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  • Written by Julia Blackburn
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  • Written by Julia Blackburn
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A Woman's Life Among the Aborigines

Written by Julia BlackburnAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Julia Blackburn


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: October 10, 2012
Pages: 240 | ISBN: 978-0-307-82923-8
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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In 1913, at the age of 54, Daisy Bates went to live in the deserts of South Australia. Brilliantly reviewed, astonishingly original, this "eloquent and illuminating portrait of an extraordinary woman" (New York Times Book Review) tells a fascinating, true story in the tradition of Isak Dinesen and Barry Lopez.



There was once a woman who lived in the desert. There had been no rain for a long time and her eyes were tired from the dazzling brightness of the sky above her, the red monotony of the sandhills that surrounded her like a vast ocean. She wanted something green to look at so she took the stalk of a cabbage and leant it against the smooth trunk of the acacia tree that stood near her tent. Then she sat and stared at it, her thoughts drifting in the heat of the day.

I wonder how long that cabbage stalk managed to keep its colour and did the woman ever laugh when she realised it was still there, a sentinel standing guard over her after everyone else had gone home. Or did she not feel there was anything to laugh at, sitting in the doorway of her tent and gazing out, mesmerised by a fragment of green?

She looks down on the softly breathing skin of the lizard that sometimes sits on her lap in the afternoon, basking and catching flies. She imagines the sound the rain will make when it does finally come, like the pattering of flies' feet on the canvas of her tent. The rain will break through the layer of metallic scum that covers the surface of the water in the tank that is almost empty. The rain will bring back the birds with their shining feathers; it will bring life back into the desert and then she will watch as groups of naked people again make their way towards her camp. She looks down at the cloth of her long skirt which used to have a dense blackness but has now been turned into a strange patchwork of dull dark greens. She sees herself as a child in Ireland running through fields of deep grass; herself as a young woman watching a coastline receding into the far distance; herself as an old woman, here in the desert.


There was once a woman who lived in the desert and her name was Daisy Bates. I have set out a series of photographs of her on the table in front of me, like playing cards in the opening sequence of a game of patience. I look at the movement from youth to an extreme old age and in spite of the camouflage of time it is not difficult to recognise the same defiant face and the same stiff-backed body.

The young woman has an ear-ring hanging from the small lobe of her right ear and she is staring out into a sideways distance with pale eyes. How old is she, twenty perhaps? In that case she has seventy-one more years of her life ahead of her, all that battling and hammering at the gates of people and circumstance still to come. I try to decide from the expression on her face if she is as wealthy as she later said she was, or as poor as it seems she might have been. Daisy Bates was a liar, of that I am sure, but the extent and the exact details of her lies remain a difficult territory for which no good maps have survived.

I make a jump through time and here I have my subject in early middle age, at the mid-point in her life, just as I am now, with the past and the future in a state of delicate balance. She has white-gloved hands folded on a black-skirted lap, a high-collared white shirt, a black tie, a black turban of a hat that looks as if it could also be used as a tea-cosy, and terrible dark glasses with round owlish frames that make her appear sinister, frightening, fierce, dangerous, difficult in every way that a woman like her could be difficult. I think I can just see her eyes through the dimmed glass and it seems again as if she is staring away from the lens of the camera, but now there is something disdainful in her expression, as if she does not want to waste her time looking ahead when there are so many more important things to be seen in another direction.

I imagine that the next picture I have chosen was taken somewhere on the Nullarbor Plain, the no-tree plain of southern Australia; you can see it stretching out around her and behind her, a parking lot of featureless land disappearing into infinity without even the distraction of a little bush or the rise of a hill. Daisy Bates is sitting on a chair in the middle of this expanse, her back as stiff as ever, and I can't see any sign of her tent. A wooden tea-chest is on the ground quite close to her and a large but unidentifiable object with a sheet draped over it is a bit further away on her left; she might be in the process of moving her campsite and then these things would be some of her worldly goods, packed up and ready to go. She is wearing an elegant, unbuttoned, black and white striped jacket, with a soft hat of indistinct shape pulled down on her head, and she is looking sad and serious but rather beautiful. There is a white cloth spread out on her lap and on it is perched a human skull without the lower jaw. Perhaps this photograph was taken to illustrate her belief that the Aborigines were a doomed race who would soon all be dead and gone with no one but herself to care about them and witness their passing, but again there is no way of being sure; it could also be the skull of a white man or woman.

