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A lecture by Harold White Fellow, Patricia Clarke, at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1993
[Author’s Note: I gave this talk at a very early stage of my research on Rosa Praed. The result of that research was published as Rosa ! Rosa ! A Life of Rosa Praed, Novelist and Spiritualist by Melbourne University Press in 1999. My biography of Tasma, Tasma, The Life of Jessie Couvreur, was published by Allen & Unwin in 1994. This talk contains preliminary research only for these books. These biographies should be consulted for more considered accounts and interpretations of the lives of these women writers and also for references to material used in this talk.]
I’d like to thank the National Library for its Harold White Fellowship Scheme and for the admirably broad view the Library takes in choosing Fellows. My background is as a journalist and editor—good experience for researching and writing, but not the usual qualifications for such academically-named people as Fellows. My four months as a Fellow have been very enjoyable and profitable and I thank all the staff who have gone out of their way to help and advise me and to show their interest in my project.
This project has been to research material held in the National Library on Queensland-born writer Rosa Praed, a highly successful and prolific novelist, whose first book was published in 1880 and her last, over 50 years later, in 1931. Before I began the Fellowship my husband, Hugh and I visited some of the places where Rosa Praed lived in Queensland, something I find very important in researching a life.
Rosa Praed was born in 1851, the third child of Thomas Lodge Murray-Prior and his wife Matilda Harpur at Bungroopim or Bromelton, a property near the present-day town of Beaudesert, and about an hour’s drive west over the mountains from the Gold Coast. Murray-Prior had travelled north with Leichhardt in 1843 becoming one of the earliest squatters in the country north of the Tweed River, then still part of New South Wales. Their home at Bungroopim was sparse and primitive. The nearest neighbour was about a day’s ride away.
Bromelton is now a model cattle property, the homestead spacious and comfortable and the gardens so attractive they are opened to the public a few times a year to raise money for charity. The only reminders of the primitive and isolated existence of the Murray-Prior family is the unnamed grave of their second child, who died in 1850 at the age of five months. There is also a large and striking lagoon not connected to any other body of water. It was believed by the Aboriginal people to be bottomless and to be the home of the bunyip. These beliefs were adopted by early European settlers and occur in some of Praed’s writing. One of Praed’s aunts claimed to have seen the bunyip. The lagoon is about 100 feet deep and covers about 6 to 7 acres in surface area. The present owners told us geologists believed it had been formed by a meteorite long ago.
When Rosa was five, her father moved his family some hundreds of miles north to a property known as Naraigen or Hawkwood on the Auburn River, a tributary of the Burnett. In 1856 it was near the furthest edge of settlement. The property was so huge that after riding for about 70 kilometres Murray-Prior wrote that he had seen only part of his run.
On 27 October 1857 at Hornet Bank, a property about two days ride over the Auburn Range west from Hawkwood, eight members of the Fraser family and three other Europeans were murdered in an attack by Aborigines. The retaliation for this event was planned and carried out by Murray-Prior and others from Hawkwood station. Many Aborigines were shot on the western side of Mount Narayen, to the north of Hawkwood homestead. According to one account, those captured alive were handcuffed around a bottle tree and shot. Aboriginal academic Eva Fesl claimed in her book, Conned, that the number killed was 500. Other accounts put the number at up to 150. The year following the Hornet Bank tragedy Murray-Prior, fearing the possibility of attacks by Aborigines and following the loss of about 8000 sheep from scab, moved his family to Brisbane. They lived for a time on a banana plantation on the Brisbane River and then on land Murray-Prior owned at Cleveland where he grew sugar and cotton.
