An Autobiography by Catherine Helen Spence - HTML preview

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Return From The Old Country

Before leaving Scotland I arranged that my friend, Mrs. Graham of the strenuous life and 30 pounds a year, should undertake the care of my aunts, to their mutual satisfaction. My last days in England were spent in either a thick London fog or an equally undesirable Scotch mist, which shrouded everything in obscurity, and made me long for the sunny skies and the clear atmosphere of Australia. I told my friends that in my country it either rained or let it alone. Indeed, the latest news from all Australia was that it had let it alone very badly, and that the overstocking of stations during the preceding good seasons had led to enormous losses. Sheepfarmers made such large profits in good seasons that they were apt to calculate that it was worth while to run the risk of drought; but experience has shown that overstocking does not really pay. The making of dams, the private and public provision of water in the underground reservoirs by artesian bores, and the facilities for travelling stock by such ways have all lessened the risks which the pioneer pastoralists ran bravely in the old days. An Australian drought can never be as disastrous in the twentieth century as it was in 1866; and South Australia, the Central State, has from the first been a pioneer in development as well as in exploration. The hum of the reaping machine first awoke the echoes in our wheatfields. The stump-jumping plough and the mullenicer which beats down the scrub or low bush so that it can be burnt, were South Australian inventions, copied elsewhere, which have turned land accounted worthless into prolific wheat fields.

