Academic journal article Hecate

Medium/Machine: The Writing of Rosa Praed and Nancy Harward

Academic journal article Hecate

Medium/Machine: The Writing of Rosa Praed and Nancy Harward

Article excerpt

In a vast territory such as this of Queensland, inhabited as it is by a mere handful of people, the electric telegraph system is a most potent agent of civilisation ... As the nerve to the brain, and the brain to the nerve, so by this minute reticulation of a sensitive organism, a uniformity of thought almost, and of expression, is imparted to the whole community. ("Scientific and Useful")

This passage, published in the Queenslander newspaper in 1875, represents the body as an extension of a technological system. Such imagery is familiar to readers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, emerging with William Gibson's representations of "jacking in" to cyberspace in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, but as Laura Otis has written, the tendency "to see a communications device as a continuation of one's own nervous system developed in the nineteenth century, not in the twentieth" (10). New technologies of the nineteenth century such as the typewriter and telegraph prompted new ideas about intimacy and affect, which in turn created innovative opportunities for authorship. The literary collaboration of nineteenth-century Australian novelist Rosa Praed and her companion Nancy Harward, for example, was not only activated by these new technologies, but it was also a means by which, as with many other female mediums of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Harward could furnish herself with literary authority. The persistence of alternative worlds, present now in the realm of cyberspace, indicates how even though telepathy may have been no more than intuition, it still offered women an opportunity to create and enact alternative selves and desires.


In 1851, the world's first undersea telegraph cable was laid between England and France, connecting the two countries. The same year, Rosa Praed was born on a property beside the Logan River near Brisbane. As her father Thomas Murray-Prior moved the family around Queensland buying and selling properties, telegraph wires were erected in each Australian state, beginning with Victoria in 1854. In 1868, when Praed was seventeen, her mother died of consumption. Praed was devastated, but took on her mother's roles of accompanying her father to Brisbane for his political business, running the house in Maroon, south-west of Brisbane, and caring for her siblings. In October 1872, she married Englishman Campbell Praed and moved with him to Curtis Island off the coast of Rockhampton, where he ran cattle.

In The Romance of a Station (1889), her novel based upon her experiences of the island, Praed's protagonist Rachel Adsell encounters a storm of mosquitoes that "offered a palpable resistance to one's hand, and their noise was as the roar of distant machines," foreshadowing a tormenting, hostile environment from which there was no escape (10). There is only one other woman on the island, the telegraph operator, to whom Rachel pays a visit. Rachel describes her as a "shy, odd little woman of sixteen, reminding me somehow of a scrub kangaroo or a native bear, brought in and tamed, with her short, shaggy brown mane, her bright black eyes, her startled way" (74). Despite never having left the island which formed her into this very local creature, Polly is a receptacle of global information. Through the telegraph, she acquires

a mass of miscellaneous information, for the Cape was a through station, and all messages political, departmental, European, and otherwise, flashed along the line ... Once, when the needle stopped for a minute, Polly announced in her abrupt manner: "Mr Gladstone has announced to The House of Commons that in consequence of the vote on the Irish University Bill, Her Majesty's Ministers have tended their resignations." (75)

From an isolated island off the coast of Australia, Polly absorbs information from the far reaches of the globe, embodying what Tom Standage has described as "the Victorian internet." The effect of this was a sense of communality. …

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