On 10 May, I will be speaking at the Lilith Conference: ‘Women without men: Spinsters, widows and deserted wives in the nineteenth century and beyond’, at the ANU. It sounds like such a great conference, and I’m excited to be a part of it. Here’s what I’m going to be talking about.
Title: Returning home alone: marital breakdown and the voluntary repatriation of Australian wives from south China
Abstract: Between the 1860s and 1930s dozens of white wives of Chinese men travelled with their husbands and children from Australia and New Zealand to southern China. This paper will examine the decision made by a number of these women to subsequently leave their husbands and marriages, and sometimes also their children, to return to Australia. One of the main reasons they did so was the discovery that their husband had a Chinese wife. British and Australian commentators made much of the ‘cruel treatment’ white wives received from their Chinese families, with newspapers publishing periodic warnings of the dangers of a return to China. This paper will refigure such narratives of cruelty and abandonment to consider the deliberate and courageous decisions white wives made—first in leaving their Australian homes for new lives in China and second in choosing to return home alone, as ‘abandoned’ wives and mothers. It will explore the circumstances in which white wives left China, the physical and emotional journeys they made, and the sometimes devastating consequences these had upon their lives.