Susanna De Vries presents a complicated portrayal of Australia's beloved Daisy Bates. Born in Ireland to an alcoholic father and a mother who died from tuberculosis, Bates immigrated to Australia and gained notoriety for her ethnographic work with the Aborigines. But De Vries provokes controversy by looking into Bates' scandalous love life, starting with presumed misconduct that led to suicide while she was a governess in Ireland, and documenting her many marriages. Despite the more unsavory aspects of Bates' life, Beverley Dunn performs with a posh, stern strength that commands respect for one of Australia's most influential women.
In the 1890s, when a woman's role was seen as marrying well and raising a family, Daisy Bates reinvented herself from humble governess to heiress-traveller and 'woman of science'. She would become one of the best-known and most controversial ethnologists in history, and one of the first people to put Aboriginal culture on the map. Born into tough circumstances, Daisy's prospects were dim; her father an alcoholic bootmaker, her mother dying of consumption when Daisy was only four years old. Through sheer strength of will, young Daisy overcame her miserable start, and in 1883 she migrated to Australia with a boatload of orphans, passing herself off as an heiress who taught for fun. Marriage followed – first with the young Breaker Morant, then bigamously with two other husbands. For decades she led a double life. But who was the real Daisy Bates? While other biographies have presented her as a saint, historian Susanna de Vries gives readers a more complex portrait of the 'Queen of the Never Never'.
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A remarkable woman
My sister highly recommended this to me and although we rarely agree about books or films, I thought I'd give it a try as I'd never heard of Daisy Bates although it seems she is well know in Australia. She was a remarkable woman who went out to Australia from Ireland and reinvented herself and her family history, taking 5 years off her age in the process. Failing in her ambition to marry into the new money in Australian cattle farming and after 3 marriages, all illegal one way or another, she became the first anthropologist to live among and record the language and culture of the aborigines. She also helped to nurse them through the disastrous effects of the white man's diseases and campaigned for aboriginal women in particular, all the time wearing her old fashioned Edwardian dress of high collar and long skirts in the heat of the outback. For a variety of reasons, some of her own making, some because she was a woman and without a formal education, she did not receive any recognition for her work until late in life when she was at best eccentric and at worst suffering from dementia.
So a potentially a fascinating story. However it was a frustrating listen, party because of the shortcomings of the book, partly because of the reader and I could never work out which. The reader has very clipped tones and a measured, rigid style with an exaggerated inflection which does nothing to help the story along and becomes very irritating. Although the writer has not been helped by the fact that Daisy Bates burnt almost all her personal papers at the end of her life, she did not try to describe her character or motivation especially at the times of crisis in her life or to go into her emotional life. I would have welcomed some extrapolations and discussion from what IS known about her rather than having to guess at it for myself. The first part about her life in Ireland was particularly laboured, maybe because it was possible to research accurate information about her family. As a historical biography it falls well short of the mark, but it isn't entertaining enough to be a popular biography either - which must be its aim given its title - but this may be the effect of the reader as much as the writer.
Don't expect too much and you won't be disappointed and will learn something at least about a very unusual and remarkable woman. Note too that although I've given it a fairly low rating, my sister would have given it a five star one and the voice didn't grate on her as much as it did on me.
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The story skipped around and often repeated material. Daisy must have been an interesting character but this treatment did not do her justice.
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