Into the Loneliness: The unholy alliance of Ernestine Hill and Daisy Bates
by Eleanor Hogan
New South Books
Published March 2021
In the thirties, Ernestine Hill humped a swag from Broome to the Territory, and south to Port Augusta, writing travel features for southern newspapers. About the same time, Daisy Bates had been camped for a decade at the soak at Ooldea, studying Aboriginal people on the edge of the Nullarbor plain. Into the Loneliness is an engrossing portrait of these two women whose vocation led them to live unconventional nomadic lives.
The Great Australian Loneliness, written by Ernestine Hill, appeared in 1937. Daisy Bates’ The Passing of the Aborigines was published in 1938. Although today forgotten, both books were renowned in their time and contributed to common beliefs about First Nations people held by settler society through much of the twentieth century.
Eleanor Hogan’s study reveals parallel tracks leading out of the desert – new questions remarkably like old ones. Is Australia an island? Is the outback empty and lonely, or remarkable and even metaphysical? Will urban dwellers ever find it sufficient to itself or will it always provoke for the non-Indigenous Australian an uneasy vertigo; part fascination, part fear and part guilt?
There are three kinds of loneliness in this story. The first is most apparent – the loneliness of the Australian outback in the first half of the twentieth century when most Australians clung to the coast and viewed the interior as foreign. There were stories to be told by writers intrepid enough to spend time out there, and both Daisy Bates and Ernestine Hill in their different ways blazed this freelance trail.
Hill was the only woman of her kind on her journeys. ‘You could travel a thousand miles in the north without seeing a sheet or a towel,’ she wrote in her notebook, ‘– or a white woman or child.’
It was the Depression, and men were ‘on the wallaby’, in search of work. Ernestine Hill, wearing Oxford bags or shorts, stockman’s boots and a broad-brimmed hat, prided herself on blending in with the men, ‘wearing this outfit like the name “Mrs Hill” as a flimsy talisman to ward off whatever might cross her path’. Hill wrote about them for the newspapers of the southern cities, as she did ‘the real Australians’ she found.
On the Trans railway line between Kalgoorlie and Port Augusta at Ooldea, a siding on the edge of the Nullarbor plain, Hill heard tell of Mrs Daisy Bates, who ‘was in her camp over the dunes, doing “so much for the blacks”.’ She came back especially to get the story for a Sunday Sun feature. She found Bates living on tea, damper, porridge, boiled rice, potato, occasionally an egg; her exercise was jumping rope and dragging a barrow to the siding every day. ‘Photographs Hill took on this visit show Bates in a white shirt, tie and ankle-length navy serge skirt topped off with a dust coat, gloves and a hat with a shroud-like mesh.’
Two tents, one blown to a ruin, and a couple of bough sheds were barricaded with a breakwind of mulga tress with prickle bushes across the entrance … The centrepiece was an eight-by-ten canvas, which she boasted Western Australian premier John Forrest had given her when she commenced her tent life outside Perth. Crammed with notebooks, manuscripts, clothes and camping gear, there was hardly any space for Daisy’s small bed with its roo-skin rug. An old water tank, upended on its side, was stuffed with maps, papers and books, including a dozen volumes of Dickens … Further up the slope behind the tents was a bough shed that served as an observatory, a ladder propped against it that Daisy scrambled up at night to plot the constellations whose stories Anangu told her.
Bates lived in this style for nearly two decades. Of their first meeting, Hill wrote in idolatrous prose: ‘Tracks of those little high-heeled shoes could be found in the sandhills for many miles round.’ And, ‘a fire carelessly lighted by a blackboy swept the camp. It seemed that her valuable manuscripts of thirty years’ compiling would be burnt to ashes. Great holes in the earth were quickly dug by those nervous little gloved hands, and the situation saved.’
The glibness of Hill’s journalism is never clearer than when passing off as fact-finding a recycled colonisial myth about Indigenous people:
‘I have no illusions,’ said Daisy Bates to me, very sadly. ‘They are a lost people. Already they are but the remnants of the old tribes and totems, poor hopeless derelicts, wanderers with no comprehension. I shall not see the last of them, but this century will.’
