‘Ever yours, C. H. Spence’ ed. Susan Magarey, with Barbara Wall, Mary Lyons and Maryan Beams


2005, 356 p & notes

The autobiography is a strange beast.  Unlike the diary which may or may not have another reader in mind, there is usually an assumption on the part of the writer that someone is going to read it, one day.  Although the distinction between autobiography and memoir is fuzzy (see here and here), I tend to see an autobiography as a chronological account, driven by the passing of time, where a memoir is a more consciously created ‘literary’ object, shaped by themes and tropes and where time is elastic.

In this book edited by Spence’s major present-day biographers, Susan Magarey and Barbara Wall,  we get autobiography, diary and letters carefully and usefully annotated. Taken together, they build up a vivid picture of the transnational networks that Spence developed and drew upon, confounding our picture of a little old lady in black dress and lace cap.

More than half of the book is devoted to Catherine Helen Spence’s autobiography. It appears to be a good old-fashioned autobiography,  starting at the start and ending at the end.  But it’s not. Only about 2/3 of it was actually written by Catherine Helen Spence herself.  It was always destined for publication in serialized form in the South Australian Register and when Spence died in 1910 she had the first three chapters typeset ready to go, and the following 13 chapters in manuscript.  Indeed, she was working on it when she died. Her friend Jeanne Young, a fellow-activist some fifty years Spence’s junior, completed the other eight chapters after some tussling amongst surviving family members.  In an attempt to make the change in authorship appear seamless, Young completed the remaining chapters in the first person, drawing on Spence’s diaries and her own knowledge of Spence’s movements from their mutual friendship.  It’s not a particularly successful ghostwriting strategy as the autobiography loses its ‘oomph’ as it goes along, and it becomes increasingly bogged down in the campaign for proportional representation, the passion shared by both Spence and Young.  It’s true that many people, including Spence herself, said that she was obsessed by proportional representation, but in Young’s hands it dominates the final chapters of the book, unleavened by the reflection and self-deprecation found in the first chapters.

Of course, Susan Magarey and other writers about Catherine Helen Spence have picked the eyes out of the autobiography, as you would expect them to do, and their approaches are easier reading than this autobiography.  But it’s good to read an extended length of Spence’s writing to pick up on her clear, but very 19th century narrative voice, and to observe the digressions and asides.

Jeanne Young went on to write her own biography of Spence (which I haven’t read), and in doing so she used the diaries that Catherine Helen Spence had kept every day of her life.  However, she refused the entreaties of “Mr Pitt of the Archives” to place them in a public repository, and it seemed that the “diaries had gone out with the newspapers”, once Jeanne Young had finished writing her book (p. 214). However, there was one left -Spence’s diary for 1894- and Magarey (I think – it’s not clear in this book which parts were contributed by Magarey and which by Wall) was able to borrow the diary from the protective and nameless private owners for a week to make notes from it.  However, in a letter to the editor of the Australian Book Review in December 2010, following a review of Unbridling the Tongues of Women, Magarey indicated that the State Library of South Australia had been more persuasive than she herself had been, and that the diary was donated to the library and is now transcribed and annotated by Barbara Wall on the Wakefield Press website.  [I must confess to not being able to find it there].

The diary covers only the year 1894, when Spence travelled to America, the UK and Europe. There’s an entry for nearly every day, and while they list her rather exhausting activities and meetings, there’s not really a great deal of reflection here.

The volume finishes with a collection of Spence’s letters to two of the feminist activists from this time: Alice Henry, who was to go to America where she was joined by Stella (Miles) Franklin, and Rose Scott from Sydney.  These letters are more engaging than the diary, and also reflect the buzz of activity in this indefatigable woman’s mind. They’re also affirming of the network of shared interests that  stretched across distance and age to further the causes that people – women and men included- had as their passion.

Source:  Readings bookstore (where they have this on special for $9.99 in hardback at the moment. Just do a search on their website)

Read because: I’m preparing for a giving a talk on Catherine Helen Spence at the First Unitarian Universalist of Melbourne Fellowship service this week.

This review has been added to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018 database.




‘Unbridling the Tongues of Women’ by Susan Magarey


2nd edition 2010, (1985) 214 p.

