By Chris Childs
I am Caroline, Madame Carole, Carrie.
I wonder how history will remember me?
Will anyone remember Miss Caroline Harper, jeweller and watchmaker’s daughter from Nottingham? I think not. I barely remember her myself. Father dead these forty-four years and Mother nearly thirty. It was so long ago. A lifetime.
Growing up in industrial Nottingham in the 1820s and 30s, I saw the hand-to-mouth existence of most of its inhabitants; enslaved by machines, choked by coal dust, beaten into submission. That once proud land of verdant meadows and primrose vales, the haunt of Robin Hood; reduced to blackened chimneys, steam and smoke. I remember the empty eyes of its enslaved inhabitants as they struggled to survive. I vowed never to descend into a life of poverty. Intelligence, education and industriousness were the key to liberation. Fortunately, my parents agreed and could see the value in educating their precocious daughter. No expense was spared and as soon as I was old enough I was dispatched to lively Paris to complete my studies.
France in the mid 1830s was an exciting place to be, compared with stuffy old England with its succession of aged kings. Paris was alive and stimulating. I can still smell the coffee, taste the cheese and crusty bread and see the gas light dancing on the Seine. In Paris I flirted with a bohemian existence, encouraged by enlightened philosophers, writers and artists. I became friends with radical thinker George Sand and met my future husband, English artist William Dexter. Then, after a while, England started to beckon. Money became tighter, my father was unwell and an eighteen-year-old princess had become Queen. My home country seemed to be on the brink of change. William and I both returned to England, keen to be part of the action.
Father had been right. William Dexter was not suitable husband material. I waited until my father had left his earthly home before I married William, but I felt disapproval radiating from the grave. Not that Mother approved of the match either, but she knew she couldn’t win an argument with me. Yet, I had to wait until I turned twenty-one and could seal my own fate.
Who will remember Mrs. Caroline Dexter, controversial social commentator and artist’s wife? I remember her, but scarcely recognise the angry, opinionated woman seeking to change the world. Passionate about women’s health and freedom I became a public lecturer, best known for my attacks on the whalebone corsets and crinoline cages squeezing the lives out of their female victims. I advocated a modest, Turkish-style costume with waistcoat, tunic and breeches popularised by Amelia Bloomer. Mostly my efforts were met with success, but my cheeks still flush when I think of the violence of the mob at the Crystal Palace and the scathing newspaper reports. It was at this time that I also established a reputable, medical practice. As Madam Carole I used my psychic ability, mesmerism and knowledge of health issues to treat London’s ailing elite.
And then in 1852, like many other men, William caught gold fever and impulsively set sail for Australia. It took two more years to extract myself from my lecturing obligations and flourishing medical practice, to follow him. If truth be told, I was also cooling a little of William’s aimless, hedonistic lifestyle and enjoyed the peace his absence had brought. Still, I was his wife and setting up in a new colony so far away was very appealing. Both my parents had died, as had William’s. He was the only family I had left. I sailed for Sydney on the Marie Gabrielle as 1854 drew to a close, determined to make a fresh start.
Sydney was a surprise. I had a naïve vision of rolling countryside and the freedom to do anything. Instead I found a bustling town, groaning under its growing population and dearth of infrastructure. People lived here, much as they were doing in London, in overcrowded conditions, fighting to make an adequate living. Of course, there was the exception of the magnificent harbour and the tropical weather. Sydney was hot and steamy when I arrived in summer.
I didn’t have the luxury of the new start, I’d desired. My reputation arrived ahead of me. I’d barely set foot in Sydney when I locked horns with the conservative Sydney Morning Herald. The bloomer stories were regurgitated with venom and I ran the risk of becoming an object of ridicule in this conservative colony, particularly given William’s newly acquired reputation as a political radical of the Bendigo Gold fields. Despite this – or perhaps because of it – I managed to establish myself as an intellectual force to be reckoned with and started running a series of well-attended women’s lectures. In fact, I was the first woman to conduct public speeches in the new colony. After several failed enterprises, William started working as an art teacher at a respectable Sydney school. I thought things were finally starting to come together for us, both socially and financially. How wrong I was!
William’s complete lack of judgment and self-control resulted in public scandal, family ostracism and a marriage in tatters. A mammoth change was needed. I was all for going to America for a divorce, but William convinced me that he would change if we left Sydney for a more rural environment. So, despite my misgivings, in 1856 off we went to Stratford in Gippsland. I entered a period of literary productivity, while William tried his hand at various local projects with his usual lack of discipline. I loved the bush flora, the stately gum, majestic fern and golden wattle. The native birds and animals were a delight to behold. I have fond memories of sitting under the wide spreading branches of an elderly acacia watching possums play by moonlight. I developed a real connection with the local natives, the Gundai people, and learned much about their land and customs. I should have been perfect but predictably, anything involving William was doomed to fail. I lasted fifteen months before poverty and William’s erratic behaviour drove me away. I left for Melbourne late in 1857, desperate to escape the arguments and hand-to-mouth existence. I promised to work in Melbourne for twelve months to rebuild our finances and then join him in Sydney to give the marriage one last chance. It was the only way he would let me go.
Who’d have thought Melbourne would become home for the rest of my life?
