An Autobiography by Catherine Helen Spence - HTML preview

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Journalism And Politics

In reviewing books I took the keenest Interest in the "Carlyle Biographies and Letters," because my mother recollected Jeanie Welch as a child, and her father was called in always for my grandfather Brodie's illnesses. I was also absorbed in the "Life and Letters of George Eliot." The Barr Smiths gave me the "Life and Letters of Balzac," and many of his books in French, which led me to write both for The Register and for The Melbourne Review. I also wrote "A last word," which was lost by The Centennial in Sydney when it died out. It was also from Mrs. Barr Smith that I got so many of the works of Alphonse Daudet in French, which enabled me to give a rejoinder to Marcus Clark's assertion that Balzac was a French Dickens. Indeed, looking through my shelves, I see so many books which suggested articles and criticisms which were her gifts that I always connect her with my journalistic career.

Many people have consulted me about publishing poems, novels, and essays. As I was known to have actually got books published in England, and to be a professional journalist and reviewer, I dare say some of those who applied to me for encouragement thought I was actuated by literary jealousy; but people are apt to think they have a plot when they have only an incident, or two or three incidents; and many who can write clever and even brilliant letters have no idea of the construction of a story that will arrest and sustain the reader's attention. The people who consulted me all wanted money for their work. They had such excellent uses for money. They had too little. They were neither willing nor able to bear the cost of publication, and it was absolutely necessary that their work should be good enough for a business man to undertake it. I am often surprised that I found English publishers myself, and the handicap of distance and other things is even greater now. If stories are excessively Australian, they lose the sympathies of the bulk of the public. If they are mildly Australian, the work is thought to lack distinctiveness. Great genius can overcome these things, but great genius is rare everywhere. Except for my friend Miss Mackay (Mrs. F. Martin), I know no Australian novelist of genius, and her work is only too rare in fiction. Mrs. Cross reaches her highest level in "The Masked Man." but she does not keep it up, though she writes well and pleasantly. Of course poetry does not pay anywhere until a great reputation is made. Poetry must be its own exceeding great reward. And yet I agree with Charles Kingsley that if you wish to cultivate a really good prose style you should begin with verse. In my teens I wrote rhymes and tried to write sonnets. I encouraged writing games among my young people, and it is surprising how much cleverness could be developed. I can write verses with ease, but very rarely could I rise to poetry; and therefore I fear I was not encouraging to the budding Australian poet.

There was a column quite outside of The Register to which I liked to contribute for love. That was "The Riddler," which appeared in The Observer and in The Evening Journal on Saturdays. It brought me in contact with Mr. William Holden, long the oldest journalist in South Australia, who revelled in statistical returns and algebraical problems and earth measurements, but who also appreciated a good charade or double acrostic. I used to give some of the ingredients for his "Christmas Mince Pie," and wrote many riddles of various sorts. My charades were not so elegant as some arranged by Miss Clark, and not so easily found out; and my double acrostics were not so subtle as those given in competition nowadays, but they were in the eighties reckoned excellent. My fame had reached the ears of Mrs. Alfred Watts (nee Giles), who spent her early colonial life on Kangaroo Island, and she asked me to write some double acrostics for the poor incurables. I stared at her in amazement. "We want to be quite well to tackle double acrostics and to have access to books. Does not Punch speak of the titled lady, eager to win a guinea prize, who gave seven volumes of Carlyle's works to seven upper servants, and asked each to search one to find a certain quotation?" "Oh," said Mrs. Watts, "I don't mean for the incurables to amuse themselves with. I mean for the benefit of the home."

In the end I prepared a book of charades and double acrostics, for the printing and binding of which Mrs. Watts paid. It was entitled "Silver Wattle," and the proceeds from the sale of this little book went to help the funds of the home. For a second volume issued for the same purpose Mrs. Strawbridge wrote some poems, Mrs. H. M. Davidson a translation of Victor Huge, Miss Clark her beautiful "Flowers of Greece," and her niece some pretty verses, which, combined with the double acrostics, and acting charades supplied by me, made an attractive volume. Mrs. Watts had something of a literary turn, which found expression in "Memories of Early Days in South Australia," a book printed for private circulation among her family and intimate friends. Dealing with the years between 1837 and 1845 it was very interesting to old colonists, particularly when they were able to identify the people mentioned, sometimes by initials and sometimes by pseudonyms. The author was herself an incurable invalid from an accident shortly after her marriage, and felt keenly for all the inmates of the Fullarton Home.

