An Autobiography by Catherine Helen Spence - HTML preview

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Widening Interests

During this period my work on the State Children's Council continued, and I never found time hang heavily on my hands; so that when Mr. Kingston met me one day later in the year, and told me he particularly wished me to accept an appointment as a member of the Destitute Board, I hesitated. "I am too old," I objected. "No, no, Miss Spence," he replied laughingly, "it is only we who grow old--you have the gift of perpetual youth." But I was nearly 72, and at any rate I thought I should first consult my friends. I found them all eager that I should accept the position. I had agitated long and often for the appointment of women on all public boards, particularly where both sexes came under treatment, and I accepted the post. Although often I have found the work tiring, I have never regretted the step I took in joining the board. Experience has emphasized my early desire that two women at least should occupy positions on it. I hope that future Governments will rectify the mistake of past years by utilizing to a greater extent the valuable aid of capable and sympathetic women in a branch of public work for which they are peculiarly fitted. Early in my career as a member of the board I found grave defects in the daily bill of fare, and set myself to the task of remedying them as far as lay in my power. For 30 years the same kind of soup, day in and day out, followed by the eternal and evergreen cabbage as a vegetable, in season and out of season, found its way to the table. My own tastes and mode of life were simplicity personified, but my stomach revolted against a dietary as unvaried as it was unappetizing. An old servant who heard that I attended the Destitute Asylum every week was loud in her lamentations that "poor dear Miss Spence was so reduced that she had to go to the Destitute every week for rations!" My thankfulness that she had misconceived the position stirred me to leave no stone unturned for the betterment of the destitute bill of fare. I was successful, and the varied diet now enjoyed bears witness to the humanitarian views of all the members of the board, who were as anxious to help in the reform as I was. My heart has always gone out to the poor old folk whose faces bear the impress of long years of strenuous toil and who at the close of life at least should find a haven of restfulness and peace in the State for whose advancement they have laboured in the past.

She was a witty woman who divided autobiographies into two classes... autobiographies and ought-not-to-biographies--but I am sure she never attempted to write one herself. There is so much in one's life that looms large from a personal point of view about which other people would care little, and the difficulty often arises, not so much about what to put in as what to leave out.

How much my personal interests had widened during my absence from home could be gauged somewhat by the enormous increase in my correspondence after my return. American, Canadian, English, and Continental correspondents have kept me for many years well informed on reform and kindred subjects; and the letters I have received, and the replies they have drawn from me, go far to make me doubt the accuracy of the accepted belief that "letter writing has become a lost art." A full mind with a facile pen makes letter writing a joy, and both of these attributes I think I may fairly claim. My correspondence with Alfred Cridge was kept up till his death a few years ago, and his son, following worthily in the footsteps of a noble father, has taken up the broken threads of the lifework of my friend, and is doing his utmost to carry it to a successful issue. My love of reading, which has been a characteristic feature of my life, found full scope for expression in the piles of books which reached us from all parts of the world. It has always been my desire to keep abreast of current literature, and this, by means of my book club and other sources, I was able to do. Sometimes my friends from abroad sent me copies of their own publications, Dr. Bayard Holmes invariably forwarding to me a presentation copy of his most valuable treatises on medical subjects. Mrs. Stetson's poems and economic writings have always proved a source of inspiration to me, and I have distributed her books wherever I have thought they would be appreciated. Just at this time my financial position became brighter. I was fortunate in being able to dispose of my two properties in East Adelaide, and the purchasing of an annuity freed me entirely from money and domestic worries. Perhaps the greatest joy of all was that I was once more able to follow my charitable inclinations by giving that little mite which, coming opportunely, gladdens the heart of the disconsolate widow or smoothes the path of the struggling worker. Giving up my home entirely, I went to live with my dear friend Mrs. Baker, at Osmond terrace, where, perhaps, I spent the most restful period of a somewhat eventful life.

The inauguration of a Criminological Society in Adelaide was a welcome sign to me of the growing public interest in methods of prison discipline and treatment. I was one of the foundation members of the society, and attended every meeting during its short existence. My one contribution to the lectures delivered under its auspices was on "Heredity and Environment." This was a subject in which I had long been interested, holding the view that environment had more to do with the building up of character than heredity had to do with its decadence. How much or how little truth there is in the cynical observation that the only believers in heredity nowadays are the fathers of very clever sons I am not prepared to say. I do say, however, that with the cruel and hopeless law of heredity as laid down by Zola and Ibsen I have little sympathy. According to these pessimists, who ride heredity to death, we inherit only the vices, the weaknesses, and the diseases of our ancestors. If this, however, were really the case, the world would be growing worse and not better, as it assuredly is, with every succeeding generation. The contrary view taken of the matter by Ibsen's fellowcountryman, Bjornsen, appears to me to be so much more commonsense and humanizing. He holds that if we know that our ancestors drank and gambled to excess, or were violent-tempered or immoral, we can quite easily avoid the pitfall, knowing it to be there. Too readily wrongdoers are prepared to lay their failings at the door of ancestors, society, or some other blamable source, instead of attributing them, as they should do, to their own selfish and weak indulgence and lack of self-control. Heredity, though an enormous factor in our constitution, need not be regarded as an overmastering fate, for each human being has an almost limitless parentage to draw upon. Each child has both a father and a mother, and two grandparents on both sides, increasing as one goes back. But, besides drawing on a much wider ancestry than the immediate parents, we have more than we inherit, or where could the law of progress operate? Each generation, each child who is born, comes into a slightly different world, fed by more experience, blown upon by fresh influences. And each individual comes into the world, not with a body merely, but with a soul; and this soul is susceptible to impressions, not only from the outer material world but from the other souls also impressed by the old and the new, by the material and the ideal.

