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Tasma photographed in Turkish costume 1889
Image supplied by National Library of Australia
Image number nla.pic-an25128196
It is important to recognise the significance that was attached to Tasma’s novel [Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill] at the time of publication. It was rated as one of the best books to have come out of Australia. The author was presumed to be male – and the contribution to Australian literature to be considerable, and unique.
Dale Spender, Writing a New World: Two centuries of
Australian women writers, London, 1988
Jessie Huybers was born on the 28th of October, 1848, in Highgate, north London. Her parents, Charlotte and Alfred Huybers, migrated to Hobart Town with their three children in 1852. Alfred brought with him seventy-five cases of French and Flemish wine, and substantial quantities of liquers, sherry, brandy and rum which he began to trade. Alfred’s business flourished and at one stage his warehousing and merchant’s business was the largest in Tasmania.
Charlotte, who was a dominant figure throughout Jessie’s life, appears to have viewed her life in the colonies as an exile, and brought up her children (including those born in Hobart) to hold a similar view. A well educated woman who was the daughter of an Englishman and French emigré, she educated her daughters at home (the boys attended Hutchins) and “instilled a love of learning, an openness towards new ideas and philosophies, a great attraction towards intellectual argument, vivid imaginations and unusual talents in many of the arts, particularly drawing, painting, music, dancing and writing”. (Clarke, p.9)
The Huybers were to become quite a prominent family in Hobart Town and enjoyed the company of other prominent families. One such friendship was with Louisa and Charles Meredith. Louisa must have taken quite a fancy to the young Jessie as she invited her for a long holiday at Twamley, the Meredith bush home built in a forest at Prosser’s Plain, north-east of Hobart, in 1864. This friendship would have had quite an impact on Jessie as Louisa Meredith was a successful author who had had a number of books successfully published at the time.
On the 6 June 1867 Jessie, aged eighteen married Charles Fraser, a well connected young man aged twenty five, after knowing him for less than a year. Charlotte Huybers was vehemently opposed to the marriage but Alfred must have given his consent to the match. Three weeks after their marriage Jessie and Charles sailed to Melbourne. Jessie appears to have misgivings about her marriage quite early and by 1872 she had sailed back to Tasmania, leaving Fraser who had accumulated substantial debts by this time.
On 4 March 1873 Charlotte Huybers sailed for Europe with her four youngest children (the youngest being 11, the eldest 19) and Jessie. Jessie’s role on the journey appears to have been as a teacher to her sisters and brothers. Alfred Huybers and the two eldest sons, William (who worked in Melbourne) and Eddie (who had just started working with his father) did not go.
Other passengers on the voyage included Harry Walch, the son of James Walch, who was part-owner of J. Walch and Son, booksellers and publishers. This connection with the Walch family proved beneficial to Jessie when she began her writing career. Walch’s published Jessie’s first short story Barren Love in 1877.
After three months sailing the family reached London, where they stayed for a month, before moving on to Brussels, where Alfred Huybers’ sister lived. It was here that Charlotte planned to give her children the education in European culture denied them in Hobart. After an extended stay in Brussels the family moved to Paris, to round off their ‘European education’. The years 1873-1875 were spent absorbing the art and culture of Europe, taking numerous art lessons and perfecting their foreign language skills, skills which would benefit Jessie enormously in the coming years.
Jessie returned to live with her husband, Charles Fraser, but learnt from him that in her three year absence he had fathered a child with one of the servants. Becoming increasingly unhappy, Jessie spent as much time as possible with her mother, brothers and sisters, who were living in Melbourne. Here, through a number of connections (including her own Tasmanian connections) she built up a network of acquaintances in the literary world that would lead to future publishing opportunities for her.
