Catherine Helen Spence.
(Wakefield Press, Kent Town S.A, 2005) pp. VI + 392, A$39.95, hardback, ISBN 1 86254 656 8.
Catherine Spence's autobiography was originally published in 1910, the year of her death. It begins with marvellous detail of her childhood and of her forebears and family in the Scottish town of Melrose.
We had a gasworks in Melrose when I was ten or eleven, and a great joy to us children the wonderful light was. I recollect the first lucifer matches, and the wonder of them. (p. 21) and, It is surprising how much alcoholic beverages entered into the daily life, the business, and the pleasures of the people in those days. No bargain could be made without them. Christenings, weddings, funerals--all called for the pouring out of strong drink. If a lady called, the port and sherry decanters were produced, and the cake basket. (p. 23) Spence also gives insights into the social and intellectual life of her family in the early days in South Australia. Her brother-in-law was one of the subscribers to a Reading Club, and through him I had access to newspapers and magazines. The South Australian Institute was a treasure to the family ... We were all omnivorous readers, and the old-fashioned accomplishment of reading aloud was cultivated by both brothers and sisters. (p. 49)
We read of her slowly carving out a place for herself as a writer, journalist and reformer, until she became known as the 'The Grand Old Woman of Australia' for her many achievements.
Explanatory notes have been added to this edition which flesh out details of her reading and her connections with the vast network of people she knew or corresponded with in Australia, the United Kingdom and North America. The latter range from well-known figures such as John Hartley, her friend and head of the South Australian Education Department to less well-known ones such as Ella Flagg Young, American educator and Professor of Education at the University of Chicago from 1899-1905. These notes, which appear as footnotes in shaded boxes, also include various comments which had been omitted from the original published version.
When Spence died in April 1910, she had written only two-thirds of her autobiography and it was completed by Jeanne Young, her younger friend and colleague in Proportional Representation work. In completing the final eight chapters, Young used Spence's diaries, which she had written since her late twenties until her death.
The editor Susan Magarey writes, 'The story of Catherine Spence's diaries is a sad one.' It is sad, if not tragic. For it appears that that of this life-long diary, only one volume, that for 1894, is extant. In this book we read extracts from Spence's diary for 1894. She began that year in New Jersey in the midst of a lengthy trip to the United States. She has spent the previous seven months visiting progressive institutions, meeting like-minded reformers and lecturing audiences in a variety of towns and cities. She had attended the Great World Fair and Congresses in Chicago as a delegate and had visited Hull House the famous settlement established by the noted reformer Jane Addams in that city. Her diary is studded with meetings with prominent social and political reformers. Thus Susan B. Anthony introduced Spence to the Women's Suffrage Convention in Washington D.C. in February where she spoke briefly.
During her trip, she often shared the novels of her friend Catherine Martin with her hosts. Indeed when she stayed in Boston with the son and daughter-in-law of the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Mrs Garrison could not be drawn to the whist table, for she was engrossed in reading Martin's An Australian Girl. Another American, Julia Ames, active around women's and other reform issues, was also taken with this novel.
Spence left North America on 31 March, it was a very successful visit and she had had a wonderful time, as she noted in her autobiography,
I had been 11 months in the States and Canada, and lived the strenuous life to the utmost. I had delivered over 100 lectures, travelled thousands of miles, and met the most interesting people in the world. I felt many regrets on parting with friends, comrades, sympathisers, and fellow-workers. When I reflected that on my arrival in San Francisco I knew only two persons in America in the flesh, and only two more through correspondence, and was able to look back on the hundreds of people who had personally interested me, it seemed as if there was some animal magnetism in the world, and that affinities were drawn together as if by magic. (p. 156)
She proceeded on to Britain where she visited her childhood home, 'everything looked rather small'. In London she stayed Edward Petherick and his wife. She looked over his library, 'It is a splendid library especially the Geographical and Australasian parts of it'. The library was ultimately to go to the National Library, but Petherick had been badly affected financially and at the time of Spence's visit, his collection was in danger of having to be sold. He and Spence walked in the garden and Spence 'heard all his history. Ah me! I am powerless to help.' .(p. 285) Of course she did help, writing some letters in his aid. In London she met and conversed with various influential people, making some acerbic comments on some, such as Margaret Windeyer, the Sydney suffragist and librarian, 'it is unfortunate she has such an aggressive tone.' (p. 281)
