Babes in the Bush: The Making of an Australian Image by Kim Torney

Eras Journal – Sleight, S.: Review of “Babes in the Bush: The Making of an Australian Image”, Kim Torney

Kim Torney, Babes in the Bush: The Making of an Australian Image
Fremantle: Curtin University Books, 2005.
Isbn 1920731350

Lost children never wander far from the centre of public consciousness in Australia. In a year that has witnessed continuing speculation regarding the fate of murdered Moe toddler Jaidyn Leskie and the convening of a conference at Macquarie University to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Azaria Chamberlain’s disappearance, Kim Torney’sBabes in the Bush: The Making of an Australian Image is a timely publication indeed. Torney is not the first historian to survey this terrain (Leigh Astbury and Peter Pierce are notable forerunners), but her socio-cultural and at times psychoanalytic approach ensures that Babes in the Bush pursues its themes far further than the more overtly cultural analyses that have gone before.

Between 1860 and 1869, Torney states, almost three times as many children drowned in Victoria as were lost fatally in the bush. By what process, then, did the lost child come to assume such prominence in colonial self-understanding? What do the many images, works of fiction and poetry and even memorials inspired by bush-lost children say about an incipient Australian nation? And what is revealed in both parental and community responses to the three possible outcomes – return, demise, irresolution – when a child strays too far from home? In answering these questions Torney ranges far and wide across the histories of Australia and other ‘settler societies’. The author further traces perhaps the foundational tale of lost children to the small town of Watton in Norfolk, England, where local signs make reference to ‘babes’ in nearby Wayland Wood, though few townsfolk remember a fabulous sixteenth-century tale of religious intrigue and suspicious disappearance.

At the interpretive core of Babes in the Bush, of course, are the narratives detailing instances (both ‘real’ and ‘imagined’) of children lost in the Australian wilderness. Some of these cases, like those of the three Duff siblings in 1864 and the more tragic Daylesford trio three years later, will likely be known to readers. Other stories, equally poignant, are (re)told for the first time in a scholarly exposition. All benefit from careful re-evaluation. Particularly insightful is Torney’s discussion of the disappearance of Louis Vieusseux in 1858 and Bessie Downing in 1860. Eight-year-old Louis, the son of the proprietors of a prestigious ladies’ college, vanished during an overnight picnic in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges. The eventual recovery of his remains, Torney concludes, ‘served as a chilling demonstration of the power of the bush – neither money, nor education, nor social status could protect the child.’ Carrying even more emotional weight is a case from Queensland, one in which a settler’s son and daughter (Willie and Bessie, aged six and three-and-a-half respectively) go missing. Willie is recovered but Bessie, it seems, has been lost to the bush. Bessie’s mother, Mary, suspects local ‘blacks’ of foul play (in spite, Torney notes, of Aboriginal assistance in the search and the complete absence of any confirmed cases in Australia of kidnapped white children). Mary lives with, and records in writing, her private agonies regarding the fate of her only daughter until several years later a reported sighting of a girl with ‘rich blue eyes and auburn hair’ raises the possibility of a reunion. The girl in question, ‘Mary Ann’, is fetched, against her will and despite the fact that little Bessie Downing was known by her mother to have brown, not blue, eyes. It seems that Mary’s sense of guilt and desperation cloud her judgement, and she quickly realises the mistake upon meeting the girl. What follows is even more tragic.’Mary Ann’ is accepted by Willie and his brothers as the lost Bessie, and stays with the Downings even though Mary Downing clearly perceives on her features ‘the impress of the aboriginal race’. In their yearnings for Bessie – the lost child, supposed abducted – the Downings are complicit in adding one more appalling case to the number of Stolen Generations.

What most impresses in Babes in the Bush is the author’s determination to go beyond the neat narrative endings so desired by anguished parents and journalists alike. Thus Torney marshals her stories of lost children to throw light onto those that search in the scrub for the trails of the missing. The ambiguous relationships of Aboriginal and white search party participants are explored elaborately, so too the motivations that lay behind community searches: excitement; the desire to gain group credit; the felt need for reassurance and validation of white settlement in an alien environment. A penultimate chapter entitled ‘Commemorations of the Lost’ delineates the phases of memorial-making; here readers will note, for example, the telling impetus for Jane Duff, the little girl who purportedly sheltered her younger siblings when all were lost for several nights near Horsham, to be remembered in stone and prose, cast timelessly as the child rather than the adult Mrs Turnbull that Jane became.

My one criticism of this book is the absence of maps illustrating the spread of lost child incidents in Australia. It would have been useful, for instance, to see if cases were concentrated in particular areas and to discover whether or not the locations of cases advanced inland with the tide of white settlement. In sum, then, Kim Torney’s Babes in the Bush extends greatly historical understanding of the causes and consequences of the Australian lost child phenomenon. As recent incidents continue to attest, there are few events so confronting to Australian society as the disappearance of its youngest charges or so central to the paradoxical engagement of white settlers with lands in which they continue to feel discomfort.

Simon Sleight

School of Historical Studies, Monash University.