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What To Do With All Those Worthy Women Writers

‘I am a new woman and I know it’ – Catherine Helen Spence.

This is Catherine Helen Spence describing herself at the age of eighty. The year is 1905: four years after Federation, three years after the publication of Miles Franklin’s controversial feminist novel My Brilliant Career?, ten years after the term New Woman was first used in Great Britain, fifty years after the publication of Spence’s first novel Clara Morison (by extension one of the earliest Australian novels) and 66 years after Spence’s arrival in Adelaide as a fourteen-year-old immigrant.

sSpence is a radically important figure in Australian history – novelist, journalist, critic, preacher, lecturer, philanthropist and social reformer, she called herself a New Woman when the term would have almost been unheard in the colonies. She’s one of our luminaries and my task is to read her first published novel Clara Morison (1854) and report back. It’s a worthy task and in the way of worthy tasks it’s something I feel good about doing right up until I actually start doing it. I’d been bolstering myself with this feeling of worthiness because of course when asked to write on a woman writer from the nineteenth century I’d hoped to be assigned Barbara Baynton. Of all the women writing in the nineteenth century Baynton is the closest to a writer’s writer.  Even now, more than twenty years after I first read Bush Studies, her images are still with me – malevolent, shocking – they reach across the centuries. (That snake!) Her work is brutally modern. The essay I would write on her spools out in my head.

On the other hand my memories of Spence, whose novels I’d read as a history postgraduate, centred around words like ‘pious’, ‘respectable’, ‘moral’ and that most typical of nineteenth-century feminist tropes ‘formidable’. Her reputation comes from her other achievements as much as her writing and probably because of this I’ve always thought of her novels as important historical sources to be read not for their literary worth, nor even for enjoyment, but rather as a representation of the society Spence was living in. My idea of Spence’s writing career was something she did before she found her true calling as a speaker and reformer. I’d read Spence in the course of my research for what would become my first book, Core of My Heart My Country, a book about women’s sense of place in the new worlds. I was interested in women creatively engaging with the new world and how the movement from estrangement to a sense of place was revealed in both their private writing and their published work. I read five of Spence’s seven novels and her 1910 Autobiography and believed her when she wrote, ‘my work on newspapers and reviews is more characteristic of me and intrinsically better work than I had done in fiction’. I read Susan Magarey’s excellent biography of Spence, Unbridling the Tongues of Women (1985/2010), and it seemed to confirm that Spence’s writing attracted attention because of her politics and for what it revealed about the society she was writing within rather than for the writing itself. Her novels were about the interior worlds of women and they circled her passions: education, the position of women, the poor and destitute and her deeply held religious views. There was little engagement with  ‘the bush’ (which of course was the source of their disruption to a nationalist rhetoric) but they didn’t fit my project so I put Spence and her work back on the shelf.

What I missed in labeling Miss Spence a campaigner first and a novelist as an afterthought was that her primary ambition was as a writer. It was only after her writing failed to find an audience that she moved away from it toward journalism and lecturing. My experience with her novels is typical. There’s a silence around reading nineteenth-century women writers – not many people do it and if they do they are most likely specialists on Spence and her founding role in the history of Australian feminism. They’re interested in the writing to inform the biography, or the writing as a mirror of the society Spence was attempting to change. Not many people read nineteenth-century women writers for fun. I was aware I was a very different reader to the history student who’d last read Catherine Helen Spence.

But of course I carried my prejudice into the task and instead of picking up the novel I decide to start with Magarey on Spence. ‘I’ll do this thoroughly’, I think, ‘reread her biography, refresh myself on her background and then start on Clara’. Besides, the subtitle of Clara – ‘A tale of South Australia during the Gold Fever’ – makes it sound a little more like a nineteenth-century information pamphlet than a novel. I find Magarey’s biography on my bookshelf, pick it up, blow the dust off and feel gratified to see the flutter of yellow Post-It notes poking out of its pages. I have read it before. I take it to my desk, open my notebook and with the smugness of starting a task I read. After forty minutes I’m asleep in the sun. I wake with a thin pool of drool bleeding the ink of my notes. The portrait of the plain, portly and most definitely fearsome Catherine Helen Spence stares at me from the page. This is no good. I roll my eyes at myself.

