Autograph books were once commonplace and served a number of purposes. Many were kept during school years as a memento of childhood friendships. Others were kept during adulthood, often with a particular theme in mind.

The library holds a number of autograph books in the Manuscripts collection. Whilst some are a disparate collection of unintelligible signatures – others, such as Kate Baker’s autograph book, are more pertinent.

Kate Baker’s autograph book; MS 13172  

Kate Baker, ‘Furphy’s gallant standard bearer,’ [1] is a significant figure in Australian literary history – not as writer or a critic, but as someone who was a passionate advocate of Australian literature. Baker’s main focus was author Joseph Furphy, but she supported many other writers too – Henry Lawson and John Shaw Neilson amongst them.

Baker’s autograph book encapsulates and reflects her commitment and dedication. Kept over a period of approximately 40 years, it contains autographs of, and quotes from, Australian men and women of letters. It reveals much about Baker and the respect many had for her.

Kate Baker’s autograph book; MS 13172

The entries read like a who’s who of players in Australian literature in the early to mid-twentieth century. Apart from autographs from members of her own family and the Furphy family (not Joseph unfortunately), it contains the autographs of a myriad of acquaintances, and many a good friend.

Bernard O’Dowd and Marie Pitt feature, also A. Lee Archer, Cyril E. Goode, Ida Leason, Frank Dalby Davison, F.J. Prescott, Edward Harrington, Mary Gilmore, Bertha Lawson (widow of Henry) and others, some unidentified.

Cyril E. GoodeLTAF 1250/151 

Until the end of her life, Baker was reading new poetry and prose, always trying to keep up.  No doubt this was partly due to Furphy’s influence, but to be fair, Baker had always been a keen reader. Much of her early life had been spent in Williamstown and she had fond memories of sitting reading in the Mechanics Institute, often with Ada Cambridge for company [2].

 The Mechanics’ Institute, WilliamstownIAN28/03/70/60 

Among those many names, some became pen pals, exchanging letters with Baker. Victor Kennedy kept up a written correspondence for years. Members of the Henry Lawson Literary and Social Society of Sydney all signed the book, including Steve Ford.

Some have included little quotes. One of the best comes from Miles Franklin, who, despite having a strained relationship with Baker at times, was obviously prepared to overlook past differences.

‘I haven’t a thing in my “mind” but great good wishes’, she wrote.

Kate Baker, OBE. Photograph by Marietta; LTAF 1250/13 

A mutual admiration for Joseph Furphy led Baker and Franklin to collaborate on his first biography: Joseph Furphy: the legend of a man and his book. Baker, who was not an intellectual, tested Franklin from the outset with her lack of objectivity and her ‘mania’ [3]. This, combined with Baker’s hearing loss (by age 76 she had become deaf), proved trying.

On 13 February 1939, Franklin wrote in her diary:

Hot day. The fatigue of trying to get K.B.[Kate Baker] to hear is killing. She has no idea of literary procedure or construction and one can’t yell a notion into her deafness. [4]

Kate Baker’s autograph book; MS 13172

Baker, awarded an OBE in 1937 for services to literature, no doubt felt put out by Franklin’s criticisms. A teacher in her youth, Baker saw it as her role to continue to mentor and ‘educate’ others. Certainly, she was not a literary critic, but nonetheless, her autograph book proves that she promoted Australian literature successfully.

Postscript

One of Joseph Furphy’s jokes was to refer to Kate Baker in military terms. On 27 March 1905, he referred to her as ‘Baker of Ours (or of the Guards, of the Coldstreams, or of any regiment you like)’. Hence the title of this blog.

References

[1] Stephens, A.G., 1921, Introduction to Rigby’s romance, p. xi

[2 ]Williamstown chronicle, 1 June 1945 p. 1 and 20 December 1946, p.2

[3] J. Roe, J., Franklin, M. & State Library of NSW, 1993, My congenials: Miles Franklin and friends in letters, p. 78

[4] Franklin, M. & Brunton, B., 2004, The diaries of Miles Franklin,  p. 118

 

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