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Scratching a sore history.

While the truth of the white woman incident remains elusive, it’s a story all Gippslandians should know - in all its glory and shame.

Oct 20, 2022

Words: Lucas Smith

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A new project bringing neglected Australian books back into print has selected an important book in Gippsland’s literary history for reissue. The White Woman (1994) by Liam Davison has long been out of print, rare and expensive, but thanks to the Untapped Australian Literary Heritage Project, it is newly available in ebook form and shortly also in print.

The novel is based on the still-unresolved white woman incident of the 1840s where several search parties went out looking for a white woman thought to be missing in the Gippsland wilderness. Some said she was a shipwreck survivor, or had been captured by the Gunaikurnai people, or had gone missing on her own. Her plight was a sensation in the young colony, where women were scarce. To the settlers of Melbourne and the pioneering men of Victoria, it was the highest necessity to bring the “poor wretch” back to civilisation.

" want a place for her in history. And not just history but in your own petty story—the unremarkable history of your anonymous forebears... Better not scratch too deep, I think.”

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The White Woman takes the form of a one-sided dialogue between a veteran of the search and the son of his colleague who seeks information about his father’s role in those famous events. The intimacy of the second-person address is highly effective at placing the reader in the heart of the story.

The sensationalist Melbourne media, which Davison portrays excellently in the chancer journalist Cavenagh, was instrumental in promoting public subscriptions to the various search parties. Despite the scepticism of Port Albert locals and Governor LaTrobe, who wondered if the woman might prefer her new way of life, the search party of whites and native trackers set out with high hopes, each man seeing in the woman a reflection of his own desires. The narrator’s identification with the woman is so deep, her image so perfect, his desire for her safety so powerful, that it causes him physical pain.

It’s hard to imagine how inaccessible and remote Gippsland was in the 1840s.

“You have to understand what the times were like,” says the narrator, “the uncertainties we faced, the fear. When we first arrived at Raymond’s station there was a cannon pointed into the bush. Behind it was Lake Wellington and the house; before it was nothing but scrub.”

After a series of increasingly frustrating encounters with Gunaikurnai people, who claimed to know where the woman was, but seemed unable to procure her, it became clear that their search would be futile. The narrator wonders if the story was cooked up by a settler to drum up interest in the region or a kind of prank played on Melburnians – a more sinister version of the drop bear.

For the Gunaikurnai people, who were subjugated and massacred during these years, in part to “avenge” the missing woman, the consequences were devastating.

Dr Airlie Lawson, a researcher for Untapped from the University of Melbourne, said, “The White Woman was nominated [for reprinting] by an academic who teaches Australian literature at a university in Europe who wanted to be able to set it on courses but couldn't obtain copies as it was out of print. The argument for its inclusion was, essentially, that the writing was excellent, the style innovative, and the treatment of the subject matter – the colonial frontier wars – prescient.”

While the truth of the white woman incident remains elusive, it’s a story all Gippslandians should know, part of our collective colonial dreamscape in all its glory and shame.

As the narrator scolds his listener:
“Yes, I know how the argument goes; you want a place for her in history. And not just history but in your own petty story—the unremarkable history of your anonymous forebears. Yes, I know. It comes with living in a new country, this trying to forge a satisfactory past—valour, glory, noble deeds. Better not scratch too deep, I think.”

The White Woman shares characteristics with David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon and Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves, but it is more elliptical and mysterious, befitting our region, with its detailed descriptions of the Prom, Ninety Mile Beach, Lake Wellington, the wild seas and weather of Gippsland, lyrebirds mimicking gunshots and screams. Untapped must be congratulated for making it again accessible to a wide audience.

Davison ends with the most plausible, and innocent, explanation for the initial rumour. She was a wrecked ship’s painted wooden figurehead all along, her corporeality confused in a game of Chinese whispers, seized upon by a savvy newsman and imagined into being in the fever dreams of fortune seekers. At the end of the novel, a similar missing woman story springs up around Portland on the other side of the colony…

The White Woman by Liam Davison (paperback) was released on September 27 and the ebook will be available through

Gippslandia - Issue No. 24

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