Saturday, February 27, 2016

Not your "Sara Dane" - real women from the Edges of Empire

From Goodreads
Original 1955 cover
There are certain myths attached to Australia’s stories of convict women that have been perpetuated in a fair bit of romantic literature. These often feature the innocent and impoverished or orphaned young woman - usually English or Irish - and sexy and beautiful too! - who steals something small, a handkerchief, a loaf of bread to feed a starving child. Although she is sentenced to hang, by stroke of luck she is reprieved at the last minute and transported beyond the seas, usually to New South Wales or the more dreaded Van Diemen’s Land. In spite of all that she endures and the challenges she faces, our heroine succeeds in some way, either through an advantageous marriage or sheer grit and determination to better herself. She manages to put her shameful past behind her and becomes one of the founding mothers of the nation. 

The famous novel Sara Dane by Catherine Gaskin, which was inspired by the real story of Mary Reibey [see note below] started this trend back in the mid 1950s and, with variations, has been the basis of many a romantic “convict novel” ever since. 

The historical reality is that beauty was in short supply among convicts and not many of them were totally innocent, the majority being career criminals with a history of offending and re-offending. Sadly, any of those who may have been comparatively naïve or innocent before their sentences were often dragged down into the mire by forced association with these hardened individuals and the brutal treatment they received at the hands of those in authority.

There are many records still in existence in various archives of countries that used to be part of the British Empire detailing the circumstances, trials and sentences of a group of women who came under British laws and jurisdictions and these form the basis of From the Edges of Empire: Convict Women from Beyond the British Isles, edited by Lucy Frost and Colette McAlpine for the Convict Women’s Press.

Available from Convict Womens Press

This absorbing compilation throws new light on some of the amazing 200 or so women who don’t fit the accepted image of convicts all being of British heritage. Although only a tiny fraction of the 25,000 women who were transported were tried and sentenced in countries other than the British Isles, very few them were described of colour with others simply being described as foreign - which could mean anything including race or colour - but more often that simply she could not speak English. Some were slaves with no rights or no-one to defend them, some were just girls, some had aristocratic or influential connections in Europe yet still fell foul of British law. Their crimes were of passion or hate or necessity. Some were victims of men and a cruel system, others were manipulative and immoral by nature. Fascinating, and even disturbing reading in places, several of these women could be subjects of novels in their own right. 

It is somewhat ironic that having a convict in the family tree was something Australians used to try and hide but now has turned into a badge of honour and pride, although modern people do tend to rose-tint the facts about their ancestors and give them attributes that are more wishful thinking than fact. It’s fine to have a clever or pretty “Sara Dane” in your family tree, but please don’t let her be ugly or diseased or an imbecile, a prostitute, a poisoner or creepy child abuser; nor should she be a “person of colour”. Some Australians with a convict background may assume their dark colouring comes from an Aboriginal connection but won’t know they are in fact descended from black slaves from the West Indies or mixed race individuals from India, Mauritius, or the Cape of Good Hope. 

If these women survived the tough system, once they served their sentences and were no longer under the eagle eye of jurisprudence or in the paper records, many simply disappeared into the general population, probably taking new names or camouflaging their pasts. One particularly shocking story related in the book involved a Scots missionary woman in India who was suspected of incest with her brother and who was transported for whipping to death her seven year old niece. In later years, she moved frequently through the southern part of Australia, perhaps deliberately hiding her trail. If her descendants alive today know nothing of her story, it may be better that they never do, as some convict crimes still border on the unspeakable and can never be equated with the romantic stolen handkerchief version.

Another woman who appears in the list of foreign-born female convicts in this book is the con woman and serial bigamist, Hannah Mary Anson, who sometimes gave her birthplace as Madras, India. After her final release in 1854, it is assumed she went on to reinvent a different life for herself and it may well be that she is another convict with living descendants today who know nothing of her at all. Her story appeared earlier in this blog and can be read here (1) and here (2).

One contributor From the Edges of Empire, Kay Buttfield, in writing about women sent from South Africa, gives this apt closing to one of the chapters:
"The lives of these people, like all the convict lives whose stories are narrated, come to us through the records - some more detailed than others - but all allow a moment to contemplate these people. In the gathering of these threads of lives we will never know all the answers. However their lives gain a little dignity when we can tease out their stories and our history of the British Empire becomes the richer for knowing them."
(And not to forget the men of different heritage - another exceptional book from another Tasmanian author is Black Founders by Cassandra Pybus.) 

