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Rosa Praed's lifelines to her Australian past.


This article is based on a paper published as 'A Paradox of Exile' in Landscapes of Exile: Once Perilous, Now Safe, edited by Anna Haebich and Baden Offord, Peter Lang AG, Oxford, Berne, Berlin, 2008

When the Queensland-born novelist Rosa Praed left Australia in February 1876 at the age of 24, it was a defining moment, a turning point in her life. She was exchanging a primitive homestead and the loneliness and dangers of life in the Australian bush for the established comfort and social standing of her husband's English upper-middle class family. She was an ambitious, aspiring writer who left with the dream that, in England, she would find a market for the stories she had already written and for many more that were swirling in her head. She was never to live in Australia again and she made only one brief visit in the first months of 1895. For nearly sixty years, until her death in Torquay, Devon, in 1935 at the age of 84, she lived in England or Europe.

As she was growing up in Queensland, her relatives were well aware that she wanted to marry an Englishman and live in England. She wanted to escape from what she termed 'eucalyptic cloisterdom' (1) and to meet the famous authors of the old world who had enriched her childhood with their stories. It was an ambition she later transferred to some of her fictional colonial heroines, in some cases to the point of caricature, for example, Marje Otton in 'The Finding of the Waterfall' who is determined to marry an Englishman but not an 'ordinary' one. (2) Rosa Murray-Prior took the first step to fulfilling her own ambition when she married a well-connected Englishman, Arthur Campbell Bulkley Mackworth Praed, in Brisbane in October 1872. Less than four years later, after her husband had sold his station on Curtis Island and abandoned the idea of pursuing a squatting life in Australia, the Praeds were on their way to London.

Rosa Praed's departure for England was a liberation, a move that opened up the world of publishers and enabled her to become a prolific and well-known novelist, the first Australian-born writer, according to Elizabeth Webby, to gain a significant international reputation. (3) It freed her from the prospect of years of rough riving and isolation on a distant station, broken only at lengthy intervals by the limited social opportunities of Brisbane colonial society. Instead, before her were the rich enticements of English country-house living and the social whirl of London seasons.

If she had married an Australian squarer, as her sister Lizzie Murray-Prior was to do, and had spent the rest of her life on an outback Queensland station, her talent for writing, observation, character portrayal and inventive plots may have remained relatively obscure. Perhaps she would have had some serials published in the Australasian or the Sydney Mail, a common pattern for Australian writers of that era, followed by a few novels published in book form. Even the comparatively successful and well-known later nineteenth-century novelist, Ada Cambridge, had several novels published as serials in Australian papers that were never published as books in her lifetime.

Exile is not a concept usually associated with this escape to wider horizons. But was Rosa Praed's liberation, in fact, exile? Was she both a willing expatriate and an exile, who suffered what Edward Said has described as 'the unhealable rift', the 'essential sadness' caused by the loss of 'something left behind forever'? (4) The most apparent evidence of a deep-seated and long-lasting dislocation was Rosa Praed's constant, almost obsessive, return to the scenes of her childhood and young adulthood for inspiration for nearly twenty books, or close to half her writing output. It was also to become apparent later in her life that there was another dimension to her sense of exile in her ceaseless search for spiritual and psychic fulfilment.

All her life, Rosa Praed was conscious of the special nature of her childhood as the daughter of early European pioneers and of her privileged position at the centre of Queensland political and social life as the daughter of a Cabinet Minister, Queensland Postmaster-General, Thomas Lodge Murray-Prior. Her unique experiences, she believed, gave her the knowledge and authority to write about the emotional impact of the Australian bush, European-Aboriginal frontier conflicts, the effect of pioneering life--particularly on women--and the emerging political and social life that followed the establishment of Queensland as a separate colony. This explains only partly, however, her persistence in returning for writing inspiration to her early experiences over such an extremely long period of nearly forty years. While her Australian works sold well, her books on theosophical and spiritualist themes appear to have been more successful. (5) She first introduced a theosophical theme in her novel Affinities, published in 1885, in which she portrayed in fictional form the initial wave of English interest in theosophy and Eastern philosophy almost as it happened. When she turned her writing skill to English high society, she was recognised as a gifted satirist, and she gained a considerable reputation for her feminist novels. Her 1887 novel set in London, The Bond of Wedlock: A Tale of London Life, was so successful in its ground-breaking portrayal of feminist opposition to the marriage laws of the time that a theatrical version, Ariane, played in the West End for four months.