The morning is still fresh. I make coffee, put the biography on the to-read-later pile and carry Clara and a cuppa to my reading chair. With notebook strategically placed to serve as a tray for my biscuit I crack the spine and start.

I’d forgotten what a treat the table of contents is in a nineteenth-century novel, it’s the ultimate cheat sheet, a comforting back up if you have to put the book down for a few days, or if you’re writing an essay on a novel and need to know the plot development or both. ‘Chapter One: Like all first chapters – introductory. Chapter Two: Will probably be missed, for it only describes a long voyage. Chapter Three: First impressions of Adelaide.’ And so on. As promised the first chapter is introductory. We are in Scotland when we meet Clara, she’s nineteen years old and with the death of her father she and her sister have become orphans. They’re at the mercy of their not-so-benevolent uncle. The sun is warming the room and with a little start I realise I’m not sleepy. I am hooked.

Spence opens with a lightning sketch of the uncle: a grave, respectable looking man who lives in a handsome house in a fashionable street, he has seven children and a hopeless wife. The details add up and I’m bristling. I’m not yet at the bottom of the page and already I’m worried for sisters Susan and Clara. How has she done this?  By page two they’ve been summoned to their uncle’s study to hear their fates. Susan is safe because she’s ‘plain’ with ‘graceful manners’ and an ‘exquisitely musical voice’. Her uncle has decided she can stay in his house as a governess for his children and to ease the burden on his wife. Poor Susan. In a few sentences Spence has consigned her to a life of safety, solitude and drudging servitude. But Clara – I turn the page….

There she stood, with her soft grey eyes, sunny brown hair, radiant smile, and graceful figure, formed to delight her father’s eyes and to gladden his heart, but without one accomplishment that had any marketable value. She neither played, nor sung, nor drew, but she read aloud with exquisite taste; her memory was stored with ballads and new poems; she understood French, and was familiar with its literature, but could not speak the language she could write short-hand, and construe Caesar’s Commentaries; she played whist and backgammon remarkably well, but she hated crochet and despised worsted-work.

Clara, her uncle decrees, will be sent to Australia. I know this already because of the subtitle, the table of contents and Margarey’s introduction, but despite my knowing Spence still manages to make this feel shocking. While Clara’s standing on the rug in front of her uncle I’m still thinking, can he be serious? Sending her 16,000 miles away from her only close family to a distant friend who he hasn’t seen for twelve years? It’s a life sentence – and it’s also a genius move by Spence. This image of Clara in front of her uncle’s desk, powerless before his decision, sets up from the very beginning the tiny space she has to influence her own life. As I read on I keep seeing her on the rug. The boundaries of her world established by men. Her uncle expects her lack of accomplishments will be overlooked in the colonies and not such a severe impediment to her employment or potential marriage. She leaves the study with a letter of introduction, a lecture urging her appreciation of her good fortune in being sent to Australia and hands shaking with fear at what lies ahead of her.

My morning speeds away in a blur of words. Already I love Clara, she hates crochet and cannot sing or draw. She loves to read, is a proficient mathematician and can write in short-hand for goodness’ sake. After a night of weeping with her sister she faces the morning bravely. Still so naïve, so innocent, how will she not come to some terrible end?

