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Gaunt, Mary Eliza Bakewell (1861–1942)

by E. Archer

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Mary Eliza Bakewell Gaunt (1861-1942), novelist and traveller, was born on 20 February 1861 at Indigo, Victoria, daughter of William Henry Gaunt, police magistrate and later judge, and his wife Elizabeth Mary, née Palmer. Cecil, Ernest and Guy were her brothers. Known as 'Minnie' to her family, she was educated at Grenville College, Ballarat, where her facility in writing was noted.

Mary Gaunt believed that a woman had the right to follow her own career and be financially independent, even if married. On 19 March 1881 she was one of the first women to sign the matriculation roll of the University of Melbourne; she began an arts course but did not continue after poor results in her first year. She turned to writing: 'It was my ambition to be a writer', she recalled, 'I wrote merely because I wanted to make money', and money was 'a means of locomotion'. Drawing on childhood memories of goldfield towns and her brothers' yarns of exotic places, she contributed articles and stories to Australian and overseas papers and magazines. One of her earliest pieces was an article on gold for Cassell's Picturesque Australasia. Her earnings enabled her to travel to England and India.

Her first novel, Dave's Sweetheart, was published early in 1894. On 8 August that year at St George's Church, Malvern, she married a widower, Dr Hubert Lindsay Miller of Warrnambool who supported her desire to continue writing under her maiden name. A collection of short stories (1895) and two novels were published in the years before his death on 30 October 1900. Left with an income of some £30 a year she decided to go to London to be near the literary market, she left Melbourne on 15 March 1901.

Lodging at first in two rooms in a 'dull and stony street' in Kensington, Mary Gaunt struggled to establish herself as an author. As her stories began to sell, she travelled in France, Italy and Spain. Successful collaboration with John Ridgwell Essex in adventure tales set on the west coast of Africa led to a trip to the Gold Coast (Ghana) in 1908 and in 1910 to a commission from her publisher to explore the old west-coast forts. Setting out with a 'cabin trunk of pretty dresses, rose trimmed hats, gloves', photographic equipment, and a retinue of bearers, she was the only white woman on what proved an often dangerous journey. Her account of it was published in London in 1911 as Alone in West Africa.

She next determined to visit China, taking advantage of an invitation from George ('Chinese') Morrison and his bride, and arrived in Peking in February 1913. She travelled north by mule cart to visit the Hunting Palace of the Manchus at Jehol (Chengde). On her return, she rented a small temple in the hills west of Peking and wrote the greater part of A Woman Alone in China. To leave China, she had hoped to follow the old caravan route to Asiatic Russia but instead she had to return the way she had come, across Siberia, to Finland. Meanwhile war had broken out and she reached England with difficulty. Her experiences provided her with material for two travel books and several novels and stories. In 1919 she spent some months in Jamaica.

From the early 1920s Mary Gaunt settled at Bordighera, Italy, where a devoted housekeeper cared for her. In the next twelve years she wrote ten books and worked on her memoirs. In 1940 she had to abandon most of her belongings and flee to France, settling at Vence. Her health became weaker (she was asthmatic) and on 19 January 1942 she died at Cannes.

Mary Gaunt was not a great writer but she knew her limits and within them she wrote with economy, directness, imagination and energy. She told a story well and though she did not study character deeply, she was convincing. Six of her novels are set in Australia and these include her best, notably As the Whirlwind Passeth (begun in 1898 and finally published in 1923) and Joan of the Pilchard (1930). Her research for all her writing was thorough. Short and stout, with determined features and an imperious manner when the occasion demanded, she was a strong character, often in conflict with authority when she wished to travel in dangerous places. She invariably won her point.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Gillison, ‘Two invincible ladies’, Victorian Historical Journal, no 200, May 1980
  • British Australasian, 18 June, 17 Sept 1908, 17 Nov 1910.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

E. Archer, 'Gaunt, Mary Eliza Bakewell (1861–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gaunt-mary-eliza-bakewell-6290/text10845, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 19 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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