In continuing her trip to Continental Europe, Spence stayed with the Australian writer Catherine Martin and her husband, Frederick, in Siena. This long-lost diary has been invaluable for my own research on Catherine Martin and Susan Magarey kindly made her notes on the diary available to me some years ago. Spence and Martin were friends from the mid-1870s, but this diary helped me to understand the closeness of that friendship. Cleary they wrote to each other very frequently, even as in 1894, when both were travelling in different parts of the world. Furthermore, Spence's comments about Martin in the diary led my research into new aspects of her life. Thus, in June 1894, Spence received a sad letter from Katie Martin about the death in Sydney of 'Mrs. Day'. Spence noted in her diary that for Katie, 'It had opened a great many old wounds--the wreck of the Gothenburg and the cruel wound of fate, and the indifference of nature.' Knowing her friend's state of mind, Spence wrote back to her at once. But I was intrigued to know who this Mrs Day was. Fortunately I was able to find her death notice. She was the wife of John Medway Day, at that time editor of the Sydney Worker and previously editor, of the Voice, the short-lived organ of the Forward Movement in Adelaide in the early 1890s. Significantly, Ellen Day had previously been engaged to Catherine Martin's beloved younger brother, Alick, who was lost in the wreck of the Gothenburg off the Queensland coast in 1875. This 'great wound', shared with Ellen Day was re-opened with Ellen's early death. Perhaps it made Martin think of her older brother, Roderick, also lost at sea in a cyclone off the Western Australian coast. I could almost hear Martin speaking through Spence's diary, the notion of 'the indifference of nature' was one she often employed.
Spence visited the Martins and stayed with them in Siena in October. Here she read the manuscript of Martin's latest novel, 'A Born Egoist'. She felt the 'end is very strong' but in comparison with Martin's two published novels, 'I do not find it as interesting as either of the other two'. Spence's elusive discussion of this manuscript in her diary is all that is known about it. It appears that it was rejected by the publishers and never published.
During their time together in Siena, the difference in the temperaments and values of the two friends emerged. Martin was very interested in religion, and even fascinated by Catholicism. Spence looked at Catholicism and its art with a more sceptical and detached eye. 'Siena is wonderfully rich in its ... Sacred Art and though I don't like such a surfeit of it, it is interesting to trace its development.' On 1st November--All Saints Day, as Spence wrote, 'Worship was going on in one church which K. and I went into before San Croce--She said it would have done her good if I had not been with her, for my critical temper spoils it even if I do not say a word.'
In introducing the diary extracts, Susan Magarey explores the question as to how and why the diaries disappeared. She notes 'there were strains and difficulties between Catherine Spence's heirs over her tiny property, her literary remains, and the completion of the autobiography.' (p. 4) Magarey suggest the mishaps and misunderstandings which led to Jeanne Young gaining hold of the diaries and finishing the autobiography. Apparently she still had them when she wrote her study of Catherine Spence, published in 1937. Magarey argues that Young refused to hand these back to Spence's family, or to give them into a public collection because she found some of the comments within them personally damaging. Rather they were all destroyed except this one volume which fortuitously has survived.
This is a richly interesting diary and the editorial team has supplemented the extracts with explanatory notes. This handsome volume also contains a brief selection of Spence's letters written to Alice Henry and Rose Scott between 1902-1910. As Magarey notes, 'These letters are a daunting testimony to her determination to make a difference to her world, and they make immensely engaging reading.' (p.330) Clearly these letters and the 1894 diary regretfully form only a minute fraction of Spence's correspondence and personal writing. In bringing this long-lost diary to light and publishing it with the annotated autobiography and the letters, Susan Magarey has made a valuable contribution to the study of Australian literature and history.
Fortunately, Spence's 1894 diary has now been acquired by the State Library of South Australia. The library views it as its 'most significant acquisition since the purchase of Colonel William Light's letters.' The diary will be digitised and will be transcribed from Spence's terrible hand-writing. (1) This is a beautifully produced volume and the editor and her assistants and Wakefield Press are to be congratulated on its production.
(1) 'Well spent' Extra Newsletter of the State Library of South Australia,vol.9 (2) July-December 2006 p.6. Presumably the diary will be available on the SLSA web site where Barbara Wall's comprehensible chronological bibliography of Spence's writings as well as writings about her is accessible at http://www.slsa.sa.gov.au/spence/
University of Adelaide
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|Title Annotation:||Ever Yours, C. H. Spence Catherine Helen Spence's 'An Autobiography' (1825-1910), Diary (1894) and Some Correspondence (1894-1910)|
|Publication:||M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2006|
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