In 1861 Murray-Prior was appointed Queensland ’s first Postmaster-General, then a statutory position. When he resigned in 1865 he was nominated as a life member of the Legislative Council and in subsequent squatter cabinets held the ministry of Postmaster General, particularly in Arthur Palmer’s government between 1870 and early 1874. During parliamentary sessions, his family lived at Kangaroo Point but their main residence was Maroon, a property in the border ranges of south-east Queensland, south of Boonah, that Murray-Prior bought in 1865. Apart from a few governesses employed spasmodically when the family lived in Brisbane, Rosa was educated by her mother. She read from an early age, selecting books from the large library her father always took with him even though their early homes were only bush shacks. He also travelled with his collection of fine paintings, some of which are now in the Queensland Art Gallery.
The teaching by Rosa ’s mother, Matilda, was unusually effective. She began the ‘Maroon Magazine’, a monthly production to which she and her children and their cousins, the Barker children at Tamrookum, contributed stories and articles. Although Rosa was critical later of the stories they wrote, it was great training for the future. Her writing, Rosa said, was all about countries she had never seen. ‘Then it was the fashion,’ she wrote, ‘to despise native surroundings and the romance of the bush. We all wanted to be English. In the context of the time, however, her mother’s teaching was quite imaginative and set her daughter on a course of writing that was to continue to her death.
In 1868, after 22 years of marriage and after bearing her twelfth child, Matilda Murray-Prior died of tuberculosis. Rosa, who was then 17, became her father’s hostess in his role as a Cabinet Minister. She attended official events, the opening of parliament and governors’ receptions and she came to know most of the politicians and government officials. She was to use this invaluable experience when she came to write about Queensland society and politics in her novels. It was to emerge from her novels that she’d absorbed more of the atmosphere and intrigue, both personal and political, than may have been apparent at the time.
Many years later, an English friend and admirer, Edward de Fonblanque, assumed that she had had a sheltered colonial upbringing and had embarked on life with far less worldly knowledge than more conventionally educated English girls. This seems a wrong assumption. Her colonial background seems to have given Rosa Praed a wider knowledge of human nature than de Fonblanque believed possible—or that publishers would allow her to express uncensored.
In 1872 her father, then 53, planned to marry Nora Barton, aged 26, a member of a New South Wales pioneer family prominent in law and politics, who had trained as one of the ‘Florence Nightingale’ nurses under Lucy Osburn at Sydney Infirmary. This seems to have precipitated Rosa ’s marriage to Arthur Campbell Bulkley Mackworth Praed, a member of an English banking family. As a younger son he had come to Australia to make a fortune as a squatter. Within a few weeks of their marriage, he took Rosa to Curtis Island, off the Queensland coast between Gladstone and Rockhampton. His cattle station, Monte Christo, covered the whole island, about 70 kilometres long by up to 25 kilometres wide, apart from a lighthouse and pilot station at the northern end. From Gladstone, Rosa sailed in a small boat for four hours up the Narrows, the stretch of water that separates the dank mangroves of the island from the equally desolate mainland. Then she rode in a cart for about 10 kilometres, through oppressive bush harbouring myriads of mosquitoes, to arrive at a small, plain, dirty homestead. Her husband was often away on the mainland and she was stranded in the middle of an almost uninhabited island. She left for the birth of her first child in Brisbane but returned when Maud was some months old. She gradually became aware that her child, whose life was to be extremely tragic, was deaf.
At her lowest and loneliest moments on Curtis Island, Rosa turned to her dead mother for help. The message of hope she received, she recorded in automatic writing, which still exists. This was the first step in what was to become, in later life, an almost overwhelming interest in the supernatural in many of its forms, from the messages of mediums, the predictions of astrologers, spiritualism, occultism, theosophy, reincarnation, as well as the Catholic religion. Some of these, at least, were not unusual interests at the time. It was interesting at the Deakin conference held at the National Library in July 1993 to learn of Alfred Deakin’s similar interests in the mystical.
Rosa was saved from further endurance on Curtis Island when Campbell Praed sold his station in 1875. Early in 1876, when Rosa was 24, they sailed for England. She was to live another 60 years but, apart from a visit of a few months in 1894–95, she never saw Australia again. The remarkable feature of her enormous literary output is that about half of the well over 40 books she wrote were set in the Queensland she remembered from her childhood, youth and the early years of her marriage.