"The History of the Jukes" is continually cited as proving the power and force of heredity. Most people who read the book through, however, instead of merely accepting allusions one-sided and defective to it, see clearly that it forms the strongest argument for change of environment that ever was brought forward. The assumed name of Jukes is given to the descendants of a worthless woman who emigrated to America upwards of a century and a half ago, and from whom hundreds of criminals, paupers, and prostitutes have descended. But how were the Jukes' descendants dealt with during this period? No helping hand removed the children from their vicious and criminal surroundings known as one of the crime-cradles of the State of New York. Neither church nor school took them under its protecting care. Born and reared in the haunts of vice and crime, nothing but viciousness and criminality could be expected as a result. Without going, so far as a wellknown ex-member of our State Legislature, whose antagonism to the humanitarian treatment of prisoners led him to the belief that "there wasn't nothin' in 'erry-ditty,' it was all tommy rot," I still hold to the belief that environment plays the larger part in the formation of character. Every phase of criminal reform is, I candidly admit, dealing with effects rather than causes. Effects, however, must be dealt with, and the more humanely they are dealt with the better for society at large. So long as society shuts its eyes to the social conditions under which the masses of the people live, move, and have their being as tending towards lowering rather than uplifting the individual and the community, the supply of cases for criminal treatment will unfortunately show little tendency to decrease. The work before reformers of the world is to prevent the creation of criminals by changing the environment of those with criminal tendencies as well as to seek to alleviate the resulting disease by methods of criminal reform.

Many interesting lectures were given by prominent citizens under the auspices of the society, which did a great deal to awaken the public conscience on the important question of criminal reform. The Rev. J. Day Thompson, who was then in the zenith of his intellectual power and a noble supporter of all things that tended to the uplifting of humanity, dealt with the land question in relation to crime. He gave a telling illustration of his point--which I thought equally applicable to the question of environment in relation to prison reform--that no permanent good could result from social legislation until society recognised and dealt with the root of the social evil, the land question. "In a lunatic asylum," he said, "it is the custom to test the sanity of patients by giving them a ladle with which to empty a tub of water standing under a running tap. 'How do you decide?' the warder was asked. 'Why, them as isn't idiots stops the tap.'" It was the Rev. J. Day Thompson who first called me the "Grand Old Woman" of South Australia. When he left Adelaide for the wider sphere of service open to him in England I felt that we had lost one of the most cultured and able men who had ever come among us, and one whom no community could lose without being distinctly the poorer for his absence.

Just at this time the visit of Dr. and Mrs. Mills created a little excitement in certain circles. Their lectures on Christian science, both public and private, were wonderfully well attended, and I missed few of them. I have all my life endeavoured to keep an open mind on these questions, and have been prepared to accept new ideas and new modes of thought. But, although I found much that was charming in the lectures that swayed the minds of so many of my friends, I found little to convince me that Christian scientists were right and the rest of the world wrong in their interpretation of the meaning of life. So far as the cultivation of will power, as it is called, is concerned, I have no quarrel with those who maintain that a power of self-control is the basis of human happiness. So far as the will can be trained to obey only those instincts that tend to the growth and maintenance of self-respect--to prevent the subordination of our better feelings to the overpowering effects of passion, greed, or injustice--it must help to the development of one of the primary necessities of a sane existence. When, however, the same agency is brought to bear on the treatment of diseases in any shape or form I find my faith wavering. Though there may be more things in earth and heaven than are dreamed of in my philosophy, I was not prepared to follow the teachings set before us by the interpreters of this belief, whose visit had made an interesting break in the lives of many people. Truth I find everywhere expressed, goodness in all things; but I neither look for nor expect perfection in any one thing the world has ever produced. "Tell me where God is," a somewhat, cynical sceptic asked of a child. "Tell me where He is not," replied the child; and the same thing applies to goodness. Do not tell me where goodness is, but point out to, me, if you can, where it is not. It is for each one to find out for himself where the right path lies, and to follow it with all his strength of mind and of purpose. Pippa's song, "God's in His heaven-all's right with the world," does not mean that the time has come for us to lay down our arms in the battle of right against wrong. No! no; it is an inspiration for us to gird our loins afresh, to "right the wrongs that need resistance;" for, God being in His heaven, and the world itself being right, makes it so much easier to correct mistakes that are due to human agencies and shortcomings only.