Note:  The real Mary Reibey was hardly the glamorous Sara Dane of book covers but she is worth reading about.  Most Australians will probably look at her image every day and never give her a second thought - she features on the $20 bill - and is about due for rediscovery by a new generation of enterprising women.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

"Florence Nightingale of the brush"

Some of the most famous and impressive 19th Century battle scenes ever painted were done by a woman, Elizabeth Southerden Thompson, better known simply as Lady Butler.

Born in Switzerland in 1846 she and her multi-talented sister, the poet and suffragette, Alice Meynell, received an extraordinarily enlightened education for any woman of the time. Their father, Thomas James Thompson, was a man of “independent means and artistic leanings” who decided to tutor his daughters himself rather than entrusting them to a governess.

National Portrait Gallery London

Elizabeth spent much of her childhood in Italy where she first began to paint, later continuing formal art studies both in Florence and London. But it was in France where she found her true metier when she encountered the new style of battle scenes being pioneered by French painters.

The Roll Callfirst shown in 1874, became one of the most famous and popular paintings of the era and people queued for hours to see it when it went on tour around the country. It has been much copied for everything from calling cards to the lids of chocolate boxes and jigsaw puzzles. The fact this very masculine subject was painted by a pretty young woman who couldn’t possibly know what the battlefield was really like somehow added to its appeal. Several of her subsequent paintings went on to equal acclaim.

The Roll Call, Royal Collection
28th Regiment at Quatre-Bras, National Gallery of Victoria
In 1879, by a margin of a couple of votes, Elizabeth lost her opportunity of becoming the first-ever female associate of the Royal Academy and she made no further attempts to pursue what should have been her rightful accreditation.

Scotland for Ever! Leeds Art Gallery

Although she painted what is perhaps her best known work Scotland for Ever! after her marriage to Sir William Francis Butler, giving birth to a total of six children and globe-trotting with a military husband created obstacles to her output. It also didn’t help that Elizabeth’s approach to the glorification of war and battle altered with time. Her husband was an Irish Catholic and together they started to take a more critical view of the British Empire and what it stood for. Her painting Evicted is a strong indictment on the treatment of the Irish people at the time of the Famine.

Evicted, University College Dublin

Inevitably, she was increasingly ignored by the establishment and left behind with changing tastes in art. By the time of World War I, battles bore little resemblance to the old-fashioned glorified reflections of “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die” * ideals for which she had become famous. Although she continued to paint interpretations of WW1, they never reached the fame of her earlier works.

Yet when one looks carefully at her sketches and smaller studies of the men she portrayed, her sympathy with the fears and stoicism of the fighting man remains the same, no matter the era or type of conflict.

Man of Kent (The Buffs - Royal East Kent Regiment)
Remnants of an Army, Tate Britain

Study of a wounded Guardsman,
National Army Museum

Lady Butler also wrote a number of books, including her own Autobiography, Sketch Book and Diary and Letters from the Holy Land, all of which include lesser-known paintings and sketches from her world travels and they are free to read or browse online.

Lady Butler at her easel, Dover Castle 1898

Her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Biography concludes with: 
"Lady Butler has a dual claim to fame. She pioneered a new, more realistic depiction of warfare in British painting, one which was to prove immensely influential at the end of the nineteenth century. And she briefly enjoyed critical and popular success of such magnitude that, for a while, it seemed a new era for women artists in Britain was about to dawn."
It is interesting to discover there was more enlightenment and willingness to accept a woman artist in the 1870s than in subsequent years. Although two women had been instrumental in the founding of the Royal Academy in 1768 (Angelica Kaufman and Mary Moser) it wasn’t until 1922 that Annie Swynnerton was admitted as an associate, with Dame Laura Knight receiving full membership in 1936.

Sir William received Bansha Castle in County Tipperary as a grace-and-favour house after he retired from the Boer War, even though he had often upset his superiors over their handling over that War and was even accused of being a Boer sympathiser. (While his wife remains comparatively famous, there is much about Sir Williams own illustrious Empire career that is now forgotten, not least his involvement in Canada in the establishment of the North-West Mounted Police, now known as the Mounties.) 

After Sir William died, his wife lived on at Bansha until she was driven out by the IRA in 1922, leaving many paintings and other possessions behind. It is said one of those paintings called The Camel Corp has a bullet hole in it. Whether apocryphal or not, it reflects a certain irony.

Lady Butler spent her later years at Gormanstan Castle, County Meath. She died on 2 October 1933.

Last page in Lady Butler's Autobiography

* From “Charge of the Light Brigade”, Alfred , Lord Tennyson.