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Forgotten Pioneer of Australian Literature
Who now reads the novels of Rosa Praed? Some old libraries may harbor a few of them on the less accessible, dustier shelves, but the name of Rosa Praed itself is all but forgotten except by a few diligent searchers for treasure among the literature of the Victorian era.
YET FOR AUSTRALIANS interested in the literature inspired by their country, Rosa Praed has a special appeal. She was one of the pioneers among authors who have taken the Australian scene and effectively presented it. She was almost certainly the first Australian woman author to succeed.
The story of her life — not less fascinating in its eventfulness and emotional tensions than the best of her novels — is told by Colin Roderick under the title "In Mortal Bondage" (Angus and Robertson Ltd.). His story justifies his sub-title: The Strange Life of Rosa Praed.
He has gathered material for the biography largely from literary remains made available by members of the Murray-Prior family, to which Mrs. Praed belonged.
Her story begins in Queensland, which was still a wild land when Rosa was born in 1851, the daughter of a pioneer, Thomas Murray-Prior. Suspicion and treachery between the white man and the black, murder and sometimes frenzied massacre darkened life in the new colony for years following her birth.
Station life, movement from place to place in Queensland as her father sought first new lands and then new opportunities, colored the growing girl's outlook and stored her memory with rich material on which she drew at intervals throughout a long writing career.
Her father's appointment as Postmaster-General of the new colony in 1862 brought her to Brisbane and gave her a first glimpse of the background of politics which she was to use in "Policy and Passion," and years later, with an English setting, in a play The Lady's Gallery. The "Lost Earl of Ellan" owes much to her observations about this time.
Her marriage to a young English man, Campbell Praed, when she was twenty-one, opened a strange and tragic chapter of her life. The young bride was swept out of the politico-social life of Brisbane away to a primitive shelter on Port Curtis Island, where she lived in almost complete isolation. She lived often in lonely terror, but she stored in her mind the material for "An Australian Heroine," "Sister Sorrow" and "The Romance of a Station."
It was here, too, that she first turned, for consolation, to thoughts of communicating with a spirit world, and sought communion with the spirit of her mother. Years later, when she had achieved a leading position as a novelist, a renewed interest in the occult absorbed her completely and led to her devoted friendship with Nancy Harward In the "mortal bondage" of the biography's title.
This friendship with Miss Harward, a kindred mystic, would appear to have been the most satisfying emotional experience of her life.
Her life with her husband when, after leaving the colony, they settled in London, consisted for them both of a strict observance of social conventions. She was the brilliantly successful mistress of their London home; he was the diligent manager of her affairs. But the courses of their lives diverged ever more widely.
Success and Sorrow
She was a brilliant woman, in brilliant company. Froude, Browning, Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, Rudyard Kipling, George Meredith, Sir Richard Burton were among her friends. Meredith, as publisher's reader, passed judgment on her first manuscripts.
But success was not, for her, the flawless realisation of a golden dream. Sorrow came to her often. The discovery that her only daughter was completely deaf was a heavy blow to her early in her writing career. Passages in her diary, telling of her efforts to apply the newly developed theory on the teaching of the deaf to speak, her biographer describes as among the most moving of her writings.
Mrs. Praed's belief in reincarnation, the subject of much of her later writing, led her to the conviction that, through her daughter's affliction, she was paying the penalty for inhumanity in an early incarnation as Valeria, a woman of ancient Rome. The death in young manhood of her son Humphrey so shocked her that her health broke down.
Interest in the occult was stirring in England then. It was influencing the writings of many who are still famous and are still read. Mrs. Praed was already far advanced in the study of many occult theories when she met Nancy Harward and with her began the experiments in clairvoyance that resulted at last in the book "The Soul of Nyria."
To all those who are interested in the development of Australian literature Mr. Roderick's book offers stimulation and valuable new material.
