Category Archives: Book reviews

‘How Jesus became God’ by Bart D. Ehrman

ehrman

2014, 371 p & notes

It seemed rather appropriate, if somewhat transgressive, to read this book over Easter. As a Unitarian, I don’t celebrate Easter but there’s a lot of God going around at Easter, particularly this most recent one which coincided with Passover. The author Bart D. Ehren is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, and he has written over thirty books about Christianity. He used to be an evangelical Christian, but is no longer. In fact, it sounds as if his distancing from his faith is very similar to my own, when he describes the way that he found that he could subscribe to less and less of the Nicene Creed. The exact same thing happened with me.

In this book Ehrman traces the historical development of the idea that Jesus was/is God.

He starts his book by noting that the divisions between the divine and human were not clear-cut, either in the Greek or Roman worlds in which Jesus operated, or indeed within Judaism itself.  In Greek mythology, there is constant slippage as gods become temporarily human, and humans become permanently gods.  In the Old Testament, there is the Angel of the Lord who appeared to Abraham, Hagar and Moses, and humans like Enoch who became angels. There’s the Son of Man figure and Wisdom and the Word, and the King of Israel.

He then turns to the question of what/who Jesus thought he was, and whether he talked about himself as God. He starts by considering the methodological problem of dealing with the source texts.  Paul’s letters were written twenty to thirty years after Jesus died, but Paul himself never met Jesus.  The gospels themselves were not written by eyewitnesses, and they were written between 35 and 65 years after Jesus’ death, based on oral stories. He notes that Matthew, Mark and Luke have both stories held in common, and some unique stories that do not appear elsewhere.  He characterizes Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet,  who predicted the end of the current evil age, who believed that God would intervene soon to destroy everything and everyone opposed to him. God would then institute a new kingdom on earth, and he (Jesus) would be king in that kingdom.   This was not a unique view: it could be found in the teachings of other apocalyptic-oriented Jews of his day.

He then turns to the resurrection.  There are many discrepancies between the gospels, so many that it is almost impossible to make a single narrative that combines the ‘facts’ of all four gospels.  We don’t really know whether he was buried, or whether there was an empty tomb.  But we do know that some of Jesus’ followers believed that he had been raised from the dead, that some of them had visions of him, and that the belief that he had been raised from the dead led them to consider him, in some sense, God.

The earliest Christians thought that Jesus had been ‘exalted’ and lifted up and given divine status after his crucifixion i.e. that he was a human who became God.  Others moved the moment of ‘exaltation’ further back in Jesus’ life:  the moment of baptism with John the Baptist and the dove, the moment of birth in the stable; the Annunciation.

Others- and this view came to dominate- saw him as already God, who became human i.e. became ‘incarnate’. This was the big change, and it occurred in the first twenty years after Jesus’ death. Jesus came to be seen as a pre-existing divine being, who became human.

He turns to Paul’s letters and John’s gospel at this point.  In particular he looks at Paul’s second letter to the Philippians, where the text suddenly breaks into a quite different rhythm and vocabulary. (Who, although he was in the form of God did not regard being equal with God something to be grasped after etc.) This, he suggests, is a poem that Paul is quoting.  In the book, the poem is presented broken up into poem-like metre, and it’s amazing how typography can change the way a test is read.   Likewise, he looks at John 1 (the ‘in the beginning’ prologue) and its reflection of Old Testament texts. I found this part fascinating: the idea that the gospels are a palimpsest of oral and poetic traditions, that can be traced backwards and identified by concepts and language that do not appear elsewhere.

He then shifts to the different heresies that arose in the second, third and fourth centuries:  the divine/human nature of God and Jesus;  whether there was ever a time when God existed but Jesus didn’t; whether they are one unitary being or two (or even three) separate entities, and the resultant concept of the trinity.  He then turns to the Nicean creed, our mutual stumbling block, which he demonstrates as not so much an affirmation of faith, as a refutation of the various heresies that were circulating the Christian world.

A good summary of his argument throughout the book appears in the epilogue:

To use the older terminology, in early Christianity the views of Christ got “higher and higher’ with the passing of time, as he became increasingly identified as divine. Jesus went from being a potential (human) messiah to being the Son of God exalted to a divine status as his resurrection; to being a pre-existent angelic being who came to earth incarnate as a man; to being the incarnation of the Word of God who existed before all time and through whom the world was created; to being God himself, equal with God the Father and always existent with him. (p.352)

This is almost the mirror opposite of his own beliefs about God (and a trajectory I have also followed), where Jesus became “lower and lower” until he understood him as a human being, no different to any other human being.  He now understands Jesus as “a true religious genius with brilliant insights”, but a man of the first-century Palestinian Jewish apocalyptic milieu.  He says that he resonates with the ethical teachings of Jesus (as do I) but that these, too, were delivered in a first-century apocalyptic format.  He argues that the views of Jesus have changed over time, and continue to change as Jesus is recontextualized, on an ongoing basis by each generation.