Her success in these fields suggests it was not the demand of the market that dictated her continuing return to Australian subjects. It was rather a compelling inner need to compensate for the dislocation caused by her separation from her physical and spiritual home left behind forever. Australia remained unusually vivid to her all her life. Many years after she left, she wrote:
   I have never felt either English or Irish though nearly all my life
   has been spent in the British Isles. Always have I had the sensation
   of being an alien in London crowds whether fashionable or vulgur, &
   have in my fancy borne the stamp of the Bush ... I never see a gum
   tree whether it be in a flourishing plantation in Cannes, or a
   sickly denaturalised clump in the Roman Campagna, or one of those
   melancholy suckers in an English hothouse, without being seized by
   an untranslatable emotion. I never smell the pungent, aromatic scent
   which for twenty-three years was as the breath of my nostrils,
   without being carried back to the old vivid world, so much more real
   than this in which most things have happened to me ... (6)

It was the paradox of her life that moving to England opened up publishing opportunities that could never have happened if she had stayed in Australia yet cut her off from a major source of her talent as a writer.

This pull of the past led to a series of eighteen novels, short stories and autobiographical works, beginning with her first book, An Australian Heroine, published in 1880, and continuing for an extraordinary time to Sister Sorrow, published in 1916. Between these two she wrote: Policy and Passion (1881), The Head Station (1885), Miss Jacobsen's Chance (1886), The Romance of a Station (1889), Outlaw and Lawmaker (1893), Mrs Tregaskiss (1895), Nulma (1897), Fugitive Anne (1902), The Maid of the River (1905), The Lost Earl of Ellan (1906), Opal Fire (1910) and Lady Bridget in the Never-Never Land (1915) plus two semi-autobiographical works, Australian Life Black and White (1885) and My Australian Girlhood (1902) and two collections of short stories, Dwellers by the River (1902) and The Luck of the Leura (1907). She set these books in many different parts of Queensland, thinly disguised as 'Leichhardt's Land', from Kangaroo Point and Parliament House in Brisbane, to remote outback stations--the Curtis Island cattle station where she spent the first years of her married fife; the south-east border ranges where the Murray-Priors had Maroon and Rathdowney stations; the 'Leura', a fictional outback area of western Queensland; coastal north Queensland and what she described as 'the unexplored bush', the setting for a Lemurian novel. In these Queensland novels she created a colonial world, arguably the only fictional portrayal of nineteenth-century Australian society in such complete form and with such richness and diversity, apart from the very different world of Henry Handel Richardson's Victoria. Her novels are remarkable for their acute observation of social and political life and they raise questions regarding gender relations in a male-dominated society, the development of an Australian character, the impact of the landscape, and attitudes to frontier wars, race relations and labour conflicts. They also touch on contemporary views on such diverse subjects as euthanasia, divorce and political corruption.

Some of her own experiences left her with particularly vivid and lasting memories and these recurred in her fiction. In novel after novel she revisited the horrors of Hornet Bank, the scene of a massacre in the Burnett district where she lived as a child; the wild beauty and mystery of the mountain ranges near Maroon; the political manouevres in the Queensland Parliament and the romantic intrigues in Brisbane society that she observed as a young woman; and the rank oppressiveness of Curtis Island, her home for the first years of a marriage that was incompatible from the start and was to become unbearable. Curtis Island remained such a disturbing memory it was the setting for not only her first novel, An Australian Heroine, but her last, Sister Sorrow, published 36 years later, as well as the ironically titled novel, The Romance of a Station, and an autobiographical account in My Australian Girlhood. Her vision of Curtis Island was marked forever by her feelings of loneliness and isolation and her growing realisation that her marriage had been a mistake. At her lowest and most distressed point, she turned to her dead mother for help, attempting to contact her through automatic handwriting. Even when she wrote about Curtis Island in 1916, her heroine reacts as she herself had nearly half a century before: 'I was a Bush girl accustomed to vast solitudes and to Nature in many moods. But I don't think I had ever known anything grimmer and more desolate than the view of the unenclosed, fire-scorched ridge and the chaotic wilderness beyond' (7),

Curtis Island was uniquely her own experience and she relied entirely on her memory when she wrote about it. For her novels set in other parts of Queensland, she reinforced and added to her own memories by tapping into a rich source in letters from her relatives. Without the immediacy of these reminders, after her first raft of novels Australia may have become more remote as her success with occult and feminist fiction increased. Instead, she chose to actively seek information so that she could keep writing about Australia.


