The Letters of George & Elizabeth Bass
Allen & Unwin, $45 hb, 216 pp
In the shadow of the famous romance of Ann and Matthew Flinders lies another, even sadder love story, between Flinders’s partner in exploration George Bass and his wife, Elizabeth. Bass and Flinders are so firmly bracketed in the Australian historical imagination that it comes as a surprise to find that the only references to Flinders in this collection of the Bass letters come from Elizabeth. Flinders does not even merit an entry in the biographical notes at the beginning of the book.
The parallels between the two men’s lives are many. Both were born in Lincolnshire, and were destined for medical careers, despite being fascinated by the sea. Flinders managed to convince his father to let him join the navy at fifteen, while Bass was apprenticed by his widowed mother to an apothecary-surgeon. His apprenticeship completed, he joined the navy as a naval surgeon’s first mate at eighteen. The two met when they boarded the Reliance under John Hunter, bound for New South Wales. The coincidences continue. Back in England in 1800–1801, they both married and sailed away from their respective wives three months after the weddings. Flinders returned nine years later; Bass never came back.