EIGHTY-FOUR AMAZING YEARS
Rosa! Rosa! A life of Rosa Praed, Novelist and Spiritualist. By Patricia Clarke. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. 1999.
Reviewed by Marilla North
Patricia Clarke's biography re-examines the socio-economic and psycho-emotional forces that drove Rosa Campbell Praed (1851-1935) through the eighty four years of her amazing life, most of which was dedicated to creative self-actualisation through a prolific publishing career.
Miles Franklin in her idiosyncratic history of the Australian novel Laughter, not for a Cage (1956) wrote: 'Few Australian women can have had a more glittering or varied career than Mrs Campbell Praed, from a colonial bark hut among aborigines to London society in wide diversity at the height of Victorian prestige. She was the vogue, and continually in the news in Australia.'
The only other substantial biography of Rosa Campbell Praed is Colin Roderick's In Mortal Bondage (1948), written in the then popular biographical 'recreations' of conversations at key historical moments that blur the genres and at times plunge the ficto-historical protagonists into melodrama.
It's not surprising, then, that Rosa's paternal progenitors, the Murray-Priors, and her male-dominated frontier bush childhood take up about one-third of Roderick's gung ho tome. This compares with the (approximately) ten percent that Clarke's text devotes to 'On the Frontier'.
Clarke's biography fills that other space with Rosa's growing spiritualism through her novels and her relationship with the entrancing medium Nancy Harward, which began in 1899 and lasted to the grave. Roderick finds this lesbian love hard to handle, alluding to the un-nameable passion as 'the fulfilment of a rooted urge that rose from some unrecognized psychological perversion.' He speaks from within that poofter-bashing Anglo-Australia which gave us PM Robert Menzies and the witch-hunting of Sir Eugene Goosens and Professor Sydney Sparkes Orr.
Another interesting aspect of comparison and contrast between the two biographies - which sit exactly fifty one years apart, at the beginning and at the end of Australia's period of young adulthood as a 'modern' nation in the post-colonial period - lies in the treatment given the dark underbelly of early settler Queensland. Colin Roderick generalises the white male colonial supremacists in a somewhat conservative understatement: 'The whites as a rule did not take the trouble to inquire into native customs, neither did they abstain from taking native women to serve their ends.'
Rosa's father, Thomas Lodge Murray-Prior, had arrived in New South Wales in 1839 at the age of 19. A handsome 'ladies' man' and 'a gentleman squattah who drove his own [bullock] team', his wild oats had apparently included fathering a child by an Indigenous tribal mother whom he has 'taken'. He married the beautiful Anglo-Irish emigré, Matilda Harpur, in Sydney in 1846.
Third born of this union, Rosa Caroline 's most formative early childhood years were spent on the frontier outpost of European settlement, Naraigin, on the Auburn River 300 km north-west of Brisbane where the town of Hawkwood now stands. It was the country of the Yiman tribe, hostile at the usurpation of their land and the relentless rape of their women.
As Raymond Evans and Bill Thorpe lay bare in Overland 163 (July 2001) in their chillingly forensic essay 'Indigenocide and the Massacre of Aboriginal History', punitive mass-murdering rampages by private white vigilantes were common. One such, undertaken after the 1857 Yiman-reprisal murder of the Fraser family (neighbours of the Murray-Priors) which Rosa believed she'd witnessed in rehearsal, was characteristic of Queensland's land-taking Indigenocide.
Patricia Clarke uses historical documents and Rosa's autobiographical writings (chiefly Australian Life: Black and White, 1885) to examine the Fraser family-Hornet Bank tragedy; following the spearing of five Fraser women, three sons and three retainers, 500 of the Yiman were hunted to death by vigilantes. Thomas Murray-Prior was among them.
Rosa, at least psychologically and in later ('false') memory, participated with her father in these horrors. She believed that she 'had taken part in the sweeping away of the old race from their own land'. Guilt and nightmare visions of these events pursued her, and she became increasingly involved in transcendental spiritualism in a quest for ancestral spirit power.
Clarke shows that as a young woman Rosa had also suffered empathetically the consequences of her mother's endless childbearing and perhaps, too, the painful knowledge of Murray-Prior's extra-marital affairs. In 1868, aged just forty one, Matilda died of consumption following the birth of her twelfth child; Rosa was seventeen and her hair fell out, a dramatic reaction to stress which recurred throughout her life. The trauma no doubt also contributed to Rosa's eventual revulsion and rejection of the heterosexual act and its procreative consequences.
Thomas Murray-Prior, now an eligible widower as a Minister in the Queensland government, courted one Nora Barton (just five years his daughter's senior) through 1872. Consequently Rosa herself made an unexpected and - Clarke hints - precipitous decision, and on October 29 1872 married Arthur Campbell Bulkley John Mackworth Praed with whom she was (apparently) barely acquainted.