Her chief correspondent for the important part of her life when she was establishing her reputation as a novelist was her step-mother, Nora Murray-Prior, who lived at Maroon station. Separated by only five years in age and married within a few months of each other, Rosa and Nora enjoyed an unusual rapport, sharing with each other the intimacies of their married lives. For nearly a decade after she left Australia, Rosa received from Nora a stream of informative letters that ranged over personal and family news, social gossip and anecdotes about everything from bush characters to political developments, snippets of dialogue and descriptions of scenery. As she used sections of Nora's letters, Rosa would strike through the pages of the letters with diagonal lines. She also made copies of some material for future use keeping the extracts in an album she entitled 'Australian Notes' that grew to over 300 pages. (8) She was not just a passive recipient of news but actively sought information for her writing. 'You want a postman,' Nora replied in one letter, 'My idea of a postman is Ryan'. (9) She followed with a description of a short, bow-legged, red-faced horseman who brought the mail--and the gossip--to Maroon. He appeared soon after as a character in Praed's novel, The Head Station. (10) When Nora wrote of visiting an aristocratic neighbour, Lord Henry Phipps, a younger son of a Queensland governor, who was eccentrically trying to create an English ornamental garden, complete with waterfall and bridges on a small holding near Maroon, (11) Praed embellished and made the most of his eccentricity in two novels, as Lord Dolph in Policy and Passion and as Lord Horace in Outlaw and Lawmaker. (12) Here was not only an exotic character to place in the Australian bush, his aristocratic connections were an attraction to her English readers. There is hardly a character or an episode in Nora Murray-Prior's letters that does not appear in some form in Rosa Praed's fiction or her autobiographical writing.

Less direct information also influenced her writing. When Nora wrote of Brisbane 'belles' seeking love and romance, Rosa remembered the family pressures towards marriage and conformity behind her own forays into Brisbane society. Soon a fictional young society woman, the daughter of a politician under pressure from her father to marry, appeared as Sara Jacobsen in Miss Jacobsen's Chance (1886) and later as Nulma Goodeve in Nulma (1897). When her sister Lizzie wrote of camping in the bush as she travelled towards a distant station, Rosa remembered her family's trek north to their station, Hawkwood on the Auburn River, a tributary of the Burnett, then near the furthest edge of European settlement. When her father wrote of hunting Aboriginal people, she remembered the fear and isolation of life on an outback station but she also remembered the Aboriginal children with whom she had played as a child. All these stories were transmuted into her fiction.

When Praed was writing about parliamentary and political manoeuvres in Brisbane for her novel of political and sexual intrigue, Policy and Passion, she sent for copies of Hansard and government reports to refresh her memory. When she wanted to write about Aboriginal/European frontier conflicts, particularly the Hornet Bank massacre of eleven Europeans and its tragic consequences with the virtual elimination of the Yiman people by whites, that took place in the district where she lived as a child, she asked her father for his reminiscences. In her first use of this Hornet Bank material, she reproduced many of her father's squatter attitudes, but when she returned to the story later her view had changed. 'But you were taking their land', she has the heroine Bridget O'Hara exclaim in Lady Bridget in the Never-Never Land, after she had heard of the revenge of squatters following a massacre similar to Hornet Bank. '[Y]ou had come as an invader into their territory. What right had you to do that? You were the aggressor.' (13) In another novel, Fugitive Anne, after recording instances of the poisoning of Aborigines by settlers, she has her character, Anne Bedo, ask, 'Was it any wonder that afterwards white men were speared from behind gum-trees, and that there were murders on the lonely stations'. (14) Fugitive Anne is a particularly interesting novel in the context of Praed's sense of exile from her true home. At one level, it records the fantastic adventures of a white heroine revered by both an Aboriginal race and a prehistoric race of 'Red Men' in the Australian interior; at another, it touches on many of her own experiences, physical and mental, including a childhood spent with Aboriginal people, memories of the Hornet Bank massacre and its aftermath, escape from an unhappy marriage, and the impact of theosophical ideas and a belief in Lemuria, the lost continent that preceded Atlantis.

