It’s November, 2004. I’m sitting in one of the elegant reading rooms of the British Library, gazing at rows of readers bent to their books at long wooden tables, their hair illuminated by the glow of desk lamps. The ceilings are high above my head, the woodwork panelling of the walls rich and dark. I am tired, my head groggy. I moved to London two months before with a suitcase and a scholarship to study expatriate Australian writers, but I sometimes feel like I can’t wake from a bad dream.
I stare blearily at the book before me, With Fond Regards: Private Lives Through Letters (1995), an edited selection of letters sourced from collections in the National Library of Australia by Elizabeth Riddell, a poet and journalist. It includes missives by Joseph Banks, a botanist on board James Cook’s voyage to Australia; convict woman Margaret Catchpole; Jewish internees detained in Hay internment camp during the second world war; and literary figures such as Vance and Nettie Palmer, Patrick White — and Rosa Praed.
I pause at Rosa’s name. All I know is that she’s a nineteenth-century writer. Ever since I picked up Jane Eyre when I was meant to be studying for my final year exams at high school, I have loved the sumptuous writing of this era. I particularly like how it captures the rich emotional lives of women.
I turn to the relevant page and read Riddell’s introduction to the letter, which describes Rosa as a girl from the bush who moved to London in 1876. My interest pricked, I continue reading. The letter is written to Rosa’s stepmother Nora in Australia at the outbreak of the first world war. Although her account of German spies doesn’t interest me, the fact that Rosa was an expatriate like me does. On my laptop, I check the British Library’s catalogue. Under the listing for ‘Praed, Rosa Caroline’ there are some fifty works published between 1880 and 1931.
I open another tab and search for more information on her life. I find an essay by Patricia Clarke, who has written the most recent biography about her. Rosa was born in 1851 at Bromelton, a property beside the Logan River in Queensland and the family moved between Brisbane and other properties bought and sold by her father Thomas Murray-Prior. She was educated by governesses and her mother until the latter died when she was seventeen. Rosa then ran the house in the Queensland bush and sometimes accompanied her father to Brisbane for his political business. In 1872 she married Campbell Praed, the son of a lord of the manor in England who came to Australia to make his fortune as a squatter. A few weeks after their wedding, they moved to remote Curtis Island off the coast of Rockhampton. Rosa was isolated, besieged by mosquitoes and Campbell was often away on the mainland. By the time the Praeds sailed to London in 1876, Rosa had worked out that she was sexually and intellectually incompatible with her husband.
Through the library’s catalogue I order her first novel, An Australian Heroine. When my online account tells me the book is ready, I collect the original 1880 edition from the issue desk and carry it carefully back to my seat. It seems to be autobiographical, with its heroine Esther leaving an island to live in London. Esther doesn’t much like her new city either:
This was not the London she had pictured to herself. She had expected to see a city of palaces and brightness, with streets filled with gaily dressed ladies in carriages with champing horses … but the low thoroughfares near the river were meaner in appearance than any colonial town. There was an air of squalor and dirt over everything, and the people she saw were rough, ill clad, and shivering.
It looks like Rosa drew on her experiences as a naïve young Australian woman transported to London to write this work. The novel launched a prolific writing career that encompassed close to forty novels, thirty short stories, plays and an autobiography. In the 1880s and 1890s, her success propelled her into artistic and theosophist circles and she counted Helena Blavatsky and Oscar Wilde among her acquaintances. I type some notes, impressed with this girl from the Queensland bush who’d grown into a canny and determined woman, using her writing to support her family and extravagant lifestyle.
After hours of reading, my eyes are tired and my head is becoming woolly. I pack up my laptop and step outside into the grey, bitter day. The sky is overcast and there are no shadows to ground the buildings. After a lifetime of bright Australian sunshine and a shadow reliably attached to my feet, it feels peculiar.
I wave down the 205 bus and sit upstairs, for I enjoy the novelty of the red double-decker buses. I look at people on the pavement below. In Sydney, where I lived for four years before moving to London, I also enjoyed watching people. I sat in cafés with a book and a coffee, noting their shoes and handbags as they walked by. When my brother Oliver moved to England for work, I decided to follow him. London was a big city; I was sure I’d like it just as much as Sydney. I applied to do my doctorate at the London Consortium, a collaboration of cultural institutions which included Birkbeck College, part of the University of London. I was unprepared for the monotonous clouds pressing upon everything, dampening the air and beading on my jumpers, and for the steady drip of acid rain that darkened monuments and statues.
Just before Paddington Station, I press the bell and trundle off. As I walk to my residential college in Talbot Square, I pass people with tight, grim faces. They are buttoned up, closed in and difficult to read. I reach my room in the college, drop my satchel onto the floor and start to cry.
The next day I order a copy of Clarke’s 1999 biography, Rosa! Rosa! from an online bookseller. I also discover some of Rosa’s novels have been digitised. I download her second, Policy and Passion: A Novel of Australian Life (1881). It opens in a country town, a setting I know well from my childhood, and the description of the natural world transports me from my boxy room:
A storm brooded in the distance. The oleanders and loquat-trees before the opposite houses looked brown and thirsty. The acacias in the inn garden drooped with sickly languor; and the spiky crowns of the golden pine-apples beneath them were thickly coated with dust.