The second loneliness is the book itself – the Great Australian Loneliness, representing the literary output that made of Hill and Bates Australian writers of significance for a developing national identity.
They were recognized and rewarded in their time; both Bates and Hill were given government grants for their work. Ernestine Hill spent some time as an ABC commissioner charged with ‘Australianising’ radio content – a role which she found exciting on paper but disappointing in the bureaucratic reality.
Bates received an OBE for her work. But this recognition became controversial after her death as some of her opinions condemned her; for example, her assertion that Aboriginal people practiced cannibalism, for which there was scant anthropological evidence. Hill becomes partly to blame for propagating this view, since she enticed Bates to come to Adelaide to work with her on a series about her life with Aboriginal people for the Advertiser.
Hill paints a picture of a selfless woman of duty, whom she depicts as ‘looking to the needs of poor human objects repulsive in their degeneration, and using all her influences against the propagation of half-castes and a frightful and incorrigible cannibalism.’ Ludicrous, labile imaginings pile up:
She was, in fact, tracking up a woman whom she suspected of being about to give birth to a child, and eat it. We found the girl in time together, and before I left I was reassured at seeing a proud mother, beyond reproach, sitting up in her wurlie with her baby in her arms. Her grisly hunger for human meat –‘meeri-conga’– had been staved off for the time. Even so, I could not help thinking, purely as a journalist, that God and Daisy Bates had robbed me of a thundering front-page story.
Even Hill herself came to see this as overdone; she wrote of the original story that it was the work of ‘a wicked and ruthless young journalist’.
Meaghan Morris observes that Hill is a key figure in the history of distinctly Australian forms of media culture, arguing that she used travel writing to disseminate opinion and debate about the great public issues of her time, including the status of Aboriginal people. Morris locates the mythos of Hill’s book as landing somewhere between the American western and the watercolours of Albert Namitjira:
the dust jacket’s gorgeous melancholia of landscape and Hill’s famous ‘loneliness’ topos belie the bustling world of people actually inhabiting a text that is packed with character sketches and life stories of varying length and detail. Hill belonged to a generation of writers who wanted to ‘cover’ Australia with narrative … Clearly still a settler colonial project, furiously filling spaces emptied by that erasure of indigenous stories and songs …
The Great Australian Loneliness is scarred today by its unthinking racism, the acceptance of the Aboriginal people as ‘passing’. Daisy Bates was vociferous in condemning the half-caste, and her reputation was seriously tarnished when in the 1970s her likely involvement in the removal of children from the Aboriginal groups around her, who were surrendered to the local mission, came to light.
Hogan attempts to find out more about Bates’ reputation with the surviving Indigenous people at Ooldea. She receives a mixed response. There are women elders who speak as if she is revered, along the lines of the Kabbarli (grandmother) story she told about herself. But there are others less enchanted, from the areas surrounding the mission near Ooldea who condemn her for her collaboration in the stolen generations. The children chant ‘Daisy Bates Devil’, a game of bogeyman they seem familiar with.
This group also cast doubt on what seems the least plausible part of the Bates myth as perpetuated by Hill – that she took selfless care of the Indigenous people she lived with. On the contrary, Hogan is repeatedly told of the old blackfellas who keep an eye on her welfare, and of the dancing women who call her over to their fires of an evening. A picture is sketched, rather, of a group of people who just as often looked after her.
Daisy Bates was her own indefatigable promoter. In inviting her to Adelaide to write her story for the Advertiser, Ernestine Hill might have given her a megaphone. But Bates had been propagating the story of her care and study of Indigenous groups to Governors and Ladies Groups long before Hill and she met up. Hogan ponders on Hill’s apparent enduring admiration of Bates, even as she learnt to her cost through the publication of the Passing of the Aborigines, that Bates was not inclined to reciprocate.