Available as free PDF at https://www.adelaide.edu.au/press/titles/spence/

Catherine Helen Spence observed once that law and custom had “put a bridle on the tongues of women”. When in 1871 she actually read her own lecture to the South Australian Institute, instead of handing it over to a man to read, she said she did so “to make it easier henceforth for any woman who felt she had something to say to stand up and say it”. (p. viii)

“Stand up and say it” was exactly what she did over her long life.  As a novelist, journalist, board member, preacher, political figure and suffragist, she put her words before the public.  Magarey has chosen her title well in this biography, which highlights the breadth of Spence’s interests and why she well deserves the praise bestowed on her at her 80th birthday party as “the most distinguished woman they had had in Australia”.

Magarey’s second edition starts with a new introduction where she corrects and supplements some of the observations that she made in her original 1985 text.  I suppose that an introduction to a new edition does need to go at the start, so that your antennae can start quivering when you come across a point that she later corrected. But I must say that I found the introduction far more interesting after I had read the book.

The book does not follow a straight chronology as such, because it slices her life thematically. In the Introduction to the original 1985 edition, she gives an overview of Spence’s life, starting with her arrival in Adelaide in 1839, just after Adelaide’s establishment as a Wakefieldian colony. She quickly traces Spence’s career, claiming her as “Australia’s first feminist” – not so much in terms of political action, but through her ability and determination to break into the national conversation.

Chapter 1 ‘Acquiring a room of her own’ backtracks on Spence’s childhood, starting with her parents’ marriage in Scotland and the family emigration to Adelaide.  After her father died, Catherine was spurred to earn money through teaching to help support her mother and siblings.  Although she had two proposals of marriage, she decided not to marry because of the independence and pride earning her own money: a decision which opened up opportunities that might not have otherwise been open to her. But it was an inheritance through her aunts back in Scotland that made it possible for her mother to purchase the house in which Catherine could have the ‘room of her own’ that Virginia Woolf saw as crucial to a writing life, living alongside her mother (with whom she had a very close relationship) until her mother’s death.

It was in her ‘room of her own’ that Catherine began her novelistic career, which Magarey deals with in Chapter 2 ‘The line of least resistance’.  Having not read any of Spence’s fictional work, I found this chapter a little opaque, although I am impressed and fascinated by Magarey’s summary two of her later stories.  Handfasted seems to promote a particularly liberated view of marriage for the time, and A Week in the Future, set in 1988, seems to be a loosely-disguised fictionalization of Spence’s political ideas.

Chapter 3 is titled ‘Faith and enlightenment’, and it was for this chapter that I read the book, as I’m giving a presentation (oh, the presumption!) on Catherine Helen Spence at our Unitarian fellowship this coming Sunday (details below). Spence was a Presbyterian, but she was ‘converted’ to Unitarianism, a verb which does not sit comfortably with Unitarians today.  She was brought to Unitarianism through contact with her friend Emily Clark, and was attracted to Unitarianism’s emphasis on rationalism and faith. Spurred by the example of Martha Turner, the Unitarian minister from Melbourne and the first woman preacher in Australia, Spence was a regular speaker at the Adelaide Unitarian Christian Church.  Her addresses from the pulpit covered a wide range of topics, even if the minister at the church sometimes felt that the politics expressed were not appropriate.

Although she complained that the Adelaide Unitarian church was rather insular, she (and other members of the congregation) moved into secular philanthropic enterprises as an expression of their spirituality. In Chapter 4 ‘Edging out of the domestic sphere’ Magarey addresses the philanthropic work in which Spence was involved which built on her Unitarian connections. In particularly she deals with the Boarding Out Society which took children from impoverished homes and placed them with more respectable working class families.  It’s a strategy that does not sit well with our attitudes today, and Magarey bats off (rather stridently, she admits in the introduction to the new edition) the criticisms of other historians including Kay Daniels who see the scheme as a form of middle class imposition onto working class culture.  It was Spence’s philanthropic work that was to lead to her speaking at the International Congress of Charities, Correction and Philanthropy in 1893 in Chicago,  conducted alongside the World Fair, bringing her to an even wider international audience.

Chapter 5 ‘Learning for the future’ traces through Spence’s work in education, noting the evolution in her views over time from her own work as governess and school-owner, through to her support for the state-run secondary Advanced School for Girls. She wrote a textbook that was used for many years ‘The Laws We Live Under’.

Her public writing is dealt with in Chapter 6 ‘Round woman in her round hole’ where Magarey emphasizes the range of topics that Spence dealt with in her newspaper columns, many of which bore her byline. As she notes in the new introduction, Spence is now recognized as a formidable economic thinker and was an advocate for greater economic equity- although not uniform distribution of wealth.