I know those plants. Oleanders bordered my grandmother’s garden. We were warned not to eat them because they were poisonous. In the hills surrounding our farm, acacia burst like tiny stars at the end of winter. I continue reading. The novel follows the romance and fortunes of Honoria Longleat, a young Australian girl raised in the bush, and whose father, like Rosa’s, becomes a prominent politician in Brisbane. Out on a picnic, Honoria ‘rode on through tall gum-trees and yellow wattles, with here and there a clump of grass-trees, their bare stems, tufted tops, and spear-like spikes contrasting with the lank eucalypti, and breaking the monotony of foliage’. I’m in the bush with her, crossing clear streams fringed with ferns and listening to the calls of birds.
I grew up on a farm in north west New South Wales. Oliver and I were always outside, our skin darkening in summer and lightening to freckles in winter. We wandered through the dry creek at the end of our driveway and explored its grassy banks. When the summer storms came, we pulled on our gumboots and plugged through muddy paddocks, holding boat races in streams with pieces of bark.
I start, checking my watch. It’s time to go to work. My scholarship only covers my fees, so six weeks after my arrival in London I found a job at one of the libraries of University College London to support myself. I pull on my coat, beanie and gloves and head outside. The winter air bites my cheeks as I set off.
I’ve been walking everywhere in London because I’m trying to make my savings last. As I pass the carefully tended gardens of Regents Park, I think how much I miss unabated sunlight, fresh air, my body’s unbridled movement across clumpy earth. And this was what Rosa surely missed as well, if the reactions of Esther are anything to go by. I wait for the lights to change at Gower Street, then enter the wide, paved courtyard of University College. I peel my coat off as I enter the building and say hello to the security guard, a kind Scottish man who wears long cardigans and gossips with me in the lunch room. I swipe my employee card, rearrange my face into something pleasant to hide my sadness, and go in to work.
A week later, Clarke’s biography is waiting for me at the college reception’s desk. I take it to my room, make a cup of tea and begin to read. Not far in, I find there are a number of synchronicities between Rosa’s life and mine: she was raised in the bush; Praed Street, the main street of Paddington where I step off my bus, was named after Campbell Praed’s ancestor, and Rosa lived for a time in Talbot Square. She also had a daughter, Maud, who was deaf.
When I was four, I lost most of my hearing to bacterial meningitis. As I was speaking by then, my speech was largely unaffected and I learnt to rely on lipreading to communicate. For many deaf people, however, learning to speak is difficult because they cannot hear how words are meant to sound. It’s much easier for deaf people to learn sign language.
It isn’t clear how Maud became deaf. Clarke relates that Rosa had noticed an unpleasant smell coming from her daughter’s ears, but instead of taking Maud to a doctor across the strait to the mainland, she syringed Maud’s ears. Clarke also records an episode of illness when Rosa and Maud were in Toowoomba. I scribble some notes on a scrap of paper, reminding myself to look into it further. If Maud could speak, as Clarke indicates, it’s likely she would have had some hearing.
I sip my tea and grimace. It’s gone cold.
At last the days lengthen and warm. I wait for women to step out in their colourful silk frocks and strappy sandals, as they do in Sydney, but the Londoners continue to wear jeans and t-shirts.
‘There’s no point in buying summer clothes,’ a colleague tells me when I express my dismay. ‘It’s only hot for three months.’
There is one glorious shaft of brightness that summer. An email comes from my agent about the novel I sent to her before I left for London. I belt into work, shouting, ‘I’m going to be published! Penguin is going to publish my book!’
I also move out of my cell-like room in the residential college to a housing commission apartment in Broadway Market, near Hackney. The carpets are a lurid swirl of brown and orange, and the cream wallpaper is textured, but I’m glad to be with familiar people. Both my flatmates are studying at the London Consortium. One is Australian — his canvasses of tumbling horses hang on the walls — and the other is French-Canadian. While I walk to my classes in a white parka that makes me look like a walking sleeping bag, she turns up in a singlet and cardigan.
‘Aren’t you cold?’ I exclaim.
‘No! This is like a Canadian spring,’ she replies in her clipped accent.
When I’m not at work, in class or at the library, I do the edits for my novel, A Curious Intimacy. My protagonist, Ingrid, is a nineteenth-century lesbian botanist travelling through the bush on horseback. She’s not dissimilar to the headstrong heroines of Rosa’s novels. Robert Dixon in Writing the Colonial Adventure reflects how difficult it was for nineteenth-century women writers such as Rosa to imagine themselves into the masculine space of adventure, let alone actually inhabit it. Writing a century after Rosa, it’s far easier for me to put my protagonist on horseback, make her queer, have her ride alone and fend for herself. This doesn’t stop her, however, from making similarly disastrous decisions in love: bad luck in romance pays no heed to time or sexual orientation. At least, without marriage, Ingrid is free.
From my new home near Broadway Market, I continue to walk to the British Library. I follow the pathway alongside Regent’s Canal and emerge at Angel, then continue down Pentonville Road. It’s a busy street so I turn my hearing aid off against the traffic.
Although I have a quarter of an average person’s hearing and can cope well with my hearing aid in a conversation with one other person, deafness makes socialising difficult. When I was younger, I relied heavily upon Oliver to explain to me what I’d missed in conversations and it wasn’t until my twenties that I learned the art of small talk. Even so, communication is always tiring as there’s so much concentration involved. Often, I only hear a few words, but once I fit them together with tone, expression and stance, I can usually work out the subject of a conversation. When I became a scholar, this process of piecing together the clues of a text came naturally to me. I was able to find patterns the way seafarers read stars in constellations.