Women initiating divorce proceedings was almost unheard of in the 1870s, so Jessie remained married to Charles, although they lived largely separate lives. In 1877 she adopted the pen name ‘Tasma’, and began writing. She adopted this pseudonym to honour the colony where she grew up and continued to use it for the rest of her life. She enjoyed success from the start of her writing career and was regarded as a bright new talent, contributing articles and short stories on a variety of topics to the Australasian, the Melbourne Review and the Australian Journal.
In February 1878 Jessie and Charles travelled together to Tasmania. For Charles it was an opportunity to attend the end of the racing carnival, for Jessie it was a chance to see her father and persuade him to allow her to travel to Europe again with her mother and some of her siblings. She used her experiences on this trip to write an article, ‘Holiday Impressions of Tasmania’ published by the Australasian and later in the year wrote ‘What an Artist Discovered in Tasmania’ which appeared in Walch’s 1878 Christmas annual, Australasia. An Intercolonial Christmas Annual.
Jessie continued writing and was a contributor, along with Louisa Meredith, to The Australian Ladies’ Annual. In 1879 she sailed from Melbourne to join her mother and siblings in Europe, determined to earn her own living as a writer. The break with Charles Fraser was final and they were able to be divorced in 1883.
Once in Europe, Jessie embarked on a rather unusual career. She had been noticed in geographical circles through the publication of her article on the prospects of emigration to the fruit-growing districts of Tasmania. She received an invitation to address the Société de géographie commerciale de Paris. Her first public lecture given on 20 July 1880 was on ‘L’Australiae et les avantages qu’elle offer a l’émigration française’ and proved a success. Henceforth, Jessie lectured under the name Madame Jessie Tasma.
Within eighteen months she became a celebrity lecturer, giving public lectures on the geography, history, industries, culture and social progress of Australia. Her lectures were reported in French, Belgian and other newspapers, providing a record of her public life and the acclaim that followed her success as a lecturer. She also continued to earn money by writing articles for the Australasian. Jessie’s lectures created such a sensation that she was invited by King Leopold to a private audience at his Palace at Laeken, Brussels. Jessie wrote an article on her visit to the Palace for the Australasian which was printed on 16 July 1881.
In 1881 Jessie had met Auguste Couvreur, who was not only a distinguished, highly decorated older man, but also one of the best-known political figures in Europe, having been a member of the Belgian Chamber of Representatives since 1864. He was by profession a journalist and economist and a champion of universal education, the improvement of conditions for the working class and expanded educational opportunities for women – all causes Jessie believed in. Over the coming years Jessie’s relationship with Auguste flourished.
Since the middle of 1881 Jessie had been living alone in Paris in a hotel in the Latin Quarter. The articles she wrote on the cultural life of France for the Australasian continued to supplement her income from her lecture circuit and, as her biographer Patricia Clarke points out, Australian readers have, neither before or since, had the opportunity to read in such depth about the intellectual life of Europe. In articles she wrote on Vienna she commented on the large number of businesses owned by Jews and then went on to comment on the anti-Semitism common in Austria and Germany. Her comments were often insightful “There is another disturbing element in the constant outbreaks against the Jews. If the same trouble did not occur in Protestant Germany, one might be tempted to attribute it solely to an excess of Catholic fanaticism on the part of the populace.”
Jessie was also doing something that no Australian woman had done before, everywhere she went she promoted the trading opportunities Australia presented. Her lectures proved so popular in Europe that she was accorded the honour of being named an Officier d’Académie by the President of France. This decoration was awarded by decree of the President of the Republic to persons who had rendered ‘exceptional services in the field of education or in influencing French culture’. The award was rarely given to foreigners and even more rarely to women.
On 7 August 1885 Jessie married the fifty-seven year old Auguste Couvreur, another marriage not approved of by her mother, Charlotte. After their marriage, Jessie and Auguste went on a tour of Germany and then settled in Brussels, where Jessie lived for the rest of her life. The next phase of her literary career was about to begin.