Finally here is Daisy Bates when she was nearing the end of her life, a woman in her late eighties with the skin of her neck slack and reptilian and the lines on her face cut so deep that her chin seems to be attached by a hinge like a ventriloquist's dummy, while the creases down her cheeks and across her forehead could surely be felt by hands lightly searching for them in the darkness. The photograph was taken by the English society photographer Douglas Glass. He was in Adelaide for a few days in 1948, waiting for the boat that would take him back to England, and he began to make inquiries about Mrs Bates. He had read her book, The Passing of the Aborigines, and he must have heard quite a lot about her because by then she had become something of a legend, particularly in that part of southern Australia. Everyone he asked said she was dead; died some years ago in hospital, died just recently at Streaky Bay, no, at Yuria Waters further along the coast. They said she was very sad, demented, misguided, good, brave, bad; natives all gone and left her-beggars and derelicts, drunks and syphilitics-natives still there, with her to the end, dreadful sorrow. Eventually he tracked her down and found her living in a little suburban bungalow just outside Adelaide and being looked after by a lady friend she didn't seem to like very much. She was apparently delighted to meet Mr Glass. She dressed herself up in her best suit, the one that had been made for her in Perth in 1905; she clasped her umbrella in one hand and her handbag in the other and she posed on the verandah, an aged empress on her throne. There were daisies growing in the garden and she picked a few of them and held them between finger and thumb, gazing thoughtfully at her own namesakes. She went inside her little room and sat down to pretend to be reading some of her papers with a magnifying glass, the light from the window shining through the white strands of her hair. She led Mr Glass outside into the scrap of garden and showed him how she could touch her toes, swing her arms like the blades of a windmill and how well she could skip, up, up, up. 'Look, Mr Glass! Look at me!' Mrs Bates at the age of eighty-nine skipping in a field of daisies, or at least next to a flower bed in which a clump of daisies are growing. She laughs and says, 'So, Mr Glass, you must send the photographs to the newspapers. That will show them that I am not dead yet and don't intend to be either, there is still so much to be done.'

I would imagine that Mrs Bates told Mr Glass all about her life, especially her life once she had found her direction and was living in the desert. Her voice was deep, soft and clear even when she was very old, and even when she was very old she presumed that any man who pleased her would love to hold her in his arms if only she would agree to being held. I imagine her talking and talking for hours without a pause; the monologue of an isolated person who allows the threads of private thoughts to surface in letters and conversations, even in conversations with strangers. But perhaps by now she is much too old to talk like that and instead she sits there on the verandah, drinking tea and smiling, providing only tiny and truncated snippets of information that drift in the air like smoke.

If I could dictate the words, turn my idea of her thoughts into my idea of her speech, then she would begin by saying, 'I was once very beautiful, Mr Glass, but now as you can see I am very old instead,' pausing to let him stare and smile at her with the tolerant intimacy of someone who will not be staying long, inviting him to undress her of the burden of her age. She does not tell him that every morning she still stands naked in front of a mirror and because the sandy blight has made her eyes so dim she again sees before her, shimmering in the glass, the pink and delicate apparition of a youthful body. She does not tell him, but she looks into his eyes and there for a fleeting moment she can see herself as she once was.

An old lady is talking to a young man, wanting to charm him, to impress him with the complex uniqueness of her story so that he can carry some of it away with him when he goes, help her to outlive herself. Here she is, speaking, and if she says more than maybe she ever did or could say in a real conversation, that is because I am allowing her to speak with her thoughts just as much as with her voice.