At the British Library, I plug in my laptop at a desk and switch on the lamp. Amid the sighs, rustle of paper and the click of nails upon keyboards, I continue reading The Bond of Wedlock (1887), Rosa’s eleventh novel. In this, her heroine Ariana is forced by the loss of her father’s wealth to marry Harvey Lomax; she ‘had always, from the day of her betrothal, shrunk from her husband’s rough caresses. Her marriage had seemed a degradation’. Ariana is pursued by a wealthy love interest, Sir Leopold D’Acosta, who works in concert with Ariana’s father to arrange her divorce from Lomax. Ariana then marries D’Acosta, but when she discovers his deception, her love for him evaporates. Their marriage becomes an appearance only.
When I reach the end of the book I realise, the way I do when I piece together a conversation, that there’s a pattern in Rosa’s oeuvre. Her first novel, An Australian Heroine, also describes a heroine trapped in a marriage with a brutish, physically repugnant husband. Of the relationship between the young Esther and her husband, Rosa wrote:
To a thick-skinned and more animal-natured wife he would, as a husband, have been everything that was desirable, but between him and Esther there always seemed a barrier of unrealisable expectations, and of mutual incomprehension. Neither knew quite how to approach the other. Transcendentalism was a phrase of which he did not know the meaning.
It is impossible not to see Rosa’s experiences reflected in this work, particularly as she and Campbell led increasingly separate lives and their marriage, too, became a mere formality. Despite her and Campbell’s unhappiness, however, Rosa would not contemplate divorce for social and economic reasons. Instead, she found succour in the philosophy to which her heroine Esther subscribed.
Rosa’s interest in religion and the otherworldly, which had been nascent since she was young, attached itself to spiritualism, and to theosophy in particular, when she lived in London. Spiritualism posited a belief in the continuation of life after death and maintained that people could facilitate contact with this life through methods such as voice contact, possession and automatic writing. Theosophists asserted that what happens in an individual’s present life was determined by actions in their previous lives. The Theosophical Society was founded in New York in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steele Olcott. Three years later, they moved their headquarters to India, settling on an estate outside Madras. In 1880, they stayed at the summer house of Alfred Percy Sinnett, an English journalist living in Simla, where he edited The Pioneer, an English daily.
In 1884 Sinnett returned to England and became president of the London Lodge of the Theosophical Society. Rosa came to know him through her theosophist circles, and invited him to contribute an essay to For Their Sakes (1884), a volume she edited to raise money for Maud’s school.
Three years later, doctor and writer Arthur Conan Doyle sat at a table-rapping session in the dining room of Kingston Lodge, Portsmouth, the home of Lieutenant General Thomas Harward. Doyle had arrived in Portsmouth in 1882 and established a medical practice there. Harward had been a gunnery officer in the 1857 Siege of Lucknow, India. The two men became friends, and Doyle acted in plays with Harward’s daughter Nancy. During this session, a message was tapped out by Henry Hastie, Nancy’s cousin who had died three years earlier. According to Doyle, the temperature in the room plummeted and Nancy became ‘icy cold’.
Nancy had other capacities as a medium: under hypnosis, she could leave her earthbound body and inhabit the body of a German princess captured and made a slave for Julia, the daughter of Titus, emperor of Rome from 79 to 81 A.D. Doyle relayed this information to Sinnett, with whom he had discussed theosophy. Sinnett, in turn, mentioned Nancy’s abilities to Rosa. He added that Nancy wanted to move to London to further her writing career, for which she had received encouragement from Doyle. Rosa invited Nancy to London for a meeting. The attraction between the two women was immediate, and a few weeks later, Nancy moved in with Rosa.
I close the books before me. If this material hadn’t been documented by other scholars, I would never have believed it was true. I feel my stomach start an unholy rumbling. Even if I can’t hear it, I’m sure the people on either side of me can. I pack up my laptop and head outside to forage for lunch.
In Brisbane, with its bold blue skies, dark green vegetation, office buildings white with reflected sunlight, it’s as though someone has bumped up the colour. The heat is like an animal, pressing against my skin until sweat spools down my back. By contrast, the air conditioning in the State Library of Queensland is glacial.
I’m back to visit my family and look at Rosa’s archives. I’ve no experience in working with archival material but I know it’s important to go back to the source rather than rely on others’ perspectives, particularly as I need to create a piece of original research to qualify for my doctorate. In the John Oxley Library on the fourth floor, I collect a box I ordered the night before and pull on a pair of white cotton gloves. These archives were donated by family members at the suggestion of Colin Roderick, who wrote the first biography of Rosa, In Mortal Bondage (1948). There’s a vast amount of material – some 25 boxes – and I’m grateful for the finding aid detailing its contents.
This box, the first, contains proofs and manuscripts relating to Rosa’s novels Nyria (1904) and Soul of Nyria (1931). Among the first sheaves of paper lies a typed account of Rosa’s first meeting with Nancy Harward. It opens, ‘This is how I made the acquaintance of Nyria, slave attendant upon Julia the daughter of Titus, emperor of Rome, 79–81 AD’. Rosa was thrilled to find that Nancy was a living example of reincarnation. They began a collaboration in which, when Nancy spoke as Nyria, Rosa took down her account and wove it into a novel which was published as Nyria.
I make some notes from the transcripts on my laptop and order a copy of Nyria. It arrives smelling like the old clothes in my grandmother’s dress-up box. The story opens on a street at the foot of the Palatine Hill as Valeria, a noblewoman, is carried along in a litter. One of Valeria’s slaves clears the way with his stave. He hits a young girl, Nyria, and knocks her over. When Valeria chastises the slave, Nyria is instantly besotted: ‘At the sound of Valeria’s voice she had reddened and then gone pale’ while her eyes, ‘large, soft, appealing, and suffused with tears gave [Valeria] an adoring look’. Such is Nyria’s devotion that, when Nyria’s owner dies, Nyria begs to be bought by Valeria. She becomes a Christian, then an unlawful sect in Rome, and also acts as an intermediary between Valeria and her lover Lucianus. When their relationship fails, Valeria, in her distress, unwittingly reveals where Nyria and the Christians worship. Nyria is captured and fed to the lions, becoming a martyr for refusing to give up her faith.
