Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wildman, Alexina Maude (1867–1896)

by Jill Roe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Alexina Maude Wildman (1867-1896), journalist, was born on 28 February 1867 at Paddington, Sydney, eighth daughter and eleventh child of English parents Edwin Wildman, clerk, and his wife Elizabeth, née Stevens. Ina began writing as a schoolgirl. In 1885 she complained in person when her verses were rejected by the Bulletin. Despite the editor J. F. Archibald's view that women could not write poetry, 'the bright, audacious schoolgirl with original ideas' soon became a regular contributor of prose and verse. Wildman joined the Bulletin staff where she spent the whole of her brief career; her column, written as 'Sappho Smith', appeared weekly from 28 April 1888 to 22 August 1896; it was an instant success, and probably the most widely read part of the Bulletin by the early 1890s.

Headed by a Phil May cartoon of a disdainful dowager with fan and pince-nez, the column usually appeared on its own page and took the form of a letter to 'my dear Moorabinda'; it contained 'a medley of all sorts of things that are running through my head', as well as 'interesting items of fashionable intelligence' observed by Wildman and her readers whose contributions would 'at all times be thankfully received and acknowledged'.

The weekly letter cast a sharp, sarcastic eye over vice-regal events, balls ('the usual bareback show'), garden parties, weddings, at-homes and sporting fixtures, together with behaviour at plays and concerts, and even confirmations at St Andrew's Cathedral. Then, as now, Sydney society provided rich pickings for the satirist. Amid snippets of gossip, she also provided thoughtful remarks and insights, such as her comment on the compelling style of famed ex-Fabian socialist and theosophical lecturer Annie Besant who was in Australia in 1894: 'quite a little East Lynne on wheels'.

Wildman's scepticism extended to 'she-Suffragists' and the 'New Woman', an irony given her early independence and professionalism, yet in accord with Bulletin misogyny. Gaucheries, especially those of women, were often noted by 'Sappho Smith'. She constantly derided pretension, whether British or Australian in origin, but her racist references to 'the Chosen People' and Brisbane as a 'city of yellow-faced men' may have merely reflected the magazine's editorial predilections.

A Bulletin sub-editor described Wildman as slender, attractive rather than pretty, charming of manner and childlike in some respects. Another journalist Ellen Todd found her 'a sympathetic soul', unexpectedly vulnerable, an impression strengthened by her wistful, romantic poems. Wildman fell ill early in 1894; a holiday in Queensland failed to restore her health. She died of nephritis on 15 November 1896 at Waverley and was buried in the Anglican section of the local cemetery. Often referred to as 'the incomparable Ina Wildman', she was celebrated by her colleagues as a brilliant writer and a good comrade; her brief, bright career was an encouragement to many women journalists. Eight of her poems (1884-92) are preserved in a volume of press-cuttings in the Mitchell Library, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Lawson, The Archibald Paradox (Melb, 1983)
  • J. Roe, Beyond Belief (Syd, 1986)
  • P. Clarke, Pen Portraits (Syd, 1988)
  • Cosmos, 1 Sept 1984
  • Bulletin, 21 Nov 1896
  • D. O'Reilly newsclippings (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Jill Roe, 'Wildman, Alexina Maude (1867–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wildman-alexina-maude-9095/text16037, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Wildman, Ina
  • Smith, Sappho
Birth

28 February 1867
Paddington, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Death

15 November 1896
Waverley, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation