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Jan/Feb 2004 Book Reviews

Bluestocking in Patagonia

Anne Whitehead
Profile Trade (July 2003) 312 pages
ISBN: 1 86197 504 X

reviewed by Ann Skea


In 1895, at the age of thirty, Mary Cameron travelled from Australia by mail boat, paddle-steamer, steam-train and on horseback to join the fledgling communal settlement called New Australia in a remote region of Paraguay. It was a brave trip for a lone woman to make, but Mary came from good Scottish pioneering stock; she had grown up on country properties in New South Wales, and had been taught by her father to be independent. Nevertheless, her experiences in Paraguay and Patagonia over the next six years would have tested even the strongest of women to the limits.

Mary arrived in Paraguay young, single and idealistic: she left as a married woman and a mother, in poor health, much wiser about the ways of the world but still idealistic, outspoken and determined. In A Bluestocking in Patagonia, Anne Whitehead has followed Mary's footsteps, has listened to her voice in letters, diaries and poems, and has found historical records and stories linked to her life in South America. She also knows much about the people Mary would have lived amongst and the sort of society she would have experienced at that time. This book is a fascinating synthesis of all this, and it is an unusual book.

Blue Stocking in Patagonia is as much a modern travel book as it is a biography of Mary Gilmore. It refers to Chatwin and Theroux and their accounts of Patagonia (some of which the locals now contest); it skims over South American social history, legend and story; and it provides a rich background and a valuable picture of the world Mary encountered and of her experiences during that busy six years of her life.

Mary Gilmore, as the advertising material for this book says, is an Australian icon. She is better known in Australia for her poetry than for her social views and activism, and there is a prize-winning portrait of her by William Dobell which hangs in the National Gallery of New South Wales, and which has been the subject of controversy ever since it was painted in 1944 (although Mary, herself, approved of it). This portrait appears as a shadowy background to the image of Mary which now graces the Australian $10 note. All of this makes her seem formidable. And, in many ways, she was.

She was born Mary Cameron in Goulburn, NSW, in 1865. In 1895, already a published writer and an activist for workers' rights, she left Australia to join the idealistic and already troubled new society at Cosme Station in Paraguay, and in 1897 she married William Gilmore. All her life she was a writer, an outspoken political commentator and activist, and a poet. Her most famous poem, one which caught the public attention and was even set to music, was "No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest," which she wrote in 1940 when Australia was under threat of invasion by the Japanese. In 1937 she was made a Dame of the British Empire for her services to Australian Literature, and when she died in Sydney at the age of 97 she was given a State funeral. She was an advocate of women's rights who thought the title "Bluestocking" was "repulsive," but her first biographer, William H. Wilde, considered that most people (the men, at least) would have thought her "a radical bluestocking" and "a somewhat daunting person."

The great value of Anne Whitehead's book is that it shows Mary to have been as human and as vulnerable as any other woman. Whilst in South America, Mary gave birth to her first child in a rented cottage in a strange town, alone with a drunken midwife. She wrote poignant, loving, and sometimes desperate letters to Will during their frequent work-enforced separations. And she struggled alone to look after her ailing son whilst she herself was suffering from repeated, debilitating bouts of diarrhea for which the doctors could find no remedy. Not surprisingly, she was often depressed. But her courage and her determination to do any job which would bring in money so that the family could return to Australia, saw her through.

There are other very human stories about Mary in this book. The poet, Henry Lawson, fell in love with her at first sight (so he told Mary), but Mary rejected his proposal of marriage, noting in her diary "a curious immaturity" in himólike a "sappy twig." Her engagement to a man who had preceded her to Paraguay fell through disastrously even before she arrived there, and the length of white muslin wedding-dress material which she had packed in her trunk remained uncut until she married Will Gilmore two-years later. Other glimpses of Mary as a wife and mother, mostly through Mary's own writings, show her to have been a woman of her times and to have shared some of the prejudices and the racism of those times. But Mary was never bound by social conventions, and her experiences during those years in South America made her more determined than ever to fight for the rights of the ordinary worker, something she did for the rest of her life.

Anne Whitehead is an excellent story-teller, a well-informed scholar and, like Mary, an intrepid traveller. I found her accounts of her own travels in South Americas equally as interesting as her glimpses of Mary's life. And I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys good travel-writing, whether they have heard of Mary Gilmore before or not.

 

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