Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 12, 2013

Ginger for Pluck, The Life and Times of Miss Georgina King (2013), by Jennifer M T Carter and Roger Cross

Ginger for PluckThe contrast between the Australian Dictionary of Biography’s portrait of Georgina King (1845-1932) and this new biography is stark. The ADB’s snapshot is dismissive in tone whereas Carter and Cross’s book makes the claim that Georgina King was a ‘talented amateur excluded by the professionals’, and that her exclusion was made all the more easy because of her gender.  Unfortunately, in trying to make this case, there is a great deal of detail to wade through in this book, and in some aspects the objectivity of the authors is open to question.  This makes it very difficult to come to any conclusion about what really happened.

Unlike most women of her generation, Georgina King never married – but in her case it was a choice which arose from her intellectual interests.  She had a strong interest in science from an early age and was encouraged in this by her father Parson George King.  He was a difficult character, apparently, and when Georgina as a little girl took to exploring the iron foundry at the bottom of the garden of their home in Sydney, he egged her on partly to annoy his wife who frowned on this sort of behaviour.  Nevertheless, he was instrumental in laying the groundwork for her later endeavours:

Iron became an obsession with the tiny Miss King.
The men at work used to tell me all about what they were doing, and they were so good to me, and showed me how they cast iron in moulds, and how it came out so easily, as iron contracted in cooling, and the furnace fascinated me, and I used to go as often as I could to watch the men.
So wrote Georgina in her memoirs seven decades later, recalling the child who did indeed teach herself to read ‘in order to find out about such things’.  Her father dubbed her ‘his little philosopher’, sensing already her burgeoning love of the natural world; sympathising with his daughter’s thirst for knowledge, and encouraging her by bringing her precociousness to the attention of his scientific friends in Sydney. (p. 12)

The Sydney colony had by then outgrown its convict beginnings and cultural institutions were emerging: as in Great Britain there were all kinds of societies for the advancement of knowledge and philosophy, the University of Sydney had been founded, and museums collected specimens of all kinds (though often these were sent to Britain, and there are still some specimens whose ownership remains contested).  Unfortunately for Georgina her interest in science coincided with the transition from science as a pursuit for gentlemen amateurs to a professional occupation, and in the battle for territory, women were excluded because they were not allowed to attend universities or join any of the societies.  While there were backdoor ways and means for women to learn, study and explore in much the same way as gentlemen amateurs, they could not participate in scholarly discussions nor could they publish.

In her memoirs and her self-published pamphlets, Georgina repeated her claim that when she sent her papers to be read at the Royal Society of NSW, her ideas were appropriated.   This is the crux of the argument: there is no question that Georgina King was discriminated against, all women were in that period.  (See my review of Seduced by Logic by Arianhrod for other examples).   But were her ideas stolen?

To establish this case, the authors need to do more than quote Georgina King’s claims, which were not believed in her lifetime.  Now, I’m not an historian, but it seems to me that the inquiry ought to include first of all, an interrogation of the claim that her ideas were unique.  Was it possible that others came to the same conclusions as her, independently of anything she might have written?  Secondly, Georgina King’s own veracity needs to be interrogated as well.  To do this, they need to do more than mount a snobbish attack on the wife of Georgina’s purported thief.

As you can tell from this interview with Roger Cross at Radio Australia, the authors feel passionately about the case they are making, but at times, their objectivity is open to question.   This is most obvious in their treatment of Georgina’s rival: David Edgeworth’s wife Caroline Martha David.   In the chapter caustically titled ‘Mrs Professor David’s Husband and his Wife’ they label her ‘common‘:

The two women who were to become such deadly adversaries were equally strong-minded.  Both were set on receiving their own particular form of recognition in the narrow little world of middle-class Sydney.  On the face of it, Miss King had a definite edge – never mind her obsessions and her single state, hers was a well-established family and her place in society assured.  She was a born lady with a common touch, whereas Mrs David was, quite simply, common.