I’m not the first to have fallen in love with Clara. Miles Franklin remarked Clara was a rebel and heroine for the ages. Franklin sees a similarity to Austen’s heroines and Magerey also remarks on likeness between Austen and Spence. I recognize the Austen-like preoccupation with money, morality and the rich inner life of women, but already Clara is a little bit more shape shifting – as if the move to Australia has opened Spence’s mind to new possibilities in her own life and in her fiction. Austen’s women may be sent to the country, but never to the other side of the world.  There’s also an echo of Clara in Franklin’s rebellious Sybylla Melvyn and I wonder how much of an influence the trailblazing Spence was to the next generation of women. In Exiles at Home Drusilla Modjeska identifies Spence as the founder of a genre of Australian realist fiction and, as Susan Magarey argues, ‘if the works that achieved print are any guide, there were no more than four women attempting to write novels, in all of colonial Australia at that time. In one of the rawest of its outposts Spence must have felt entirely alone.’ In contrast to the celebrated male writers of nineteenth-century Australian literature Spence’s stage was not the wide-open plains, it was not mountain ranges or river crossings, her enemies were not drought or drink or fire or flood. The new land was not a character. Instead her drama is enacted nearly always inside – studies, kitchens, bedrooms, parlours – and the danger is in poverty and powerlessness. The few times we see Clara walking outside Spence manages to imbue the scenes with a sense of unease. Clara is not safe outside any more than she’s safe inside, but inside there are women who protect her or if not women then feminine spaces into which she can retreat.

Clara was Spence’s second attempt at writing a novel. She wrote her first manuscript as a nineteen-year old and made the mistake of giving it to her brother to read. ‘My brother’s insistence on reading it every day as I write it somehow made me see what poor stuff it was, and I did not go far with it.’ After such feedback no writer would be surprised to learn it took her eight years to attempt another novel. This time she didn’t show her brother, instead she read each completed chapter to a friendly neighbor. I don’t know what her first attempt at a novel was like, but in Clara Spence is writing what she knows. She may be using standard nineteenth-century literary conventions but the experience she’s portraying has never been written about before. There’s the intimacy of memoir mixed with the soaring possibilities of a novel. Here’s Clara’s arrival in Adelaide – it feels so immediate I feel sure she’s writing of her own.

Everything looked as disconsolate as Clara’s own thoughts. The grass was scanty, and so burnt up, that one wondered if it ever could have been green; there was not a flower to be seen; the sun was scorchingly hot the wind, direct from the north, blew as if out of a furnace; the cart jolted, as if it would shake her to pieces, while the passengers abused the weather, and prayed for the a railroad.

I read this and find myself bumping up against the problems I’m having in writing a novel based broadly on personal experience – the wrestle to write fiction from what is known, recognizing the points of departure from reality but pressing in on the unsayable. I would guess those eight years were essential to Spence. During them she wrote a lot of journalism. Perhaps the lesson is trusting time will sift down the unsayable and eventually it will be shaped into something others recognize. I hadn’t expected a novel writing lesson from Miss Spence. But that’s what I’m getting.

By Chapter Four (The Boarding House) I no longer seem able to take notes in my usual style. Instead Spence drips from my pen, I write, ‘I find myself delighted with this novel’. Spence is adhering to nineteenth-century literary conventions and presenting what she knows in a series of coincidental plot twists, but the twists, though wonderfully farfetched are also entirely believable. Magarey says this is because Spence has spent so much time stitching the details into the background that when the coincidences arrive we just accept them, but I think it’s deeper than this. Spence has built a whole world. Not out of physical description but out of relationships. Her characters reach out from the past and drag me into their present. It’s the very best sort of reading.

It’s also a lesson in plotting. I’ve read thirty pages and already Clara has bid her family farewell; negotiated the perilous sea journey with the crude Miss Waterstone, (my notes screech ‘she’s at the mercy of a floozy!’); discovered her uncle’s friend into whose care she has been consigned can not provide her with a refuge; been taken to a boarding house run by the aptly named Mrs Handy and finally and most thrillingly met our hero Charles Reginald.

I have to pause and tell you about Charles Reginald because he is a most splendid hero. Reginald, as he is referred to, is a fine upstanding man, and the first decent man we’ve met. He’s a successful, if somewhat mysterious, sheep farmer who can see the potential of the settlement in Adelaide and who is captivated by the gentle manners and humility of our Clara. ‘Finally someone who matches Clara’s sensibility,’ I write in my notes. On their first meeting they talk literature and ignore the rabble around the rest of the table. Spence has already given us the immigrant’s view of Adelaide through Clara eyes. But now we are given a different view of Adelaide from Reginald and it’s a glowing recommendation.