The Passing of the Aborigines became an international bestseller, reverently reviewed. Its author was paid an advance of £500 that Bates boasted was ‘higher than for Haig or Monash’s books’. Buckingham Palace wrote to her to say that the King has become aware of her work through the book. Although Bates’ fervent wish was to be accepted as an anthropologist, Hogan suggests it is an early example of ‘immersion journalism’ rather than an attempt at ethnography, and she sees in it ‘the hand of Ernestine Hill’. But Bates disavowed Hill’s substantial role in preparing and indeed ghost-writing the book, not to mention ’talent-spotting’ Bates for the Advertiser in the first place, which left Hill aggrieved. Hogan writes:
Bates’s health limitations, especially her mental deterioration, would have prevented her from producing a coherent, major literary work without significant physical, emotional, financial and editorial support. Without Ernestine to rehabilitate her from the sandy margins, at best Daisy would have been remembered as an obscure, do-gooding crank. But if Hill’s role was more than that of amanuensis and ad hoc agent, then not only could she lay claim to a stake in The Passing of the Aborigines’s popular success, but she must bear some responsibility along with Bates for its effect on Aboriginal people.
The prejudices of another era begin to weary; The Great Australian Loneliness begins to pall. Perhaps this is why it is no longer read. ‘Ernestine Hill was a writer who led an unconventional life but she was not a daring thinker’, writes Morris, a way of describing the fate of much journalism after its time. Morris’s article stands in lieu of her own biographical ambitions, apparently stalled. The reasons for this come down to the provocative question she puts: who cares about ‘a white woman of mixed Irish and English background who wrote racist stuff about communities in ‘remote’ parts of Australia some 70 years ago?’
Bates, who was forty years Hill’s senior, died in 1951, the year Hill’s book The Territory was published. Hill wrote a memoir of her, published as Kabbarli (the Indigenous word for grandmother, which Bates claimed as her universal recognition with the Aboriginal peoples). But Hill’s fortunes were waning, as Hogan finds when she consults the Hill Collection in the Fryer Library at the University of Queensland:
These last two volumes bookended two decades in which she puddled about, writing notes for various projects, redrafting chapters of novels she promised would be her best yet. Most of the Hill collection’s material is from this period. Her correspondence depicts a writer, boxed up in a guesthouse or hotel room, writing friends and relatives for money, fending off publishers’ requests for completed manuscripts …
Disturbed, Hogan describes the colour-coded notebooks covered in wrapping paper: ‘My heart lurched in my chest. It was hard not to feel the pathos of a once-celebrated journalist wrapping up her treasures in Christmas paper, but it seemed like crazy old lady territory, the rambling logic of a near vagrant woman’.
The third loneliness is that of the single woman in their time – and in ours. Hogan has implicitly answered Morris’s question from inside a different politics, finding her project in the startling juxtaposition of white women living on their own in this loneliness, obliged to make it more or less habitable.
Hogan reframes the question as: ‘What kind of woman, especially in the early twentieth century, crosses the country by caravan or camel, or camps by a railway siding on the Nullarbor?’ Neither Daisy nor Ernestine were supported by a domestic role, and they lived outside the traditional relationships for women that passed, as Hogan points out, for welfare provision back in the day.
This made their lives hard, and inclined them to subterfuge. Hill had a son to an undisclosed father, possibly Robert Clyde Packer, and Hogan implies she was pushed to the roaming life of a ‘correspondent’ as an answer to the scandal of having his child out of wedlock. Bates meanwhile offered the world a thoroughly dubious origin story about being well-born in Ireland. But it seems she was actually an orphan from the working class, likely trigamous, married to Breaker Morant and at least one other before the eponymous Bates.
In later life, each woman remained itinerant, living for large periods of time in caravans and camps and chronically short of funds. Bates developed dementia but continued to live under canvas until in the end, blind and malnourished, she was forced into Adelaide and a hospital bed at 91. Hill’s last years, Morris writes, ‘were consumed by illness, emotional suffering and increasing dire poverty as her lush descriptive style and folksy realism went out of fashion; royalties dried up and writer’s block made it hard to earn a living. She died leaving a typewriter, a camera and debts of AU$712.92.’
