Representing a non-English speaking woman in 1890s Melbourne: some dilemmas

Nadia Rhook explores some of the tensions arising from her work on “Moving Tongues: language and migration in 1890s Melbourne,” a City of Melbourne exhibition to be launched on October 5, 2016.

Warning: this is a blog of uncertainty. I’m currently curating a heritage exhibition about language and migration in 1890s Melbourne and find myself swimming in the deep end of questions of representation. Each time I view the collection of images I’ve selected to tell a story of polyglot Melbourne, I feel a resurgent frustration at the ways in which women appear; present in highly marginal and whitewashed ways. White bonneted women appear in Parliament, where they’re consigned to the sidelines to listen on as their male counterparts orate. White women also appear in a sketch about Indian hawkers, here, as customers, protected from the hawkers by whip-baring white men.

"Indian Hawkers," Illustrated Australian News, Melbourne: David Syme and Co., 1891.
“Indian Hawkers,” Illustrated Australian News, Melbourne: David Syme and Co., 1891.

Of course, these images are telling of the racial and gender norms of the day. As feminist colleagues who have surveyed the images remind me, these images reflect the intensely patriarchal world that was 1890s Melbourne. This was, after all, a time when white women were yet to gain the franchise, and when women of colour faced even more layers of marginalisation, and non-English speaking women of colour yet more.

The richest archive material I’ve got to illustrate the engagement of a non-English speaking woman in the legal system is a sexual assault case involving a Norwegian woman, Louisa Fritz. Hers is a disturbing and, potentially, trauma-triggering story. Louisa migrated from Norway to Melbourne in the early 1890s. Soon after her arrival, she was assaulted by one Theodore Ulstein, and became a defendant in a Supreme Court criminal trial, where her speech and language ability bore intense male scrutiny. Some months later Louisa again appeared in court, this time with her mother. The two were charged of the crime of attempting suicide.

Women’s marginality is often expressed in linguistic metaphors. It’s a virtual truism to state that women have historically been “silenced,” and “without a voice.” As Joy Damousi has observed, this is vitally because, in nineteenth-century Australia, “the world of public speech” was a white man’s world. But the communicative stakes of not speaking English go well beyond the metaphorical. For Louisa, they were a question of safety, and, evidently, of retribution and justice. Her case teaches us that because Victoria was a polyglot society, the question of women having a voice was not only that of whether women could speak in public, but also of the language(s) in which they spoke.

Given this feminist impetus, one of the exhibition’s eight main panels will centre on Louisa’s story. The majority of the exhibition, though, speaks to the racial politics of immigration, and while Louisa’s story calls attention to the normative marginalisation of non-English speaking women in 1890s Melbourne, it also begs the question of how race figured in all this.

In Victoria during the late nineteenth century, “white” was a racial category that could shift to cover Europeans from the continent, so that Louisa could gain the privileges of a white settler woman – that is, if she learned English. Louisa’s story is thus not representative of all non-English speaking women, and especially not of women of colour, for whom learning English was not necessarily a path into whiteness.

The some 1200 Victorian Supreme Court cases I looked at during my Ph.D. research included tens of cases involving non-English speaking men defendants. While there are witness statements from a number of non-English speaking Chinese and Indian women, Louisa’s was a rare case for involving a non-English speaking woman defendant. This rarity has lead me to think about the representation of absence. What of those women who never made it into the courtroom? Those who may have wished to lay charges but found the white Anglophone male dominated common law system too intimidating and/or linguistically alienating to engage with? Those women “off the historical record”? Indeed, it was partly hearing the stories of linguistic intimidation of my former ESL students that lead me to research this history in the first place. And given that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has identified: “Lack of access to English language training” and “lack of interpreter provisions” as a barrier for migrant women’s access to law, these barriers were surely tougher in the 1890s.

Of course, the records of Theodore’s trial mean I don’t only have to work with absence. Louisa exercised enormous linguistic agency. By screaming and verbally appealing to the threat of law, she succeeded in preventing Theodore from raping her. She then found ways to bring Theodore to trial through the assistance of her English-speaking sister.

In working out how to visually represent Louisa’s linguistic story, more questions of patriarchy arise. There are two main contenders for the image to accompany the panel text. One; Louisa’s deposition, a transcription of Louisa’s Norwegian speech rendered in English, penned by the clerk of court, and signed by Louisa. The other; a letter Theodore wrote to Louisa in response to the ad she posted in the Melbourne Age newspaper to seek work as a housekeeper. In a note at the bottom of the page Ulstein raised the question of Fritz’s English abilities.

Ulstein Letter Norwegian 1st page

Ulstein Letter Norwegian
“Exhibit B,” The Queen v. Theodore Ulstein, Supreme Court, Sale, 11 February 1892, “Assault with Intent to commit a rape,” VPRS30/P0, unit 869, case 4, Public Records Office of Victoria.

“So I hope now the kind Miss will be as kind as to send answer by return post. – Yours truly, Theodore Ulstein, Longwarry Sawmills, Gippsland. N. B. – Can you speak a little English, so will you still learn more.”

Penned in messy script, Theodore’s letter to Louisa is more personal and visually arresting than the regular, formal language in which the clerk of court transcribed Louisa’s deposition. The letter is also significant as a rare source of the social negotiation of language learning, and for these reasons is the forerunner choice for display. But even if the letter becomes the key image, more questions of representation loom. At times curating feels like a long hall of mirrors!

There are two versions of Theodore’s letter preserved in the archive; one, the original, in Norwegian; another an English version, translated to be evidence in the trial. So do I show the English version since it will be readily intelligible to most of the audience (and hence give in to Anglophone normativity) for the exhibition? Or, do I show the original version in Norwegian, which may be linguistically indecipherable to the audience but would illustrate the efficacy of colonial communication in a non-English language? I suspect the English version will be more engaging for a predominantly Anglophone Melbourne audience. Should intelligibility have to win over multilingualism?

Perhaps knowing how the longer story unfolds, one might be less disquieted about the historical and legal marginality of non-English speaking women, some of whom have become adept at representing their interests. The Association of Non-English Speaking Background Women of Australia (ANESBWA) was established in 1987, with the aim of promoting “access and equity for the culturally and linguistically diverse women of Australia.” And this morning, I was in the Queen Victoria Building for the fabulous Feminist Writer’s Festival. On our way up the stairs, participants passed an office of Domestic Violence Victoria, and an (English language) poster plastered on its glass wall: “Violence against women is a crime in any language.” The linguistic workings of patriarchy continue to matter. I’m running out of time to work through these fraught decisions of representation, but this story is far from finished. And, perhaps, not one I can tell.

For more information, see: Louisa Fritz, Depositions, The Queen v. Theodore Ulstein, Supreme Court, Sale, 11 February 1892, “Assault with Intent to commit a rape,” VPRS30/P0, unit 869, case 4, Public Records Office of Victoria.


headshot_nrhook Nadia Rhook is a Melbourne-based historian and writer, currently lecturing at La Trobe University. She’s published in journals including the Journal of Women’s HistoryPostcolonial Studies and Peril: Asian Australian Arts and Culture Magazine. Nadia is interested in the transformative power of learning language and history. Nadia created the walking tour “Migration and the Private Lives of the Hoddle Grid,” and is curating the City of Melbourne heritage exhibition “Moving Tongues: language and migration in 1890s Melbourne.”

Follow Nadia on Twitter @NadiRhook.

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