I enjoyed this book, which is very clearly set out with discrete sections and subheadings, and clear previews and summaries topping and tailing each chapter.  He interweaves his own personal spiritual journey through the telling, which I identified closely with.  I don’t know if I’ll read other books of his, though, because from their titles alone, they seem to be further elaborations on the themes in this one.  This book was a New York Times Bestseller, and perhaps that’s the level that I’m happy to leave my reading at.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: it’s Easter

My rating: 8.5

 

 

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‘The Autumn of the Patriarch’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

AutumnofthePatriarch

1975, 240p.

I cannot tell a lie: I don’t think that I’ve ever been as glad to finish a book as this one.  It was a difficult book anyway, and my choice of reading platform was disastrous.  I was reading it on an e-reader and then had to swap to a tablet when the e-reader kept crashing (I suspect that the size of the file is too big for it).

Why so difficult- apart from the technology? Because it is the same story told six times, with variations between each telling, and because there are very, very few full stops.  You could go pages and pages without a pause.  In this regard, it is similar to the short story ‘The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship’ that I read earlier this year. But a technique that was quirky and interesting in a short story became suffocating in a full-length novel.  I found myself thrashing through the text, as if I were drowning, waiting for somewhere to take another gasp of air. Because I was reading it electronically and the table of contents in such a large omnibus edition did not go down to chapter level, it was not easy to flip through to find where the chapter ended, for fear of losing my place – I’d never find it again.  In fact, I didn’t know where the book itself ended, and as the next chapter started up with the same story again, I began to despair lest I never reach the end of this book.

But I think that that’s how Garcia Marquez wanted you to feel. The story is about an unnamed dictator in an unnamed Caribbean island, who just does not die. Well – he does, ostensibly, in the first chapter where he engages a double to deflect any assassination attempts, and the double dies as a result. But in the succeeding chapters, his death is foreshadowed, but he just doesn’t die.  In a decrepit palace that is invaded with creepy-crawlies during the night, the Patriarch wanders from room to room, locking up the house, playing dominoes with other old dictators that he has imprisoned, raping the young women in the women’s quarters until he finally falls asleep on the floor, his arms cradling his head, only to wake up again the next morning and do it all again.

His country is submerging into debt and decay, and he is kept in power by his debtors, after they have pillaged the nation, causing him to even sell them the sea. He is uneducated and he forces the church and the people to deify his mother after she dies. Although impotent against his international debtors, he has absolute power within his own country, ordering mass deaths at will.  But he is fearful of losing his power, which is why this lonely figure wanders the house at night.

I read this story as part of a course that I am doing through Coursera called Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Between Power, History and Love, delivered in Spanish. Of course, I read the book in English: my mind just boggles at the thought of translating such complex sentences! After hours of translating, I worked out what the lecturers were saying, and their comments certainly added to my enjoyment of the story, but also highlighted to me how much is lost when reading an author who makes so many references to other (Spanish) texts.  I would never have picked it up, but the book pays homage to and subverts at least two other texts: Christopher Columbus’ account of the discovery of the Americas, and a poem ‘The Triumphal March’ by twentieth-century Nicaraguan poet Rubio Dario.  Well- both of those would have just slipped right past me!

The other point made by the lecturers was that this book, one of three ‘historical’ novels by Garcia Marquez, was published during the 1970s. The Patriarch is not named, but he could be any one of the dictators who have emerged from Latin America, and continued to do so when the book was published ( Pinochet in Chile, the Dirty War in Argentina etc).  It is part of a genre of Latin American ‘dictator novels’, but Garcia Marquez’s Patriarch is none of them and all of them.

Worth reading?  Yes – but be prepared for a really difficult read. And buy or borrow it as a real book. It’s just too hard to read electronically.

‘The Early Feminists: Radical Unitarians and the Emergence of the Women’s Rights Movement 1831-51’ by Kathryn Gleadle

gleadle_radicalunitarians

1995, 189 p & notes

In 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Sixty years later in the 1850s and 1860s the Langham Place circle emerged in London, described as “the first organized feminist movement in England”. But what happened in the years between 1792 and the 1850s? Was Wollstonecraft an outlier, or did the whole ‘woman’ question just fall into abeyance in the intervening 60 years?

