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An Autobiography by Catherine Helen Spence – Australia in the 19thC

April 12, 2020 25 comments

An Autobiography by Catherine Helen Spence. (1910) Not available in French.

On October 31, 1905, I celebrated my eightieth birthday. Twelve months earlier, writing to a friend, I said:—”I entered my eightieth year on Monday, and I enjoy life as much as I did at 18; indeed, in many respects I enjoy it more.”

Catherine Helen Spence (1880) From WikipediaCatherine Helen Spence (1825-1910) was a Scottish-born Australian writer, journalist, social worker and political militant. After reading her novel Mr Hogarth’s Will (1865), a novel I described as Austenian, feminist and progressist, I wanted to know more about the woman who wrote it. So, when I noticed on Goodreads that she had written her autobiography, I decided to read it. EBooks are blessings, I don’t know how I could have put my hands on such a book here in France without an easy download of this free eBook copy.

CH Spence was born in Melrose, Scotland in 1825, in a family of eight. Her father was a banker and a lawyer. In 1839, after her father lost the family fortune, they emigrated to Australia and settled in Adelaide (South Australia). She belonged to a progressive family and benefited from a solid education. Her grandfather experimented with new agricultural methods. He left his farm in the hands of his daughter while he was pursuing other business ventures. In her family, women were part of the family business and not confined to domestic duties.

The capacity for business of my Aunt Margaret, the wit and charm of my brilliant Aunt Mary, and the sound judgment and accurate memory of my own dear mother, showed me early that women were fit to share in the work of this world, and that to make the world pleasant for men was not their only mission.

Her family was very religious (I didn’t understand what religious current it was) and it weighed on her vision of life. She says:

I was 30 years old before the dark veil of religious despondency was completely lifted from my soul, and by that time I felt myself booked for a single life. People married young if they married at all in those days. The single aunts put on caps at 30 as a sort of signal that they accepted their fate; and, although I did not do so, I felt a good deal the same.

She became Unitarian after settling in Australia and never married. From what she writes, I don’t think it was a real issue for her. She had the examples of two very active single aunts with full lives and made a lot of her own. She wrote books, did a lot of social work and was a strong advocate of effective voting. She also raised several orphaned children.

CH Spence writes about her literary career and the difficulty to have one when living in Australia, so far from London. I enjoyed the passages about Mr Hogarth’s Will and her experience as a writer. There are interesting passages about how much she earnt when she sold her novels and how precarious was her manuscripts’ journey to London. I loved her offhanded comment about classics

With all honour to the classical authors, there are two things in which they were deficient—the spirit of broad humanity and the sense of humour.

She knew French and could read book in the original:

It was also from Mrs. Barr Smith that I got so many of the works of Alphonse Daudet in French, which enabled me to give a rejoinder to Marcus Clark’s assertion that Balzac was a French Dickens.

Cheeky me wonders: why wouldn’t Dickens be an English Balzac? After all Father Goriot was published before Oliver Twist.

Besides literature and journalism, Spence explains her social work to improve the lives of women and children in South Australia. With Emily Clark they founded and promoted a system to take children out of destitute asylums and have them raised in approved families. I guess we call it foster care nowadays.

She also fought for a change of the voting system and advocated the Thomas Hare scheme. This is exposed in Mr Hogarth’s Will too and I confess that I didn’t understand the details of the scheme or the voting system in place at her time. The crux of the matter was to change from the current system that was not truly representative of the population to an enlarged pool of voters. Another battle was to obtain the secret ballot. As a feminist, she also petitioned for woman suffrage but thought that it was useless until effective voting was in place.

CH Spence travelled to England and Scotland, visiting the family. She also visited France and Italy. She went to the USA in 1893. She toured the country as a feminist speaker and mad a lot of public interventions. She also visited the Chicago World’s Fair. Imagine that she may have crossed the path of Marie Grandin, a Parisian lady who was at the fair too and wrote about it.

