Jock Stewart, Scotsman and jack-of-all-trades.

Lawson offers his 19th century readers a nameless woman with no backstory; Purcell gives her 21st century ones a stoic but tender Molly whose lineage seems to peg her firmly within a man’s world.

  • The female cast

Purcell incorporates a raft of named female characters in her more expansive story.

In the novel, ‘Black Mary—the “whitest” gin in all the land’ from Lawson’s tale, is given a new and proper name (Waraganj). Then there’s Molly’s daughter Delphi, minister’s wife Miss Shirley, social agitator and journal editor Louisa Clintoff, Ngarigo medicine woman Ginny May, various members of the white-settler Edwards family, (Florence, Bertha, Eleanor, Ulla and little Leaellyn), and brothel owner Elpida Sava.

  • The ‘Guugu Yimithirr adopted Ngarigo’ man

But it is not only women who are accorded the honour of a name in the reimagined story. There is Yadaka—Purcell’s equivalent of Lawson’s unnamed ‘stray blackfellow’. Soon after Yadaka and Molly first meet, Yadaka introduces himself:

The Aboriginal man steps forward and offers his hand, saying: ‘Yadaka. Of the Guugu Yimithirr adopted Ngarigo’ … Molly doesn’t take his hand but says, ‘Missus Joe Johnson’.

It is a long time before Molly discloses her first name to Yadaka.

In a pivotal scene, she finally opens up: ‘“Molly, pet name to Mary” … Yadaka catches his breath, shocked she’s offered this piece of personal information … Her name.’

No longer ‘Missus Joe Johnson’, Molly is in the process of becoming and acknowledging her own self. Revealing her name is part of that journey.

 

Storytelling

There are different kinds of stories, and different purposes for storytelling.

In The Drover’s Wife, Molly tells stories to her children to pass the time as they walk, and to fill their long and isolated nights. Yadaka tells his personal story as well as one that has been entrusted to him—a story that ‘someone needs to know’. Louisa Clintoff channels her experiences in a new land into ‘a great story to write home to her parents’. And, as a grown man, Molly’s son Danny retells the story of a childhood at his mother’s side, understanding it as a ‘story of survival’.

  • Molly

Main Range Walk, Snowy Mountains. Etienne Maujean / CC BY

On Sundays, Purcell’s Molly (like Lawson’s drover’s wife) goes walking with her children. The children, says Molly, ‘love our walks. We make up yarns and see who can spin the best story for the longest time.’ The children have heard Molly’s stories many times over but, as she says, ‘that’s what life stories are for: to be told and retold. To remember. The memories livin’ on long after you’re gone. Family history.’

  • Yadaka

Yadaka shares his life story with Molly and then discovers he’s ‘a little embarrassed to have revealed so much of himself. He hasn’t felt safe, ever, to share that story with anyone, until now.’ When Molly asks why he has chosen to tell her, Yadaka replies:

A life’s story untold is a life not lived.

But it’s not only his own story Yadaka has to share. He’s been entrusted with another story by his adopted Ngarigo mother, Ginny May. It’s a story the Ngarigo woman ‘held very dear but was forbidden to share with others in her clan’. When Molly hears the story, she is shocked. Yadaka offers some calming words: ‘It’s the truth, your truth. I was given it by a great woman. Part of my lore—our lore—is to share the stories so we live long into tomorrow and beyond.’

  • Louisa

Towards the end of The Drover’s Wife, Molly Johnson talks with Louisa Clintoff, an Englishwoman newly arrived in the colony. Louisa has accompanied her husband, Sergeant Nathan Clintoff, to the high country. While he enforces British law, she plans to run a newspaper championing women’s rights.

Molly admonishes Louisa for her first journalistic effort: ‘You write from the outside’, observes Molly. Louisa protests that she has been trying to ‘give women a voice’. Molly replies: ‘I could only hear—you’. Suitably chastened, Louisa asks: ‘Can I hear your story, Molly?’ And Molly obliges, ‘for my children’.

  • Danny

Twenty years on, at the novel’s end, Danny looks back over the years since 1893. He stands beside his mantelpiece where an old framed copy of Louisa’s The Dawn rests on the shelf. The journal’s headline reads: ‘The Drover’s Wife: Molly Johnson’s Story’. Surrounded by his own wife and children, Danny says: ‘It’s the story I lived, it’s the story I have told and will retell. The story of survival I will pass down.’

Snowy Mountains as seen from Kosciuszko Lookout. Cimexus from Canberra, Australia / CC BY

The stories of people and places continue being told. From mouth to mouth, from pen to page, from culture to culture.

And thanks to Leah Purcell, Lawson’s unnamed wife now has a story of her own.

 

Background

Leah Purcell. © Marnya Rothe. Used with permission.

Leah Purcell is a Goa, Gunggari, Wakka Wakka Murri woman.

Her play, The Drover’s Wife, opened at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre in September 2016. It won a swag of awards in 2016 and 2017.

Purcell has also written and directed (and starred in) the film The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson. A Bunya Productions/Oombarra Productions collaboration, the film is scheduled for release in 2020.

In a 2018 interview for Screen Australia, Purcell said that her love of storytelling ‘came from her mother reading her “The Drover’s Wife” often when she was a little girl. “It was my favourite and she’d read and recite it to me day after day.”’ It was when Purcell was working on the 2006 film Jindabyne, that she knew ‘the dramatic sweep of the country around the Monaro and the Snowy Mountains was the right place to tell her version of The Drover’s Wife’.

 

Links and Sources

Image credits

Aboriginal Australia map, section showing location of Ngarigo country. The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia. David Horton (ed.)