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Couvreur, Jessie Catherine (1848–1897)

by Raymond Beilby

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Jessie Couvreur, by Mathilde Phillippson, 1890

Jessie Couvreur, by Mathilde Phillippson, 1890

State Library of Victoria, H250

Jessie Catherine Couvreur (1848-1897), novelist and short story writer (under the pseudonym, 'Tasma'), was born on 28 October 1848 at Southwood Lodge, Highgate, London, the second child and eldest daughter of James Alfred Huybers and Charlotte Sophia, née Ogleby. Her father was of Dutch stock and her mother Anglo-French. In the early 1850s the family migrated to Hobart Town where Huybers established a prosperous business. Although he was well read and had a fine library, it was the mother who appears to have exercised the greater influence on the children's intellectual development. As a result they acquired an awareness which one would hardly expect from those nurtured in Hobart in the 1850s and 1860s.

In St David's Cathedral on 8 June 1867 Jessie married Charles Forbes Fraser, son of Major James Fraser who was a family friend and usher of the Black Rod. Soon after their honeymoon the Frasers went to the Kyneton district in Victoria where Charles had been in the milling business of a relation, William Degraves. He later took up the Pemberley property near Malmsbury. Keenly interested in horse-racing in the Kyneton district, he became the first stipendiary steward of the Victoria Racing Club and later one of its judges. His horse-racing, his gambling, his unstable finances and later his roving eye caused his wife great distress. From time to time he packed her off to her parents and in 1873 she went with her mother to England where she stayed for nearly three years. She returned to Victoria at her husband's request but he became insolvent and sent her to England with the promise of £100 a year. In all she received only £10 and after Fraser informed her that he had fathered the child of a servant girl in 1877, that he had formed what appeared to him to be a permanent relationship with a Miss Seal and that he wished to have nothing more to do with her, she returned to Victoria in July 1883 and instituted divorce proceedings against him. Her divorce was granted on 13 December.

Jessie returned to Europe and soon afterwards married a Belgian politician and journalist, Auguste Couvreur. He was for many years political editor of L'Indépendance Belge and Liberal member of the Belgian House of Representatives in 1864-84. This marriage gave her the opportunity to expand her writing beyond the fields of literary criticism and the short story, even if her concern in most of her novels was to lie with the trials of her first marriage: those of an intelligent heroine who languishes in a sterile intellectual atmosphere and who is burdened with a morally and intellectually inferior husband. In 1889 she published her first novel, Uncle Piper of Piper's Hill, which remains the best and best-known of all her novels. This and A Knight of the White Feather (1894) are the least autobiographical of her novels. The others, In Her Earliest Youth (1890), The Penance of Portia James (1891), Not Counting the Cost (1895) and A Fiery Ordeal (1897), are in large measure so obviously autobiographical that Charles Fraser must have been recognized in them from one end of Victoria to the other.

In Brussels Jessie mixed happily in diplomatic circles though she often had to travel as far afield as Constantinople. She lectured on Australia in many cities on the Continent and won high tribute from the French government and the King of Belgium. Although she claimed, 'I was not born with a wife's instinct', she deplored missing the marriage of her sister, enjoyed running her home and was delighted when her books and articles brought payments that helped to solve the problems of her poor relations. She took an active interest in political and social questions of the day and proved to be very much a woman of her time by her interest in positivism, agnosticism, physiognomy, phrenology and many other causes. Each of these interests finds a place somewhere in her novels. After Couvreur died in 1894 she succeeded him as Brussels correspondent for The Times. She died in Brussels on 23 October 1897 and was cremated in accordance with her oft-expressed opinion and the avant-garde fashion of the time.

Her novels tend to be somewhat pedantic in style and repetitive in structure. Though often her point of view is distinctly English rather than what would now be called Australian, she succeeds in depicting through her urban middle-class characters the attitudes and values of an often-overlooked part of the late nineteenth-century Australian scene.

Select Bibliography

  • Annual Register (London), 1894
  • Hobart Mercury, 14 Aug 1865
  • Kyneton Guardian, 16 Aug 1866, 10 Mar 1874, 28 June 1913
  • Kyneton Observer, 20 June 1867
  • Argus (Melbourne), 14 Dec 1883, 27 June 1913
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 15 Dec 1883
  • 'Obituary: Mme. Couvreur', Times (London), 25 Oct 1897, p 6
  • E. A. Huybers, From Birthplace to Borderland (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Jessie Couvreur, journal, 1889-91 (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Raymond Beilby, 'Couvreur, Jessie Catherine (1848–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 27 October 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2016

Jessie Couvreur, by Mathilde Phillippson, 1890

Jessie Couvreur, by Mathilde Phillippson, 1890

State Library of Victoria, H250

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Tasma
  • Huybers, Jessie Catherine
  • Fraser, Jessie Catherine

28 October 1848
London, Middlesex, England


23 October 1897
Brussels, Belgium

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage