An Autobiography by Catherine Helen Spence - HTML preview

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I Visit Edinburgh And London

A visit to Glasgow and to the relatives of my sister-in-law opened out a different vista to me. This was a great manufacturing and commercial city, which had far outgrown Edinburgh in population and wealth; but the Edinburgh people still boasted of being the Athens of the north, the ancient capital with the grandest historic associations. In Glasgow I fell in with David Murray and his wife (of D. & W. Murray Adelaide)--not quite so important a personage as be became later. Not a relative of mine; but a family connection, for his brother William married Helen Cumming, Mrs. J. B. Spence's sister. David Murray was always a great collector of paintings, and especially of prints, which last he left to the Adelaide Art Gallery. He was a close friend of my brother John's until the death of the latter. One always enjoys meeting with Adelaide people in other lands, and comparing the most recent items of news. I went to Dumfries according to promise, and spent many days with my old friend Mrs. Graham, but stayed the night always with her sister, Mrs. Maxwell, wife of a printer and bookseller in the town. Dumfries was full of Burns's relies and memorials. Mr. Gilfillan had taken the likeness of Mrs. Burns and her granddaughter when he was a young man, and Mrs. Maxwell corresponded with the grandaughter. It was also full of associations with Carlyle. His youngest sister, Jean the Craw, as she was called on account of her dark hair and complexion was Mrs. Aitkin, a neighbour and close friend of Mrs. Maxwell. I was taken to see her, and I suppose introduced as a sort of author, and she regretted much that this summer Tom was not coming to visit her at Dumfries. She was a brisk, cheery person, with some clever daughters, who were friends of the Maxwell girls. When the Froude memorials came out no one was more indignant than Jean the Craw--"Tom and his wife always understood each other. They were not unhappy, though after her death he reproached himself for some things."

I found that my friend had just as much to do from morning to night as she could do, and I hoped with a great hope that "Uphill Work" would be published, and all the world would see how badly capable and industrious women were paid. I fancied that a threevolume novel would be read, marked, and inwardly digested by everybody! But Mrs. Graharn was appreciated by the matron, the doctors, and by the people of Dumfries, as she had not been in the village of Kirkbeen. Her picturesque descriptions of life in the various colonies interested home-staying folk, for she had the keenest observing faculties. There was an old cousin of Uncle Handyside's who always turned the conversation on to Russia, where he had visited successful brothers; but his talk was not incisive. My cousin Agnes asked me when I supposed this visit was paid, and I said a few years ago, probably, when she laughed and said--"Nicol Handyside spent six weeks in Russia 30 years ago, and he has been talking about it ever since." One visit I paid in Edinburgh to an old lady from Melrose, who lived with a married daughter. She had always been very deaf, and the daughter was out. With great difficulty I got her to see by my card that my name was Spence. "Are you Jessie Spence?" I shook my head. "No; Katie." "Are you Mary Spence?" Another headshake, "No; I am Katie." "Then who are you?" She could understand the negative by the headshaking, but not anything else. I wanted a piece of paper or a slate badly, but the daughter came in and made her mother understand that I was the middle Spence girl, and then the old lady said, "It is a very hot country you come from," her only idea apparently of wonderful Australia. And to think that in times long past some intriguing aunts tried very hard to arrange a marriage between my father and the deaf young lady who had about 600 pounds a year in land in and near Melrose. She might have been my mother! The idea was appalling! None of her children inherited the deafness, and they took a fair proportion of good looks from their father, for the mother was exceedingly homely. A brightlooking grandson was on the rug looking through a bound volume of Punch, as my nephew in Australia loved to do. The two mothers were school companions and playmates.

My return to London introduced me to a wider range of society. I had admissions to the Ladies' Gallery of the House of Commons from Sir Charles Dilke, Professor Pearson's friend, and I had invitations to stay for longer or shorter periods with people various in means, in tastes, and in interests. To Mr. Hare I was especially drawn, and I should have liked to join him and his family in their yearly walking tour, which was to be through the Tyrol and Venice; but Aunt Mary protested for two good and sufficient reasons. The first was that I could not walk 16 or 20 miles a day, even in the mountains, which Katie Hare said was so much easier than on the plains; and the second was that to take six weeks out of my visit to the old country was a great deal too much. If it could have done any good to proportional representation I might have stood out; but it could not. For that I have since travelled thousands of miles by sea and by land; and, though not on foot, I have undergone much bodily fatigue and mental strain, but in these early days of the movement it had only entered the academic stage. My "Plea for Pure Democracy" had been written at a white heat of enthusiasm. I do not think I ever before or since reached a higher level. I took this reform more boldly than Mr. Mill, who sought by giving extra votes for property and university degrees or learned professions to cheek the too great advance of democracy. I was prepared to trust the people; and Mr. Hare was also confident that, if all the people were equitably represented in Parliament, the good would be stronger than the evil. The wise would be more effectual than the foolish. I do not think any one whom I met took the matter up so passionately as I did; and I had a feeling that in our new colonies the reform would meet with less obstruction than in old countries bound by precedent and prejudiced by vested interests. Parliament was the preserve of the wealthy in the United Kingdom. There was no property qualification for the candidate in South Australia, and we had manhood suffrage.

South Australia was the first community to give the secret ballot for political elections. It had dispensed with Grand Juries. It had not required a member of either House to stand a new election if he accepted Ministerial office. Every elected man was eligible for office. South Australia had been founded by doctrinaires, and occasionally a cheap sneer had been levelled at it on that account; but, to my mind, that was better than the haphazard way in which other colonies grew. When I visited Sir Rowland Hill he was recognised as the great post office reformer. To me he was also one of the founders of our province, and the first pioneer of quota representation. When I met Matthew Davenport Hill I respected him because he tried to keep delinquent boys out of gaol, and promoted the establishment of reform schools; but I also was grateful to him for suggesting to his brother the park lands which surround Adelaide, and give us both beauty and health. To Col. Light, who laid out the city so well, we owe the many open spaces and squares; but he did not originate the idea of the park lands. Much of the work of Mr. Davenport Hill and of his brother Frederick I took up later with their niece (Miss C. E. Clark), and their ideas have been probably more thoroughly carried out in South Australia than anywhere else; but in 1865 I was learning a great deal that bore fruit afterwards.

I fear it would make this narrative too long if I went into detail about the interesting people I met. Florence and Rossamund Davenport Hill introduced me to Miss Frances Power Cobbe, whose "Intuitive Morals" I admired so much. At Sir Rowland Hill's I met Sir Walter Crofter, a prison reformer; Mr. Wells, Editor of "All the Year Round;" Charles Knight, who had done so much for good and cheap literature; Madame Bodichon (formerly Barbara Smith), the great friend and correspondent of George Eliot, who was interesting to me because by introducing the Australian eucalyptus to Algeria she had made an unhealthy marshy country quite salubrious. She had a salon, where I met very clever men and women--English and French--and which made me wish for such things in Adelaide. The kindness and hospitality that were shown to me--an absolute stranger--by all sorts of people were surprising. Mr. and Mrs. Westlake took me on Sunday to see Bishop Colenso. He showed me the photo of the enquiring Zulu who made him doubt the literal truth of the early books of the Bible, and presented me with the people's edition of his work on the Pentateuch.