In 1877 my brother John--with whom I had never quarrelled in my life, and who helped and encouraged me in everything that I did--retired from the English, Scottish, and Australian Bank, and decided to contest a seat for the Legislative Council. It was the last occasion on which the Council was elected with the State as one district. Although he announced his candidature only the night before nomination day, and did not address a single meeting, he was elected third on the poll. He afterwards became the Chief Secretary, and later Commissioner of Public Works. He was an excellent worker on committees, and was full of ideas and suggestions. Although not a good speaker, he rejoiced in my standing on platform or in pulpit. He was nearly as democratic as I was; and when he invented the phrase "effective voting" it was from the sense that true democracy demanded not merely a chance, but a certainty, that the vote given at the poll should be effective for some one. My brother David inherited all the Conservatism of the Brodies for generations back. Greatly interested in all abtruse problems and abstract questions he had various schemes for the regeneration of mankind. Two opposing theories concerning the working of bi-cameral Legislatures supplied me with material for a Review article. One theory was intensely Conservative, and emanated from my brother David, who was a poor man. The other was held by the richest man of my acquaintance, and was distinctly Liberal. My brother argued that the Upper House should have the power to tax its own constituents, and was utterly opposed to any extension of the franchise. My rich friend objected to the limited franchise, and desired to have the State proclaimed one electorate with proportional representation as a safeguard against unwise legislation and as a means to assist reforms. The great blot, he considered, on Australian Constitutions was the representation by districts, especially for the House that controlled the public purse. If districts were to be tolerated at all, they should be represented by men who had a longer tenure of office than our Assembly's three years, and who did not have so often to ask for votes, which frequently depended on a railway or a jetty or a Rabbit Bill. So long as a Government depends for its existence on the support of local representatives it is tempted to spend public money to gratify them. Both men were Freetraders, and both believed strongly in the justice of land values taxation.

My friend the late Professor Pearson had entered into active political life in Melbourne, and was a regular writer for The Age. Perhaps no other man underwent more obloquy from his old friends for taking the side of Graham Berry, especially as he was a Freetrader, and the popular party was Protectionist. He justified his action by saying that a mistake in the fiscal policy of a country should not prevent a real Democrat from siding with the party which opposed monopoly, especially in land. He saw in "LATIFUNDIA"-huge estates--the ruin of the Roman Empire, and its prevalence in the United Kingdom was the greatest danger ahead of it. In these young countries the tendency to build up large holdings was naturally fostered by what was the earliest of our industries. Sheepfarming is not greatly pursued in the United States or Canada, because of the rigorous winter--but Australia is the favourite home of the merino sheep. Originally there was no need to buy land, or even to pay rent to the Government for it; the land had no value till settlement gave it. The squatter leased it on easy terms, and bought it only when it had sufficient value to be desired by agriculturists or by selectors who posed as agriculturists. When he bought it he generally complained of the price these selectors compelled him to pay, but it was then secure; and, with the growth of population and the railroads and other improvements, these enforced purchasers, even in 1877, had built up vast estates in single hands in every State in Australia. In The Melbourne Review for April, 1877, Professor Pearson sketched a plan of land taxation, which was afterwards carried out, in which the area of land held was the test for graduated taxation. Henry George had not then declared his gospel; and, although I felt that there was something very faulty in the scheme, I did not declare in my article on the subject that an acre in Collins street might be of more value than 50,000 acres of pastoral land 500 miles from the seaboard, and was therefore more fitly liable to taxation for the advantage of the whole community, who had given to that acre this exceptional value. I did not declare it because I did not believe it. But I thought that the end aimed at--the breaking up of large estates--could be better and more safely effected, though not so quickly, by a change in the incidence of succession duties.

Some time after I saw a single copy of Henry George's "Progress and Poverty" on Robertson's shelves, and bought it, and it was I who after reading this book opened in the three most important Australian colonies the question of the taxation of land values. An article I wrote went into The Register, and Mr. Liston, of Kapunda, read it, and spoke of it at a farmers' meeting. I had then a commission from The Sydney Morning Herald to write on any important subject, and I wrote on this. It appeared, like a previous article on Howell's "Conflicts of Capital and Labour," as an unsigned article. A new review, The Victorian, had been started by Mortimer Franlyn, which paid contributors; and, now that I was a professional journalist, I thought myself entitled to ask remuneration. I sent to the new periodical, published in Melbourne, a fuller treatment of the book than had been given to the two newspapers, under the title of "A Californian Political Economist." This fell into the hands of Henry George himself, in a reading room in San Francisco, and he wrote an acknowledgment of it to me. In South Australia the first tax on unimproved land values was imposed. It was small--only a halfpenny in the pound, but without any exemption; and its imposition was encouraged by the fact that we had had bad seasons and a falling revenue. The income tax in England was originally a war tax, and they say that if there is not a war the United States will never be able to impose an income tax. The separate States have not the power to impose such a tax. Henry George said to me in his home in New York:--"I wonder at you, with your zeal and enthusiasm, and your power of speaking, devoting yourself to such a small matter as proportional representation, when you see the great land question before you." I replied that to me it was not a small matter. I cannot, however, write my autobiography without giving prominence to the fact that I was the pioneer in Australia in this as in the other matter of proportional representation.