Hogan’s own adventuring in a campervan purchased for the purpose uncovers women increasingly living this way today, a kind of precariat such as has recently been portrayed in the film, Nomadland. Hogan cites reports that ‘women fifty-five years and over are the fastest-growing group of homeless people in Australia – a reflection of facing challenges such as buying a house after decades spent in the gig economy or out of the workforce supporting a family, and a general bias against older workers’.
The book Nomadland by Jessica Bruder has more sharpness than Chloe Zhao’s film adaptation. It portrays the precariat as a new class outside old mainstream traditions like labour as much as neo-liberalism, where they are equally marginalised. Hogan’s own ageing Hi-Ace camper is on the verge of retirement as she says; it is hard to get into first gear or reverse. ‘The lock on the driver’s door was so worn it needed to be jemmied open with the key’. For the book, it’s part proof of concept, part ‘cubby house on wheels’ (quoting poet Beth Spencer) which leads her to a trail of Australian women writers who have resorted to a van– creative practitioners, then and now, inadequately remunerated despite high skills and education.
Despite her misgivings, Hogan discovers other solo women ‘van-lifers’: ‘Vanning it alone as a woman wasn’t unusual as I’d thought. Instead, a quiet legion of solo women travellers was weaving across the country’s highways and through its back roads.’ She finds a Facebook page of over 5000 female members, for whom she reports safety is an ‘inevitable topic of online discussion’.
Chloe Zhao portrays the road, despite our fears, as a place of warm human interactions. It’s reminiscent of the advice given to Ernestine Hill, when she asked whether she should buy a gun to take travelling: ‘a nursemaid could wheel a baby in a perambulator across Australia with far less danger of being molested than in any city park.’ Beyond political cynicism and social despair, the natural world itself adds an element of wonder. Zhao’s film excels at open spaces; the big sky of Nevada, the desert of Arizona, the Californian coast. Hill’s vivacious writing similarly makes of Australia a kind of treasure; ‘Australia is like its own unique and glorious jewel, the opal ..’, she writes. Hogan, too, writes with awe of the landscape, for example, Streaky Bay and the Bunda cliffs. ‘Nothing prepared me for the Great Australian Bight’s ferocious beauty’. The country becomes a lead character in this set-up.
But loneliness – undramatized, unscripted and without the soundscape of solo piano – is painful; disorienting, excruciating, even unbearable at times. Living it is an art. Hogan constructs doleful images of Daisy Bates’ camps, living by herself at Ooldea and in later years, on the banks of the Murray. At Westall, near Streaky Bay, she finds the farmhouse Bates lived in (now derelict) where she lived with a farmer’s family when too old for tent life. This was where Hill had been summoned by Bates to bring a caravan, and ‘take her away’ in 1947. But when she and Bob got there, they found Daisy was too frail to travel with them. This was the last time Ernestine saw Daisy.
Hogan notes the ‘copious letter-writing’ of both Bates and Hill hedges against the loneliness, as do her own daily postings to social media of photos and updates. They are a safety precaution but also a desire to communicate. Something about van-life makes Hogan question herself. Ernestine Hill had written about growing into a ‘lonely queer little one’ and Hogan wonders the same thing about herself.
Was my behaviour becoming distinctly odd? How was it that I had ended up at the age of fifty alone in a campervan? I asked myself … Was I a loner drawn to the study of two women like myself?
Ernestine Hill, working in the travel journalism genre, was necessarily in the business of mythmaking. The Great Australian Loneliness doesn’t render the outback lonely at all, but this must gloss over some of the realities she experienced in collecting her material.
Hogan’s picture of Hill is more anxious. She portrays the outback that Hill claims to love as an escape for her from the difficulties of the city life and predicament of a single mother. This last was far worse then than now, before the possibility of state assistance, equal employment and childcare for working women. The child out of wedlock was born into precarity and pushed his mother into this state, too, or if she was lucky, back onto the reluctant charity of family.
Hill’s mother appears to have shouldered much of the burden of raising her son Bob as a child. From when he was older, Hill more often had him with her, perhaps as a ‘human shield’. Bates’s own son she left with his father and in later life was estranged from. He only resurfaced at her end perhaps looking for royalties, and being disappointed, evaporated again.
