The View From Mount Clarence

A look back at settlement along Western Australia's South Coast

Interlude Resumed

Originally Published 31 July 2014:

Who were Henrietta Gillam and John Dunn?


Henrietta Gillam - NOT

Above:  Not Henrietta. There are no known photographs of Henrietta Gillam in the public domain so I had to go in search of an image that I thought might do her justice. This one from the Orien en Aeroplane cultural blog is idealised but appeals.

There’s a manic frequency in these last few posts which is a reflection of the turmoil and energy created by the desire to begin and complete a story. I’ve started the Lost of Love of Henrietta Gillam, but as with each of these historical fiction tales, the minute I begin the minute I need to know more, the minute I have to go back and check, re-read, think, watch, dwell, ponder and pursue.

Whenever I start a story it’s exactly that, the beginning, the very front of the process. These last weeks while I’ve been working my way through Henrietta’s mindset as a jilted lover, trying to tap in to her character as one of those women who attract men, who can’t escape it, and who, because of this have to endure huge learning curves -much of which is subject to their own strength of mind- trying to come to terms with their sexuality and to how to manage it.

In a way I’m thinking of Henrietta Gillam as a nineteenth century version of Tim Winton’s character Gemma Buck in Eyrie. Henrietta Gillam, I’ve decided, was single among her sisters as an object of desire. She had what men were looking for. Not just had it, visually expressed it, physically exuded it, to the point the very sight of her aroused passions in men, near sight of her enough to propel the most predatory among them into states of automatic behaviour they were similarly unable to contain.

But Henrietta had to endure the solitude of exile. My suspicion is that her mother moved out to Bolganup with her younger children not because her husband had passed away but because her unmarried twenty-one year old daughter was carrying a child and that the child’s father was to be reminded of it by her proximity to his family home. I think there may have been a pact between the mothers of John Dunn and Henrietta Gillam to keep the child between the two families and the child’s parents reminded of each other.

But John Dunn in six years could not marry his fiance nor bring her to the house at Cocanarup which he shared with his brothers. As a result, Henrietta lived as a single mother under the eye of her daughter’s disapproving grandmothers, on a remote farm. Living with her sin, isolated, lonely and deprived.

John Dunn Cocanarup

Above: John James Dunn 1848-1880: Image, Diamond State Data Services

Alongside all the thoughts about what actually happened to John Dunn and why, I had to think about what was good about him. What qualities did he have on top of those obviously persuasive, obviously capable, obviously confident and determined characteristics that result in a young man pitting himself against all odds in a wilderness dominated by his contemporaries?

I haven’t explained their actions in any detail yet, but the villainy of the Dunn brothers can never be undone. What happened happened, and Cocanarup will always be known because of it.

But was John Dunn just a villain?

No, I think not, he was more than just that. John Dunn looms as charismatic, charming in a coarse and rugged kind of way. It seems to me he had a hunger inside of him he could not contain and that Henrietta Gillam, at least during the time he pursued her, was a thing of irresistible desire, serving to him as some kind of attainable conquest on his way to taming something altogether much larger. In that way, I saw John Dunn and John Eyre in the same light.  Edward John Eyre’s pursuit of Augusta Spencer’s kiss in story five, Taking Advantage, was as automatically driven as Dunn’s was of Henrietta. A small reward on their way to something much, much bigger. The tragedy being that John Dunn’s conquest of that much bigger thing, the Phillips River, became something altogether ghastly.

John and Henrietta were young people, in a time when all was before them, but their future, whether individually or together, had to be created by themselves. For John Dunn there was no inheritance. For Henrietta, a pittance of a dowry.

What John Dunn made had to come from himself and he was of a nature to go about it with a natural, burning hunger and all-conquering belief. John Dunn was a boy turned man who could not give in to contained domesticity, to live a tame life in the shadow of his mistakes. He had the chance to carve out of the wilderness a place for himself and his younger brothers. To pit himself against the best of his contemporaries and shine. He could never be a friend of his older brother, William. His job was not to manage the wealth of his father but to create his own. He was as unafraid to form alliances, as he thought he might with the Dempster Brothers, as he was to face his enemies and adversity.

Someone like that doesn’t go to bed late. Usually, they’re exhausted from their day’s exertion, commenced at the very first glimpse of light.

Aside to this, I’ve been incredibly fortunate in the last week and have completed my review of the collapsed trial of Yandawala, the man who speared John Dunn. The next post will look in to the case and tell why the Swan River’s Attorney General of the time, Alexander Campbell Onslow, took less than a day to end the prosecution’s effort.

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