The Letters of Rachel Henning edited by David Adams

Rachel Henning was an English woman, who travelled to Australia in 1853 to join her brother and sister, Biddulph and Amy Henning, who had earlier settled in Australia. Rachel’s letters were written to various family members between 1853 and 1882 and were  first published in The Bulletin, an Australian magazine during the 1950’s.

The edition of ‘The Letters of Rachel Henning’ which I read had been illustrated by Norman Lindsay, a prolific Australian artist who was quite controversial in his day. (Mum tells a story of seeing an exhibition of Lindsay’s paintings while she and Dad were on their honeymoon. As Mum tells the story, they could have bought one of Lindsay’s paintings, but they didn’t because neither she nor Dad liked his work. I suppose they had no way of knowing what a good investment one would have been, but the thought of having to look daily at a painting they disliked in the hope of it increasing in value makes their choice understandable. Pictures of naked women on the lounge room walls aren’t for everyone).

In the letters from her first three years in Australia, Rachel was horribly homesick. She constantly wrote that she wished she were back in England with her sister Etta and described her life in the Australian bush as a misery. She compared everything about Australia with her beloved England in unflattering terms. The weather in Australia was too hot, the flowers were uninteresting, the music was inferior, landscapes were all the same and even the parties were dull. In one letter Rachel wished her sister Amy a happy birthday, then went on to say that Amy’s chances of having a happy birthday in Australia were small! (Incidently, Amy appeared to have been very happy in Australia, possibly because she had already formed a romantic attachment, and as we all know, who would even notice a March fly stinging when you have a romantic attachment?)

After three years, Rachel had not formed a romantic attachment of her own (not that that had anything to do with anything else) and she returned to England to live before eventually returning to Australia permanently, for reasons which weren’t made entirely clear in the book. I think Rachel probably returned to England and missed the smell of gum trees and the beautiful warm winters and having plenty of room around her and the wonderful opportunities Australia offered. She certainly missed Amy and Biddulph, so a return to Australia for their sakes was not out of the question either. For whatever reason, Rachel returned to Australia after five years, prepared to enjoy life regardless of the differences to England, and from this point on, her letters are cheerful and amusing. The recipients must have enjoyed her letters enormously and gained an understanding of life on the other side of the world.

Rachel’s earliest letters on her return to Australia begin in the city, before continuing with a diary style description of a two week trip she made through the bush on horseback, camping in the bush at night as she travelled with Biddulph, Amy and some other gentlemen, who were Biddulph’s employees, on their way to Biddulph’s property in Queensland. From her letters, Rachel appeared to have enjoyed every moment of the trip and even described riding on a rainy day and camping during a night with pleasure.

Rachel settled very happily at her brother’s property, Exmoor, in Queensland. Her letters described her day to day life, with funny little stories about having to constantly patch their boots, and waiting for the mailman with much anticipated letters from England. There were a great many stories about the accidents men working on the property had, I kept waiting for one of the letters to describe a tragedy, where someone would be killed or maimed for life, but amazingly, that never happened. 

A great many of Rachel’s letters contained proud stories about Biddulph, who in Rachel’s eyes was capable and clever and good humoured and kind and everything that an English man could wish to be.  

Her letters regularly stated how happy she was living without any female visitors, due to the trouble they caused when they did come, with her and Amy having to sit inside and entertain them, when they had much rather be out and about on the property.  Nor did Rachel want to make trips to the city, where she would have to go visiting and be visited, and attend parties in order to conform with society. 

Rachel’s time flew by in a blur of gardening, playing with her pet lambs, dogs and birds, and attending to her household jobs. Eventually Rachel writes to her sister in England that she has become engaged to a Mr Taylor, who works for Biddulph. His name had been appearing regularly in Rachel’s letters for quite a while without any hint of a romance. In subsequent letters however, she wished their engagement had not become known, as Mr Taylor was quite a bit younger than Rachel and they did not have the means to marry. She wrote a funny description of not wanting to be told that she was silly because of their romance, although she said she knew that she was. 

Eventually Rachel married Mr Taylor and they moved to New South Wales, and her letters described her joy in married life. She wrote of her and Mr Taylor building a home, buying a piano, and creating a garden together. Amy also married and had children, while  Biddulph also married well, and became a rich man. 

The time in which Rachel lived was in many ways harder that today. When people became sick they were bled and were treated by doctors who often did them more harm than good. When bushrangers were shot she wrote of the relief felt by the community. Aboriginal people were treated terribly. Rachel writes of her brother keeping two Aboriginals who had run away from from another station to return to their home as if they were stray animals without any recognition of their being free to live where they wanted. In Rachel’s letters domestic violence was funny and women were constantly pregnant.

Rachel’s life as described in her letters was certainly a slower pace, and she seemed to enjoy far more leisure time and joy in simpler pleasures than people do today. She made do with less possessions and went without what she did not have something. The Letters of Rachel Henning is a very good read, and there are a great many lessons in the book for readers today, although Rachel was writing for the eyes of her family only. I wonder if she would have approved of her letters being made public, and suspect not, although it is to our benefit that they were.