This story of two forgotten figures in Australian literature, Daisy Bates and Ernestine Hill, is a thought-provoking read

Forgotten women of literature
  • Into The Loneliness, by Eleanor Hogan. NewSouth, $34.99.

This fascinating biography celebrates two forgotten figures in Australian literature - Daisy Bates and Ernestine Hill - and their intertwining life and work.

Daisy Bates was famous for living under canvas for much of her adult life in the outback, conducting ethnographic research on the Aboriginal people she lived beside. Ernestine Hill was a journalist who originally went bush in search of stories in the 1930s, and lived under canvas on nothing much, pursuing colour pieces from all over the outback.

The biography's author, Eleanor Hogan, re-traces some of their itinerant lifestyle, buying a campervan and crossing the Nullarbor more than once to follow her quarries.

Daisy Bates was born in 1859 in Ireland, and came to Australia first in 1882. She was not trained as an anthropologist, yet she nevertheless achieved recognition for her work on Aboriginal languages and customs, initially of Indigenous groups of Western Australia and then, later, of the Ooldea area in South Australia. She was awarded a CBE in 1934.

She also achieved notoriety, since not all her claims about Aboriginal people were accurate, and some were sensationalised, in her search for recognition (read: remuneration) from governments for this work. Hogan explores whether there was some involvement of Bates in the stolen generations, the separating of children born of mixed unions from their families in those areas, which had earned Bates condemnation from some Aboriginal groups over the years.

By the time Bates met Hill, Hill was well known as a contributor for Packer magazines, and it is her book, The Great Australian Loneliness, that gives the biography its title. Hill was born in 1899 in Rockhampton, and began down her nomadic path after an affair with a married man (rumoured to be a Packer) left her with a son, Bob. Bob was frequently left with her mother as a child, but later when he was older, mother and son travelled together for many years.

Hogan opens the biography at the point where Ernestine Hill met Daisy Bates, who was 40 years her senior, at the camp Bates had set up on the Trans-Australian railway siding at Ooldea in 1932.

Hill was captivated by the eccentric lady in Edwardian garb who spent her time with the local people documenting their customs. She encouraged Bates to come to Adelaide and work with her on a series for the Adelaide Advertiser about her life. It appeared as a newspaper series, and was eventually published as a book in 1938, The Passing of the Aborigines, which became a bestseller. It was known that Hill had in fact ghosted it, although Bates never acknowledged her.

This, and Bates' growing dementia in old age, put a strain on their friendship. Yet they maintained the bond until the end of Bates' life. Bates died in 1951 and Hill eventually wrote a memoir of Bates entitled Kabbarli: A Personal Memoir of Daisy Bates. Kabbarli, an Aboriginal word for grandmother, was a mantle Bates frequently took on herself to describe her relation with Aboriginal people.

Hill died in 1972, her outstanding royalties not quite expunging her debts. The book highlights in many places the precarious financial position of these women, living outside the conventional roles of wife and mother that, as Hogan points out, functioned as a kind of "welfare net" for women at the time.

Hogan explores in the relationship between these two women, writing in a time when Australia and Australian writing was developing its identity. While most Australians lived in coastal cities, then (as now) the romanticising of the bush as the real Australian identity was in full swing and Hill, in particular, made portraits of the white settlers and their isolated lives her stock-in-trade. Bates' work focused more on the Indigenous peoples, whom she assumed, like others of her day, were "dying out". Both writers contributed through their work to the overarching picture of relations between white and black Australia in the settler nation.

This is an important book, reviving the story of these two remarkable women writers in danger of being forgotten. The portrait she draws of their lives in outback adversity gives them a new vivacity. It points to the growing awareness in Australia through the 20th century of the terrible injustice that had been done to Indigenous people in the white invasion. It's surprising to learn that there were people who thought that then.

It's also surprising to see challenged the picture of women of that time as docile homemakers. Through force of circumstance, Bates and Hill lived intrepidly in the face of the stifling sexism that gave security only on condition of compliance to the feminine role.

Today, we still hesitate before the Uluru statement from the heart, along with the burning question of the poor treatment of women. This makes Into The Loneliness a timely and thought-provoking read.

  • Robyn Ferrell's latest book Philosophical Essays on Free Stuff has recently appeared with Lexington Press.
This story Forgotten women of literature first appeared on The Canberra Times.