An Autobiography by Catherine Helen Spence - HTML preview

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Preaching, Friends, And Writing

My life now became more interesting and varied. A wider field for my journalistic capabilities was open to me, and I also took part in the growth of education, both spiritual and secular. The main promoters of the ambitious literary periodical The Melbourne Review, to which I became a contributor, were Mr. Henry Gyles Turner (the banker), Mr. Alexander Sutherland, M.A. (author of "The History of Australia" and several other books), and A. Patchett Martin (the litterateur). It lived for nine years, and produced a good deal of creditable writing, but it never was able to pay its contributors, because it never attained such a circulation as would attract advertisements. The reviews and magazines of the present day depend on advertisements. They cheapen the price so as to gain a circulation, which advertisers cater for. I think my second article was on the death of Sir Richard Hanson (one of the original South Australian Literary Society, which met in London before South Australia existed). At the time of his death he was Chief Justice. He was the author of two books of Biblical criticism-- "The Jesus of History" and "Paul and the Primitive Church"--and I undertook to deal with his life and work. About that time there was one of those periodic outbursts of Imperialism in the Australian colonies-not popular or general, but among politicians--on the question of how the colonies could obtain practical recognition in the Legislature of the United Kingdom. Each of the colonies felt that Downing street inadequately represented its claims and its aspirations, and there were several articles in "The Melbourne Review" suggesting that these colonies should be allowed to send members to the House of Commons. This, I felt, would be inadmissible; for, unless we were prepared to bear our share of the burdens, we had no right to sit in the taxing Assembly of the United Kingdom. The only House in which the colonies, small or great, could be represented was the House of Lords; and it appeared to me that, with a reformed House of Lords, this would be quite practicable. An article in Fraser's Magazine, "Why not the Lords, too?" had struck me much, and the lines on which it ran greatly resemble those laid down by Lord Rosebery for lessening in number and improving in character the unwieldy hereditary House of Peers; but neither that writer nor Lord Rosebery grasped the idea that I made prominent in an article I wrote for The Review, which was that the reduction of the peers to 200, or any other number ought to be made on the principle of proportional representation, because otherwise the majority of the peers, being Conservative, an election on ordinary lines would result in a selection of the most extreme Conservatives in the body. My mother had pointed out to me that the 16 representative Scottish peers elected by those who have not a seat as British peers, for the duration of each Parliament, were the most Tory of the Tories, and that the same could be said of the 28 representative peers for Ireland elected for life. So, though the House of Lords contains a respectable minority of Liberals, under no system of exclusively majority representation could any of them be chosen among the 200. I had the same idea of life peers to be added from the ranks of the professions, of science, and of literature, unburdened by the weight and cost of an hereditary title, that Lord Rosebery has; and into such a body I thought that representatives of the great self-governing colonies could enter, so that information about our resources, our politics, and our sociology might be available, and might permeate the press. But, greatly to my surprise, my article was sent back, but was afterwards accepted by Fraser's Magazine. This was better for me, for what would have been published for nothing in The Melbourne Review brought me 8/15/0 from a good English magazine. I continued to write for this review, until it ceased to exist, in 1885, literary and political articles. The former included a second one on "George Eliot's Life and Work," and one on "Honore de Balzac," which many of my friends thought my best literary effort.

It was through Miss Martha Turner that I was introduced to her brother and to The Melbourne Review. She was at that time pastor of the Unitarian Church in Melbourne. She had during the long illness of the Rev. Mr. Higginson helped her brother with the services. At first she wrote sermons for him to deliver, but on some occasions when he was indisposed she read her own compositions. Fine reader as Mr. H. G. Turner is he did not come up to her, and especially he could not equal her in the presentment of her own thoughts. The congregation on the death of Mr. Higginson asked Miss Turner to accept the pastorate. She said she could conduct the services, but she absolutely declined to do the pastoral duties--visiting especially. She was licensed to conduct marriage services and baptized (or, as we call it, consecrated) children to the service of Almighty God and to the service of man. During the absence of our pastor for a long holiday in England Mr. C. L. Whitham afterwards an education inspector, took his place for two years, and he arranged for an exchange of three weeks with Miss Turner. She is the first woman I ever heard in the pulpit. I was thrilled by her exquisite voice, by her earnestness, and by her reverence. I felt as I had never felt before that if women are excluded from the Christian pulpit you shut out more than half of the devoutness that is in the world. Reading George Eliot's description of Dinah Morris preaching Methodisim on the green at Hayslope had prepared me in a measure, but when I heard a highly educated and exceptionally able woman conducting the services all through, and especially reading the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments with so much intelligence that they seemed to take on new meaning, I felt how much the world had been losing for so many centuries. She twice exchanged with Adelaide--the second time when Mr. Woods had returned--and it was the beginning to me of a close friendship.