In all my travels and visits I saw little of the theatre or concert room, and some of the candid confessions of Mrs. Oliphant might stand for my own. I had read so many plays before I saw one that the unreality of much of the acted drama impressed me unfavourably. The asides in particular seemed impossible, and I think the more carefully the pieces are put on the stage the more critical I become concerning their probability; and when I hear the praise of the beautiful and expensive theatrical wardrobes which, in the case of actresses seem to set the fashion for the wealthy and well-born, I feel that it is a costly means of making the story more unlikely. I seem to lose the identity of the heroine who in two hours wears three or four different toilettes complete. As Mrs. Oliphant did not identify the "nobody in white tights" who rendered from "Twelfth Night" the lovely lines beginning "That strain again; it had a dying fall" with the Orsino she had imagined when reading the play, so I, who knew "She Stoops to Conquer" almost by heart, was disappointed when I saw it on the stage. I was taken to the opera once by Mr. and Mrs. Bakewell, and heard Patti in "Don Giovanni," at Covent Garden, but opera of all kinds is wasted on me. I liked some of the familiar airs and choruses, but all opera needs far more make-believe than I am capable of. It is a pity that I am so insensible to the youngest and the most progressive of the fine arts. I am, however, in the good company of Mrs. Oliphant, who, speaking of the musical parties in Eton, where she lived so long, for the education of tier boys, writes in words that suit me perfectly: "In one of these friends' houses a family quartet played what were rather new and terrible to me-long sonatas and concerted pieces which filled my soul with dismay. It is a dreadful confession to make, and proceeds from want of education and instruction, but I fear any appreciation of music I have is purely literary. I love a song and a 'tune;' the humblest fiddler has sometimes given me the greatest pleasure, and sometimes gone to my heart; but music, properly so called, the only music that many of my friends would listen to, is to me a wonder and a mystery. My mind wanders through adagios and andantes, gaping, longing to understand. Will no one tell me what it means? I want to find the old unhappy far off things which Wordsworth imagined in the Gaelic song of the 'Highland Lass.' I feel out of it, uneasy, thinking all the time what a poor creature I must be. I remember the mother of the sonata players approaching me with beaming countenance on the occasion of one of these performances, expecting the compliment which I faltered forth, doing my best not to look insincere. 'And I have this every evening of my life,' cried the triumphant mother. 'Good heavens, and you have survived it all' was my internal response." But the worst thing is when you do not expect a musical evening and this superior music is sprung on you. Mrs. Webster and I were once invited to meet some very interesting people, some of the best conversationalists in Melbourne, and we were given high-class music instead, and scarcely could a remark be exchanged when a warning finger was held up and silence insisted on. I could not sing, but sometimes I attempted to hum a tune. I recollect during my first visit to Melbourne, my little nephew Johnnie, delighted in the rhymes and poems which I recited; but one day when I was ironing I began to sing, and he burst out with "Don't sing, auntie; let me hear the voice of your words." So for my own delectation I began Wordsworth's "Leechgatherer"--

There was a roaring in the wind all night,
The rain came heavily and fell in floods;
But now the sun is rising calm and bright.
The birds are singing in the distant woods;
Over his own sweet voice the stock dove broods. The jay makes answer as the magpie chatters, And all the air is filled with pleasant noise of waters.

"Oh, that's pretty, auntie; say it again," I said it again, and yet again, at his request, till he could almost repeat it. And he was not quite 4 years old. He is still alive, and has not become a poet, which was what I expected in those early days. He could repeat great screeds of Browning's "Pied Piper of Hamelin," which was his especial favourite. Music has often cheated me of what is to me the keenest pleasure in life. Like Samuel Johnson, I enjoy greatly "good talk," though I never took such a dominant part in it. There are two kinds of people who reduce me to something like silence--those who know too little and those who know too much. My brother-in-law's friend, Mr. Cowan, was a great talker, and a good one, but he scarcely allowed me a fair share. He was also an admirable correspondent.

One predominant talker I met at Mr. Edwin Hill's--William Ellis, a special friend of the Hills, and a noteworthy man. One needs to look back 60 years to become conscious of how much English education was in the hands of the church. Not only the public schools and the university were overshadowed by the Established Church, but what schools were accessible to the poor were a sort of appanage to the rectory, and the teachers were bound to work for the good of the church and the convenience of the incumbent. The commercial schools, which were independent of the church, to which Non-conformists sent their boys, were satirised by Dickens, and they deserved the satire. The masters were generally incompetent, and the assistant teachers or ushers were the most miserable in regard to payment and status. William Ellis expended large sums of money, and almost all his leisure, in establishing secular schools that were good for something. He called them Birkbeck schools, thus doing honour to the founder of mechanics' institutes, and perhaps the founder of the first of these schools; and he taught what he called social science in them himself. He was the Senor Ferrer of England; and, though he escaped martyrdom in the more enlightened country he was looked on suspiciously by those who considered education that was not founded on revealed religion and permeated by its doctrines as dangerous and revolutionary.