At a time when some of her valuable sources of information were drying up--Nora Murray-Prior spent some years in Europe in the later 1880s and Rosa's father died in 1892--and Praed's novels were becoming repetitive, a new source of information appeared through the letters of her sister, Lizzie Jardine, who wrote from her home at Aberfoyle station in western Queensland. Soon Praed began setting some of her Queensland novels in this outback semi-desert country that she named the 'Leura' or 'the Never-Never'. Aberfoyle was a cattle and sheep station, just above the Tropic of Capricorn, about 260 km north of Barcaldine, on Torrens Creek which fed into the Barcoo. Lizzie's letters gave Rosa a sense of the vast stations, the pervading droughts, the difficulties of travelling and the characters of this outback region. They also gave her information on the 1890s shearers' strikes and allowed her to write this conflict, one of the defining events in Australian history, into two novels, Mrs Tregaskiss and Lady Bridget in the Never-Never Land. News from her brothers, Morres and Hugh Murray-Prior, also fed into her 'Leura' fiction. Her brother, Morres's search for a child lost in the bush, an iconic Australian story, and her brother Hugh's description of a journey skirting Lake Buchanan, a desolate salt lake, east of Aberfoyle, became part of her Leura stories. (15) Hugh Murray-Prior's death in 1895, aged 34, from heat apoplexy while riding on his Annie Vale run, south of Lake Buchanan, reinforced her picture of this outback country.


Inevitably, there is a sense in which her Australian novels are frozen in time, anchored to the squatting life of huge spaces and to the politics of the first burst of colonial expansion and the first throes of self-government. As Beverley Kingston has noted, if Rosa Praed had returned to live in Australia, 'Australian society and politics could only have gained from her acute observation and incisive analysis'. (16) Instead, apart from a short visit in 1895, she remained in England and Europe where, as she wrote, 'most things had happened' to her--her writing success, her celebrity status in her heyday in the 1880s and 1890s, as well as the extraordinary tragedies in her personal life: an unhappy dysfunctional marriage maintained for many years as a facade; the violent deaths of her three sons--Humphrey killed in 1904 in one of the first motor car accidents in the United States; Geoffrey gored while hunting big game in Africa in 1925; Bulkey by his own hand in 1931--the tragic descent of her deaf daughter Maud into insanity, confined to a mental asylum for over 40 years; and the death of Nancy Harward her companion and twin soul, eight years before her own death.

Praed's emotional engagement with Australia remained intense. A few years before she died she wrote to her half-sister, Dorothy Murray-Prior:
   Even I after these long years of absence, my whole life formed of
   totally different associations, can never get away from the
   Australian Bush. Now in my old age & utter loneliness as I wait for
   death which tarries too long--I seem to see more vividly than ever
   the view from the Maroon verandah--the old racecourse & paddock and
   the river with its still deep pools. But it had all greatly changed
   even when I went back nearly 30 years ago, and now it is all to be
   so built over that I should not know the old ride to the Springs.

The essential sadness of exile that Rosa Praed expressed in this letter, 'the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home', (18) was also reflected in her restless, ceaseless search for spiritual knowledge.

Spiritual search

In her childhood Rosa Praed had acquired a dimly realised knowledge of the timeless and transcending nature of Aboriginal spiritual beliefs. Although obscurely perceived, these beliefs satisfied some of her instinctive and later overwhelming interest in spirituality and the supernatural. From Aboriginal people she learnt of Dreaming stories and of ancestral Spirit Beings. These remained in her mind to her old age: in her last, unpublished novel, 'The Word of Power', she created a central character, a 'nature man', who resonates with her memories of Aboriginal ancestor spirits. (19)

In her youth also, she had read among her father's books Pythagoras's theory of metempsychosis or the transmigration of souls, an idea that was to dominate her thinking and lead her to an overwhelming interest in reincarnation and in many aspects of occult thought. She saw traces of the Pythagorean view of reincarnation and metempsychosis in the traditional beliefs of Aboriginal people. When she came under the influence of the occult teachings of Henry Olcott and Helena Blavatsky, who introduced theosophy to England, many of their ideas presented an answer to her quest for spiritual knowledge. Spiritualism embraced a belief in reincarnation and the continuity of the personality after death and the ability of those with psychic gifts to facilitate communication by direct voice contact, automatic writing and in other ways. Associated with reincarnation was the idea that when the physical body died the memories of the life lived by that person were retained on the astral plane, the home of errant thoughts and nature spirits, where they could be accessed. Many aspects of theosophy took her back to the Aboriginal rituals she had heard of as a child but only vaguely understood. The concept of the lost continent of Lemuria (of which Australia was a part) was developed by Madame Blavatsky and in some theosophical writings Aboriginal people were said to be the remnants of a lost Lemurian civilisation. Others looked to them as a source of occult knowledge preserved in their secret rituals, particularly in Dreamtime events. The progressive unfolding of knowledge in Aboriginal initiation ceremonies and the existence of secret rituals also had similarities to occult tradition. (20)