'I lived in the desert for almost thirty years,' she says. 'That explains why the lines on my face are cut so deep. Look, you can see how the sun has burnt dark patches on the skin of my hands, my face, my neck, in spite of the protection of gloves and hats with long veils. My eyes are so tired, Mr Glass, and sometimes in the early morning when I wake up I seem to open them into a storm of heat and dust.

'I was five years at Eucla, on the south coast by the high steep cliffs. That was not my first camp, but it was the place where I first felt that I had cut the few remaining ties that held me to my own world. In the spring I could listen to the whales singing to each other in their wonderful solemn voices. The sound carries quite far and mixes with the sound of the waves and the sound of the air being sucked through the long underground tunnels in the limestone; the land there is all hollow, a honeycomb under your feet. I wonder if you have ever heard whales singing, Mr Glass, or seen them thrashing about in the water, male and female dancing together.

'Then I was sixteen years at Ooldea, much further inland and more bleak, but so lovely in its way. Perched there in my little campsite, the edges of my tent weighted down with empty kerosene cans filled with sand to stop it from flapping off like some great bird-and it would have, you know, it would have flapped away when the strong south winds were blowing. Perched there, doing what I could, close to where the Trans-Australian Line cut across those quiet red sands, making a track that could be followed by the sparrows, the rabbits, the foxes, the cats and all the whites, low whites mostly, and it was because of them I needed a revolver, not because of the natives. Ooldea had always been an important place for the Aborigines, there was fresh sweet water to be found there all the year round even during the most severe droughts. Then the water was gone, or at least most of it was gone because the trains used so much, but stiff they went on coming, passing through just as they always had done. It was a crossroads and a meeting place for them and you had the sense that there was a huge crowd there at all times, the dead as well as the living, watching and talking together. I suppose that might explain why I stayed so long, I felt at home there.

'In my dreams, Mr Glass, I often find myself back on the Nullarbor Plain, pushing a wheelbarrow along a stony track with a kerosene can filled with water balanced on it, like poor old Sisyphus with his boulder, up and down every day and no one to help him. I dream there is a storm, a wind rushing through my tent, blowing open the metal trunk in which I kept my papers, snatching up a flurry of torn pages, used envelopes, the battered notebooks I stitched together, everything on which I had accumulated a record of my life; an important record of an important life. In my dream I run this way and that, trying to catch hold of a list of names, a description of an insect, a bird, a tree, the stories, the laws, the traditions of the people who became my friends and who called me Kabbarli, the Grandmother. I can still see the faces of the men, the women and the children who set up their camps close to mine and came to talk to me in their sing-song voices. Sometimes if I stare out at a far horizon it's as if I can just distinguish a new group of them coming towards me out of the red desert, shining and naked.

'I have kept some photographs of the Aborigines, but not many, they don't photograph well. This man with a white beard is my dear friend Joobaich, one of the last of the Bibbulman people from the Perth region, and this woman sitting in the sun surrounded by empty bottles and old tin cans is his niece Fanny Balbuk, a wonderful storyteller. I gave her the woollen hat she is wearing and I think I miss her more than anyone else I have ever known-I wonder if you can understand that, Mr Glass. And here is Binilya, a cloud woman from Tarcoola, with Dowie and Jinjabulla. If you look carefully you can see that they are blind. We sat together at a place near Eucla for almost three years but the time passed by so quickly. This is me holding my umbrella, my royal umbrella I call it, and each of the women standing around me had eaten at least one of her newborn babies. Cannibalism, but nobody was willing to believe me, not even when I had collected all the evidence.
Julia Blackburn

About Julia Blackburn

Julia Blackburn - Daisy Bates in the Desert

Photo © Jerry Bauer

Julia Blackburn is the author of several other works of nonfiction, including Charles Waterton and The Emperor’s Last Island, and of two novels, The Book of Color and The Leper’s Companions, both of which were short-listed for the Orange Prize. Her most recent book, Old Man Goya, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Blackburn lives in England and Italy.
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Julia Blackburn's Daisy Bates in the Desert. We hope they will provide you with a number of possible ways of looking at this entrancing book, a combination of biography, novel, and meditation.

