August 2022 meeting: Judy Stove on Rachel Henning’s Austenian Letters

Our August meeting represented a little change of pace for JASACT in that we had a guest speaker instead of our usual member-research focused discussion. We enjoy our meetings, but change is always refreshing, and when that change is a guest presentation from one of our own, it’s extra special. Judy Stove was one of JASACT’s first members, but she and her family returned to Sydney, early in our history. Disappointing for us but lucky for JASA as she has been active there. All this is to say, we were thrilled to have her back, even just for an afternoon.

So, a bit about Judy. Having majored in the Classics, Judy has focused in recent years on writing and researching in 18th and early 19th century literature and thought. She has written many articles, including for JASA’s Sensibilities, and has published two books on Austen related subjects, her first being, The missing monument murders (Waterside Press, 2016), and her second, a biography of Jane Austen’s friend Anne LeFroy, Jane Austen’s inspiration: Beloved friend Anne Lefroy (Pen and Sword, 2019). This latter was to be the topic of her talk to us when it was first mooted pre-pandemic. 

However, with over two years having passed since that first plan, Judy suggested a different topic, one she gave to the online Jane Austen in the Pan Pacific conference a few months ago about ‘Rachel Henning’s Austenian Letters.’ As she wrote to us when she proposed it, it’s got an Aussie theme, and it ties in well with JA. We were intrigued – and said, “yes, please”.

Rachel Henning’s letters

Rachel Henning was born in England in 1826, and, as Judy told us, first came to Australia with her sister in 1854. She didn’t like Australia – neither the landscape nor the vegetation, and certainly not the weather (writing that she was ”tired of perpetual glare of sunshine”). And so, homesick, she returned to England in 1856. However, she returned to Australia in 1861, and this time her response was far more positive. She liked Australia. It was winter, which likely helped! She wrote that she had “forgotten how magnificent the Blue mountains was” and that “I mean to be very happy in Bathurst this time”. All this is chronicled in her letters to her sister in England. They cover thirty years of her life in Australia.

Penguin ed, 1969

These letters were first published, decades later, in The Bulletin over 1951 and 1952, with the first collected edition being published in 1952, illustrated by none other than Norman Lindsay.

The letters were immediately popular, and stayed so through the 1950s and 60s, but had their critics too. Norman Lindsay was a fan, writing of the “spiritual, therapeutic function of letters”. He wrote an introduction to the edition. He also likens Henning to Jane Austen, whose letters he liked. Unlike many male readers, Lindsay found Austen’s letters not dull but revealing. Judy shared more male reader responses, positive and negative, to Austen’s letters over the years, before returning to Rachel Henning. Henning was, said Judy, a great chronicler and would have made a good journalist – just as Austen would have made a good reviewer.

She suggested that Henning’s letters fell out of favour after the early enthusiasm because of her somewhat snobbish attitude, particularly to First Nations Australians. However, she also argued that Henning’s attitudes did change a little over time, and that she showed some humanity, describing, for example, people looking “tired” and “sad”. She also noticed tensions between “wild blacks” and those working on the stations. Not surprisingly, from her point-of-view, the “boys” on the station were ok! We, from our vantage point though, know every well now how this division – not always an absolute one because many First Nations Australians at the time moved between living traditionally and on stations – contributed to the collapse and loss of culture.

Moreover, Judy noted that her comments on Irish people were also negative, according, as other Aussies at least will know, with a common view of the times.

Judy also ran through Henning’s life in Australia, which was closely entwined with those of her brother Biddulph and sister Annie, and which saw her live in many places in eastern Australia from country Queensland to southern New South Wales, before spending the end of her life in Sydney. She reminded us of the challenges of living in that era, particularly for those who lived remotely, of the inconveniences and unpredictability involved in communication, for example. But, Henning came to enjoy the camaraderie and relative freedom of her life in Australia. She described Henning as being distinctive in appearance, and as having strong opinions and a dry wit. She was “very baffling to strangers” and was generally regarded with awe.

Judy fleshed out Henning’s life with lovely details – including quotes from her books and illustrations she’d found during her research. She also had a copy of that first Norman Lindsay edition which we were all able to finger! However, Judy is hoping to write an article or continue her work on Henning in some way, so we don’t want to steal all her thunder here! You can, though, read a brief summary of Henning’s life at the Australian Dictionary Biography.

Judy concluded her talk by drawing more comparisons with Austen, mentioning such issues as the apparently severe editing of Henning’s letters, which reminded us of the influence Cassandra and Austen’s family had over crafting her letters and biography. There is also an intriguing connection with Austen’s family through the Leigh family, but I’ll leave that, also, for Judy to explore more in her work.

(Bill Holloway, writing on Rachel Henning on The Australian Women Writers’ blog talks about her “Austenesque life”).

Our next meeting

The topic for our next meeting was a broad one, on conspiracies and myths surrounding Austen’s life and in her fiction. (Was Marianne pregnant, for example?) But, since then, it has been suggested that we break this discussion into more than one meeting, and start with focusing on Austen’s own life, on the fact and fiction in the stories we’ve been given about Austen’s life.

4 Responses to August 2022 meeting: Judy Stove on Rachel Henning’s Austenian Letters

  1. wadholloway says:

    I noticed here and in Monday Musings that Ms (Dr?) Stove seems to underplay the important part that farming played in Henning’s life. She was bookkeeper (I think) on her brother’s north Qld station, and later farmed with her husband in the Illawarra. It was only when their partners had died that the brother and two sisters lived together once again in Sydney.

    Interesting that though the Englishy Bathurst reconciled Henning to Australia, she was very happy in the outback (Qld).

    • She did talk about the farming a bit Bill, but there’s only so much you can talk about in 45 minutes. Also, I purposefully scaled down my report because she might work this up more and I didn’t want to over-share her work at this point.

      It was really interesting, l think, how much Henning flipped in her attitude. Made me think of the 10 pound Poms. I seem to remember that about half returned home after doing their 2 years, but that about half of those then came back.

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