Rereading Barbara Baynton's "Bush Studies"
The work of Barbara Baynton (1857-1929), a small number of short stories and the novella Human Toll, had prompted a kind of criticism unusual in Australian literary studies: a series of "revaluations" in which noted critics have focused on genre and thereby encourages attention to a particular story or mode of reading. The difficulty with this approach is that the effect has been to make Baynton's small but canonical oeuvre seem monochromatic; the paradox, that those seeking to affirm Baynton's status as one of Australia's premier colonial writers have diminished it by implying that some stories from her signature collection, Bush Studies, are somehow uneven or atypical. And readings of Baynton as a feminist - which became popular in the 1980s - all too often portray her, implicitly or explicitly, as having produced work that is "ahead of its time" (Krimmer, "New Light" 430). BY these means, Baynton is made to seem both culturally anomalous and stylistically problematic. This essay, in contrast, sets out an argument that the value of Baynton's work lies in the coherence of the stories in Bush Studies. The work should be read as a suite, the contrast between the six stories casting new light on each, rather than the striking consistency of theme and topos, contrasted with the diversity of style that has so far been the main attraction and puzzle for critics, offers cues for reading the then emerging category of "bush" writing that was said to be distinctively Australian. In so doing, I am taking issue with much of the published criticism on Baynton, a disputation largely confined to footnotes.
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