However, it was her political and economic thinking that led her to become a passionate (to the point of obsession) supporter of proportional representation, dealt with in Ch 7 ‘Prophet of the effective vote’. Her quest for ‘effective voting’ was taken up by the Reform Movement that emerged in South Australia in the 1890s which included the Land Reform League, Single Tax League and Fabians, among others.  She stood for the Federal Convention to discuss the coming federation of Australian states. Although she was unsuccessful, she was the first female political candidate in Australia’s history.

Largely because of her obsession with proportional representation, she came late to the agitation for women’s suffrage, as seen in Chapter 8 ‘The New Woman of South Australia: Grand Old Woman of Australia’.  However, once she turned her attention to it, she was warmly embraced by women’s groups who had been working towards it for years because of her strong and formidable reputation on all sides of politics.  After it had been achieved in South Australia (the first state in Australia), she maintained a strong interest in the suffrage question right up until her death.

When you think about it, there are just so many ‘firsts’ in her life.  I take my hat off to her, and I’m proud of the Unitarianism that I share with her. I wish that she was still there on the $5.00 note as she was in Australia’s bicentenary year.  I take my hat off to Susan Magarey too. This is an engaging biography of a woman with a long and varied life. I’ve been enjoying reading Magarey’s other writing on Spence too, most particularly an essay ‘The Private Life of Catherine Helen Spence 1825-1910) in Body and Mind: Historical Essays in Honour of F. B. Smith.

And my talk? It’s on Sunday 18th March 2018 at 2.00 p.m. at the First Unitarian Universalist of Melbourne fellowship, 506 Elizabeth St Melbourne, opposite the Victoria Market. You’d be very welcome to attend.



AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300 And I’ll put this review towards the tally for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018.

‘The Neapolitan Quartet’ by Elena Ferrante

A couple of years back the books section of the now much-depleted Age used to publish the independent and chain-store 10 bestsellers for the week.  Month after month both lists were dominated by Elena Ferrante’s books, both in hardback and paperback versions. The Harry Potter books did the same thing, as have Andy Griffith’s scatalogical titles.  What was so good about Ferrante?  Now, long after the hype has subsided and after a year of sporadic reading, I’ve finished all four and now I know why they were on the best-seller lists for so long.

This is a four-part story, released at one volume each year between 2012 and 2015. Set in a poverty-stricken section of Naples in the 1950s, it is the story of a friendship between two women, Elena and Lina. Lina marries young, becomes financially successful, while Elena undertakes an academic and writing career.  Told from Elena’s point of view, Lina is always smarter and more street-smart and, along with Elena, you’re never really sure whether you trust her or not.  Like all long term relationships, there are periods of closeness and distance, and their fortunes ebb and flow, both emotionally and financially.

At times I found myself wondering whether anything really happened in these books. Is the whole thing just a souped-up soap opera, I wondered?

But occasionally, I’d just sit bank and think- Yep, this woman sure can write.  There’s a huge scope of time encompassed in these books, and here’s Ferrante making a masterful transition between a sweeping survey of her own life, and the more minute analysis of her friend Lila’s activities

This is more or less what happened to me between the end of 1963 and the end of 1965. How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quiets down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport; you pick them up, put them on the page, and it’s done.

It’s more complicated to recount what happened to her in those years. The belt slows down, accelerates, swerves abruptly and goes off the tracks. The suitcases fall off, fly open and their contents scatter here and there…  p. 336

The plotting of the series of books is masterful, clearly planned in its entirety from the opening pages of Book 1 which tie in so neatly with the closing pages of Book 4.  This isn’t a saga with one book added after another once they began to sell well: no, it’s a complete whole, conceived as a unity from the start.   It was always a little difficult to start each volume after a break, but about half way through each one , she’d put her foot to the metal and it was unputdownable.

And what I have enjoyed about reading a series like this is how I’m aware of where I was, as I read each book. Volume 1 I sat up in bed until about 3.00 a.m before leaving for Chile, trying to finish it before I left.  Volume 2 I was reading while the room shook around me in Santiago, and I finished in Cuba.  Volume 3 I read in Dad’s loungeroom, sitting beside him and Volume 4 I read on the balcony up at Marysville.

I have loved these books. They capture so well the ambiguities of a close friendship, and they mark the passing of time and the 20th century development of Naples, with the chains of past family enmities and the allure of modernity.  I flipped through the advertisements for Ferrente’s other books at the back of the volume.  No, I don’t want to read any more.  This was just perfect, just as it is.


Strange things from the box of photos No 4

You might remember that we were going through a box of photos, looking for images that could be used in Dad’s memorial service. Ever the historian, I was attracted to things that my brother wasn’t.