She began her first book within a few years of arriving in England using her most immediate Australian experience on Curtis Island as the basis for the story of a young Australian girl, Esther Hagarth, who marries an Englishman and does not live happily ever after. It appeared in 1880 as An Australian Heroine. The books that followed were, in the form Praed wrote them, too explicit for publishers and she was told continually to tone them down. Her second book, Policy and Passion, told of the personal and political intrigues of the premier of ‘Leichhardt’s Land’, the name she always used for Queensland. Longleat, the premier, woos the wife of one of his officials after sending the husband to a remote northern outpost. When the publisher saw the draft, Praed was told to delete and re-write. ‘It is sufficient to say Longleat took Mrs Vallancy home’, she was told. ‘All the wine drinking and temptations of her personal appearance are so realistic as to leave a very unpleasant impression.’ ‘There is something so repulsive in the relations of Mr Longleat and Mrs Vallancy that they will only be tolerated by the details being reduced to a minimum.’ Even more emphatically she was told by both the publisher and her friend and literary adviser, Frederick Sartoris, that she must modify a scene in which a young English aristocrat attempts to seduce the premier’s daughter. The publisher told her to delete ‘the animal quality of Barrington ’s conversation’. Sartoris told her it was impossible that an English gentleman could act in the way she’d written. In her next novel, Nadine, the birth of an illegitimate daughter is a central part of the story yet it is possible to read the novel, in the form in which it was published, without realising this birth had taken place.
I give these examples to illustrate that Praed’s colonial upbringing appears to have given her a unique opportunity to observe human nature and she combined this with a refreshing openness in writing about what she had observed. Her novel, Nadine, made her famous. She was entertained to lunch by the Prince of Wales and moved into circles that contained Oscar Wilde and other people then famous. From that point on, Praed’s books were in demand and in the next 20 years she wrote most of her enormous output of fiction. Her novels set in Australia were usually the most highly praised by critics but others set in England and Europe, some dealing with the occult, were very popular. One, The Brother of the Shadow, subtitled A Mystery of Today, first published in 1886, sold 11 000 copies. It was republished as recently as 1976 by the New York Times Company in a collection of ‘supernatural and occult fiction’.
Compared with many other nineteenth-century writers, there is an enormous amount of material about Rosa Praed’s life. In the National Library, there is a collection of about 480 letters written in her later life, plus a few from her earlier life, scattered through the Murray-Prior papers. The Murray-Prior collection also includes a wealth of background family information and draft material from some of Praed’s writing and collections of travel. There’s a further large collection of Praed material in the John Oxley Library in Brisbane.
There are also copies in the National Library of about 70 letters written by Nora Murray-Prior to Rosa in the first years after she went to England. Although Nora was her step-mother, they were separated by only about five years in age and their relationship was similar to that of sisters. Nora’s letters are among the best nineteenth-century women’s letters I have read. She wrote very frankly about her own life, about everyday life at Maroon, about Queensland politics and society and about the books she was reading. She discussed Praed’s novels in great detail and she responded rather warily to Rosa ’s interest in spiritualism and theosophy. She wrote about women’s concerns, both public—for example, whether emancipation was possible—and private. On the subject of child-bearing she was extremely frank and moving, sharing with Rosa her despair at further pregnancies. On one occasion on finding she was pregnant yet again, she wrote of her ‘unfathomable bottomless slough of despond’.
Rosa Praed depended on Nora’s letters for material for her Australian novels and some passages are clearly present in her autobiographical writing, Australian Life, Black and White and My Australian Girlhood. Nora often urged Rosa to return to Australia to refresh her memory. But when she read the description of the bush in Policy and Passion, she wrote: ‘You paint the scenery of scrub, creek & mountain most vividly—with almost the over-vividness with which one sees in one’s mind scenes that have been impressed on the brain in childhood. I am not sure that if you were to come out again you would not be disenchanted with it’. When Praed did return to Australia briefly she described the bush as dull. The skeletons of gums, she said, ‘got on her nerves’. But right through to 1916, when her last Australian book was published, she continued to depend on her Australian relatives for information—in later years on her sister Lizzie Jardine at Aberfoyle, south-west of Charters Towers, and her brother, Tom, who had been at the Palmer River goldrush and who lived at Bulliwallah station south-west of Bowen.