About the Guide

For twenty-five years Julia Blackburn was fascinated by the haunting figure of Daisy Bates, an Englishwoman who emigrated to Australia in the early part of the century, was briefly married to the famous Breaker Morant, and returned to England to marry again. In 1913, when she was a middle-aged woman, Daisy Bates made another journey to Australia, this time to the Great Victoria Desert of South Australia. She ended up staying there for nearly thirty years, abandoning her husband and son and living among Aborigine people, who were being annihilated by the incursions of European technology, culture, and disease. A would-be anthropologist with no formal training, an ascetic who throughout her life was prone to having snobbish daydreams, a missionary who sought to minister to the physical welfare of "her people" rather than to impose an alien religion or culture on them--who sought, in fact, to save them from the fatal encroachment of that culture--Daisy Bates fit into no recognizable mold. She was also a habitual liar and fantasist for whom, it would seem, "the past had no fixed shape or pattern" [p. 21]. Her conflicting versions of her own life have long baffled biographers; Blackburn, adopting Bates's own subjective interpretation of facts, events, and dreams, has created her own Daisy Bates in a daring and very personal literary interpretation of an extraordinary life. "I am Daisy Bates in the desert" [p.63], Blackburn writes--and proceeds to spin a rich tale that values imaginative truth over ascertainable fact.

About the Author

Ms. Blackburn is the author of two other biographical studies, Charles Waterton and The Emperor's Last Island, an evocative account of Napoleon's exile on St. Helena, and a novel, The Book of Color.

Julia Blackburn was born in London in 1948 and received a degree from York University. Her family originally comes from Mauritius; her father is Thomas Blackburn (1916-1977), the English poet. She lives in Suffolk, England, with her husband and two children.

Discussion Guides

1. What is the purpose of Blackburn's frequent use of death imagery? What does she mean to imply about Daisy? About the Aborigines? About Australia itself? How does Daisy's funeral compare with the one she had imagined for herself? "Death is not always sad" [p.99], Daisy says. What does the Aboriginal willingness to embrace death say about their culture as a whole? By extension, what does our unwillingness to confront it say about ours? Do you find Daisy's own death to be a sad one?

2. Bates's "paternalistic" (or, rather, "maternalistic") way of dealing with the Aborigines is an ethos that has come in for a great deal of criticism and derision since the breakdown of the British Empire. Daisy's role as Kabbarli, the great white grandmother, can be seen as noble, offensive, or simply ridiculous, depending upon the viewpoint of the individual reader. Which do you find to be true? At the Government Conference, Daisy says that "these people are children but they are good children in need of protection" [p.173]. How much truth and sense is there in Daisy's policy recommendations to the Conference? Is she unqualified to make such decisions because of her emotional involvement with the people, or does her very closeness to them make her advice invaluable?

3. Daisy's statements that the Aborigines practiced cannibalism have never been accepted by the anthropological community. Did they seem convincing to you as you read the book? Do you believe that her stories of women eating their newborn babies might have been fantasies arising from her own feelings of resentment toward her son and her guilt over having abandoned him? Discuss Daisy's complex attitudes and ideas of "family." Does the nuclear family hold any significance for her, or does she reserve her allegiance for the "family of man"? What, if anything, does motherhood mean to Daisy? Would you describe her as a loving person or a cold one? Narcissistic or selfless?

4. How does Blackburn use her descriptions of the Australian desert to give a concrete picture of Daisy's internal, emotional landscape? Is it possible that the very bleakness of the desert is what drew Daisy to it? Is there something in her nature that was particularly responsive to the emptiness and purity of the desert?

5. In the book, the Aborigines are depicted as courteous at all times, but what is their real attitude toward Daisy? Do they love her? Do they simply tolerate her? Are they dependent on her, or is it she who is dependent on them? Daisy becomes part of their community, even taking part in their religious ceremonies, but to what degree, if any, does she ever consider herself one of their tribe? What do you think she means when she says that the Aboriginal rock paintings "fill her with envy" [p.50]?

