Saturday, July 3, 2010

flat on her back she played

The Fraters by then had three children -- the last, Alex,* was born in 1859. They had risen in standing enough to have the death of their second son, Peter, reported in the Maitland Mercury two years before.

* To distinguish the three Alexander Fraters in Barbara's life, the first, her father-in-law, is always called Alexander; her husband, Alex; and her son, Alec.

It's a fact, M. says, that once you become aware of something you see it everywhere. It was only a few days after I finished Penne Hackforth-Jones' 1989 biography of Barbara Baynton that I was working my way through a box of of books in one of those shops that sells cheap remaindered stock when I came across a name that was absolutely familiar to me from Baynton -- the name of Alexander Frater -- on the cover of a book called Tales From the Torrid Zone -- and so I stood there, startled, as I tried to work out how this person might be related to Barbara Baynton, if he might, somehow, be her son -- this, in spite of the fact that I knew the dates were wrong, that the son had been a middle-aged man when his mother died in 1929, that there was no earthly way he could be alive now and writing travel books -- unless he was immortal or magical -- yet I stood there on the concrete floor for about a minute, thinking, "The Alexander Frater?" We're going through a cold stretch of weather and my toes are like marble. When I went outside earlier there were lorikeets on the telephone wires.

The one bird that recurs throughout Hackforth-Jones' book is the crow:

On a trip visiting friends in the bush, she [Barbara Baynton, in her sixties] had risen before dawn to watch the countryside waking. She had walked far out to see the bird and animal life as it stirred into action. An emu rose stiffly from its nest, a dog barked at the hurdled sheep, lizards scrambled out of their shelters. Lying flat on her back she played childhood games with the crows -- trying to dupe them into thinking her dead

In photographs taken around that time Baynton looks rich and fashionable; she was one of those women who are called formidable. When I try to imagine her on the ground it's this vision that I see: the slightly-smiling woman of the photographs wearing her collar of grey pearls, prone like an effigy among the trees, while, nearby, a crow stands on a fallen branch, turning its head suspiciously and watching her, waiting to peck out her eyes, as, in an earlier chapter, a different crow removed one eye from the head of a dead cow. A vision so radiantly strange that it comes like benediction in a book that tries too hard to guess its way into the life of its subject through a mixture of cheap psychology and passages lifted from her fiction.

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