Unfortunately only a few of Praed’s letters from about 1876, when she left Australia, to the early 1900s seem to have survived. This missing period covers the time when she was at the height of her literary career and was exploring theosophy, reincarnation and Catholicism. It was also the period when even a facade of marriage with Campbell Praed fell away and a time when she suffered constant ill-health. The main bulk of Rosa Praed’s letters that have survived are from the last 20 to 30 years of her long life. Some of the letters are to Nora before she became blind, but most are to Rosa’s very much younger half-sisters, Dorothea and Ruth, and a few to nieces. They are a remarkable record of the old age of a woman whose personal life continued on a tragic course, and whose literary fame had, to a great extent, disappeared.
From 1899, Rosa lived with Nancy Harward, a mystic born in India into a British Army family. These two elderly women, Nancy often near death with bronchial asthma, Rosa suffering from heart disease, spent 15 to 20 years wandering almost aimlessly from hotel to hotel always hopeful the next move would be an improvement. In the summer they moved between London, Bournemouth, Torquay and other seaside places; in the winter, apart from the years of the First World War, to Cannes, Monte Carlo, Nice and other places in the south of France. The letters record their deeply dependent friendship. They also convey Praed’s great honesty in facing her life as her children died tragically and her enormous efforts to continue writing in adverse circumstances as well as her never failing novelist’s eye for observing people. After Nancy ’s death, they record her great resurgence of interest in writing, although she was by then in her late seventies.
The letters include many very modest comments on her writing. In her seventies she wrote, ‘It seems amazing now that I once could have written so many books—and some of them so poor—I’ve been looking over one or two and was disgusted’. Her novel Lady Bridget of the Never-Never Land, published in 1915, is now regarded as an early feminist work but to Praed its reception was problematic. She was critical of the happy ending she had written, describing it as ‘conventional and tawdry’, and told her half-sister, ‘I expect you will find quantities of Australian mistakes—I know of several myself already and have mixed up the flora of the north and south in a most reprehensible manner. I shall be surprised if the book goes well’.
During my research, I developed an ambivalent attitude to this enormous resource of Praed’s letters. Just when I decided they were getting boring, I would find myself anxious to read another lot, to find where Rosa and her family move to next, what new eccentric is sharing their meals, what they are reading, how Rosa has managed to improvise a table in her bedroom on which to write, what tragedy or what illness will strike them next, or how Rosa will handle further visits to her daughter, confined to a mental asylum in Bournemouth. On another level, they are essential reading for the information they contain on her past life and for the scattered details on how her books were written and on whom she based characters.
Apart from letters and similar records, there is a source of information about Rosa Praed’s life in her autobiographical writing. It would be simple to write about her childhood from her vividly written descriptions of her early life, to accept what she writes about her life as the truth. But this is a complicated area. To take one example: in her autobiographical writing, Praed wrote at length about Aboriginal people. She wrote recognisable accounts of the attack on stockmen at Terry Hie Hie Station and the resulting Myall Creek massacre and of the retaliation by troops under a person she calls Major Munn. We now know from the researches of Roger Millis for his book, Waterloo Creek, that Praed’s Major Munn was Colonel John Nunn, Australian Mounted Infantry, who was responsible for the deaths of 200–300 Aborigines at Waterloo Creek. These events happened before Praed was born. She heard the tales from her father who worked on Robert Scott’s station in the same district as the Myall Creek and Waterloo Creek massacres, only a few years after they occurred.