6. Can you explain the stark contrast between the grandiosity of Daisy's fantasies--her meetings with royalty, her rich family connections, the glamorous men who sought to marry her--with the extreme poverty and simplicity of the life she eventually chose for herself? How can she retain a personal fastidiousness so extreme that she refuses to wear anything but silk next to her skin, while embracing a life of great physical hardship? Why do these fantasies continue to be so important to her and her sense of who she is, even after years in the desert?

7. How does Blackburn's anecdote about being offered the gypsy baby in Spain relate to the central part of her story? How does she resurrect it within her narration of Daisy's life? Do you find the reappearance of this incident intrusive or enlightening?

8. Julia Blackburn has said that Daisy Bates "was a mystic without a clear God." Can you elucidate this statement?

9. What imagery does Blackburn use to emphasize the fragility of the desert landscape and of Aboriginal society? And what imagery does she use to evoke a sense of age and time in this "oldest existing land surface in the world" [p.87]?

10. Can you explain the significance to Daisy of the skeleton in the split tree that she and her husband see together in the lightning storm during the first year of their marriage? What does her husband's reaction to the sight say about him and about Daisy's eventual rejection of him? How does Daisy's own interpretation of this sight change during the course of her life, as described by Blackburn?

11. Blackburn relates a number of Daisy's dreams during the course of the narrative. What relevance do these dreams have in Daisy's story? How does Blackburn use the dreams to create an anti-realistic, other-worldly aura around her characters?

12. "When you see them walking naked out of the desert," Daisy says of the Aborigines, "they appear like kings and queens, princes and princesses, but standing barefoot on the edge of the railway track, dressed in stiff and stinking clothes, black hands held out to receive charity from white hands, then they are nothing more than derelicts, rubbish that will soon be pushed to one side and removed" [p.107]. What do you find in this story to explain the extreme fragility of Aboriginal culture? Was its virtual demolition inevitable once it came into contact with European culture? Why, do you think, was it more vulnerable than African or Asian societies?

13. How does Daisy Bates compare with Radcliffe-Brown as an anthropologist? Which of them do you feel to be the more reliable--the observer who dissociates himself from his subjects or the one who enters her subjects' own world? Daisy was not taken seriously as an anthropologist during her lifetime. Which of her opinions about Aboriginal society have ultimately proven to be correct? What kind of statement, if any, does Daisy Bates in the Desert make about the discipline of anthropology itself? Is it a science, an art, or a little of both?

14. Blackburn describes two types of Christian missionary: the old priest at Beagle Bay, who introduces Daisy to her work among the Aborigines, and Annie Lock, who presides over the Lutheran Mission school that Daisy describes as "a training ground for prostitutes and beggars." Is this a reasonable metaphor for the European, Christian civilization with its good and bad aspects?

15. Julia Blackburn boldly mingles her own psyche with that of her subject. She decides "to turn my idea of her thoughts into my idea of her speech" [p.8]; she even combines her own experiences and dreams with those of Daisy. In your view, is such artistic license justified in a work of nonfiction? Does Blackburn's honest admission that she is imagining her heroine's life rather than stating the strict truth validate her free use of invention? Does the fact that Daisy herself told lies make her a particularly appropriate subject for this kind of biographical treatment?

16. Imagining someone's life is a literary challenge to which an author can respond in any number of ways. Julia Blackburn has chosen a highly subjective approach, as have a number of other authors. Can you compare her method with that of other writers you are familiar with? (The novels by Ackroyd, Mallon, and Styron, listed below, are interesting works with which to compare Blackburn's.) Some people would say that all biography, even the most "objective," is inherently compromised by the biographer's personal vision. Do you agree with this opinion? As you finished the book, did you feel that you had been given a picture of the "true" Daisy Bates?

17. If you had to place Daisy Bates in a bookshop or on a library shelf, how would you list it--under "Biography," "Travel," or "Fiction"? What would your reasoning be?

  • Daisy Bates in the Desert by Julia Blackburn
  • August 08, 1995
  • Social Science - Women's Studies
  • Vintage
  • $15.00
  • 9780679744467

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