Oh dear. My maternal grandmother was an anti-vaxxer.




Movie: I, Tonya

I really enjoyed this.  It’s filmed as a mockumentary and it places competing narratives against each other. After seeing the film, we watched ‘Tonya Harding: The Price of Gold” which is available on SBS On Demand.  I’m really glad that we went from the movie re-enactment to the documentary and not the other way round.  Margot Robbie was excellent, as was Allison Janney who played her chilling mother.  The documentary was actually the source inspiration for the film, and seeing them almost side-by-side, yo realize just how well Robbie picks up on Harding’s brittleness.  The film gives more weight to the domestic and emotional violence that was wrought all round.

Really good.

My rating: 5 stars.


Podcast: Tom Griffiths on ‘Radical Histories for Uncanny Times’

Tom Griffiths is one of my favourite Australian historians. He is the Director of the Centre of Environmental History ANU, and a fiercely intelligent and very human man. He’s a beautiful writer, who captures images so well in words, and he provides sharp insights and the telling anecdote. While listening to this program, we were driving through the bush around Marysville that had been ravaged by the 2009 bushfires, and it seemed particularly apposite to consider the anthropocene and the recuperative power of the earth that is so under threat through climate change.  His lecture at the Australian Museum is a clarion call for the humanities in a wide-ranging, erudite and thought-provoking podcast- well worth a listen.

Listen or download at http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bigideas/radical-histories-for-uncanny-times/9478670

UWA_Wheatbelt_Cover_RGB_1024x1024Griffiths was also featured briefly on Geraldine Doogue’s Saturday Extra (an excellent program!). He picked up on one of the points he made during the Australian Museum address: that of the emergence of new regional histories that combine the environment and emotion, history and literature.  He was followed by Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, speaking about his new book Like Nothing on this Earth, which Griffiths praised highly, and which looks at the Western Australian wheatbelt through the eyes of regional writers like Dorothy Hewett, Tom Flood, Albert Facey and Jack Davis.

Saturday Extra is going to feature a historian writing one of these new regional/environmental histories each week during March.


‘Frank Hardy: Politics Literature Life’ by Jenny Hocking


2005,  258 P & notes

I don’t particularly remember Frank Hardy.  If asked off the top of my head, I would have said that he died in the 1970s. I’m like the former premier of New South Wales Barry Unsworth who said in 1986, “I thought Frank Hardy was dead. I really did.” In fact, Frank Hardy didn’t die until 1994, but for me he somehow seems always to be of the  black-and-white TV decades, always associated with the races and cigarette smoke. I don’t remember the television program “Would You Believe?” (1970 -1974) which seems to have been a forerunner to “Would I Lie To You?”, on which he appeared as a regular panelist. But I do remember the Channel 2 miniseries ‘Power Without Glory’, for which Frank Hardy was notorious when it was published in 1950 and feted when it was televised in 1976.  It tells the story of John Wren of Collingwood, fictionalized as John West of Carringbush, and the corruption of the local ALP.

Melburnites of a certain age (and older) will be familiar with the underworld figure John Wren and it seems that many Melbourne families have their own John Wren stories.  For myself, my first husband’s family’s foundry was in Johnston St Collingwood, just up the road from John Wren’s tote.  On my side of the family, my own great-grandfather joined in the Sunday morning horse races along Sydney Rd to the Sarah Sands Hotel  ( a turn of the century version of drag racing maybe?) where he ended up beating a horse owned by John Wren, who was keen to purchase the victorious horse. My great-grandfather was not keen to sell. Wren came up to my great-grandfather, assured him that every man had his price, and left his card with him.  I don’t know how the story ended.

The first word in the subtitle of Hocking’s book is ‘politics’, and it was politics that drove Frank Hardy’s life. Hardy, as a member of the Communist Party, was financially supported by the Party for four years to write Power Without Glory. I had naively forgotten that the Communist Party hated the Labor Party as much – if not more- than the Nationalists/Liberals. The book was a way of smearing the Labor party by publicizing links between Labor politicians and the underworld ‘entrepreneur’ John Wren.

In her biography of Frank Hardy Frank Hardy: Politics Literature Life, Jenny Hocking describes the writing of Power Without Glory and its effect on the rest of Frank Hardy’s literary work.  It was a big book that Hardy mapped out carefully, researching real-life figures and very  loosely fictionalizing them by giving them pseudonyms with the same initials.  The book’s Wikipedia entry has a long list of the real-life and fictional characters, and the renaming is all rather obvious.  It was an unwieldy book, and it was to solve a narrative problem that Hardy took up a rumour that he’d heard about an extramarital affair and a resulting illegitimate daughter.  As Hocking tells it, Hardy agonized over the inclusion of this illegitimate daughter and so he changed her identity into a son. He was to continue to agonize over this decision in his own reflections on the writing process for the rest of his career.