To discredit Georgina’s rival Carter and Cross point out the class differences between Mrs David and her husband, and then go on to provide the salacious details of Caroline David’s antecedents:

The seaside town of Southwold boasted a sizeable herring fleet of longshore boats, and it was among its fisher cots that Pamela Mallett nee Wright delivered her daughter Caroline on 26 April 1856.  Pamela, who had married ‘beneath her’ proceeded to have four children, the last born after her husband Samuel’s death.  The widow then took up with a man known only as ‘Skinner’ and produced another two children out of wedlock, adding a whiff of scandal to the stink of rotting fish. By this time Pamela’s family, who were of the respectable lower middle class, had cut her off.  …. Understandably, Caroline David was never expansive about her mother and childhood.  She did ensure, though, that her husband’s rather more patrician background became common knowledge. (p. 138)

Whether or not this Caroline David colluded in the theft of Georgina King’s intellectual property, and whether or not she ‘pushed her husband into professional and social prominence’ (p141) she was, by the authors’ own telling of it, a remarkable woman in her own right.   She may have been the daughter of a fishwife, but she was able to transcend that upbringing, by entering London’s Whitelands College for teachers in 1875, where she collected a swag of prizes in French, drawing and school management, and was ‘one of the most gifted and industrious students of her year.’  Before long she was head governess at Whitelands, and she emigrated to Australia to become lady principal of Hurlstone Training College in Sydney.  It seems unlikely that she would have gained entry to the profession and gained these positions had she not been a respectable young woman.

As I’ve said, I’m no historian, but my antenna twitch when I read things like

‘Tall, slim, warm-hearted and dark eyed’, perhaps she was too favoured and began to push her luck.  Australia was a handy destination for those likely to prove an embarrassment to families and employers alike. (p.14o).

And when she left for Sydney …

… perhaps that charismatic cleric, the Reverend J.P. Faunthorpe, gave thanks to his Maker and breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief. (p.140)

What are the authors hinting at? Are they suggesting she had been indiscreet – had she been chasing him?  Do they think she was pregnant?  Had she pinched the communion plate?

On the next page, they don’t make a very convincing case for family disapproval of a wife ‘deficient in pedigree and likely to be termed a predatory ‘adventuress’.   Even with the author’s own gloss on it, this excerpt from David’s father letter doesn’t suggest to me that the families were yet to be placated:

‘The details you have so ingenuously given us of the process of your falling in love with each other were very interesting and amusing … from the description you have given of her principles and merits I think you most fortunate to have gained her affections, though my fondness and admiration of you is such that I don’t think anyone can be too good for you’.

Or did he mean good enough?  (p. 141)

I would have thought that a paterfamilias yet to be placated would have expressed his dismay in no uncertain terms, not needing Carter and Cross to put words into his mouth…

The best parts of this book are the stories about Georgina King’s childhood, and the coverage of Sydney’s emerging scientific establishments.   There are extensive references and an index, and B&W photographs which give life to the personalities described in the book.  There is a great deal of information about the development of Georgina’s ideas and the help that she received from supporters but the style of writing meanders a bit, and it’s not easy to follow.  Also, off-hand digs at unspecified others tend to detract from what needed to be an objective case:

The Royal Society of new South Wales in the 1890s was home to the time-honoured tradition that still exists in Academe today – one by which a dominant clique ensure that who know their place put down those who do not. (p. 83)

Ginger for Pluck seems not to have been widely reviewed but you can find another opinion at SA History.  I suspect that it’s likely to be of more interest to historians than to the general reader.

Authors: Jennifer M T Carter and Roger Cross
Title: Ginger for Pluck, The Life and Times of Miss Georgina King
Publisher: Wakefield, 2013
ISBN: 9781743051719
Source: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.

Fishpond: Ginger for Pluck: The Life and Times of Miss Georgina King
Or direct from Wakefield.

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