When our weather is fine, it is very fine indeed; there is something in the air so clear, so bracing, that it seems to be enough of happiness to breathe it. Then when our society is good, it is cordial and unceremonious. There is not that universal desire to keep up appearances here which poisons English society, and renders hospitality a toil to the giver and a bore to the receiver of it. In fact, six years residence in this colony has made me quite unfit for England, and I feel very much indisposed to submit to either its climate, its restraint, or its etiquette.

Such a description soothes my worry for Clara, this place and this hero might suit her well – but there are enough clues in Reginald’s hesitancies to know he’s held back from declaring his admiration for our Clara. The cunning Miss Spence has me enthralled. Afternoon jobs can wait. Reginald gets a letter and tears eagerly at its seal. We read with him and I add the creation of vaporous women to Miss Spence’s skills. The letter delivers us a plot twist and the deliciously hateful Miss Julia, who is secretly engaged to our hero and determined to force him back to England.

Poor Clara, just as I thought her way would be eased she is cast back on her meagre resources. She is going to have to save herself. Miss Spence won’t let up. She has Clara seeking position after position, each one worse than the last, each one designed to show Clara’s vulnerability and despite her intelligence, her work ethic and her skills, each failure shrinks her possibilities of employment. At last she’s forced to hire herself out as a domestic servant. In her desperation fortune favours her and we meet her new mistress, the kind Mrs Bantam. But still Clara’s entirely unsuited to the work and she struggles, ‘the memory that had tenaciously kept hold of hard names and dates, which her father had trusted to as an encyclopedia, seemed utterly to fail her in recollecting when saucepans were to be put on or taken off, and every day brought the same puzzling uncertainty as to how plates and dishes were to be arranged at breakfast and dinner-table…’ Clara’s struggle transforms the performance of these tasks into something noble and in 1854 this was unusual, perhaps even unheard of. Clara is acutely aware of the precariousness of her position. She writes to her sister at the change in her outlook her new work is bringing her. ‘But, Susan, I am seeing life, and learning lessons which I hope I shall never forget; and it is not merely the things I am learning to do, useful as they undoubtably are, but the new thoughts and feelings which my present employments awaken, which will benefit me much.’

As the novel bustles forward Miss Spence’s confidence grows – her characters are becoming more acute, their names have me giggling (Miss Withering!) How did I think this novel would be a worthy read? It’s a romp, a joy. But for Clara, life is not easy. I read on, increasingly worried her body and mind are going to break under the strain. The work is hard and the added burden of the shame of her position forces Clara to the edge of sanity. Miss Spence has our heroine retreating to her journal to try and make sense of her change in circumstances and hang onto her identity. I return to the image of Clara before her uncle, standing on the rug, her resources to control her fate so small – and there’s a nervous thrill at her courage, her determination to hang onto her love of words, to write herself into being even as she disappears.

Alongside of my notes on Clara I’ve scrawled a quote from Susan Sontag. I’ve no idea where it came from, I think I was reading an article on the journals of famous writers and it must have touched a chord for me to write in the margin of Clara. Sontag says, ‘In the journal, I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself’. When Clara’s existence is so burdensome, so dull and so without hope Spence has her turn to words. Clara creates conversations she would like to have, she builds worlds that don’t exist and she pushes back at her shrinking world. It’s a fascinating insight from someone writing before Freud, before psychotherapy. The act of writing is seen by Spence to be dangerous, subversive even: ‘her only amusement was a dangerous one; it was journalizing.’ Spence seems to think the danger in journaling was a question of morality, of spending too much time looking inward, ‘it hurts the mind to be always looking in on itself’ but really the act of writing is dangerous because it takes what’s in Clara’s head, and by extension in Miss Spence’s head, and gives them an audience. The act of writing gives a skeleton, then flesh, then life to thought and emotion.  Miss Spence is right to think writing dangerous, for in bringing Clara to life, she brings something of herself to life too.

