By Dr Charmaine O’Brien
Australia is at risk of being swamped by au pairs after a boatload of them was spotted in the Indian ocean off the coast of Australia.The Chaser, 31 August 2018
This recent headline from The Chaser references Home Affair’s Minister Peter Dutton’s swift intervention to ensure a visa was granted to a French au pair to allow her to provide — apparently — desperately needed child minding services to a wealthy farmer: all the while denying refugee children held in detention on the island of Nauru permission to come to the mainland to receive desperately — truly — needed medical attention.
In respect to Dutton’s behaviour, it is a well-aimed satirical piss-take, however it reminded me of a historical precedent when Australians were genuinely worried about the arrival of boatloads of emigrant women intent on governing to their children. In The Devil At Work?, I look at representations of cooks in nineteenth-century Australian literature to argue that the notion colonial cooks were universally “dreadful” was significantly influenced by convictism, class, gender and immigration. Ultimately, much of the criticism of colonial cook derives from them being ‘out-of-place’ one way or another.
This edited extract from The Devil at Work? looks at the earlier ‘boatloads’ of female arrivals through the 1854 novel Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia During The Gold Fever by Catherine Helen Spence.
Men outnumbered women three-to-one in Australia in the early nineteenth century. If the place was to develop beyond a penal settlement, it needed more females: as domestic labour, wives and mothers, to build a stable civil society. Back in Britain, there was purportedly an excess of women unable to find suitable husbands or employment. The solution was to select young and healthy candidates from amongst them, and send them out to colonies and, thus, in the early 1830s charitable organisations in Britain began offering subsidised passage to single women to go to Australia.
The bargain was intended to appeal to working class females, however it was equally taken up by educated middle class women attracted by what they believed would be great possibilities for work and matrimony. The shiploads of females subsequently sent out to the colonies were a mix of working and middle class women with varied levels of education and work experience.
The reception they received in Australia cannot have been what they anticipated. The colonists resented London making the decision to send them out; their choice to travel independently was considered “unnatural” and their need to work to support themselves added suspicion as to their motive and background: the colonists feared the women had something to hide and immoral intentions. None of this actually prevented people engaging these women as servants though, even as they were uneasy about taking them into their homes. Many of the working-class females who went into domestic service in Australia would have been tasked with cooking, and the social anxiety their employers felt about their presence could have adversely affected the way they assessed the meals prepared.
Poor opinion of colonial cooks might have derived from the experience of eating meals served up by a servant genuinely lacking in skills, but social and cultural prejudice might have equally influenced their tastebuds The idea that their cook might have “sloped” out to the colonies expecting to be “better paid, better fed, better treated, have tea three times per diem, and find a husband very soon after she arrives” was an affront to the established societal order that decreed a lowly servant should exist only to serve her employers needs.
Many of the educated women who emigrated to Australia were trained governesses who believed their services would be in demand there, however the reality was often quite different and some of them found themselves instead working as cooks regardless of whether or not they had any culinary education.
Clara, the heroine of Clara Morison, is a case in point. She is an educated well-bred Scottish girl, and a penniless orphan left in the care of an uncle who cannot afford to keep her. He decides to send her to Australia where, he assures her, she will find work as a well-paid governess and marry well. Thousands of miles away in colonial Adelaide, however, Clara is unable to find employment in her preferred role and her precarious financial situation makes it necessary for her to accept a job as a general servant
Clara’s duties include those of cook, of which she has no experience whatsoever. Her colonial mentor, Mrs Handy, tries to prepare her for this unaccustomed work by providing instruction on “how long a joint of meat took to bake in a camp-oven, how long in a brick-oven and how long it took to roast before the fire”. It does not help:
[Clara] was very awkward at lighting a fire, and would often let it go out just when it was most wanted. The camp oven was a perfect heart-break to her, for she could never hit upon any medium between scorching heat and lukewarmness.
[Her employer] said that every new comer from England was awkward with the wood-fires and the camp-oven at first, so she excused her; but Clara knew that she could have been no better if the fires had been of coal, and the oven the newest invented patent cooking apparatus … [she] made considerable smashing of crockery the first week; next week she scalded her arm pretty severely, and felt almost unable to move it for two days.
Clara’s education in “names and dates” failed to help her when it came “to recollecting when saucepans were to be put on and taken off”, or resolving the “puzzling uncertainty as to how plates and dishes were to be arranged at the breakfast and dinner table”. Clara is, however, lucky to have a sympathetic mistress, prepared to endure her poor cookery because she is “civil and honest”.
Catherine Helen Spence wrote Clara Morrison in indignant response to an 1850 article by William Makepeace Thackeray “about an emigrant vessel taking a lot of women to Australia, as if these were all to be gentlemen’s wives—as if there was such a scarcity of educated women there, that anything wearing petticoats had the prospect of a great rise in position”.
Despite her resentment of Thackeray’s—satirical—insinuations, Spence was an advocate of female emigration, albeit a pragmatic one. Clara Morrison is, thus, an instructive work in which “literary characters … personify social norms and values … [and] set patterns for imitation”, showing the practical skills required in the colonies where a woman could not afford to maintain the English idea of the leisured lady with pure white hands unstained by work. Spence portrays the imperative of work for colonial women and that it could be undertaken without any loss of status or desirability in the marriage stakes.
Even though Clara has laboured in the hot smoky inferno of a kitchen, her paramour, Reginald, chooses her over the unblemished English rose he is meant to marry.
O’Brien, Charmaine. 2018. “The Devil at Work: The Cook In Australian Colonial Literature” in The Routledge Companion to Food in Literature, edited by Donna Lee Brien and Lorna Piatti-Farnell, p.127-137. United Kingdom: Routledge.