During the Victorian Age in the British Empire's colonial plantation and manufacturing - wealth- based middle classes 'a great proportion of marriages ... did not take place from love at all, but from some interested motive, such as wealth, social position or other advantages', as Walter Houghton explains in The Victorian Frame of Mind. Of course: 'In a society so permeated by the commercial spirit, love could be blatantly thrust aside if it interfered with more important values.'
The seventh son of a 'notable' English family, the reader (and most likely Clarke herself) suspects that Campbell Praed was the classic 'remittance man'. The union smacked of 'interested motives' on both sides. As Clarke wryly observes: 'Rosa saw in Campbell a well-connected Englishman.... Marriage to him implied the prospect of visiting and perhaps living in England, so furthering her dream of becoming an author.' Rosa certainly spelled out this motivational sequence in many of her fictional Australian heroines, notably in Miss Jacobsen's Chance (1886).
Rosa's early married life was spent in the wilderness and on the constant edge of hysteria living on an isolated cattle station on remote Curtis Island (off Rockhampton) which proved a 'mean and sordid, grubby destiny'. It was here that she began her flight into spiritualism and the occult as - alone, afraid and the victim of pregnancy - she received in 'automatic writing' what she believed were messages of stoicism and support from her dead mother.
Finally the stoicism paid off and, in February 1876, with their first two infants in tow, the Campbell Praeds sailed for England, arriving a day after the death of Praed senior. Campbell's apparently feckless fiscal record was confirmed in his father's Will; but the extended family came to the rescue and co-invested in a brewery in the Midlands which he would manage. Rosa bore him just two more sons before she withdrew from conjugal life.
Clarke traces the waxing and waning of the Campbell Praed marriage with all its personal and financial trials against the backdrop of London's 'Upper Bohemia' at the end of the nineteenth century. It is a fascinating stage with a cast of eclectic players - including Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle, Madame Blavatsky, Ouida and Dame Nellie Melba - all moving in exotic drawing
room sets. The profligate behaviour of the males in the cast (including both Campbell Praed and the Prince of Wales) underscores the hypocrisy beneath the prudery that was characteristic of the double-standards of Victorian English society.
Rosa Campbell Praed published over 50 books, six in collaboration with MP and Irish Home Rule advocate, Justin McCarthy. Her husband's family connections certainly helped. Her first Reader's Report in London was from none other than the prestigious novelist George Meredith. Many of her novels became best-sellers and some (as did her play Ariane on the West End
Stage) created such controversy in London society that she became an almost notorious media-celebrity.
From the outset it was the exoticism of her themes which drew her audience: An Australian Heroine (1880) and Policy and Passion: A Novel of Australian Life (1881) fed the Victorian appetite for colonial Otherness with their first-hand detail of the edges of civilisation, settler against savage, and of the bunyip aristocracy's politics in frontier-town Brisbane.
Increasingly, however, the chattering English upper-classes themselves became both the source of Rosa's stories and the advertising medium for the rapid spread of their popularity amongst those whose intrigues, passions and arcane dabblings were refracted on their pages.
Clarke charts the shifting tides of Rosa's emotional attachments and intellectual passions, from colonial politics to Catholicism, spiritualism, mysticism, Theosophy and the occult, to the 'memory of the Great Whole' - that place where 'things exist after they have once happened' - where 'whatever is can never not be'. It was within this realm in 1899 that Rosa found deep and abiding love with her 'twin soul', Nancy Harward, who had great psychic gifts and, possibly, schizophrenia.
Scribe, secretary, companion and mediumistic source of story, Nancy selflessly sacrificed her own creativity to Rosa's output. Nancy's past-lives and her other mystical revelations gave Rosa the substance of her texts for her last 30 years of writing. Moreover Rosa wholly appropriated Nancy's unpublished manuscripts, reworking them and publishing them as her own.
Clarke does not pass judgement on her subject's solipsism nor her ruthless drive for fame under which juggernaut, one suspects, the happiness of Campbell Praed and their four children was crushed. Each of them met premature and tragic deaths.
Seeking witness to Rosa's links with that 'eternity' which she had long sought, Patricia Clarke found only her unmarked grave in London's Kensal Green Cemetery. In Campbell Praed's family crypt nearby there is an empty shelf. Only Nancy Harward's 'small, white prism-shaped monument' records that she was 'Faithful and beloved'.
Marilla North recently edited and narrated Yarn Spinners: A Story in Letters, an epistolary tale of the friendships, intrigues and collaborations between Dymphna Cusack, Miles Franklin and Florence James (UQP, 2001). Currently completing a literary biography of Dymphna Cusack, entitled Come In Dymphna: The Life and Times of Dymphna Cusack, she is a PhD candidate at The University of Queensland.