There are moments of unmistakeable homoerotic tenderness within the text, beginning with the initial, highly-charged meeting between Valeria and Nyria. Valeria is as affected as Nyria, finding herself ‘strangely stirred’. Stephanus, a shop owner who is enamoured of Nyria, comments on her adoration, ‘Thou art indeed bewitched!’.
The instantaneous attraction seems to mirror Rosa’s account of her meeting with Nancy in the transcript I had just typed: ‘A sudden mutual sympathy sprang up between us. I was struck by the quiet charm of her talk, by her candour and, curiously, by her common sense. More than all, by the look of spirituality in her large grey eyes.’
I turn my laptop towards me and open my web browser to see if there’s any literature on their relationship. Damien Barlow has written the first and, as far as I can see, only queer reading of their friendship. He rightly observes that heterosexual readings of Rosa have diminished Nancy’s significance in her life, but I’m uneasy with his rendering of their relationship as one of bondage in the context of the slave/mistress relationship between Nyria and Valeria. It seems a blunt way of describing what was clearly a deep friendship. Patricia Clarke’s reference to Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men (1981) seems more appropriate. Faderman writes that strong romantic friendships between women ‘were love relationships in every sense except perhaps the genital’ and Clarke notes that, while their friendship was intense, Rosa also ‘found Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness “nauseating”’. This definition makes more sense to me, particularly as Rosa spurned the physical, investing instead in that which was spiritual or transcendent.
I take out another envelope of transcripts, headed ‘Incarnations of Nyria and Valeria before and after the Roman Life’. According to this, Nyria first appeared ‘some two or three hundred years after the submergence of Atlantis in about 9000 B.C.’, and she continued reincarnating in lives in South Africa, Italy, North Africa and France. A note indicates that these lives were captured by the hand of Hester Dowden.
When Nancy died in 1927, Rosa’s suffering was unbearable. To assuage it, she tried to contact Nancy using Dowden, a medium who had taken down the words of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde (publishing the latter as Psychic Messages from Oscar Wilde in 1923). On 23 April 1930, Dowden wrote ‘And always bear in mind the fact that Valeria did not always return as a completed half. Now N[ancy] is ready.’ In documenting their previous lives, whether real or imagined, and by presenting Nyria and Valeria as another step in this evolutionary process, Rosa seemed to believe that, if their relationship had existed for aeons, it was invincible. In a similar process, she also exhaustively researched the history of Rome to prove that Nancy’s story was a true example of reincarnation and that Nancy, who she said had no knowledge of Roman history, was not making it up. Rosa published her research in Soul of Nyria, her final novel. The implication of this work was that, as Rosa had evidence of reincarnation, she and Nancy would unite again in the future. This was not bondage, I thought, it was an abiding love story.
Back in London, I move out of the housing commission flat and into a terrace in Stepney with Oliver, who has found a job in the city. Our neighbours, who are florists, grow wattle in their small, ornate garden. Wistfully, I watch it flower in spring. It’s June 2008. Kevin Rudd has been voted in and makes an apology to Indigenous Australians. My brother and I, watching his speech on our laptops in the kitchen, cheer.
Perhaps my antennae are up because of this. Sitting at my desk in my room, which looks out to the paved backyard bordered by a garden, I read through my notes on Rosa’s books. I’m becoming increasingly unsettled by her work because of its repeated mentions of race.
Early scholars on Rosa note her sympathy to Indigenous Australians. Dale Spender, in A Bright and Fiery Troop, writes that Rosa was ahead of her time in highlighting injustices done to Australia’s Indigenous peoples. Recent scholarship however, suggests that things are not quite so straightforward. Jennifer Rutherford has written on the profound disconnection between Rosa’s professed sympathy for Indigenous Australians and the violence which she dramatised, while Belinda McKay observes that Rosa criticised colonialism not so much to advocate for Aboriginal rights, but ‘to seek moral redemption for the white races’. Whatever the interpretation, Rosa was complicit, and also traumatised.
In her autobiography My Australian Girlhood (1902), Rosa describes Ringo, ‘the first object of my youthful affections’ with whom she plans to elope until they find that this will disrupt his people’s marriage laws, resulting in Ringo’s death. An Indigenous playmate appears again in Rosa’s lost-race romance, Fugitive Anne (1902) in the figure of Kombo, except that now he is the heroine’s servant. The novel opens with a familiar theme: Anne Bedo, an Australian girl, is escaping her violent husband of four months, a ‘coarse, powerful person, will an ill-featured face, sinewy throat, and great, brawny hands’. Aided by Kombo, Anne jumps from the steamer carrying them back from London to Australia. She disguises herself as a Lascar so as to reach her relatives in the bush without being captured. On arriving at the property, Anne and Kombo find Anne’s relatives have been killed by Indigenous people. Fleeing both blacks and whites, they take refuge in a cave in the bush, only to be apprehended by those who have killed Anne’s relatives. Anne saves herself and Kombo from a similar fate by masquerading as Cloud Daughter, a divinity who sings and mesmerises the tribe. As Tanya Dalziell has written, as a white person, Anne has the luxury of mimicry, whether this is of an Indian or a god.