It was there, in my little wooden cottage at the top end of Collins Street, that I revived Madame Carole. First seen in London, her healing skills were even more in demand amongst Melbourne’s emerging social set. I’d like to think Madame Carole’s patients remembered her kindly and with affection, but of course they are all long gone now. Except, dear Lynch of course. Lynch had been one of William’s brightest and most talented art students in Sydney and now he became one of my Melbourne patients, along with judges, landowners, businessmen and their high society wives.
Whilst I was working hard to establish my professional reputation and extricate myself from poverty, William was consumed by spite and jealously. He did everything he could to cut me down and drag me back to his level. Demanding, childish letters from him could immobilize me for days. The veil was off and I didn’t like what I saw under it. He thought that he had the right to give me ultimatums. Me! He picked the wrong woman to treat like a mere chattel. Finally realising that I intended to stay in Melbourne, he returned alone to Sydney, in mid-1858. We’d been married nearly twenty years, but had spent barely thirteen together. Looking back, I struggle to remember any happy times, but we must have had some. Must we not?
Through 1858 and 1859 William continued to plague and harass me with his poisonous letters. Then the letters stopped coming. I barely noticed as I immersed myself in my thriving career and social life. However, I was truly saddened to hear William had died of TB in early 1860. I didn’t even know that he was sick. Grief turned to anger when I discovered his bigamous behavior in the months beforehand. I don’t know why I was so surprised, given his past misdemeanors. That trumped-up whore, Annie Poole, convinced his Sydney family she was his caring bride for William’s final months. His duplicitous uncle tried to justify taking her side by suggesting I had neglected poor William and that our marriage was the false one! What hurt me most though, was their stubborn refusal to return my rightful property, especially my personal letters; private letters between husband and wife that were never intended for others’ eyes. How I wanted to get my hands on those letters and burn them to cinders.
All is forgiven now that William Dexter and I have passed over to a better place. I didn’t allow it to drag me down at the time either. In fact the year following was one of my most productive. I’d already established myself as a writer when I published Australia’s first Ladies’ Almanac in 1858, mostly written during my time in Gippsland. In 1861 Harriet Clisby (Australia’s first female homeopathic practitioner) and I collaborated on Victoria’s first women’s journal, The Interpreter. We had high hopes for it, but it folded after two issues. Harriet and I were starting to drift in different directions. She settled in America and I was about to embark on the most glittering stage of my life.
Young Lynch had been a blessing when William went to Sydney. Regularly travelling back and forth between Melbourne and Sydney, he transported letters and parcels between us, and provided a shoulder to cry on, when required. Trust turned to affection, then to admiration. I thought I could do far worse than becoming the wife of William Lynch; an up-and-coming solicitor with a love of art, a kind nature and yet young enough to mould into something substantial.
Who could possibly forget Mrs. Carrie Lynch, society mistress of Bombala? We married in 1861 when I was forty-two. William Lynch was twenty years my junior. He proved to be a worthy student and an excellent provider. William managed a successful legal career, established Brighton Yacht Club, became a councillor, then Mayor, of Brighton. I created a magnificent home and we had a sparkling social life. We were the toast of Melbourne. My unsold Dexter paintings and our acquired array of European and colonial masterpieces resulted in an art collection second to none. Life was great.
We had twenty-three happy years together. William Lynch was my devoted servant – I know he worshipped me. I’m saddened we didn’t have the chance for a final good-bye. When he left on a European business trip in 1884, neither of us knew that my earthly days were numbered. Without warning my heart stopped beating and I slipped silently into the cool August night. I look at the magnificent gravestone he erected at Brighton cemetery and I am filled with pride. It is a fitting and enduring monument to the wonderful life we built together. While William is alive, the last few decades of my life will not be forgotten. I will not be forgotten.
I was Caroline Harper, Dexter, Madame Carole, Carrie Lynch. I was all of these, but mostly I was myself, a woman ahead of her time. What a journey! What a life!
William Lynch remarried two years after Caroline’s death. When he died, in 1901, he was widely celebrated in the press as an eminent citizen of Victoria. His ownership of one of Australia’s best art collections was reported extensively.
There was no mention of the contribution Caroline made. In fact there was no mention of her existence. She was completely erased from his story. History is written by the survivors, in this case presumably, Mrs. Lynch No. 2.
Ironically, Caroline is best remembered for the acrimonious letters she wrote her first husband, William Dexter, during their final separation. The same letters that she tried so hard to reclaim so as to destroy them, were passed through the extended Dexter family in England and finally made their way to the State Library of Victoria’s archives.
The Dexter collection, MS11630, Correspondence and other miscellaneous material relating to Caroline and William Dexter, 1857-1860, The State Library of Victoria.
Dexter, C, 1858, Ladies Almanac – The Southern Cross Australian album, Melbourne.
(Reported as the first Australian Ladies almanac published)
Clisby, H & Dexter, C, 1861, The Interpreter – An Australian monthly magazine of science, literature, art, Melbourne, Jan & Feb.
(Reported as the first Australian women’s journal. These were the only two issues published)
‘Death of Mr. William Lynch’, 1901, The Australasian, 1 June, p.37.
Morgan, P, 1999, Folie á deux – William and Caroline Dexter in colonial Australia, Quakers Hill Press, NSW.
Image by: Dương Trần Quốc