Irreverent women, reading, and colonisation

The letters and insights left by Ann Rusden into colonial New South Wales women’s intellectual life plays a significant role in the history of feminism by sharing ideas of the female self and the role women played throughout colonisation.

Ann Rusden arrived in New South Wales in 1834. She took up residence at Maitland, New South Wales, Wonnarua country, in a house belonging to Houston Mitchell named Rath Luba. In 1847 she moved to Holmwood, also in Maitland. Over 1000 letters survive, written in these houses, first at the table in the drawing room at Rath Luba and secondly in her own room at the top of the stairs at Holmwood.

Holmwood – 1870. Ann wrote that her room was her room was “upstairs at the end of the landing place so the door is immediately before you at the top of the stairs.” State Library of NSW Scott Family papers.

Ann was the wife of the Reverend George Keylock Rusden who had been given the parish of St Peter’s in Maitland. Their children undertook the management of squatting runs or married into squatting families moving north and west. As such, the family was central to the continuing traumatic landscape of colonisation. Most of the letters relating to Aboriginal people and violence were removed from the collection and thus form part of a history of secrecy and silence in Australia.

Ann’s letters show a mind engaged in discussion with other women over religion, science and politics from the 1830s to 1860. Rusden created an intellectual space for her daughters and granddaughters where women’s arguments and opinions mattered, both to themselves and to the world. This space included other women on the Hunter River and extended back to England. Today, we now see letter writing as intrinsic to the construction of self. Consequently, since these letters are the letters of a colonising woman, they provide insight into the construction of colonial selves. Both the splintering and contradictions that colonial self involves. 

I began this project on ‘Women and Intellectual Life in New South Wales’ with the 1880s scrapbook Mabel Ogilvie created on Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr and Yaegl nations’ land in northern New South Wales. Through her diaries, I was able to trace a circle of women involved in the discussion and lending of books. Mabel was strongly influenced by Tractarian ideas of female chivalry and heroism. Mabel led me to the feminist Rose Selwyn and then Rose’s mother Ann Rusden.

For myself, a 1970s feminist, the lack of importance given to any division of life into ‘public’ and ‘private’ by Ann Rusden appeals to me. Even though historians are now aware of the house as a ‘public’ space and the thorough involvement of women in old corruption, Ann’s notion that women could entirely reshape the world is something that we, ourselves, were involved in. As such, Ann expresses the irreverence that informed much of our own feminism.

Ann’s thinking and her discussion of books is central to this project. Her creation of an intellectual space influenced her daughter Rose and her granddaughter Rose Scott, who became major figures in Australian feminist history. Eighteenth century girls, like Ann, were educated to the standard of boys, as Ruth Symes has shown. This education resulted in imaginative relationships to theology and politics. Undoubtedly, we cannot imagine the colonising Hunter without reference to them. Theological tracts and novels were exchanged and argued over by the women of the valley.

Ann’s relationship with reason meant that the girls of the family were intensely interested in science. In particular, Grace Rusden spent many hours studying science and medicine, so much that she felt confident to be able to operate on her own thumb. Women exchanged exotic plants from Australia and South America and were actively interested in new ideas such as phrenology and electromagnetism. Ann’s letters were also sprinkled with words related to science.

The project centres on intellectual life and sensibility, and one of its major concerns examines where colonial violence was incorporated into a way of being in the world. Ann uses humorous references to violence in her letters as a kind of challenge to male power, yet she also advocated extreme violence against Indigenous people who were ‘once unoffending’ and identifies herself as ‘we’ in terms of the British military. Rose Selwyn has ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ neatly written out in her scrapbook. 

A watercolour by Rose Selwyn (Rusden) of Grafton Street. It shows two armed men. The woman flattened against the fence is wearing the ‘new mauve’ fashionable after 1858. State Library of NSW 1852-1901 DL PX 62.

Ann introduces a mentality that appeared a generation before our major feminist figures. Accordingly, she refers to older English women who themselves engaged in the same kind of thinking and argument. Elizabeth Cristall writes from England that she is dissatisfied by the geological and scientific information coming from Australia and she would like more accurate accounts and it is she who forwards texts on natural theology to Ann.

As well as investigation of intellectual life, this project also engages with other aspects of sensibility such as dress and material life. Hunter women seem to wear the light fabrics of the Regency well after they were fashionable and, in this way, relate themselves to the link of this clothing with ‘savage innocence’. 

Ann Rusden has an important place in the history of feminism, the female self and all of the complex entanglements that colonisation results in.


Dr Paula Jane Byrne is author of Criminal Law and Colonial Subject (Cambridge 1993) and The Diaries and Letters of Ellis Bent (Desert Pea 2012). She has lectured in Australian and Aboriginal History at Macquarie University, Murdoch University, and the Australian National University, and held research positions at Sydney University, ANU and the University of New England. At present, and for a project on Women and Intellectual Life in New South Wales 1830-1880, she is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales.


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