Even as Miss Spence grants Clara a lifeline by allowing her to write herself into being in her journal she doesn’t allow the same of her one Aboriginal character. The brief portrait is uncomfortable reading and notable only because it’s a neat summary of nineteenth-century representations of Aboriginal people in literature and art. Black Mary is a shadow to the main action. She’s a beggar, childlike in her outlook and language. Her emotions are stunted, she doesn’t remember how many children she has, nor does she count using the western numerical system. She’s dismissed as something not entirely human. As a character she’s completely unconvincing, even in her role of making Clara look benevolent. I wonder if Miss Spence had even met any Aboriginal women. It’s a vicious portrait. We’re not meant to care what happens to Mary. Reading it today is jolt. As subversive as Clara Morison is, it’s a reminder that the change Miss Spence is seeking is change only for white women.

The precariousness of Clara’s situation peaks at the end of the first volume. I read on with a rush. Clara finds her cousins. They live next door. It’s stupendously lucky but I don’t care, and the extreme coincidences actually don’t matter. Instead of scoffing at the plot convolutions I’m just relieved at Clara’s timely rescue. But Miss Spence is playing with us. For though Clara is saved from the physical burden of her domestic position her hopes of love are once more dashed. Can you see my restraint here? I’m dying to tell you what happens but I can’t because it would ruin the surprise and I want you all to go and read Clara for yourselves. I can tell you that with the opening of the second volume we get to know Clara’s long lost cousins and in this household of strong women Clara begins to thrive.

Volume two opens with Clara safely installed in her cousins’ household and this expanding cast of characters gives Miss Spence room to educate her readers on her views of both the gold rush in Victoria, poverty, politics in the colony and marriage. This sets a different tone for the second part of the novel and I find myself skimming chapters entitled ‘Letters from the diggings’ and ‘More letters from the Diggings’. But if Miss Spence gets a little bogged down in detail the Elliot household gives us another feminist heroine in Margaret Elliot. Margaret is the head of the household of younger brothers and sisters and is widely recognized by Spence scholars as the character most closely modeled on Spence. Margaret is not interested in marriage, indeed turns down two proposals (as Spence did), and has aspirations to work as a reformer and run her own school. Margaret’s speeches reveal the radical nature of Miss Spence’s ambitions.

I believe it is the rule that, though a lady may strain all her accomplishments to the utmost, singing her very loudest, and playing her very strongest before gentleman- though she may display her masterpieces in drawing, in painting, in embroidery and even in crochet, to the most mixed society; yet, if she has thought out a subject, she must be silent on it – if she has gained a fact, she must not communicate it, – she must let her faculties rust from want of the brightening which mind exerts over mind; and must habitually talk below herself, lest she should be supposed to arrogate either equality to the lords of creation, or perhaps superiority over them.

The plot quickens again as we leave politics behind, Clara takes up a new position in the country away from the loving support and protection of her cousins. She’s to look after the very ill Mrs Beaufort and her baby on a remote sheep station. She starts her journey with a lighter heart for she has the protection of a family to fall back on. But just as we start to feel comfortable, pleased even that Clara’s found a position where her skills are useful and where she’s independently supporting herself, there enters from the gold fields the vile Mr Beaufort. Mr Beaufort is a scoundrel and a wastrel who married for money and not for love. At first he’s only an annoyance for Clara for she’s able to retreat from his leering to look after his sick wife. But after she dies he becomes a real threat.

And once again my afternoon disappears in a rush of words until finally Miss Spence, with an occasional stall for a discussion on the good and evil of gold, flings me on the shore of a happy ending. I can’t tell you how, but it’s of no surprise our hero Reginald reappears to rescue Clara. I lay the book down and realise I’m sad it’s ended, I wanted it to go on. I want to discover how spinsterhood suits Margaret, and marriage suits Clara. I’m not ready to leave Clara’s world.

