The bush was a harsh mistress, and women were the main victims in early Australian bush literature, until the emergence of the Pioneer Legend. One focused on solidarity, and one focused on family and progress. Finally, women found their place in the emerging Australian literary canon, and the development of national identity.
Written in 1906, George Essex Evans’s poem, ‘The Women of the West’ is considered to be an uncommon masculine perspective on the place of women in Australian society at the time. Even today, looking back on the social and political climate during that period, it is clear that literature written by women was uncommon enough, let alone a piece written by a man, with a sympathetic perspective regarding the plight and place of women in that era.
Written in a time of political tenseness, with strong republican movements in play and a dislike for the British Empire, the Australian identity, especially within literature, was one which was quite intensely focused around landscape, mateship, men, harshness, the bush, solitude, loneliness, hard work, sacrifice; as is seen in the numerous bush ballads which had been written at the time, predominately by men. In many of these ballads, such as ‘Some Day’ by Henry Lawson, and ‘The Conquering Bush’ by Edward Dyson, women are presented as incapable of handling the harsh bush environment. Some antifeminist perspectives, particularly those put forth by The Bulletin, even aligned femininity with imperialism, making feminine perspectives interchangeable with pro imperialism as a generalisation, even though statistics may not have reflected such a situation at the time (LCS31 2012, 41). Such perspectives made the feminine positions in society even more difficult to place than was necessary, which made writings such as ‘The Women of The West’ all the more important. Unlike many bush ballads, which represented Australia as an impractical place for women, ‘The Women of the West’ was written in the genre of the pioneer legend, which held stronger focus on the plight of families, reflecting robust, more capable female characters who not only knew how to handle the bush, but also held crucial roles which, in many ways, were equal to their male counterparts. Henry Lawson’s ‘The Drovers Wife’ is a good example of this (LCS31 2012, 34).
At the beginning of the poem, Evans works to establish the scene for the elegant city woman indulging in pleasures, describing the environment with words like rush, roar and fever. He then immediately juxtaposes these with words describing the desolate bush environment, talking about ‘lurching’ coach wheels and ‘creaking’ bullock chains (Lee, 7) alongside ‘sameness’ and ‘never ending’ (8). The tone immediately changes from fast and exciting to slow and tedious. Essex takes effort to note the inclusion of women in the industrial progress of Australia, making reference to railway lines (10), and also makes reference to frontiers, which, at the time, was more of an American expression used for American pioneers (LCS31 2012, 34).
Whilst incorporating the image of women into the Australian bush, Essex is still careful to maintain the gentility and sensitivity of women, making sad references to their grace and beauty being robbed (13), their hearts being inconsolable (15), and their longings and desires becoming secrets of the bush; a metaphor for sacrifice. The somewhat imperialist inclusion of God and religion is also utilised, which was a distinctly British ideal at the time.
The voice of the text changes at the end, incorporating the word ‘we’ as the women themselves speak in unison, making reference to their fathers creed, which appeals to their mutual sacrifice and respect of their traditional role as the wives and mothers of a new generation, being raised in the harsh Australian bush.
LCS31 Australian Literature and History Study Guide 2012, Griffith University, Nathan.
Lee, Christopher, Turning the Century, Writing of the 1890’s (Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1999).