Power Without Glory was published in 1950 within the context of the Menzies government’s Communist Party Dissolution Act.  It was printed surreptitiously, as seen in a  fascinating article by Des Crowley about the State Library of Victoria’s four-volume copy of the book ‘Proof Copy or Clandestine Version‘.  Almost immediately Hardy was brought before the court by the Wren children for criminal libel of their mother Ellen Wren (Nellie West). Hardy was found not guilty, on the basis that John West was a synthesized fictional character, not a real person.  He had escaped the clutches of the law through the decision that Power Without Glory was fiction but he and his readers knew that, at its core, it was not. The questions of fact, fiction, truth, reality and memory lay at the heart of many of his later works, most particularly The Hard Way and Who Killed George Kirkland?  It was like a weeping sore.

But as Hocking shows, there was more to Hardy’s career than Power Without Glory. Hardy was a member of the Communist Party from youth. Hocking describes the Australian literary scene at the time, when ASIO agents eyed literary figures and organizations with suspicion, and when the Party itself fractured after Kruschev’s revelations about Stalin, and the rise of Communist China.  Hardy was an outsider to academia, he was very much a contemporary of the other realist writers at the time: Jean Devanny,  Dorothy Hewett, Katherine Susannah Pritchard.  Hocking captures well the jealousies and enmities within the various branches of the Society of Realist Writers, and the politics behind the editorship of the Melbourne Realist Writers’ Group’s publication Realist Writer as it metamorphized into Overland.  Hardy railed against the “Patrick White Australia Policy” which lionized White but starved Hardy of Commonwealth grants because of his politics. In many ways, he received more recognition overseas that he did in Australia, even though he affected a quintessentially ‘Australian’ identity and stage presence.

Hardy was often impecunious, often because of his gambling, in which he followed his father. He was a difficult husband, conducting multiple affairs, leaving his wife Ross [sic] to cover the family expenses, and in effect doing exactly what he wanted to with little thought of his obligations or responsibilities. He was a loving brother to his sister Mary, who compered that weird Channel 7 trotting show Penthouse Club, which I loathed.

[As an aside, Marieke Hardy who appeared on the late, lamented First Tuesday Book Club, followed her grand-father and great-aunt into screen-writing and television]

He was also heavily involved with the Wave Hill Walk Off, acting as scribe and reporter for Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji land rights struggle.  It was an involvement that drew the enmity of business, the Liberal government and the Communist Party, which dominated the indifferent North Australian Workers’ Union.  It was through this involvement that he became a close friend of Fred Hollows.

I really enjoyed this book, which took me to many events and places that I didn’t anticipate.  Hocking draws heavily on Frank Hardy’s own papers, but also Hardy’s autobiographical writing, newspapers spanning some 40 years, correspondence and papers of a slew of contacts and interviews.  You don’t need to have read Hardy’s works (I’ve only read Power without Glory) because Hocking gives a good taste of their flavour, and her list of Hardy’s works at the end of the book highlights how prolific he was as a playwright, journalist and writer of both short stories and full length novels.  The book is painstakingly researched but easy to read.

But -oh- he was a slippery character.  He was a great ‘yarner’ and gave the appearance of being open, while boiling inside with secrets. His carefreeness barely cloaked carelessness and irresponsibility.

Near the end of the book, Hocking sums up his life:

In Hardy’s fragmented character, the committed political activist, tireless Party worker and determined writer coalesced with the man who shamelessly abandoned himself to the lure of racing, gambling and debt.  It was this divided character, with its alternating obsessions that had enabled Hardy to withstand decades of official disinterest, denial and derision, sustained by a political cultural milieu that he had himself helped create. But the uneasy juxtaposition of literary revelation, political action and personal secrecy within him always threatened to fracture, held together through continuing self-examination and by the unmet promise of eventual disclosure. Although he wrote extensively about himself, presenting each new work as the opportunity for self-reflection and revelation previously denied him, in each retelling Hardy revealed little that was new. (p 256)

Source: La Trobe University Library

Read because: My interest was piqued after reading Paul Strangio’s book about the Victorian Labor Party Neither Power nor Glory

My rating:  9/10


I’ve read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2018.