If South Australia was the first of the States to exhaust her agricultural soil, she was the first to restore it by means of fertilizers and the seed drill. When I see the drilled wheat fields I recollect my grandfather's two silver salvers--the Prizes from the Highland Society for having the largest area of drilled wheat in Scotland--and when I see the grand crops on the Adelaide Plains I recall the opinion that, with anything like a decent rainfall, that soil could grow anything. In 1866 the northern areas had not been opened. The farmers were continuing the process of exhausting the land by growing wheat--wheat-wheat, with the only variety wheaten hay. I recollect James Burnet's amazement when I said that our horses were fed on wheaten hay. "What a waste of the great possibilities of a grain harvest!" He was doubtful when I said that with plenty of wheaten hay the horses needed no corn. South Australia, except about Mount Gambier, does not grow oats, though Victoria depends on oaten hay. The British agriculturist thinks that meadow hay is the natural forage for horses and cattle, and for winter turnips are the standby. It was a little amusing to me that I could speak with some authority to skilled and experienced agriculturists, who felt our rivalry at Mark lane, but who did not dream that with the third great move of Australia towards the markets of the world through cold storage we could send beef, mutton, lamb, poultry, eggs, and all kinds of fruit to the consumers of Europe, and especially of England and its metropolis. I did not see it, any more than the people to whom I talked. I still thought that for meat and all perishable commodities the distance was an insuperable obstacle, and that, except for live stock from America, or canned meat from Australia, the United Kingdom would continue self-supporting on these lines. I returned to Australia, when this island continent was in the grip of one of the most severe and protracted droughts in its history. The war between Prussia and Austria had begun and ended; the failure of Overend and Gurney and others brought commercial disaster; and my brother, with other bankers, had anxious days and sleepless nights. Some rich men became richer; many poor men went down altogether. Our recovery was slow but sure. In the meantime I found life at home very dull after my interesting experiences abroad. There was nothing to do for proportional representation except to write an occasional letter to the press. So I started another novel, which was published serially in The Observer. Mr. George Bentley, who published it subsequently in book form, changed its title from "Hugh Lindsay's Guest" to "The Author's Daughter." But my development as a public speaker was more important than the publication of a fourth novel. Much had been written on the subject of public speaking by men, but so far nothing concerning the capacities of women in that direction. And yet I think all teachers will agree that girls in the aggregate excel boys in their powers of expression, whether in writing, or in speech, though boys may surpass them in such studies as arithmetic and mathematics. Yet law and custom have put a bridle on the tongue of women, and of the innumerable proverbs relating to the sex, the most cynical are those relating to her use of language. Her only qualification for public speaking in old days was that she could scold, and our ancestors imposed a salutary cheek on this by the ducking stool in public, and sticks no thicker than the thumb for marital correction in private. The writer of the Proverbs alludes to the perpetual dropping of a woman's tongue as an intolerable nuisance, and declares that it is better to live on the housetop than with a brawling woman in a wide house. A later writer, describing the virtuous woman, said that on her lips is the law of kindness, and after all this is the real feminine characteristic. As daughter, sister, wife, and mother--what does not the world owe to the gracious words, the loving counsel, the ready sympathy which she expresses? Until recent years, however, these feminine Rifts have been strictly kept for home consumption. and only exercised for the woman's family and a limited circle of friends. In 1825, when I first opened my eyes on the world, there were indeed women who displayed an interest in public affairs. My own mother not only felt the keenest solicitude regarding the passing of the Reform Bill, but she took up her pen, and with two letters to the local press, under the signature of "Grizel Plowter," showed the advantages of the proposed measure. But public speaking was absolutely out of the question for women, and though I was the most ambitious of girls, my desire was to write a great book--not at all to sway an audience. When I returned from my first visit to England in 1866, I was asked by the committee of the South Australian Institute to write a lecture on my impressions of England, different from the article which had appeared in The Cornhill Magazine under that title, but neither the committee nor myself thought of the possibility of my delivering it. My good friend, the late Mr. John Howard Clark, Editor of The Register, kindly offered to read it. I did not go to hear it, but I was told that he had difficulty in reading my manuscript, and that, though he was a beautiful reader, it was not very satisfactory. So I mentally resolved that if I was again asked I should offer to read my own MS. Five years afterwards I was asked for two literary lectures by the same committee, and I chose as my subjects the works of Elizabeth Browning and those of her husband, Robert Browning. Now, I consider that the main thing for a lecturer is to be heard, and a rising young lawyer (now our Chief Justice) kindly offered to take the back seat, and promised to raise his hand if he could not hear. It was not raised once, so I felt satisfied. I began by saying that I undertook the work for two reasons--first, to make my audience more familiar with the writings of two poets very dear to me; and second, to make easier henceforward for any woman who felt she had something to say to stand up and say it. I felt very nervous, and as if my knees were giving way; but I did not show any nervousness. I read the lecture, but most of the quotations I recited from memory. Not having had any lessons in elocution, I trusted to my natural voice, and felt that in this new role the less gesticulation I used the better. Whether the advice of Demosthenes is rightlv translated or not--first requisite, action; second, action; third, action--I am sure that English word does not express the requisite for women. I should rather call it earnestness--a conviction that what you say is worth saying, and worth saying to the audience before you. I had a lesson on the danger of overaction from hearing a gentleman recite in public "The dream of Eugene Aram," in which he went through all the movements of killing and burying the murdered man. When a tale is crystallized into a poem it does not require the action of a drama. However little action I may use I never speak in public with gloves on. They interfere with the natural eloquence of the hand. After these lectures I occasionally was asked to give others on literary subjects.

At this time I began to study Latin with my nephew, a boy of 14. He was then an orphan, my youngest and beloved sister Mary having recently died and left her two children to my care. My teacher thought me the more apt pupil, but it was really due more to my command of English than to my knowledge of Latin that I was able to get at the meaning of Virgil and Horace. When it came to Latin composition I was no better than the boy of 14. Before the death of my sister the family invested in land in Trinity street, College Town, and built a house. Mother had planned the house she moved into when I was six months old, and she delighted in the task, though she said it seemed absurd to build a house in her seventy-ninth year. But she lived in it from January, 1870, till December, 1887, and her youngest daughter lived in it for only ten months. Before that time I had embarked with my friend, Miss Clark, on one of the greatest enterprises of my life--one which led to so much that my friends are apt to say that, if I am recollected at all, it will be in connection with the children of the State and not with electoral reform. But I maintain now, as I maintained then, that the main object of my life is proportional representation, or, to use my brother John's term, effective voting.