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Posted on 20 Mar 2024 in Fiction |

ROBYN BISHOP The Rust Red Land. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Through the story of Matilda, Robyn Bishop’s novel reveals the constrained lives of women in rural New South Wales in the late 1800s.

It is July 1892 and Matilda is just old enough to help Clara out of her cot, change her nappy and dress her, but not old enough to understand why the baby, Lily, has died. Mama had said that the angels had come and taken Lily with them.

Matilda’s tasks are to feed Lily porridge and gravy, to sponge her at bath time after Mama pours heated water in the big enamel dish, and ferry her around the yard while Mama hangs out the washing. No more. Heaven means gone, no more, ever.

Matilda hates heaven for taking Lily away. She sees Father place Lily in a tiny coffin and rushes to get out of the room, but Father stops her, threatens her with the strap, then sends her to get Clara up and to help her mother. For the next month or two, while Mama is sick and will not get up, Matilda’s days ‘follow the pattern of all the days that have gone before in her short life’, but she dreams of being free like the swallows and diving and playing in the sea that she has seen pictures of in Mama’s books.

‘If I climbed a tree could I see the sea?’ she dares to ask Father when he is busy cutting logs into quarters. She is always full of curiosity and there are many more things she ‘needs to know’, but Father is always busy: ‘You ask too many questions, Matilda. It’s not becoming in a girl.’

Only when she starts school does Matilda find an outlet for her curiosity. She ‘absorbs Sir’s knowledge like blotting paper’ and earns his special approval. At home, however, her tasks are constant. Two more babies are born, Billy and Gordon, and by 1899 the boys are old enough for her to play chasing games with, but she

misses the time before the boys were born when Mama belonged to her and Clara. These days, Mama only pays attention to her when she needs something done. And there are so many things to be done. Matilda’s always busy and the only time she has to herself is when her siblings are all asleep in their one shared bed. Then, she sits on the floor under the hissing glow of the kerosene lamp and reads.

When Father tells the family he has bought a new property, that they will move, and that Matilda will stay home from school to help her mother, she is angry, but Father insists she will do as he tells her. So, a pattern is set which lasts a lifetime. Matilda always, it seems, is the one who has to give up things in order to do ‘women’s work’, and help and care for others. She is allowed to go back to school, and her new teacher recognises her abilities, lends her books and discusses them with her, but when he suggests that she should stay on at school for another year and could eventually become a teacher, Father dismisses the idea:

You’ve had enough schooling, Matilda. You’re nearly a woman. Your place is now in the home, helping your mother with the younger children and household tasks until you find a husband.

Already there is another baby, Myra, to help with, but Mama is pregnant again and exhausted: ‘Are you so selfish, Matilda,’ Father asks her, ‘that you won’t stay home and help her?’ This is his ‘final word’.

Clara is allowed to take work in the McNabbs’ General Store in town. Matilda looks enviously at Clara’s smart new work clothes and at the fabric counter where she will work, but as she looks around the store she finds a bookcase full of old books. Mrs McNabb Senior sees her examining them and, learning that Matilda loves books, gives her some to take home with her. She even outfaces Father when he tries to send the books back. ‘Your father took some convincing, but he was too polite to refuse,’ she tells Matilda, adding, ‘Make the most of them, dear. Books are your path to freedom.’

Freedom, however, is a long time coming. Two more babies are born, Una, then Roy, at whose difficult birth Matilda helps. Roy turns out to have special needs, and Mama makes Matilda promise to ‘always look after Roy, even when he is grown up’.

Then Father tells Matilda that the family is short of finances and he has found a job for her as housemaid at The Big House. She is to start the next day. Matilda is shocked:

Her chest burns and she spits out, ‘It’s not fair, Father. You’ve kept me at home when all I wanted to do was learn and now you’re hiring me out, like some sort of baggage.’

‘Ahh, your books. I should have banned them long ago.’

‘I won’t go. You can’t make me.’ …

He draws a sharp breath, drops his arm and says in a measured voice, ‘I won’t stoop to hitting you, Matilda. You’ll obey me until the day you’re married and then you’ll obey your husband. Do you hear me?’

Not everything is as bleak as all this sounds. Life at The Big House is not unpleasant, Matilda does get time off, and Clara insists that she accompany her and her ‘beau’, James, to a dance. Eventually, Matilda is courted and marries. It is not the romantic love she dreamed of after reading so much about that, but Charles is kind and reliable, and she loves the land that she and Charles live on.

Matilda and her brother, Gordon, sit on a log under a red gum at the edge of the paddock …

They don’t speak as they eat their lunch, simply sit and look at the land, the sky and the skittish movement of the clouds. She nudges Gordon and points out a wedge-tailed eagle gliding on the back of the wind with its wings spread wide, earthy colours strong against the blue.

Only when the First World War begins and her brother Billy volunteers, is she anxious. Charles, however, stays to take care of the farm, and Gordon fails the medical due to a heart murmur. Matilda also has new responsibilities – her sons, Vincent and baby Gordon.

The family get older and Matilda still feels responsible for all of them, especially for Roy, whose behaviour becomes erratic and for whom Charles eventually gets psychiatric help. Then Charles, thinking he is doing something Matilda will love, buys a little house in town and moves Matilda and the boys there. Matilda misses their old home, but she discovers a little more freedom and becomes a little more independent, choosing, on one occasion, to attend a football match (incognito) that Charles and the boys would not take her to, saying she would not enjoy it. She enjoys it enormously, and football becomes a shared family interest.

After making friends with the new local librarian, Matilda is surprised to be asked to help run reading groups for children from the local primary school; then, possibly, for future groups for adults. Postwar life gets easier, especially for women, and there are happy family outings, but there are more shocks in store for Matilda, and she comes to see that Charles has never really understood her, or discussed any of his decisions with her.

The world changes, and so does Matilda. She gains some financial independence, becomes more confident, more able to make her own decisions, and she returns to the farm where she and Charles had started their marriage:

Today is her lazy day and she’s done exactly what she wanted to do, in the order she wanted to do it in. She stands up, her trousers falling gently around her bare ankles and watches her magpies land on the lawn and peck at the meat scraps from last night’s dinner. The three of them, two adults and a fledgling whose feathers are still fluffy, visit her every day. If she’s quiet, the fledgling will eat out of her hand and warble when he’s finished. Just for me, she likes to think. My own song. The magpies are never far away. They are all the company she desires when she’s home alone on the farm.

The Rust Red Land is a beautifully written, deeply felt and rich description of Matilda’s life and of the way life in Australia was lived in the eventful years between 1892 and 1950 when so many things changed: the land, cities, war, society, family expectations, and, in particular, the lives of women.

In her acknowledgements, Robyn Bishop says that the book began when she was a child, listening to her grandmother, Matilda Winterbottom, telling her stories ‘about her life, her siblings, and growing up on the land’. It is these stories that have found their way onto The Rust Red Land.

Robyn Bishop The Rust Red Land Spinifex Press 2023 PB 310pp $36.95

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages ( are archived by the British Library.

You can buy The Rust Red Land from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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