When the Murray-Prior family moved to Hawkwood, they were more closely involved in an Aboriginal versus white conflict following the Hornet Bank massacre of 11 Europeans. Rosa describes this event in both Australian Life, Black and White and My Australian Girlhood. In her account, she claims that one evening at the invitation of an Aboriginal youth, Ringo, she sneaked out of bed, across a river to witness a corroboree that was a rehearsal or foretelling of the Hornet Bank murders. She writes in her books that if only she had described to her parents what she’d seen, it’s possible the tragedy might have been averted. In his book about the Hornet Bank massacre, A Nest of Hornets, Gordon Reid dismisses the possibility of a child of six years and eight months remembering these details. ‘This story appears to be as false as anything in her writing’, he wrote. ‘Rosa Campbell Praed was responsible for more inaccurate statements about Hornet Bank than any other author.’ Some of her writing on this subject closely follows notes written by her father about the massacre and retaliation. Praed also implies that her memory was helped by morphia with which she was treated during long periods of ill health. But whether the details came from an over-stimulated brain or her father’s memory of the event, she conveys very movingly the almost frantic family atmosphere at that time—her mother confined entirely to a darkened room suffering from sandy blight, her father so anxious about whether he would find his family alive when he returned from an outstation that he fearfully approached the homestead waiting for a signal of life.
On a visit to Hawkwood, I stood outside the homestead, beside a huge bottle tree with the line of trees marking the Auburn River in front of me. I could see the route Rosa may have taken with Ringo to the Aboriginals’ camp—across a creek she called Donga Creek, now known as Hooper’s Creek after a later owner whose child is buried there—to a spot at the junction of the creek and the Auburn River where clumps of brigalow provided shelter for the Aboriginals’ camp. As I thought of that night in 1857, the present owners talked about the effects of the Mabo judgment. They had no personal reason for apprehension as the land at Hawkwood has long been freehold. As I stood there I was aware, as they may have been, of the bones of Aboriginal people killed in retaliation for Hornet Bank at the back of Mount Narayen, a prominent feature to the north of the homestead.
To some extent Praed’s novels are also sources on her life. It is impossible to read, for instance, descriptive passages in any of the three novels set on Curtis Island, An Australian Heroine, The Romance of a Station and Sister Sorrow, without feeling the oppressive isolation of the bush that she experienced there. I took The Romance of a Station with me when I visited Curtis Island. As I read it, I was struck by how exactly it described the desolate scenes, looking down from the bare hill on which Monte Christo homestead stands, or from the small outboard motor boat approaching Curtis Island across the Narrows looking, as Rosa Praed did, at the endless mangroves ahead. Similarly it is impossible to read her novels portraying the tensions of unhappy marriages without reflecting on her own marriage.
There is a great deal of biographical material about Rosa Praed, a considerable amount in this Library, but there are also tantalising gaps and there are problems in the interpretation of Praed’s autobiographical writing.
Researching Tasma, the pseudonym used by writer Jessie Couvreur to honour Tasmania where she grew up, was a very different experience. Although she was a famous novelist, lecturer and foreign correspondent in her lifetime, very little evidence of her life remained. I still remember my elation at finding just one of her letters. Altogether I found only four. I found the first, very unexpectedly, among the military memorabilia of the Fraser family, kept by a descendant of the second marriage of Tasma’s first husband, Charles Fraser. It was written less than a year after Tasma’s marriage, a very significant period in her life for which there’s no other direct evidence. I was similarly excited when I was handed the diary Tasma kept on the Windward, a sailing ship on which she travelled to England with her family in 1873. It is her first major writing—important for that reason, for the self-image that emerges from it, and also in providing evidence of her use of her own experiences in writing fiction. Another diary, more readily available, that she kept in Brussels in 1889 and 1890, is the most important resource on her life. Apart from these, discovering aspects of Tasma’s life was a matter of following hints from other sources, particularly diaries and reminiscences of family members; finding the public records of her achievements in Australian and European newspapers and periodicals and her contributions to these papers; researching at The Times archives in London for details of her employment by The Times; and referring to her factual and fictional writing.