I pause in my reading, watching my brother outside. He’s just come back from the Columbia Road flower markets laden with pink and blue petunias. Now he’s digging holes in the garden and planting them. He looks up, sees me watching, and waves. I smile and return to my notes.
A few pages in to My Australian Girlhood, Rosa states baldly:
I love the Blacks. Some of them were my playfellows when I was a child at Naraigin, up in the then unsettled north; and truly, I think that the natives have not deserved their fate nor the evil that has been spoken of them. It was mainly the fault of the Whites that they learned treachery, and were incited to rapine and murder.
This echoes a story of Kombo’s in Fugitive Anne in which a white squatter gave Christmas pudding to Aborigines who had set up camp the day before Christmas. The next day, ‘nearly all the tribe was dead, for the pudding had been poisoned’. Anne, musing on this story, thinks ‘was it any wonder … that afterwards white men were speared from behind gum-trees, and that there were murders on the lonely stations’. Following this thought, however, comes an opposing one: ‘Her kind old aunt, her young cousins; why had they, who had never wronged either Black or White, been chosen as expiatory victims from the wrongs civilisation had committed?’ Anne, unable to reconcile her sympathies for the Indigenous Australians who have suffered such brutalities, or for the white colonisers, finds ‘[h]er brain was dazed, her senses numbed, the future was a blank’. I stare at my computer screen, thinking. What emerges in this future is the fantastic world of the lost race.
Once Anne has sung her song, she and Kombo are rescued by a Danish explorer Eric Hansen. He’s searching for ‘a mysterious race of red men’ and takes Anne and Kombo with him. They enter a region of rocky outcrops and are captured by several men who, despite their majesty, have ‘a curious expression of fatality’. These are the Acans, the red race, presided over by the sexually charged and mesmerising High Priestess Keorah. Just as Anne’s husband catches up to them, the trio mastermind their escape. Her husband and the Acans perish in a volcanic eruption, leaving Anne and Hansen, who have fallen in love, free to marry.
Andrew McCann notes this ‘generic shift at the centre of the novel’, from colonial history to theosophical history, which it uses as a point to leap into the fantastic. He refers to Rosa’s belief in the theosophical concept of Lemuria, a land mass that had existed before Atlantis, of which Australia was the last remnant. McCann suggests that this leap is Rosa’s attempt to create a lineage for white settlers without having to confront the annihilation of Indigenous people and their culture, and her family’s role in this.
When she was six and living at Naraigin (also known as Hawkwood), eleven Europeans on the nearby Hornet Bank station were killed by Yimin people, probably in retaliation for the abduction of Yimin women. In reaction, the colonisers, led by Rosa’s father Thomas Murray-Prior, massacred the Yimin. The number of Indigenous casualties was estimated to be more than five hundred. This massacre obviously informed the one described in Fugitive Anne.
I lean down and riffle through a pile of library books on the floor, pulling out Lucy Armit’s Theorising the Fantastic. It opens with a discussion of how the genre of the fantastic has been pushed to the margins of critique, making it a useful vehicle for expressing subversion. Fantasy, Armit writes, is ‘fluid, constantly overstepping the very forms it adopts, always looking, not so much for escapism but certainly to escape the constraints that critics … always and inevitably impose upon it’. Rosa was constrained by her love for her father and by a culture which believed in the progressiveness of colonialism. No wonder she turned to the fantastic to try and slip away.
I look out at the window again. The day is unusually blue. I decide to make a coffee and join my brother. As I wait for the coffee to heat on the stove, I realise that something else is going on at the same time that Rosa made these jumps into the fantastic.
Rosa wrote an account of the Hornet Bank massacre in another autobiographical work, Australian Life: Black and White (1885). In this she accompanied her father after the massacre to a nearby station to persuade its occupants to return to Naraigin, where it was safer. However, as Clarke notes Rosa was then age six and it would have been inconceivable that Murray Prior would have taken his small daughter into such a dangerous situation. More believably, Rosa appropriated her father’s memory of the massacre, which she asked him to write down some three decades after the event, and inserted herself into his narrative.
A burning smell reaches my nose. The coffee has boiled over. Quickly, I lift the coffee maker off the stove and watch drops of coffee hiss on the element. I wonder what to do next.
‘I burnt the coffee,’ I call to Oliver. ‘Do you still want it?’
I heat the milk in a small saucepan, trying to unknot the problem. On the one hand, Rosa escaped into the fantastic to express her ambivalence, or disarticulation as in the case of her love for Nancy, but on the other she wrote herself into others’ narratives as a way of authenticating her experiences. This could have been the mark of her strong and capacious personality, and Chris Tiffin also notes that she ‘centred herself in other family stories in which she had not participated’. It could also simply be her habit of appropriating material from wherever she liked, including early manuscripts of Nancy’s and her stepmother Nora’s letters.
Or it could have been that Rosa longed for the ethereal and intellectual, but reality consistently interfered. Rosa’s writing is full of the corporeal. In Policy and Passion she was forced by her publisher to censor her characters’ sexuality. In Nyria the young girl is whipped until her back is shredded. In Nadine (1882), the heroine drags her lover’s dead corpse down a hall. For all her obsessions with the world of spirits, Rosa was pulled back repeatedly to the body, and to all the trauma that comes with it. Nowhere, I realise suddenly, is this more evident than in her relationship with her daughter Maud. I dash back to my room to write down my ideas, leaving the milk on the stove.