I found time to spend a pleasant week at Victor Harbour with my friends, Mr. and Mrs. John Wyles. I remember one day being asked whether I was not sorry I never married. "No," I replied, "for, although I often envy my friends the happiness they find in their children, I have never envied them their husbands." I think we must have been in a frivolous mood; for a lady visitor, who was present, capped my remark with the statement that she was quite sure Miss Spence was thankful that when she died she would not be described as the "relic" of any man. It was the same lady who on another occasion, when one of the juvenile members of the party asked whether poets had to pay for poetical licence, wittily replied, "No, my dear, but their readers do!" Although so much of my time has been spent in public work, I have by no means neglected or despised the social side of life. Visits to my friends have always been delightful to me, and I have felt as much interested in the domestic virtues of my many acquaintances as I have been an admirer of their grasp of literature, politics, or any branch of the arts or sciences in which they have been interested. This seaside visit had been a welcome break in a year that had brought me a new occupation as a member of the Destitute Board, had given me the experience of a political campaign, had witnessed the framing of the Constitution for the Commonwealth 'neath the Southern Cross, and had seen effective voting advance from the academic stage into the realm of practical politics. During the year Mrs. Young and I addressed together 26 meetings on this subject. One of the most interesting was at the Blind School, North Adelaide. The keenness with which this audience gripped every detail of the explanation showed us how splendidly they had risen above their affliction. I was reminded of Helen Keller, the American girl, who at the age of 21 months had lost sight and hearing, and whom I had met in Chicago during my American visit, just before she took her degree at Harvard University.

To all peacelovers the years from 1898 to 1901 were shadowed by the South African war. The din of battle was in our ears only to a less degree than in those of our kinsmen in the mother country. War has always been abhorrent to me, and there was the additional objection to my mind in the case of the South African war in that it was altogether unjustified. Froude's chapters on South Africa had impressed me on the publication of his book "Oceana," after his visit here in the seventies. His indictment of England for her treatment of the Boers from the earliest days of her occupation of Cape Colony was too powerful to be ignored. I felt it to be impossible that so great a historian as Froude should make such grave charges on insufficient evidence. The annexation of 1877, so bitterly condemned by him, followed by the treaty of peace of 1881, with its famous "suzerainty" clause, was, I think, but a stepping stone to the war which was said to have embittered the last years of the life of Queen Victoria. The one voice raised in protest against the annexation of 1877 in the British House of Commons was that of Mr. Leonard (now Lord) Courtney. Not afraid to stand alone, though all the world were against him, the war at the close of the century found Leonard Courtney again taking his stand against the majority of his countrymen, and this time it cost him his Parliamentary seat. I have often felt proud that the leadership of proportional representation in England should have fallen into the hands of so morally courageous a man as Leonard Courtney has invariably proved himself to be.

We are apt to pride ourselves on the advance we have made in our civilization; but our self-glorification received a rude shock at the feelings of intolerance and race hatred that the war brought forth. Freedom of speech became the monopoly of those who supported the war, and the person who dared to express an opinion which differed from that of the majority needed a great deal more than the ordinary allowance of moral courage. Unfortunately the intolerance so characteristic of that period is a feature, to a greater or lesser extent, of every Parliamentary election in the Commonwealth. The clause in the Federal Electoral Act which makes disturbance of a political meeting a penal offence is a curious reflection on a so-called democratic community. But, though its justification can scarcely be denied even by the partisans of the noisier elements in a political crowd, its existence must be deplored by every right-minded and truehearted citizen. In Miss Rose Scott I found a sympathizer on this question of the war; and one of the best speeches I ever heard her make was on Peace and Arbitration. "Mafeking Day" was celebrated while we were in Sydney, and I remember how we three--Miss Scott, Mrs. Young, and I-remained indoors the whole day, at the charming home of our hostess, on Point Piper road. The black band of death and desolation was too apparent for us to feel that we could face the almost ribald excesses of that day. I felt the war far less keenly than did my two friends; but it was bad even for me. No one called, and the only companions of our chosen solitude were the books we all loved so much, and
The secret sympathy,
The silver link, the silken tie,
Which heart to heart and mind to mind, In body and in soul can bind.

I had hoped that the Women's National Council, a branch of which was formed in Adelaide a few years later, would have made a great deal of the question of peace and arbitration, just as other branches have done all over the world; and when the Peace Society was inaugurated a short time ago I was glad to be able to express my sympathy with the movement by becoming a member. As I was returning from a lecturing tour in the south during this time, an old Scotch farm-wife came into the carriage where I had been knitting in solitude. She was a woman of strong feelings, and was bitterly opposed to the war. We chatted on the subject for a time, getting along famously, until she discovered that I was Miss Spence. "But you are a Unitarian!" she protested in a shocked tone. I admitted the fact. "Oh, Miss Spence," she went on, "how can you be so wicked as to deny the divinity of Christ?" I explained to her what Unitarianism was, but she held dubiously aloof for a time. Then we talked of other things. She told me of many family affairs, and when she left me at the station she said, "All, well, Miss Spence, I've learned something this morning, and that is that a Unitarian can be just as good and honest as other folk."