Rosa Praed's meeting with Nancy Harward, a mystic personality, in 1899, represented a coming together of her spiritual searching and her quest for personal and psychic fulfilment. She recognised immediately that she had met her 'twin soul' (21) and from then until Nancy's death in 1927 their lives were deeply entwined as they believed they had been in previous incarnations. Under the influence of Nancy Harward's overwhelmingly mystical nature, Rosa Praed became more deeply involved in occult theory and practice and this was reflected in her novels, particularly in Nyria (1904) which she claimed represented Nancy Harward's remembrance of her life as a slave in ancient Rome and her own associated life as Valeria, and in more detail in The Soul of Nyria. The Memory of a Past Life in Ancient Rome (1931). Praed's belief that she and Nancy had met in several other incarnations to a time when they had emerged as one entity, as 'twin souls', remained with her after Nancy's death and she spent the rest of her life searching for eternal bonds between them. At the end of her life her physical exile from her native land coalesced with her exile from the spiritual fulfilment that she believed was at times tantalisingly close but that always ultimately remained out of reach.


(1) Mrs Campbell Praed, Australian Life Black and White. Sketches of Australian Life, Chapman & Hall, London, 1885, p. 27.

(2) 'The Finding of the Waterfall' in Mrs Campbell Praed, Dwellers by the River, John Long, London, 1902, pp. 13-14.

(3) Elizabeth Webby, introduction to Rosa. Praed, The Bond of Wedlock (1889), Mulini Press, Canberra, 1997, p. i.

(4) Edward W. Said, 'Reflections on Exile', in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2000, p. 173.

(5) C. Tiffin, comp. Rosa Praed (Mrs Campbell Praed) 1851-1935: A Bibliography, Dept of English, University of Queensland, St Lucia, 1989, p. 14, citing sales of The Brother of the Shadow (1886).

(6) Murray-Prior Papers, National Library of Australia, MS7801, Box 5, Folder 29, 18/23.

(7) Mrs Campbell Praed, Sister Sorrow: A Story of Australian Life, Hutchinson, London, 1916, p. 217.

(8) Praed Papers, John Oxley Library, MS OM64-1, Box 23.

(9) Nora Murray-Prior to Rosa Praed, 9 June 1880, copies held by author; also at John Oxley Library, MS OM81-71 and National Library of Australia, McG 4945/1-8.

(10) Mrs Campbell Praed, The Head Station: A Novel of Australian Life, Chapman & Hall, London, 1885, vol. II, pp. 193-8.

(11) Nora Murray-Prior to Rosa Praed, 27 January 1879.

(12) Lord Dolph in Mrs Campbell Praed, Policy and Passion: A Novel of Australian Life, Richard Bentley, London, 1881, pp. 118-19, and Lord Horace in Mrs Campbell Praed, Outlaw and Lawmaker, Chatto & Windus, London, 1893, pp. 3-4.

(13) Mrs Campbell Praed, Lady Bridget in the Never-Never Land. A Story of Australian Life, Hutchinson, London, 1915, p. 68.

(14) Mrs Campbell Praed, Fugitive Anne: A Romance of the Unexplored Bush, John Long, London, 1902, pp. 66-7.

(15) 'The Sea-Birds' Message' in A. Patchett Martin, ed., Over the Sea. Stories of Two Worlds, Griffith, Farran, Okeden and Welsh, London, 1889, pp. 9-13; 'Bushed' in Mrs Campbell Praed, The Luck of the Leura, John Long, London, 1907, pp. 119-40.

(16) Beverley Kingston, 'Policy and Passion in Queensland: Rosa Praed and Politics', Margin: Life and Letters of Early Australia, No. 42, July-August 1997, p. 12.

(17) Rosa Praed to Dorothy Murray-Prior, 10 March 1932, Murray-Prior Papers, Box 5, Folder 33, 19/48.

(18) Said, p. 173.

(19) Praed Papers, 22/1/1.

(20) Neville Drury and Gregory Tillett, Other Temples, Other Gods. The Occult in Australia, Methuen, Sydney, 1980, pp. 11-14.

(21) Patricia Clarke, Rosa! Rosa A Life of Rosa Praed, Novelist and Spiritualist, Melbourne University Press, Carlton Vic., 1999, pp, 167-70.
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Author:Clarke, Patricia
Publication:M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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