I’m back at my desk again. My laptop has blown up and in a tearful encounter at the Mac repair store near Spitalfields Market, I’ve been told it can’t be fixed. I can’t afford to buy another one. Oliver generously lends me his and I type so much that I wear all the letters off his keyboard. He also does my washing and cooks for me so that I can finish my research before my deadline.
Before his laptop, I’ve propped up Stephen Arata’s Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin de Siècle: Identity and Empire (1996). Arata notes that, in the closing years of the nineteenth century, the reach of Britain’s empire suggested the success of the civilising mission and the promise of continued expansion. At the same time, there was a fear of decay, degeneration and the collapse of culture. Part of this was related to social Darwinism. If humans could evolve, then the reverse could also apply. Max Nordau, in his now-famous 1892 text Degeneration, wrote that the body would become ‘debilitated, its successors will not resemble the healthy, normal type of the species, with capacities for development, but will form a new sub-species, which, like all the others, possesses the capacity of transmitting to its offspring, in a continuously increasing degree, its peculiarities’.
That Rosa, too, was influenced by such ideas was evident in her novels such as Fugitive Anne in which she renders the expressions of the Red Men, who are doomed to die, as ‘fatalistic’. It’s also apparent in her attitudes to Maud. Four years after they arrived in London, Maud was enrolled in a school run by the Society for Training Teachers of the Deaf and the Diffusion of the ‘German’ system. This school focussed on teaching deaf children to speak rather than sign, a technique which required vast amount of concentration and work. The reasoning behind teaching the deaf to speak, as maintained by Alexander Graham Bell in his Memoir Upon the Formation of a Variety of the Human Race (1884), was that the deaf should not marry other deaf people in order to deter further incidences of deafness. If Maud could speak, she would be able to circulate among hearing people and marry one of them, thereby avoiding, to use Bell’s words ‘the production of a defective race of human beings [which] would be a great calamity to the world’. Bell’s references to breeding echoes Nordau’s fear of reproducing deficiencies.
Yet after her mother’s instantaneous relationship with Nancy and her father’s sudden death, Maud’s world shifted asunder too quickly. She had a breakdown, and in 1902 Rosa admitted her to Holloway Sanatorium. Later, she was moved to a smaller asylum at Canford Cliffs. I close Arata’s book and pick up Clarke’s, checking the footnotes that mention Maud. Many of them reference material in the National Library of Australian in Canberra. I’ll have to wait until I’m back in Australia before I can get to them. In the meantime, I write furiously towards my deadline.
Finally, I’m home for good. I have five hundred dollars to my name and a tooth that needs a root canal. I can’t afford to live in Sydney, so I move into my sister’s place in Brisbane. From her verandah I watched storms roll in darkly and break upon the asphalt. I breathe in the petrichor.
When the pain in my jaw is fixed, I start running and swimming again. The sun pouring onto my skin is gorgeous. I leave my research on Rosa and Maud in a drawer, find a part-time job and focus on writing my second novel which has been in my head for years. Initially a work about dispossession and Indigenous Australians, my reading of Rosa’s work has made me realise that my forbears, who were pastoralists, had most likely acted in a similar way to hers. Unsettled, I begin to write about loss and home and a brother who is missing, for Oliver is still back in England.
Only when the novel is published three years later do I open the drawer and look at the wad of printed material and notes. I chew my lip, and remember: Maud’s writing.
I shiver as I walk along Lake Burley Griffin. I’ve been in Brisbane for a few years now and I’m not used to the cold anymore. To my right, the lake is flat and still. The colours of Canberra are similar to those of London, but the city is quieter, almost ghostly, the energy of the place dispersed across the surface of the lake.
Inside the National Library, I shuck off my coat and make my way upstairs to the archives. From a shelf at the back of the room, I take out the box of the Murray-Prior Papers I’ve ordered. These are a collection of letters, documents, journals and photographs that belonged to Rosa and her father Thomas, her stepmother Nora, people related to the Murray-Prior family by marriage, as well as Nancy Harward.
In the hushed room, I work solidly through letters, diaries and photographs. When I come to Maud’s letters, I photograph them on my digital camera so that I can transcribe them later. Then I pull Maud’s journal from a white envelope. Its cover of red marbled paper reminds me of standing beside my grandmother, watching her trail a pin through a tray of oily water to make the colours swirl, then carefully placing a piece of paper onto the surface to capture them.
In 1894, Rosa and Maud travelled to Australia, then to Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Canada. Maud captured her impressions in this journal. Inside it, her handwriting is fading, but still legible. It shows an attention to detail – a necessary attribute if she had lost her sense of hearing and needed to compensate with vision. She also sketched as she travelled, as she described:
June 11th A sweet looking Japanese nesan looked after our luggage and attended to Mother’s wants. I took my sketch book out of the “Cannes” bag; I made a sign saying sketch her. She cheerfully nodded. Her eyes were loving & expressive. Her lips were curved & sad … She looked happy – she watched mother’s stylographic pen as Mother was writing by the Bow window. When the sketch was done, she seized it and nodded sympathetically.
This extract shows Maud as a young woman confident enough to engage with someone quite different to herself. It also demonstrates her attentiveness to the woman’s body language: her countenance, her lips, and where she directed her gaze.
Rosa may have intended to use Maud’s journal as material for her writing, or it could have been a tool to encourage Maud to engage with people around her, as she is doing here. Much of the journal relates her mother’s interactions with people, and testifies to the close bond they shared.
Maud’s final entry in her travel journal, dated 13 July 1895, ends with a description of a ‘sportsman’ – possibly a lumberjack, whom she describes as ‘devoted to his young girlish wife. She is very cheerful and does not mind this solitude and bears. She told an incident about a bear. She was alone one day in the dining room. A bear came outside the window and stared at her.’ The rest of Maud’s journal is blank. The threatening bear, staring into the woman’s home, seems a harbinger.