Spence’s autobiography lets the reader hear her voice, the voice of a caring, intelligent and energetic woman. She had strong beliefs and values and put her heart in the causes she chose to advocate. She fought all her life for effective voting. She was still on the board of various social services when she was in her seventies.

I’m glad I read Spence’s autobiography because there were a lot of interesting information in it but it’s not exactly a smooth read. Her prose is a bit heavy and sounds more like an account than a story. She mentions many people that didn’t mean anything to me. They may be famous Australians but as a French reader, it only slowed my reading and it became tedious at times. It feels like she was writing for her contemporary readership and not for posterity. It’s her legacy, an homage to her family, her friends and partners in all her social and political endeavours.

It is also a valuable account of Australia in the 19th century, especially South Australia and Melbourne. However, there is not a word about indigenous people. They don’t exist, it’s like Australia was a desert island at the disposal of colonizers.

My favourite parts were about literature, her comments on writing and characterization, the origin of her novels and her literary interests. I leave you with a last quote for the road, as I know there are many Austen fans out there. 🙂

About this time I read and appreciated Jane Austen’s novels—those exquisite miniatures, which no doubt her contemporaries identified without much interest. Her circle was as narrow as mine—indeed, narrower. She was the daughter of a clergyman in the country. She represented well-to-do grownup people, and them alone. The humour of servants, the sallies of children, the machinations of villains, the tricks of rascals, are not on her canvas; but she differentiated among equals with a firm hand, and with a constant ripple of amusement. The life I led had more breadth and wider interests. The life of Miss Austen’s heroines, though delightful to read about, would have been deadly dull to endure. So great a charm have Jane Austen’s books had for me that I have made a practice of reading them through regularly once a year.

Update on April 26, 2020. I’ve decided to join the Australian Women Writer Challenge for 2020. This is my first contribution.

AWW_2020

Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Helen Spence – Austenian, feminist and progressist

February 9, 2020 22 comments

Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Helen Spence (1865) Not available in French

According to Wikipedia, Miles Franklin called Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910), the Greatest Australian Woman. And after reading her biography, I can understand why. Born in Scotland, she emigrated to Australia when she was 14, after her family lost their fortune.

She became a journalist and a writer. She was the first woman to compete in a political election in Adelaide. She was a social activist and worked to  improve the quotidian of children living in institutions. She never married but raised orphaned children. Her plate on her birth house in Melrose, Scotland, says it all.

Mr Hogarth’s Will is her most famous novel. When the book opens, we’re in a solicitor’s office in Scotland. Mr Hogarth, a bachelor who raised his late sister’s daughters, Jane and Elsie, has just passed away. He was a gentleman with an estate in Scotland, not very far from Edinburg. He raised the girls as if they were boys, not because he’d wished they’re were boys but because he thought that a boy’s education was a lot more useful in life than a woman’s and that society shouldn’t waste half of its brain power.

When the solicitor unveils the stipulations of Mr Hogarth’s will, everyone is in shock. Jane and Elsie are left with almost nothing, because their uncle wanted them to use their skills to provide for themselves. He was certain that their education was enough to help them find a well-paid job.

His fortune and his estate go to his son, Francis Hogarth, a man in his early thirties that nobody has ever heard of. Mr Hogarth got secretly married in his youth and provided for his son and made sure that he became a sensible adult. Francis had been working as a bank clerk for 18 years when his father died. The will stipulates that Francis cannot help his cousins and cannot marry one of them, unless his inheritance goes to charities.

That’s the setting. What will Jane, Elsie and Francis become after this twist of fate? I’m not going to give away too much of the plot because it’s such a pleasure to follow Jane, Elsie and Francis in their endeavors.

Spence put elements from her own experience in the book and uses it to push her social and political ideas. The girls go and live with a former launderess Peggy Walker. She used to work for Mr Hogarth and now raises her sister’s children. She spent several years in a station in Australia and opens Jane and Elsie to the possibilities offered by life in the colonies. She’s a window to Australia.