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest flattery; and when a similar opportunity was offered to me during an illness of Mr. Woods, when no layman was available, I was first asked to read a sermon of Martineau's and then I suggested that I might give something of my own. My first original sermon was on "Enoch and Columbus," and my second on "Content, discontent, and uncontent." I suppose I have preached more than a hundred times, in my life, mostly in the Wakefield Street pulpit; but in Melbourne and Sydney I am always asked for help; and when I went to America in 1893-4 I was offered seven pulpits--one in Toronto, Canada, and six in the United States. The preparation of my sermons--for, after the first one I delivered, they were always original--has always been a joy and delight to me, for I prefer that my subjects as well as their treatment shall be as humanly helpful as it is possible to make them. In Sydney particularly I have preached to fine audiences. On one occasion I remember preaching in a large hall, as the Unitarian Church could not have held the congregation. It was during the campaign that Mrs. Young and I conducted in Sydney--in 1900, and we had spent the day--a delightful one-with the present Sir George and Lady Reid at their beautiful home at Strathfield, and returned in time to take the evening service at Sydney. I spoke on the advantages of international peace, and illustrated my discourse with arguments, drawn from the South African War, which was then in progress. I seized the opportunity afforded me of speaking some plain home truths on the matter. I was afterwards referred to by The Sydney Bulletin as "the gallant little old lady who had more moral courage in her little finger than all the Sydney ministers had in their combined anatomies." For one of my sermons I wrote an original parable which pleased my friends so much that I include it in the account of my life's work. "And it came to pass after the five days of Creation which were periods of unknown length of time that God took the soul, the naked soul, with which He was to endow the highest of his creatures--into Eden to look with him on the work which He had accomplished. And the Soul could see, could hear, could understand, though there were neither eyes, nor ears, nor limbs, nor bodily organs, to do its bidding. And God said, 'Soul, thou shalt have a body as these creatures, that thou seest around thee have. Thou art to be king, and rule over them all. Thy mission is to subdue the earth, and make it fruitful and more beautiful than it is even now, in thus its dawn. Which of all these living creatures wouldst thou resemble ?' And the Soul looked, and the Soul listened, and the Soul understood. The beauty of the birds first attracted him and their songs were sweet, and their loving care of their young called forth a response in the Prophetic Soul. But the sweet singers could not subdue the earth--nay, even the strongest voice could not. Then the Soul gazed on the lion in his strength; on the deer in his beauty. He saw the large-eyed bull with the cow by his side, licking her calf. The stately horse, the huge elephant, the ungainly camel--could any of these subdue the earth? He looked down, and they made it shake with their heavy tread, but the Soul knew that the earth could not be subdued by them. Then he saw a pair of monkeys climbing a tree--the female had a little one in her arms. Where the bird had wings, and the beasts four legs planted on the ground, the monkeys had arms, and, at the end of each, hands, with five fingers; they gathered nuts and cracked them, and picked out the kernels, throwing the shells away--the mother caressed her young one with gentle fingers. The Soul saw also the larger ape with its almost upright form. 'Ah!' sighed the Soul, 'they are not beautiful like the other creatures, neither are they so strong as many of them. But their forelimbs, with hands and fingers to grasp with, are what I need to subdue the earth, for they will be the servants who can best obey my will. Let me stand upright and gaze upward, and this is the body that I choose.' And God said, 'Soul, thou hast chosen well, Thou shalt be larger and stronger than these creatures thou seest thou shalt stand upright, and look upward and onward. And the Soul can create beauty for itself, when it shines through the body.' And it was so, and Adam stood erect and gave names to all other creatures."