For, musing over Maud in the National Library of Australia, I find in the footnotes that Patricia Clarke had tried to find Maud’s medical records. She wrote to the sanatorium to which Maud was committed, but was told that records were destroyed after 25 years.
A compulsive checker, I draw my laptop towards me and load the website for the National Archives in England. In the catalogue search box, I type ‘Canford Cliffs sanatorium’. There they are: the records for the main hospital, Holloway Sanatorium.
I swallow. It’s time to go back to England.
Once again, I’m wearing white cotton gloves, sitting at a desk and waiting for my order. I’m at the Surrey History Centre in Woking, my back to a large window which looks out onto a suburban street. My pulse picks up when a staff member approaches with a thick, leather-bound book. I lift it onto foam supports and open the cover. Inside are case notes for patients of the sanatorium, which was founded in 1885 by a wealthy entrepreneur, Thomas Holloway. I turned the pages until I reach ‘P’.
There is Maud staring wide-eyed at me, her mouth open as if to speak. Surrounding the photo are medical notes from her admission in September 1902. They open with a description of her physical appearance: ‘fairly developed but is slightly built – soft and flabby – Hair dark. Eyes brown’. They also state that she had been ‘stone deaf since a severe attack of ScF [scarlet fever] in early infancy’. A few lines later, an account of her physical condition reads ‘She appears to be absolutely deaf – & speaks slowly & with some difficulty though she articulates correctly’. Her mental condition ‘is difficult to ascertain on acct of her deafness – she lip reads to some extent & can easily read handwriting but does not speak readily’.
I pause, my hands sweating lightly in the gloves. I had thought, given Maud’s excellent literacy and ability to interact well with people, that she might have had some hearing. I now realise how bright she must have been to learn to read and write when she was completely deaf, how much concentration she would have needed to learn words she couldn’t hear, how lonely and abandoned she must have felt in the sanatorium. This last was corroborated by a note in her records dated 20 October 1902, a few weeks after her admission, ‘Her deafness prevents her to a great extent from taking part in the community of the Hospital but she occupies herself with needlework & plays chess well’.
The notes following, from September 1902 to May 1926, elucidate her mental decline. A few weeks after her admission, Maud was ‘often screaming loudly for hours at a time – she [had] marked delusions of electricity & attributes all sensations (such as tremor etc) to a “power thrown” at her by different people in her gallery.’ From June the following year she improved and notes on her health varied from ‘cheerful, coherent in conversation’ to ‘excited, talking constantly about herself and her fancied ailments, careless about personal appearance and quite unoccupied.’ In May 1908 she was ‘confused with hallucinations of hearing and vague delusions of persecution’ and was ‘very difficult to understand’. Sometimes she was described as being quiet and coherent. ‘Occupies herself well’, they wrote.
The case notes aren’t the only material in the book; there is also a letter on stiff notepaper, written over 22 pages, dated 27 September 1905. It opens with a plea to her doctor Mr Moore for release: ‘I have written to Mr Holde [sic] of Lackford Manor, asking him who should take me away from this Sanitorium [sic] as my Mother told me that she had nothing to do with me except the doctors, and my eldest brother’. The lines brim with resentment. Maud appeals to a distant family member, Reverend John Shuttleworth Holden, the husband of her aunt, rather than her mother. The words that follow are a mixture of reality and delusion. Maud believes that her treatment is ‘nearly over’ and asks a Miss Carnaby ‘to break off this lunatic electricity from the strangers as I don’t desire my life to be known to them’. She describes her plans for a life beyond the sanatorium, which include travelling to Italy. Amusingly, she adds, ‘I am sorry to say I cannot agree with Mother’s exciting novels, but perhaps you might have enjoyed one of them.’
Carefully, I close the heavy book, staring at its leather cover. Then I stand, stiffly. I hand the book back, pay for copies to be made of the material, and head along a canal to the pub where I’m staying. Above, light falls through the shifting leaves, golden and dappled.
Some writers have a bible by their side as they work, a text to which they can refer when they get stuck. Mine was Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. Atwood observes that ‘the mere act of writing splits the self into two’. One self carries through body through its everyday tasks, and the other self, a ‘more shadowy and altogether more equivocal personage who shares the same body, and who, when no one is looking, takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing.’ This other self travels to the Underworld to talk to the dead. Atwood continues:
All writers must go from now to once upon a time; all must go from here to there; all must descend to where the stories are kept; all must take care not to be captured and held immobile by the past. And all must commit acts of larceny, or else of reclamation, depending how you look at it. The dead may guard the treasure, but it’s useless treasure unless it can be brought back into the land of the living and allowed to enter time once more—which means to enter the realm of the audience, the realm of the readers, the realm of change.
It has taken me twelve years to reach the end of the story about Rosa and Maud, and to find the voice in which I could convey it best. I shifted it from literary criticism to creative nonfiction, but it still sounded wooden. Only when I put my own voice and body into the text, recounting my experiences of deafness, did it come to life.
Perhaps this was what Rosa was doing when she wrote herself into the stories of the massacre and of ancient Rome. For all her aspirations to be absorbed into the spiritual world, she was drawn, again and again, back to earth. For here, in her daughter’s body, was trauma. After a visit to Canford Cliffs in 1924, when Maud was 50, Rosa wrote to her half-sister Dorothy, ‘It is very pitiful. She wants to say things and I can see she is losing her words. If she could be taught again, it would I am sure help her. The baffled piteous look on her face when she wanted to say something and could not has troubled me much.’ Rosa had to bear witness to Maud, just as she had once borne witness to her father’s violence.