Francis Hogarth is a good man, who is embarrassed by all the money he inherited. He would like to help his cousins but he can’t. He and Jane develop a good relationship, as he enjoys her conversation and her intelligence. He had to earn a living before getting all his money, and knows the value of hard work and well-earned money. He will experiment new things in his estate, to better the lives of the labourers on his land.

Elsie is prettier than Jane, more feminine too. She’s more likely to make an advantageous marriage. In appearance, she’s more fragile than Jane and relies on her older sister. She’l make a living as a milliner.

Of course, Jane can’t find a job in Edinburg because nobody wants to hire a woman even if she has the skills to be a bank clerk like Francis. Finding a job as a governess seems tricky since she can’t play the piano, embroider or paint. She eventually finds one with the Philipps, a Scottish family who got rich in Australia and is now back in the old country and lives in London.

Spence mixes a set of characters who have lived in Scotland all their lives and some who have lived in Scotland and in Australia. It allows her to compare the two ways of life and advertise life in the colonies. Through her characters, she discusses a lot of topics but I think that the most important point she’s making are that people should be judged according to their own value and accomplishments and not according to their birth.

Indeed, Jane and Elsie never look down on people who were not born in their social class and don’t hesitate to live with Peggy Walker or ask Miss Thomson’s for advice. They respect people who have a good work ethic, common sense and do their best with the cards they were given. And, according to Spence, Australia offers that kind of possibilities.

Spencer also insists on education as a mean to develop one’s skills and reach one’s potential. What’s the use of an education centered on arts and crafts? It’s a beautiful companion to other skills –Francis Hogarth is a well-read man—but how useful is it to find work? Why not help poor but capable young men to better themselves through a good education that gives them access to better paid professions? That’s what Jane does with Tom, one of Peggy Walker’s nephews. The social canvas is brand new in Australia, Spence says that capable people have better chances at succeeding there than in Scotland.

Reminder: this book was published in 1865. She was such a modern thinker.

Mr Hogarth’s Will isn’t just about giving a forum to Spence’s ideas. It is also a wonderful Austenian novel with lovely characters. Jane and Elsie have something of Elinor and Marianne and of Jane and Elizabeth. Francis Hogarth could have been friends with Mr Knightley. There’s a Miss Philipps who could be Miss Bingley’s offspring. I had a soft spot for Mr Philipps, an affectionate man who gives a real shot at fatherhood and has quite a modern way to interact with his children. He seemed to be a better version of Mr Bennet.

So, many, many, many thanks to Lisa, for reviewing this book. I would never have read this without her and I had a wonderful reading time in Jane, Elsie and Francis’s company. Thankfully, I am able to read books in English because this is not available in French. What a Translation Tragedy.

I wonder why this wasn’t transalted at the time it was published. Did the political and feminist tone of Mr Hogarth’s Will rubbed the male French publishers of the 19thC the wrong way? I’ve read five books of the 19thC whose main theme is the fate of women without a fortune or who are unmarried. I’ve read The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy (1888), Miss McKenzie by Anthony Trollope (1865), The Odd Women by George Gissing (1893), The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge (1883) and Mr Hogarth’s Will.

Out of the five, only the Trollope is available in French, because, well, it’s Trollope and still, the translation dates back to 2010!!! I’m a bit suspicious. Isn’t that a strange coincidence that these novels who question the place given to women in the British society were not made available to the French public? I think that the French society of the 19thC was a chauvinist society and that it lasted decades into the 20thC. The French 19thC had many women leading literary salons but no prominent female writer except George Sand. At least, no published ones, because, who knows how much talent was wasted? Is it farfetched to think that these British and Australian novels were questioning the established order regarding the roles of men and women and thus were judged too controversial for translation?

Update on April 26, 2020. I’ve decided to join the Australian Women Writer Challenge for 2020. This is my first contribution. 

AWW_2020

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