In the seventies the old education system, or want of system, was broken up, and a complete department of public instruction was constructed. Mr. J. A. Hartley, head master of Prince Alfred College, was placed at the head of it, and a vigorous policy was adopted. When the Misses Davenport Hill came out to visit aunt and cousins, I visited with them and Miss Clark the Grote Street Model School, and I was delighted with the new administration. I hoped that the instruction of the children of the people would attract the poor gentlewomen who were so badly paid as governesses in families or in schools; but my hope has not been at all adequately fulfilled. The Register had been most earnest in its desire for a better system of public education. The late Mr. John Howard Clark, its then editor, wanted some articles on the education of girls, and he applied to me to do them, and I wrote two leading articles on the subject, and another on the "Ladder of Learning." from the elementary school to the university, as exemplified in my native country where ambitious lads cultivated literature on a little oatmeal. For an Adelaide University was in the air, and took form owing to the benefactions of Capt. (afterwards Sir Walter Watson) Hughes, and Mr. (afterwards Sir Thomas) Elder. But the opposition to Mr. Hartley, which set in soon after his appointment, and his supposed drastic methods and autocratic attitude, continued. I did not knew Mr. Hartley personally, but I knew he had been an admirable head teacher, and the most valuable member of the Education Board which preceded the revolution. I knew, too, that the old school teachers were far inferior to what were needed for the new work, and that you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs. A letter which I wrote to Mr. Hartley, saying that I desired to help him in any way in my power, led to a friendship which lasted till his lamented death in 1896. I fancied at the time that my aid did him good, but I think now that the opposition had spent its force before I put in my oar by some letters to the press. South Australians became afterwards appreciative of the work done by Mr. Hartley, and proud of the good position this State took in matters educational among the sister States under the Southern Cross.

It was due to Mrs. Webster's second visit to Adelaide to exchange with Mr. Woods that I made the acquaintance of Mr. and Mrs. E. Barr Smith. They went to the church and were shown into my seat, and Mrs. Smith asked me to bring the eloquent preacher to Torrens Park to dine there. I discovered that they had long wanted to know me, but I was out of society. I recollect afterwards going to the office to see Mr. Smith on some business or other, when he was out, and meeting Mr. Elder instead. He pressed on me the duty of going to see Mrs. Black, a lady from Edinburgh, who had come out with her sons and daughter. Mr. Barr Smith came in, and his brother-in-law said, "I have just been telling Miss Spence she should go and call on the Blacks." "Tom," said Mr. Barr Smith, "we have been just 20 years making the acquaintance of Miss Spence. About the year 1899 Miss Spence will be dropping in on the Blacks." What a house Torrens Park was for books. There was no other customer of the book shops equal to the Torrens Park family. Rich men and women often buy books for themselves, and for rare old books they will give big prices; but the Barr Smiths bought books in sixes and in dozens for the joy of giving them where they would be appreciated. On my literary side Mrs. Barr Smith, a keen critic herself, fitted in with me admirably, and what I owed to her in the way of books for about 10 years cannot be put on paper, and in my journalistic work she delighted. Other friendships, both literary and personal, were formed in the decade which started the elementary schools and the University. The first Hughes professor of English literature was the Rev. John Davidson of Chalmers Church, married to Harriet, daughter of Hugh Miller, the self-taught ecologist and journalist.