No one responded to Maud’s request for release. She died, age 67, on 8 July 1941. She had been in the sanatorium for 39 of those years, outliving her entire family. This was why I needed to enter the archives. So that I could listen to Maud’s voice, bring it back and let her speak, so that we could change the stories of deaf people in the future.
In her essay ‘Stella vs Miles: Women Writers and Literary Value in Australia’, Julieanne Lamond suggests that one of the reasons why nineteenth-century women writers have been overlooked is because of the entrenched connections between masculinity, nation and realist fiction. Those who write popular fiction and romance, such as Rosa, have been shoved to the margins. Yet Rosa witnessed and was terrified by the violence of colonialism. All three of her sons and her husband died, her daughter lost her reason, her mother was killed by twelve pregnancies and her father became a brute. She was an unconventional woman imprisoned by marriage to an unsuitable man and experienced desire for other women, however subliminally. Is it any wonder that she turned to genres other than realism —the Gothic, the lost race romance, the reincarnation story — to express her ideas?
To read Rosa Praed is to read a woman railing against the confines of her culture while remaining deeply embedded within it. Those who overlook her are those who turn their heads from the blazing suns that map our literary culture. Rather than drifting loosely at sea, it behoves us to become more attentive readers, and finer stargazers.
This month the SRB will publish essays by Fiona Wright, Jessica White and Maggie Mackellar on their recent re-encounters with nineteenth-century women writers. These essays are published as part of a wider collaborative project on nineteenth-century Australian women’s writing. Join the authors at a symposium on Thursday 3 November at the State Library of New South Wales. Details here.
Murray-Prior Papers, National Library of Australia, MS7801, Boxes 1-7.
Praed Papers, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, OM64-1, Boxes 1-25.
Surrey History Centre, Case Book, 3473/3/6.
Arata, Stephen. Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin de Siècle: Identity and Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Armitt, Lucy. Theorising the Fantastic. London; New York: Arnold, 1996.
Atwood, Margaret. Negotiating with the Dead : A Writer on Writing. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge UP, 2002.
Bell, Alexander Graham. Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race, Washington: National Academy of Sciences, 1884.
Clarke, Patricia. ‘In the Steps of Rosa Praed and Tasma: Biographical Trails’. Harold White Fellow Lecture, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1993.
– Rosa! Rosa: A Life of Rosa Praed, Novelist and Spiritualist. Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1999.
Dalziell, Tanya. (2003). As unconscious and gay as a trout in a stream?: Turning the trope of the Australian Girl. Feminist Review, (74), 17-34.
Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: Morrow, 1981.
Lamond, Julieanne. (2011). Stella vs Miles: Women Writers and Literary Value in Australia. Meanjin, 70 (3), 32-39.
Lycett, Andrew. Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes. London: Phoenix, 2008.
McCann, Andrew. Popular Literature, Authorship and the Occult in Late Victorian Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014.
McKay, Belinda ‘Writing from the Contact Zone: Fiction by Early Queensland Women.’ Hecate. 30.2 (2004): 53-70.
Nordau, Max Simon. Degeneration / by Max Nordau ; Translated from the Second Edition of the German Work . Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1993.
Praed, Rosa. An Australian Heroine. London: Chapman and Hall, 1880.
– Policy and Passion: A Novel of Australian Life. London: Bentley, 1881.
– Nadine: The Study of a Woman. London: Chapman and Hall, 1882.
– For Their Sakes. London: Chapman and Hall, 1884.
– Australian Life Black and White. London: Chapman and Hall, 1885.
– The Bond of Wedlock : A Tale of London Life. London: F.V. White, 1887.
– Fugitive Anne: A Romance of the Unexplored Bush. London: John Long, 1902.
– My Australian Girlhood: Sketches and Impressions of Bush Life. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1904.
– Nyria. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1904.
– Soul of Nyria : The Memory of a past Life in Ancient Rome. London: Rider, 1931.
Riddell, and Cramer. With Fond Regards : Private Lives through Letters / Edited and Introduced by Elizabeth Riddell ; Compiled by Yvonne Cramer. Canberra, ACT: National Library of Australia, 1995.
Roderick, Colin. In Mortal Bondage : The Strange Life of Rosa Praed. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1948.
Rutherford, Jennifer. ‘The Secret of the Father in the Colonial Secret: Rosa Praed’s “Weird Melancholy.”’ The Literature of Melancholia: Early Modern to Postmodern. Ed Martin Middeke and Christina Wald. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 160-172.
Spender, Dale. ‘Rosa Praed: Original Australian Writer’. A Bright and Fiery Troop: Australian Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century. Ed Debra Adelaide. Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1988. 199-216.
Tiffin, Chris, and Lynette. Baer. The Praed Papers : A Listing and Index / Compiled by Chris Tiffin and Lynette Baer. Brisbane: Library Board of Queensland, 1994.
Tiffin, Chris. “Rosa! Rosa!: A Life of Rosa Praed, Novelist and Spiritualist.” Australian Literary Studies 20.1 (2001): 129.
White, Jessica. “‘The One Absolutely Unselfish Love’: Spiritualism and the Collaborative Writing of Rosa Praed and Nancy Harward.” Southerly 70.2 (2010): 110-23.
— “‘I Actually Hear You Think of Me’: Voices, Mediums and Deafness in the Writing of Rosa Praed.” Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL 15.1 (2015): 1-12.