The New South Wales c.1840

Louisa Meredith (born in Birmingham) married her cousin Charles in 1839 in England, and sailed that year to the far-flung colony, where he was already a successful squatter and politician. She wrote about the strange and fascinating land she found, and her reflections were published as ‘Notes and Sketches of New South Wales’’- by Mrs Charles Meredith! Here’s an extract of her observations of local intellectual life.

“The circulating libraries are very poor affairs, but I fear, quite sufficient for the demand, reading not being a favourite pursuit. The gentlemen are too busy, or find a cigar more agreeable than a book; and the ladies, to quote the remark of a witty friend, ‘pay more attention to the adornment of their heads without than within’. That there are many most happy exceptions to this rule, I gladly acknowledge; but in the majority of instances, a comparison between the intellect and conversation of Englishwomen, and those of an equal grade here, would be highly unfavourable to the latter. An apathetic indifference seems the besetting fault; an utter absence of interest or inquiry beyond the merest gossip, – the cut of a sleeve, or the guests at a late party. ‘Do you play?’ and ‘Do you draw?’ are invariable queries to a new-lady arrival. ‘Do you dance?’ is thought superfluous, for everybody dances; but not a question is heard relative to English literature or art, far less a remark on any political event, of however important a nature: – not a syllable that betrays thought, unless some very inquiring belle ask, ‘if you have seen the Queen, and whether she is pretty?’ But all are dressed in the latest known fashion, and in the best materials, though not always with that tasteful attention to the accordance or contrast of colour which an elegant Englishwoman would observe.”

The italics were hers. And we’ve come a long way since then, haven’t we?

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