What I haven’t read is the commentary on Spence and I’m soon thrown from one opinion of her to another as she is variously criticized as an elitist intellectual (probably true), as helping to ‘enshrine racism in colonial Australia’ by her representation of the ‘other’ in stereotypical and ignorant terms (probably true) as a establishing ‘classism’ as a foundation of the modern foster system (probably true) as a pioneering reformer whose effect reached beyond Adelaide to an international stage (probably true) as a talented journalist and speaker but an unimaginative novelist (probably not true) and you get the picture. There’s opinion after opinion out there about Catherine Helen Spence and her influence both positive and otherwise on feminism and on Australian history. By the end of my reading my head is whirling, my notebook bulging and my initial impressions of Clara feel distant and naïve.

The commentary leaves me a little cold. The pure joy of reading Clara is stolen by the dicing and slicing, by the microscopic study of Clara for clues into Spence. The rereadings of Spence, the perspectives on her blindness on race and class, her inherent entitlement as a white, middle class, educated woman are important, especially as we unpick our history. But there’s also a basic joy in reading that can get lost when we start asking questions of a novel it was never written to answer. What Clara does give us is a starting point and though the book is no My Brilliant Career? and Clara no Sybylla there’s a line between these two heroines and the women who wrote them.

Spence’s novel starts the debate about women’s issues. Clara may end up married, but along the way she works as a domestic servant and is not diminished or ruined. Her support cast of women – who are innkeepers and shopkeepers, entrepreneurs able to step into the empty space left by their husbands, brothers and fathers who went off to seek gold – was revolutionary in that it was a demonstration of the roles women could play beyond that of wife and mother. Half a century later Franklin picks up the torch and has her bluestocking heroine turn her back on marriage and seek a career. I wonder how much Clara Morison’s example of a story where women could question their exclusion from the public world and play crucial social roles within that world lit the path for Miles’ Sybylla.

I’m left with two Claras. Both of them are important. There’s the Clara who I read with an unmediated delight, all thoughts of writing about her pushed back by the sweep of the story. The moments of unease, such as her descriptions of Black Mary, or her poking fun at the newly rich and uneducated working class families, I glide over, accepting them as part of the reading experience of a nineteenth-century novel. They are uncomfortable, but surely that discomfort is of itself important. The second Clara is the one delivered to me via all the articles written about Catherine Helen Spence. These articles disrupt the experience of reading, as they aim to do, they make the novel about Miss Spence herself in a way it was never intended to be. They shine a light too, piercing the willful blindness.

It’s the end of the school holidays by the time I finish reading Clara. My thirteen-year old son has been home from boarding school and when he’s not riding his motorbike or hunting rabbits he’s working his way through various series of boy adventure books. He comes downstairs one morning having finished another one and sees me tapping away at my computer. He pokes his head in the door to give me some advice – he tells me the very best books are the ones where you wish you were the hero.  All I have to do to make people want to read my novel is make up a heroine who everyone wants to be. I laugh and long for this simple reading self. But his words stay with me and I realise this is the reason why I reread Jane Austen every year, it’s exactly the reason why I loved reading Clara. It’s because I want to react like those heroines and write like their creators. And yes, there’s a naivety to this sort of reading, but there’s also a grace.

The eighty-year old Spence who declared herself a New Woman, was a very different woman to the twenty-five-year old newly hatched novelist who in writing Clara Morison revealed her hopes and ambitions, and also her prejudices. I’ve learned much about Spence through reading Clara, but I’ve also learned something about writing and about myself. Read Clara, not because of Spence’s profile or later achievements, read her because she’s a wonderful heroine, read her to see the rug women now stand on is far larger than the one Clara stood on before her uncle. Read her to see how strongly racial prejudice and stereotypes infiltrated our culture. Read her to see where we have come from and read her to see how far we’ve still got to go.