Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018

‘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

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.

‘Six-Bob-a-Day Tourist’ by Janet Morice


1985,  86p.

It didn’t take long for Thomas Gardner of  117 George Street East Melbourne to enlist in what was to become  the Great War. Due to the time difference, news of Britain’s declaration of war reached Australia on the same day that it was made (5 August 1914). Just three weeks later, Thomas Gardner, aged 33, had joined the AIF, E Company, 7th battalion as one of the ‘Six Bob-a-Day Tourists’, the deprecating term given to the highly paid Australian soldier, whose generous pay outstripped that of many working men at home and the soldiers of allied countries.  Without wanting to diminish it in any way,  Tom’s story ticks all the WWI narrative features that have come to be associated with ‘our ANZACs’ : sent out to the Training Camp in Broadmeadows; the sea voyage; waiting around in Egypt; Gallipoli; Lone Pine; France; hospital in England; back to France; sent home; discharged on grounds of ill-health; dead.  You can read about Thomas Gardner’s war and see pictures of him at the National Anzac Centre website.

I was attracted to reading this book not so much for Tom’s story on the front, but for the interactions with his family back home.  Tom had been rather peripatetic in the years leading up to the war, travelling from town to town as a wood-turner, but he returned often to 117 George Street to visit his mother, sisters Mabel, Adeline and Edith, and niece Cecily and nephew Guy.  His widowed sister Mabel re-married in June 1914, just before war was declared.  She had matriculated from PLC, and after returning to Melbourne following her first husband’s death after just four years of marriage, worked as a secretary, learned Esperanto, and was involved in debating and literary societies.

As Morice notes:

Two months after their wedding, war was declared, and at home the verbal battles raged. Tom was a volunteer and his mother and two of his sisters took the patriotic stance. Mabel and [husband] Will, however, took the opposite view. Will did not volunteer partly because he had just married, but mainly because he and Mabel were both pacifists (p.45)

Mabel and Will were drawn to the lectures and anti-war stance of Dr Charles Strong of the Australian Church.  Mabel, and her childhood friend Eleanor Moore, were present at the inaugural meeting of the Sisterhood for International Peace at the Russell Street Australian Church, and became the correspondence secretaries for the Sisterhood. She also joined the Free Religious Fellowship, an organization with a literary base that included Vance and Nettie Palmer, Louis Essen, Frank Wilmot (Furnley Maurice) and Alan Villiers.  It was headed by Mr Frederick Sinclaire, the former minister of the Unitarian church in East Melbourne.  She used her elocution skills by lecturing on pacifism for the Peace Movement, and hosted sewing groups and letter-writing and pamphlet-printing sessions at her home in East Melbourne. During the conscription debates she attended meetings and marches for anti-conscription.

Her mother and sisters, as strong patriots, disapproved of her political activism but how did her brother Tom – serving in the same way that she was protesting-  feel about this anti-war political involvement? In a letter from November 1916, after the conscription proposal had been defeated, he wrote that he was sorry that politics had led to tension between Mabel and her sister Adeline:

I was very glad to see Hughes’s proposal ousted….If conscription had been carried, goodness knows where it would have stopped.  And you can tell Addie this- that were I a married man in Australia (I am not speaking of Belgium or France) and had children who were depended on me, I would not deem it my duty to enlist until every eligible single male had gone… Re your conscription remarks.  You are very violent, my dear, peace-loving sister.  Well, let me lower “me breff” while I tell you that a fellow named Tom who lived at 117 George Street, East Melbourne, also voted ‘No’. And he knew a lot of other fellows, who knew a couple of thousand other fellows who voted ‘No.’ So I’m blest if I know.  (p. 55)

This book features only Tom’s letters, not those sent by his family.  The book is organized chronologically, with the focus on Tom’s war, intersected by Mabel’s peace activities back home. Through Tom’s letters, we see him becoming increasingly disillusioned by the war, until by June 1918, at the age of 38 he described himself as “so nervy I can’t bother about anything.”  You just know that this is not going to end well.

At only 85 pages, this is not a long book, and it rattles along at a pace.  It combines imagined scenes with excerpts from Tom’s letters, illustrations, and contextual information.  The author,  the grand-daughter of Mabel, has rather delicately omitted the details of Tom’s encounter with venereal disease which is mentioned on the National Anzac page, and as a reader you can sense her sympathy for both Tom and Mabel.

The book is not easily available today, and you’ll need to turn to secondhand sellers if you want to find it.  It puts a very human face on WWI, and it complicates the image we have of the family left ‘at home’.  Family members could love and grieve for their ‘boy’ overseas, and they could campaign for peace back home as well. Some family members expressed their love through patriotism; others through fighting to put an end to war.


This is my first review for 2018 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.