In her lifetime, in the second half of the nineteenth century, Tasma, born Jessie Huybers, married first to Charles Fraser, later to Auguste Couvreur, was a famous woman. Her first novel, Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, was praised as ‘the book of the year’ when it was published in London for Christmas 1888. After the publication in 1890 of her second novel, In Her Earliest Youth, the London Times said she was ‘surpassed by few British novelists’. She was compared to George Eliot, described as the Australian Jane Austen, and her characterisation was said to equal that of Charles Dickens. At this distance, these seem exaggerated, even sad comments. If she was so remarkable, why was she forgotten so quickly?
In her introduction to an edition of Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, published in 1987, Margaret Harris wrote that Tasma had been ‘relegated to museum status in literary histories’. And in the blurb for a recent publication, Tasma was bracketed with ‘little known or forgotten writers’. Obliteration began quite soon after her death. In the 1930s, a respondent to a question and answer column in the Brisbane Courier asked, ‘Who was Tasma?’ The paper was unable to offer very much help, until a nephew living in Brisbane supplied some biographical information. My own experience is similar. When I told people I was writing a biography of Tasma, apart from those with a particular interest in nineteenth-century Australian literature, they asked: ‘Why? Who was she?’
The usual explanation for her obscurity is that, like other Australian women writers who wrote about love, marriage and domestic relationships and whose main characters were women, her reputation has been overtaken and submerged by the Bulletin school of almost exclusively male writers who emerged in the 1890s. These writers glorified the traditions of mateship and the bush to establish what came to be seen as the authentic picture of Australia. Perhaps Tasma’s later obscurity was influenced by the fact that she died at a relatively young age, that for the second half of her life she lived in Europe, and that she had no direct descendants to keep her memory alive. Other nineteenth-century Australian women writers, such as Ada Cambridge and Rosa Praed, lived much longer, the former in Australia and survived by children, but this has not saved them from a similar, if perhaps less marked, obscurity.
Tasma’s life deserves to be much better known, and not only because of her now almost forgotten fame as a novelist. Just as interesting and more gender-defying, she was also an acclaimed public lecturer in Europe, and a foreign correspondent for the London Times, both roles that contradicted the perception of women as solely homebound. In her personal life also, Tasma defied all the stereotypes of the nineteenth-century woman by separating from, and divorcing, her first husband.
In Europe she made an extraordinary career as a lecturer on Australia, becoming so widely known that King Leopold of Belgium telegrammed inviting her to the palace to talk about the subject of her lectures. The President of France honoured her with a decoration—Officer of the Academy—rarely awarded to foreigners, and even more rarely to women. It is difficult to convey at this distance how sensational were her appearances as a lecturer. Contemporary reports tell of the large audiences that applauded her enthusiastically as she spoke in an exuberantly nationalistic way about the Australia she had left behind.
Simultaneously, she wrote articles about Europe for publication in Australia. She reported on European culture, including the latest developments in art, literature, the theatre and philosophical theories, and on the radical issues of the day including experiments in collectivist living, communism, moves towards reform of divorce laws and cremation. She wrote also on her charitable works among the poor, who always aroused her sympathy. Through her articles, her readers in far-off Australia could feel part of the intellectual world of Europe. Her unusual achievements reached their peak in 1894 when she became Brussels correspondent for the London Times, an extremely prestigious, demanding and unusual position for a woman. In accounts of her life it is usually dismissively stated that she took over the position held by her second husband following his death. The London Times, however, regarded its foreign correspondents as an elite group, and jealously guarded their standing and reputation. Tasma’s lengthy fight to be appointed permanent correspondent in Brussels is recorded in the Times correspondence files. Once appointed she was so successful that Holland, where previously there was no Times correspondent, was added to her responsibilities. She reported not only domestic news but the crises of Belgian involvement in the Congo and, from Holland, she reported the reaction to one of the great intrigues of British colonialism, the Jameson Raid, in which Cecil Rhodes, the Colonial Office and The Times were involved in an attempted coup in the Transvaal. Her coverage of Belgian politics included the critical period when the extension of the franchise to adult males led to an upheaval in the previously narrowly-based Liberal and Clerical parties.