Vital to Hogan’s portrait of Bates and Hill – and perhaps contrary to their own self-assessment – is the precarity of their position. But is this, too, myth-making? She conveys it strongly in the first images of the book almost with incredulity at the fragile circumstances under which Hill finds Bates at Ooldea. Her portraits of the women suggest that she doesn’t have confidence in their ability to survive their itinerant lives even as she records their extraordinary durability. This can be contrasted with Bates’ own account of an intrepid trek driving the camel team to Adelaide, or Hill’s stories of skipping from pearling lugger to horse-drawn dray, developing her photo films in the shared bathroom of an outback pub.
Hogan follows her heroines with heart in mouth. Her efforts in the field, such as when her four wheel drive is bogged at Ooldea, are similarly coloured by anxiety and misgiving. The account has pathos – but could it be that women are more afraid, and more constrained, today than they were then? Hogan finds the outback places that these two women loved and felt comfortable in, to be on the contrary daunting and forbidding. Touring fills her with dread on occasion, as when she encounters driving rain at Cocklebiddy on the Eyre Highway. It’s hard to know if she projects this anxiety as part of her own myth surrounding the precariat of Hill and Bates that stretches into the present day.
She offers a self-description as ‘an obscure woman researching other obscure women.’ She feels ‘very much an anomaly as a lone fifty-ish woman in a van’.
Regardless of age, a certain stigma attaches to being a solo female traveller, not only because of the perceived risks, but because you’re a woman who cannot be immediately identified by her relationship to others. It was a stigma I was used to as a single, childless woman, along with the increasing invisibility that had accompanied entering my forties… to be a single, childless woman in your forties is to experience the sting of social irrelevance earlier than you might otherwise.
Of course, it can be said that Hogan knew the end of the story in a way that her subjects, living it, did not. She sees the trajectory of both from the height of their renown, as celebrated figures breaching remarkable vistas, through to hardship in middle age with their currency wearing thin and their footloose habit making them vulnerable in old age.
And this too is the contemporary fear of many a 55-year-old woman, peering into a future of limited superannuation and multiplying costs. Hogan can be forgiven for lacking confidence in Bates’ and Hill’s strategies to provide for themselves in old age, but some of it seems projected from our present-day actuarial concern. It is at least possible that ageism was not as pronounced in their day, paradoxically– or maybe not pronounced in the same way.
The biographing of outback male characters more often portrays them as heroes covered in self-belief. Of course that, too, will be myth. These figures in Into the Loneliness are imbued with pathos and pity of a more particular, feminine frailty, no doubt more realistic. But this may be the strange effect of a woman biographing women subjects. Hogan is confronted by the loneliness here more than anywhere; depicting Hill’s life as she chases down her legacy while drifting closer to obscurity, left assuring the small audience of her son and travelling companion that the collection is ‘too good for Australia to be left behind or thrown out.’
For Hogan, whose own outback experience travelling as an Indigenous policy researcher in the noughties, this has a further resonant layer. ‘This discomfiting picture of the earnest white female anthropologist who finds her discipline’s foremother is the subject of Aboriginal children’s taunts presents the conundrum of Bates’, she writes.
The idealising of literary legacy has as its flipside the disappointment at the almost-universal decline of the writer at the close of their career. The life cycle of the woman writer is cast as tragedy. This pessimism somehow suits the subject, since it is still – even today – unclear whether a woman writer is a glorious exception, a feminist heroine, or an oxymoronic folly. And especially as she ages, going toward the shades of ‘relevance deprivation’ beyond child bearing and global publishing, the Woman Writer as heroic myth – borrowed as it was from a masculine template with a wholly other self-certainty – gives way under the strain.
Into the Loneliness shows us this in a wholly engrossing portrait of two remarkable lives.
Eleanor Hogan Into the Loneliness NewSouth Press 2021
Ernestine Hill The Great Australian Loneliness Angus & Robertson 1991
Meaghan Morris ‘‘The Great Australian Loneliness’: On Writing an Inter-Asian Biography of Ernestine Hill’, Journal of Intercultural Studies, 2014, 35:3, 238-249
The Monthly review of ‘Nomadland’, April 2021