- Biography of Rosa Praed
Rosa Caroline Praed (1851-1935), novelist, was born on 27 March 1851 at Bromelton on the Logan River, Queensland, third of eleven children of Thomas Lodge Murray-Prior and his first wife Matilda, née Harpur, niece of the poet Charles Harpur. Her childhood was spent on her father's properties in the Logan and Burnett districts, at Cleveland and in Brisbane. There were summers spent in Tasmania where Matilda took the children to escape the Queensland heat. Although her father's pastoral activities were not uniformly successful, Rosa had a comfortable childhood. She was educated by her mother and by private tutors. Her father's subsequent political career exposed her to Queensland politics which generated in turn an interest in Imperial politics; both were used in her fiction.
Encouraged by her mother, Rosa Murray-Prior began writing in her teens, contributing résumés and stories to the family's handwritten 'Marroon Magazine'. On 29 October 1872 she was married from Government House at St John's Church of England, Brisbane, to Arthur Campbell Bulkley Praed, a younger son of an English banking and brewing family, who had come to Australia to make a pastoral fortune. Campbell Praed had a cattle run, Monte Christo, on Curtis Island near Gladstone where his wife spent two lonely, miserable years. These experiences figure in her autobiographical My Australian Girlhood (1902) and in the novels, The Romance of a Station (1889) and Sister Sorrow (1916). In 1876 Campbell returned with Rosa to England to enter the brewing trade in Northamptonshire. She resumed writing, drawing upon her Australian experiences, and published An Australian Heroine in 1880. Writing as Mrs Campbell Praed, she produced more than forty-five books over the next four decades, approximately half of which deal with Australian material.
In 1882 Praed published Nadine, an intense psychological study drawing on the life of Olga Novikoff, and achieved considerable celebrity which took her into London's artistic, political and literary circles. The Prince of Wales was an admirer of her work. Moving to London the same year, she collaborated on four books with the Irish politician Justin McCarthy, who wrote voluminously to her on the progress of the Home Rule debate of the 1880s. She edited these letters as Our Book of Memories (1912). Praed's attempts at dramatic writing resulted in one successful play, Ariane, based on her novel, The Bond of Wedlock (1887). This ran for 100 performances in London's West End in 1888. In the 1890s she became estranged from her husband and separated from him in 1897. She began living with Nancy Harward, a psychic medium, whom Praed believed to have been a German slave-girl in Flavian Rome. Seances produced a narrative of tyranny and Christian martyrdom which Praed worked into a novel, Nyria (1904). Much of her later fiction, some of which was written with Harward, reflects her devout belief in the supernatural.
Praed revisited Australia only once, in 1894-95. She continued, however, to rework her memories, and maintained contacts with relations and friends in Australia until her death. Her work includes acute analyses of the colonial mentality, especially of society women, as in Policy and Passion (1881), Christina Chard (1893) and The Ghost (1903). Like Henry James, Praed saw a dichotomy between a frank, vital, raw country and an alluring, sophisticated but fundamentally corrupt Europe. Historical events and personages often supply background and characters for her novels. The 1890s Queensland shearers' strikes are used in Mrs Tregaskiss (1895), and the 1860s debate on the Ipswich-Brisbane railway in Policy and Passion. James Tyson, John Boyle O'Reilly and Sir George Bowen make fictional appearances in Mrs Tregaskiss, Outlaw and Lawmaker (1893) and Nulma (1897) respectively. One exception to her generally realistic backgrounds is Fugitive Anne (1902), a fantasy about a lost race of 'Red People' in northern Queensland. Essentially a novelist of the comfortably-off, Praed was seen by Desmond Byrne in 1896 as 'the first to attempt to give an extended and impartial view of the social and political life of the upper classes in Australia'. The overwhelming concern of her work, however, is the finding of a spiritually congenial mate. She wrote many novels depicting unsatisfactorily mated women whose husbands are good enough fellows but who are spiritually limited and insensitive to their wives' needs.
Praed moved to Torquay, Devon, in the early 1920s and lived quietly there with Nancy Harward until the latter's death in 1927. Then followed a further eight years of loneliness and illness. When she died on 10 April 1935, her three sons were already dead and her daughter Maud, who had been born deaf, was in an asylum. All died without issue.
Courtesy of the Australian Dictionary of Biography