But there was one great personage who saw the value of those teachings on things that make for human happiness and intellectual freedom. and that was the Prince Consort. He asked William Ellis to give some lessons to the eldest of the Royal children--the Princess Victoria, Prince Edward (our present King), and Prince Alfred, afterwards Duke of SaxeCoburg. Mr. Ellis said all three were intelligent, and Princess Victoria exceptionally so. What a tragedy it was--more so than that of many an epic or drama--that the Princess Royal and the husband of her choice, who had educated themselves and each other to take the reins of the German Empire, and had drawn up so many Plans for the betterment of the general conditions of the people, should, on their accession to power, have met death standing on the steps of the throne; and that only a powerless widow should have been left without much authority over her masterful son. But my firm belief is that in many of the excellent things that the Kaiser William has done for his people, he is working on the plans that had been committed to writing by the Crown Prince and Princess. Her father's memory was so dear to the Crown Princess that anything he had suggested to her was cherished all her life; and I do not doubt that these early lessons on the right relation of human beings to each other--the social science which regards human happiness as depending on justice and toleration--is even now bearing fruit in the Fatherland. Shortsighted mortals see the immediate failures, but in the larger eye of the Infinite and the Eternal there is always progress towards better things from every honest attempt to remedy injustice, and to increase knowledge.

I arranged for a week in Paris with my young friends, Rosa and Symonds Clark, of Hazelwood, and we travelled as far as Paris with the Hare family, who went on to the Tyrol. We enjoyed the week. Louis Napoleon appeared then to be quite secure on his throne, and we saw the fetes and illuminations for his birthday. What a day and night of rain it was! But the thousands of people, joyful and good-humoured under umbrellas or without them--gave us a favourable impression of Parisian crowds. In London I had been with Mr. Cowan in the crush to the theatre. It was contrary to his principles to book seats, and I never was so frightened in my life. I thought a London crowd rough and merciless. I was the only one of the party who could speak any French, and I spoke it badly, and had great difficulty in following French conversations; but we got into a hotel where no English was spoken, and managed to pull through. But we did not know a soul, and I think we did not learn so much from our week's sightseeing as we should have done if Miss Katie Hare had stayed the week with us.

I then paid a visit to Birmingham, and spent a week at the sittings of the British Association. By subscribing a guinea I was made an Associate, and some of the sessions were very interesting, but much too deep for me. I sat out a lecture on the Higher Mathematics, by Professor Henry Smith, to whom Professor Pearson gave me an introduction, in hopes that I might visit Oxford; but he was going abroad, and I could not go to Oxford if I knew nobody--especially alone. I went, however, to Carr's Lane Chapel, where a humble friend had begged me to go, because there she had been converted, and there the Rev. R. W. Dale happened to preach on "Where prayer was wont to be made." He said that consecration was not due to a Bishop or to any ecclesiastical ceremony, but to the devout prayers and praise of the faithful souls within it--that thousands over Scotland and England, and others in America, Australia, and New Zealand, look back to words which they had heard and praises and prayers in which they had joined as the holiest times in their lives. I thought of my good Mrs. Ludlow, and thanked God for her. When Mr. Cowan took me to the church in Essex place where he and his friend Wren used to hear Mr. W. J. Fox, M.P. for Oldham, preach, a stranger, a young American, was there. I found out afterwards be was Moncure Conway, and he gave us a most striking discourse. There was going on in Birmingham at this time a controversy between the old Unitarians and the new. In the Church of the Messiah the old ministers gave a series of sermons on the absolute truth of the New Testament miracles. The Old Testament he was quite willing to give up, but he pinned his faith on those wrought by Christ and His apostles. Some of the congregation told me they had never thought of doubting them before, but the more Mr. B. defended them as the bulwarks of Christianity, the more they felt that our religion rested on other foundations. I saw a good deal of the industrial life of Birmingham, and had a sight of the Black Country by day and by night. Joseph Chamberlain was then a young man; I believe he was a Sunday school teacher. The Unitarian Sunday Schools taught writing and arithmetic as well as reading. In the terrible lack of national day schools many of the poor had no teaching at all but what was given on Sundays, and no time on other days of the week to learn anything. I could not help contrasting the provision made by the parish schools of Scotland out of the beggarly funds or tithes given for church and schools out of the spoils of the Ancient Church by the Lords of the Congregation. Education was not free, but it was cheap, and it was general. Scotchmen made their way all over the world better than Englishmen mainly because they were better educated. The Sunday school was not so much needed, and was much later in establishing itself in Scotland. Good Hannah More taught girls to read the Bible under a spreading tree in her garden because no church would give her a place to teach in. "If girls were taught to read where would we get servants?" It was an early cry.