In 1888 Jessie’s first novel, Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, was serialised by the Australasian and published under the title ‘The Pipers of Piper Hill’ from January to May. It was then published by Trubner, London, and was received with enthusiasm and acclaim, being compared to Marcus Clark’s For the Term of His Natural Life and Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms.
Despite the success of Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill (for which she received little payment), Jessie continued to deliver public lectures on a variety of topics. In 1890 she gave a lecture on the status of women to a packed audience in Antwerp. In 1892 she addressed a session of the Société Royale Belge de Géographie, her subject was ‘Le Tasmanie, Voyage par le cap Horn’. She spoke about the history of Tasmania, from its colonisation by convicts, the destruction of the Aboriginal race, the exploits of the bushrangers and runaway convicts, to the late nineteenth century, with its peaceable population composed mainly of farmers. Her talk ended with projections of photographs of town and country scenes in Tasmania and New Zealand.
Jessie’s next book, A Sydney Sovereign, was published in 1890 followed by In Her Earliest Youth, also published in 1890. In 1890 she also wrote a number of short stories for the publication World: A Journal for Men and Women. Her serial story The Penance of Portia James, earned her ₤200 for six weeks work and was published from July to November 1891 by the World. In 1892 Jessie’s novel, A Knight of the White Feather, was published by William Heinemann.
In January 1892, Auguste Couvreur was appointed the London Times correspondent from Brussels, a position he held until his death in 1894. Remarkably, Jessie was able to convince the London Times to allow her to take over as Brussels correspondent after Auguste’s death. This must have been a huge relief to Jessie financially as Auguste left the house they lived in to his sisters and does not seem to have made any provision for Jessie.
Jessie’s next work of fiction was a short novel written for children called Gran’ma’ Tale, set in the Tasmania of her childhood. In 1895 she produced Not Counting the Cost, which follows the Clare family during their life in Hobart, their trip to Europe to search for a relative who has a valuable inheritance they believe is rightfully theirs. Clarke suggests this work may have been partially based on Jessie’s own family’s adventures.
In 1897, despite serious health problems, Jessie signed the contract for publication of A Fiery Ordeal. Jessie died of coronary heart disease on 23 October 1897 just before her forty-ninth birthday. A Fiery Ordeal was released shortly after her death.
Jessie specified in her will that after her death her carotid artery was to be cut by a physician to prove that her death ‘was without a doubt’. She asked to be cremated, but since this was not permitted in Belgium at the time, her body was transported to Paris for cremation at the Pére Lachaise crematorium.
This entry has been written using Patricia Clarke’s comprehensive biography Tasma: The Life of Jessie Couvreur (1994).
Works by ‘Tasma’
Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill. An Australian Novel, 1889
A Sydney Sovereign and other Tales, 1890
In Her Earliest Youth, 1890
The Penance of Portia James, 1891
A Knight of the White Feather, 1892
Not Counting the Cost, 1895
A Fiery Ordeal, 1897
Short Stories – 20 including several set in Tasmania
Articles – Over 36 on a wide range of topics
Clarke, Patricia, Tasma: The Life of Jessie Couvreur, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1994
The papers of Patricia Clarke were donated to the National Library under the Taxation Incentives for the Arts Scheme in 1990, 1994 and 1997
The collection comprises correspondence, drafts and research material relating to Clarke's books The governesses: letters from the colonies 1862-1882; A colonial woman? the life and times of Mary Braidwood Mowle, 1827-1857; Pen portraits, women writers an journalists in nineteenth century Australia; Pioneer writer: the life of Louisa Atkinson; Tasma: the life of Jessie Couvreur; Life Lines: Women's lietters and diaries, 1788-1840 (Patricia Clarke and Dale Spender) and Rosa! Rosa! A life of Rosa Praed, novelist and spiritualist.
Photographs held by the National Library of Australia
In the Steps of Rosa Praed and Tasma: Biographical Trails: A lecture by Harold White Fellow, Patricia Clarke, at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1993