In this book, Kathryn Gleadle argues that there was no wasteland in these intervening years. Instead, a network of writers and reformers existed during the 1830s and 1840s, particularly centred on an off-shoot of the Unitarian church at South Place in Finsbury. When the Langham Place circle launched into what we now see as first-wave feminism in the 1850s there was a strong representation of Unitarian women – or at least, women with strong Unitarian family connections, most particularly Bessie Raynor Parkes and Barbara Leigh Smith (later Bodichon). Gleadle argues that these 1850s women were the direct heirs -the daughters and granddaughters-  of an earlier, less recognized network of Unitarian women who, although they may not have taken a visible, audible part in radical politics, formed a bridge between Wollstonecraft and the 1850s.  This group is the focus of the book.

The mainstream Unitarian church of the early 19th century was influenced by two main intellectual streams.  The first was the longstanding rejection of the theological idea that Jesus was God, and the concept of the Trinity.  The second was the influence of John Locke, whose theories introduced a new intellectual and philosophical element into Unitarianism, making it a religion for intellectuals but increasingly concerned with social responsibility.  According to this two-strand world view in the mainstream Unitarian church, the universe was governed by laws laid down by God, which could be discovered through science, invention and inquiry. This was a time when the Industrial Revolution was changing the social and economic landscape of Britain. Many Unitarians  became industrialists and manufacturers, and in this they were similar to the other non-conformists and evangelicals described in Davidoff and Hall’s influential text Family Fortunes (my review here). They prized self-help and self-advancement, and were strongly influenced by Utilitarianism (I’ve always found it distracting that Unitarianism and Utilitarianism are such similar words.)  Although the Unitarian church had been criticized for its early support of the French Revolution in a spirit of fraternity, Unitarians were legally accepted by the 1830s under municipal and corporations reform, and indeed several Unitarian ‘captains of industry’ became mayors.

There was also a strong literary culture within the mainstream Unitarian church, with Wordsworth, Carlyle and Coleridge and German culture and Romanticism holding sway. There was the influence of  American transcendentalism (Emerson, Channing), and contact with left wing movements esp. Owenism in Manchester.

However, socially the mainstream Unitarian church was quite conservative, with strict rules of propriety, particularly for women, that were very similar to the mores in the Evangelical families described by Davidoff and Hall. Perhaps this is because Unitarians had come under fire for their political views during the French Revolution and were keen to prove their personal and familial respectability.  But as can be seen from the correspondence between many Unitarian women, the women in such families were often frustrated by  the socially straitened domestic life that was imposed on them.

Gleadle differentiates between this mainstream Unitarianism and what she calls ‘radical unitarianism’ (with no capital letters). This offshoot was centred on South Place Chapel in Finsbury, and its minister William Johnson Fox.  You can see a photograph of the interior of the Chapel here, with its exhortation ‘To Thine Own Self Be True’ clearly visible on the walls. Fox purchased the Monthly Repository Unitarian Journal in 1831 and  transformed it from a sectarian journal into a radical, non-denominational forum for literary and current affairs.  Mainstream Unitarians distanced themselves from this group. There were rumours about Fox’s marriage and he seemed inordinately fond of his ward Eliza Flower, with whom he set up after leaving his wife.  However, the congregation of South Place urged him to stay, and the chapel was officially detached from the denomination.

None of this will surprise modern day Unitarians.  The tension between radicalism and spirituality plays out again and again in Unitarian congregations- including those in Australia.

The  South Place coterie had at its heart a “vibrant, stimulating caucus of talented writers, artists and musicians” p. 37. In particular, they used literature as a way of urging change, particularly the works of Mary Leman Grimstone.  Edward Bulwer Lytton and Charles Dickens, Harriet Taylor and John Stewart Mill were closely involved with the South Place circle during the 1830s, and during the 1840s Anna Jameson and Mary and William Howitt  were attracted to its ideas.  It is this group, Gleadle argues, who formed the stepping stone between Wollstonecraft (who was also a Unitarian) and Langham Place.  “This vibrant group of intellectuals and reformers enjoyed both radical contacts and benefitted from a Unitarian influence that led them to formulate their own distinctive, reforming creed” p. 189.

