Just over a year ago I read Kirkham’s Find by Mary Gaunt, a book that had sat on my shelves for a very long time before I finally got around to reading it. I loved it & it was one of my Top 10 books last year. So, I was very pleased to discover that a biography of Mary Gaunt was about to be released. She led a very adventurous & unexpected life & I’m so glad I had the chance to find out more about her.
The character of Phoebe Marsden in Kirkham’s Find owes quite a lot to her creator. Mary grew up in country Victoria, the daughter of William Gaunt, an Englishman who came out to try his luck in Victoria in the 1850s, & Elizabeth Palmer, an excellent horsewoman who had rather aristocratic views on the right way to live one’s life. The Gaunts married in 1860 & Mary was born on the goldfields at Indigo in 1861 where her father was working as a Warden. He was employed by the Government to keep the peace & was later able to study law & became a solicitor.
Mary grew up as part of a large family & was one of the first women eligible to enrol at Melbourne University. Unfortunately her academic career only lasted one year as she found the course unsuitable & failed her exams. However, she was already writing & had some early success with stories & reviews published in the Melbourne newspapers. Soon she was writing novels to be serialised in the newspapers & planning a trip to England. Most Australian authors were published in England in the late 19th century & Mary set off with a letter of introduction from the Editor of The Australasian & a determination to forge a career for herself. At first, everything she wrote was returned. There seemed to be no market for Australian stories. Then, Mary retold a story she heard from her brother Guy, who was in the merchant navy. It was the exciting story of a trip by torpedo boat across the Atlantic. She signed it M Gaunt, hoping to be taken for a man, & the story was accepted & published in The English Illustrated Magazine. Mary kept writing, found an agent & returned to Australia having made a start on her career.
On a visit to friends in Warrnambool, Mary met Dr Hubert Miller. The original attraction may have been his beehives (she was keen to learn beekeeping) but Hubert pursued Mary & they were married in 1894. The Millers were very happy, although Hubert’s mother lived with them & she disliked Mary, disapproving of everything she did. Mary refused to quarrel with her mother-in-law & spent a lot of time biting her tongue to keep the peace. Unfortunately only five years after they were married, Hubert’s health failed. His behaviour grew erratic, then frightening as his mental health declined. He ended his life in an asylum, suffering from the effects of tertiary syphilis.
Mary had continued writing during her marriage but, after the sadness of Hubert’s last months & his death, Mary wanted a fresh start. She was left with very little as Hubert had been unable to work for some time & she gave what was left to Hubert’s mother. In 1901 Mary decided to leave Australia & return to London where she hoped to continue her career. Life in London in those early days was very hard.
Oh, the hopes of the aspirant for literary fame, and oh, the dreariness and the weariness of life for a woman poor and unknown in London! I lodged in two rooms in a dull and stony street. I had no one to speak to from morning to night, and I wrote and wrote and wrote stories that all came back to me… they were poor stuff, but how could anyone do good work who was sick and miserable, cold and lonely, with all the life crushed out of her by the grey skies and the drizzling rain?
Although that first year in London was probably the lowest point in Mary’s life, she was about to embark on the most exciting part of her career. Mary always longed to travel & she was always ready for adventure. She had always wanted to see Africa, after reading about it as a child & her fascination with China began when she saw the Chinese miners on the goldfields of Ballarat when she was young. She began by collaborating with a young doctor, Thomas Tonkin, on a series of adventure novels set in Africa, on the Guinea Coast. Tonkin had been on a missionary expedition to Guinea & Mary could supply the plot. The stories were reasonably successful but only made Mary more determined to see the world herself.
Mary eventually financed the trip to Africa by writing a mystery serial for the Chicago Daily News. It was the beginning of years of adventure as Mary traveled to Africa & China, writing articles & stories based on her adventures to pay her way. She was a traveller rather than an explorer, staying with Colonial officials on her journeys rather than hacking her way through the jungle in a tweed skirt. However, she was unafraid by obstacles or dangers & reveled in new sights & meeting new people.
Mary was never a conventional woman & I love this story of her traveling by train near Brighton with two ladies who are determined to snub her attempts at conversation. After seeing a convoy of elephants & camels from a circus by the side of the road, the ladies are determined to ignore both the animals & Mary.
Those two ladies were a credit to the English nation. They bore themselves with the utmost propriety. What they thought of me I can only dimly guess, but they never even raised their eyes from their papers. Of course the train rushed on, the camels and elephants were left behind, and there was nothing to show that they had ever been there. Then I regret to state that I lay back and laughed til I cried, and whenever I felt a little better the sight of those two studious women solemnly reading their papers set me off again. When I got out at Hassocks they … literally drew their skirts around them so that they should not touch mine and be contaminated as I passed.
Mary spent the last years of her life in Europe, never returning to Australia. At the age of sixty she made a trip to Jamaica, writing a book about her experiences which upset the expatriate community. For the last twenty years of her life, she lived in Bordighera, an Italian town very near the French border on the Riviera. There was a small community of expatriate Britons living there, including several writers, & Mary continued working on her stories using a lifetime of travel & experiences to furnish plot & incident. In June 1940 as Germany invaded France, the small British community in Bordighera was moved across the French border to Vence, a walled village in the mountains not far from Nice. There she lived until her death in January 1942.
Mary Gaunt lived a remarkable life for a woman of her time. She had a sense of adventure & a determination to live an independent life & she was able to realise her dreams. I loved reading about Mary’s life & I can only hope that some of her novels may be reprinted one of these days. A few of her novels & collections of stories are available from Project Gutenberg but I would love to see an Australian publisher like Text Publishing add Mary Gaunt to their wonderful Australian Classics list.