On the day of the inauguration of the University the Davidsons asked Miss Clark and myself to go with them, and there I met Miss Catherine Mackay (now Mrs. Fred Martin), from Mount Gambier. I at first thought her the daughter of a wealthy squatter of the south-east, but when I found she was a litterateur trying to make a living by her pen, bringing out a serial tale, "Bohemian Born," and writing occasional articles, I drew to her at once. So long as the serial tale lasted she could hold her own; but no one can make a living at occasional articles in Australia, and she became a clerk in the Education Office, but still cultivated literature in her leisure hours. She has published two novels--"An Australian Girl" and "The Silent Sea"--which so good a judge as F. W. H. Myers pronounced to be on the highest level ever reached in Australian fiction, and in that opinion I heartily concur. I take a very humble second place beside her, but in the seventies I wrote "Gathered In," which I believed to be my best novel--the novel into which I put the most of myself, the only novel I wrote with tears of emotion. Mrs. Oliphant says that Jeanie Deans is more real to her than any of her own creations, and probably it is the same with me, except for this one work. From an old diary of the fifties, when my first novels were written I take this extract:--"Queer that I who have such a distinct idea of what I approve in flesh-and-blood men should only achieve in pen and ink a set of impossible people, with an absurd muddy expression of gloom, instead of sublime depth as I intended. Men novelists' women are as impossible creations as my men, but there is this difference--their productions satisfy them, mine fail to satisfy me." But in my last novel--still unpublished--felt quite satisfied that I had at last achieved my ambition to create characters that stood out distinctly and real. Miss Clark took the MS. to England, but she could not get either Bentley or Smith Elder, or Macmillan to accept it.

On the death of Mr. John Howard Clark, which took place at this time, Mr. John Harvey Finlayson was left to edit The Register, and I became a regular outside contributor to The Register and The Observer. He desired to keep up and if possible improve the literary side of the papers, and felt that the loss of Mr. Clark might be in some measure made up if I give myself wholeheartedly to the work. Leading articles were to be written at my own risk. If they suited the policy of the paper they would be accepted, otherwise not. What a glorious opening for my ambition and for my literary proclivities came to me in July, 1878, when I was in my fifty-third year! Many leading articles were rejected, but not one literary or social article. Generally these last appeared in both daily and weekly papers. I recollect the second original social article I wrote was on "Equality as an influence on society and manners," suggested by Matthew Arnold. The much-travelled Smythe, then, I think, touring with Charles Clark, wrote to Mr. Finlayson from Wallaroo thus:--"In this dead-alive place, where one might fire a mitrailleuse down the principal street without hurting anybody, I read this delightful article in yesterday's Register. When we come again to Adelaide, and we collect a few choice spirits, be sure to invite the writer of this article to join us." I felt as if the round woman had got at last into the round hole which fitted her; and in my little study, with my books and my pigeon holes, and my dear old mother sitting with her knitting on her rocking chair at the low window, I had the knowledge that she was interested in all I did. I generally read the MS to her before it went to the office. What is more remarkable, perhaps, is that the excellent maid who was with us for 12 years, picked out everything of mine that was in the papers and read it. A series of papers called "Some Social Aspects of Early Colonial Life" I contributed under the pseudonym of "A Colonist of 1839." From 1878 till 1893, when I went round the world via America, I held the position of outside contributor on the oldest newspaper in the State, and for these 14 years I had great latitude. My friend Dr. Garran, then editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, accepted reviews and articles from me. Sometimes I reviewed the same books for both, but I wrote the articles differently, and made different quotations, so that I scarcely think any one could detect the same hand in them; but generally they were different books and different subjects, which I treated. I tried The Australasian with a short story, "Afloat and Ashore," and with a social article on "Wealth, Waste, and Want." I contributed to The Melbourne Review, and later to The Victorian Review, which began by paying well, but filtered out gradually. I found journalism a better paying business for me than novel writing, and I delighted in the breadth of the canvas on which I could draw my sketches of books and of life. I believe that my work on newspapers and reviews is more characteristic of me, and intrinsically better work than what I have done in fiction; but when I began to wield the pen, the novel was the line of least resistance. When I was introduced in 1894 to Mrs. Croly, the oldest woman journalist in the United States, as an Australian journalist, I found that her work, though good ehough, was essentially woman's work, dress, fashions, functions, with educational and social outlooks from the feminine point of view. My work might show the bias of sex, but it dealt with the larger questions which were common to humanity; and when I recall the causes which I furthered, and which in some instances I started, I feel inclined to magnify the office of the anonymous contributor to the daily press. And I acknowledge not only the kindness of friends who put some of the best new books in my way, but the large-minded tolerance of the Editors of The Register, who gave me such a free hand in the treatment of books, of men, and of public questions.