Their feminism was not necessarily voiced in public meetings, but it permeated their writing and ideas. They argued that marriage was a form of domestic slavery, in that they were dependent on their husbands and confined within the walls of the home, and that from this position of bondage, they could not be expected to agitate for their own liberation. They did not wish to overthrow marriage, or the family, but they wanted to improve it. They argued for housing associations, where tasks could be shared, while maintaining the family unit.  Gleadle argues there are no ‘overlooked’ women leaders lurking offstage, but that historians need to look at the actions of radical unitarian men, and there you will find the women, utilizing their pens and their networks to promulgate their ideas.

I found myself floundering a little with this book, because many of the names that I expect would be recognizable to a historian of Victorian Britain were unfamiliar to me. There were occasional flashes of recognition-  ah! Mrs Jameson from my studies of Upper Canada! ah! The Howitts who ended up in Port Phillip!

What does come through clearly, however, is the networked nature of these connections between women, drawing on their correspondence and family trees, and the power of writing both publicly (albeit sometimes anonymously) and privately between family and friends. These women played a vital role in shaping public opinion of the ‘woman question’ and laid the foundation stones for the organized women’s rights campaigns of the following decades. It makes sense to me that these mid-century feminist activists did not emerge fully-formed, but were instead shaped by familial, social and cultural influences, just as activists often are today.  It also makes sense to me that 19th century British Unitarianism, especially with its tension between its ‘respectable’ and ‘radical’ wings should form such an influence.

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library

Read because: I’m interested in the historical connections between Unitarianism and feminism

And by the way: there’s an interesting podcast on BBC’s ‘In Our Time’ on Harriet Martineau, which fits in well with this book.

 

‘A Week in the Future’ by Catherine Helen Spence

spence_weekinfuture

Available online here.

Catherine Helen Spence’s short story A Week in the Future was published serially in the Centennial Magazine between January and July 1889, then later published independently as a book later that year.

I’m not  actually accusing her of plagiarism,  but in writing this book she borrowed very heavily from her friend Jane Hume Clapperton’s Scientific Meliorism and the Evolution of Happiness, which Spence had reviewed in the Adelaide Observer in 1887.  Clapperton’s book itself picked up on George Eliot’s idea of ‘meliorism’ (i.e. that the world tends to improve and that humans can aid its betterment). She remained friends with Clapperton, so obviously this borrowing was not the breach of copyright that we would see it as today.

Basically, the story is that Miss Emily Bethel, a Scottish lady resident in Adelaide who had recently lost her mother (as had, indeed Spence herself when she wrote it) suffered a heart attack and was given a choice of 1-2 years of enforced invalidism or a week in the future instead. She chose to spend one week in the future in England a century hence- i.e. in 1988.

On Monday, she visited an Associated Home, where twenty families lived communally, each having a financial share in the house.

On Tuesday she visited a co-operative farm, travelling by nationalized railways that had replaced the crowded roads, in order to observe the large scale agriculture that has revolutionized food production. There has been global distribution of excess population: Australia including New Zealand, now has a population of 50 million!

On Wednesday she visited a communal nursery, a school and a university. Schooling is between 8 and 14 years of age; men and women attend university in equal proportions.

On Thursday she attended a wedding, where she learns that early marriage is encouraged and that birth control is freely available. Divorce is easily obtainable if there are no children, and after a month, people can remarry. If there are children, the process takes twelve months and the relatives on both sides are chosen as arbiters of guardianship.

On Friday she attended Parliament, where she observed the indirectly elected President (i.e. elected by Parliament), the popularly elected House of Commons and House of Lords and the absence of royalty.

On Saturday she indulged in Literature and Arts by visiting the enlarged National Gallery and attending the opera.

On Sunday she attended a church. There was still worship, but a change in the idea of the Being they worshipped. No ‘miserable sinners’, no hell, no destruction. And Sundays were a day of entertainment and rest, just like Saturday.

At the end of all this, Miss Bethel  departed, breathing the prayer “Now, Lord, let thy servant depart in peace, now that I have seen the salvation wrought by the brotherhood of the families of the earth.”

As you can see, the story is very much a vehicle by which Spence expounds on her views of the way society should run, largely influenced by her Unitarian faith. Like Unitarians in England, she favoured co-operative housing, she believed in girls’ education, and embraced a religion that did not grind its adherents under the burden of original sin.

A Week in the Future is in effect a political tract, wrapped in a story. Still, given that for us 1988 has been and gone, it’s interesting seeing the aspects she highlighted, which in many cases still have yet to come to pass.

Bill Holloway at The Australian Legend site wrote a fuller review of the book that’s well worth reading.

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This review has been posted on the Australian Women Writers Challenge page.

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

everyours

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.

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‘Unbridling the Tongues of Women’ by Susan Magarey

Unbridling175

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.

UUspence

 

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.