For six years before her second marriage, Tasma lived the life of a ‘New Woman’, the independent woman then beginning to appear both in real life and in fiction. From her base in Paris she earned her own living and was involved in the radical issues of the day. An interviewer wrote, ‘She was not a woman to hide the light of her militant radicalism under a bushel. When pressed to talk about her method of writing, she spoke instead of the latest developments in collectivism, and made an impassioned plea for the poor’.
As a young woman in London in the early 1870s, Tasma attended a meeting on the issue of women’s education. Straight from a colonial upbringing, she instinctively held more advanced views on the right of women to education than the distinguished speakers on the platform. She, like her mother, an independent-minded, forceful woman, was even then in the vanguard of thought concerning women’s rights. A few years later she wrote a vehement defence of women who killed husbands or lovers who had mistreated them over prolonged periods. Her arguments, presented over 100 years ago, were on a subject that today seems a recent concern. In her novels and other writing she often expressed antagonism to ‘Mrs Grundy’—the fictional narrow-minded character excessively attached to conventional behaviour. In her own life, Tasma was to find Mrs Grundys just as active in Brussels as in Australia. Her ultimate defiance of Mrs Grundy was to obtain a divorce from her first husband at a time when Victorian divorce laws made it almost impossible for a woman to sue for divorce and when it was so socially unacceptable that the number of divorces granted in the Colony of Victoria in any one year was rarely above single figures.
I began following Tasma’s life with not much more than a sketchy outline of her childhood, her two marriages, her achievements in journalism and lecturing and an acquaintance with her novels. At an early stage, I wrote to every Huybers in Australia whose address I could find—Huybers being Tasma’s maiden name. In this way I contacted people who were descended from Tasma’s brothers. The major success of this avenue of inquiry was meeting Dr Renée Erdos, a descendant of Tasma’s sister, Maria Theresa Loureiro, who lent me Tasma’s diaries and a few letters. These proved invaluable for my research. Gradually I discovered details of her family background in England and her childhood in Hobart, about the man she married so hastily at the age of 18, and the important part her brother-in‑law the prominent Victorian businessman and politician, William Degraves, played in her early married life. I also discovered her life at Blairgowrie in South Yarra, a district from which she was able to draw inspiration and material for her most successful novel, Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill.
Once Tasma began her public career as a lecturer, then became an acclaimed novelist and a journalist, there were more public records to follow. In European newspapers and periodicals there were accounts of her lectures and the appearance of her stories. There was even her translation of a book on American federalism from English to French. There remain gaps in Tasma’s life, particularly her motivation and reactions at important moments. Why, for instance, did she marry so hastily a man who proved so incompatible? Why after leaving Charles Fraser, did she return, temporarily, three years later? For some periods of Tasma’s life there is no direct evidence, apart from laconic and scanty reports from her young diarist brother, Edward Huybers.
When I sought information from descendants of Tasma’s sisters and brothers, apart from much other help, they directed me to her novels. Not Counting the Cost is the story of the Huybers family, they said. Madame Delaunay of In Her Earliest Youth is Grandma Huybers. George Piper and George Drafton and so on are Charles Fraser. It is unfair to Tasma’s talent to take her fiction so literally as a direct recreation of her life. Nevertheless, the parallels between some of her characters and the situations she describes and her own life became more striking the more I discovered about her.
I could continue with many other instances of my discovery of the threads of information that eventually began to form the material for a life of Tasma. While it involved more detective work than researching the life of Rosa Praed, it required similar interpretative skills. Biographical trails lead to many unexpected discoveries. The examples in this lecture are the results of my early research. There was much more to discover.