Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 15, 2018

Mr Hogarth’s Will (1865), by Catherine Helen Spence

Over at The Australian Legend, Bill is hosting a week (15-21 January) dedicated to the first generation of Australian women writers which he defines as those writers who came before the 1890s and the Sydney Bulletin ‘Bush Realism’ school, although many of them continued writing into the first part of the 20th century, though as he notes, most Australian writing before 1850 consists of letters and journals and novels only began to be published after that. What to read for this ‘week’ was an easy choice for me, because I’ve had Mr Hogarth’s Will (1865) on my TBR since Sue at Whispering Gums recommended it to me, and it has turned out to be utterly absorbing reading.

Catherine Helen Spence by Maude Gordon c 1900 (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910) migrated to Australia in 1839 aged 14, in the wake of her father’s financial difficulties, and as Dale Spender notes in the introduction, Australia turned out to be the right place for the restoration of the family’s fortunes.  As Luke Slattery showed in his novel Mrs M, Australia’s egalitarian ethos in the colony enabled social mobility even during the convict years whereas enduring class consciousness and snobbery about family ancestry in British society solidified divisions which could not be transcended.  There was no way ‘up’ but there were plenty of ways ‘down’, the most obvious of which was financial embarrassment (as we see in the novels of Dickens).

But as Mr Hogarth’s Will shows with striking clarity, there were structural reasons for a decline in family fortunes.  Inheritance law and custom meant that amongst the propertied classes, an eldest son inherited almost everything, while second and successive sons went into the military or the cloth or failing that, disappeared into some sort of administrative role in the far away colonies.  Going into business was not gentlemanly.  It was not done.  And the absence of all these eligible young men in faraway places meant that there were numerous young women educated for the prospect of marriage but with little chance of achieving it. For them, if an inheritance annuity was not forthcoming, the only employment option was to be a governess.

Which is what happens to Jane and Alice (Elsie) Melville in Mr Hogarth’s Will.  The eccentric Hogarth, despite the remonstrances of his lawyer, made a Will which effectively disinherited them so that they would not be courted for their fortune, and left his estate to a formerly unacknowledged illegitimate son called Francis.  It was Mr Hogarth’s intention that the young ladies should be independent and work for their living, but he has not had them educated with what was essential to become governesses to other young ladies.  These subjects were called The Accomplishments’ (playing piano, singing, drawing, painting, needlework, French &c); he has had them taught the ‘mannish’ subjects of Latin and Greek, mathematics, agricultural chemistry and mineralogy.  Admirably educated for teaching boys, or for book-keeping, accountancy or other administrative work, Jane searches for work everywhere but the doors to employment are closed because of her gender.  Alice, meanwhile, is that staple ‘delicate’ young woman of 19th century literature.  Sweet, pretty and fragile, she feels the loss of their middle-class expectations more keenly than the plain and practical Jane, i.e. Alice weeps a lot and goes into a decline.  Alice has grown up having allowances made for her ‘delicacy’, so in their present change of circumstances all that is expected of her is that she should try to do something not too taxing such as needlework or writing sentimental poems.  Stoic Jane shoulders this burden willingly but things seem all the harder for her because she is confronted with the reality while sheltering Alice from it.

Former friends, neighbours and a potential suitor pity and patronise Jane and Alice, but no one offers them any help. Things come to such a pass that the only accommodation they can afford is in a working-class district of Edinburgh with a returned colonial called Peggy who is supporting a brood of orphaned nephews as a washerwoman.

Mr Hogarth’s Will, to add insult to injury, includes a clause that prevents Francis from helping Jane and Alice in any way, specifically prohibiting marriage and ensuring that the money goes to charity if any of the conditions are breached.  And as you would expect in a 19th century Cinderella novel, Francis falls in love with one of these girls that he is forbidden to marry. The other attracts the attention of a colonial called Brandon who,  anticipating the #MeToo hashtag controversy, has come to their disapproving attention via Peggy’s story of his ‘inappropriate’ behaviour back in Australia.

Mr Hogarth’s Will is not, despite its romantic entanglements and happy resolution, a soppy romance.  The plot is absorbing over the full length of the book because the girls’ problems seem insurmountable and this novel is an early example of feminist realism in an entertaining package.   Spence was on a mission to expose the structural problem of female unemployment and the poverty of single women.  In an extended dialogue between Jane and Mr Rennie at the bank, Jane tackles his refusal to give her work.  She demolishes all his reasons, notably that her presence would distract the young men from their work, that women can’t be trusted with confidential information, and that employing women reduces employment for family men supporting families.  And when he expresses sympathy for their difficult circumstances, she has a swift rebuttal because her search for work has taught her that she is just one of many others, all competing for the same poorly paid work that offers little hope of advancement or any chance of improvement in their circumstances:

… ‘You know there are enormous numbers of single women and widows in this country who must be supported, either by their own earnings or by those of the other sex, for they must live, you know.’
Mr Rennie smiled at Jane’s earnestness.
‘You smile, “on ne voit pas la necessité”*, said Jane.  “I dare say it would really be better for us to die.’
‘I am sure nothing was further from my lips than either the language or the sentiment.  I think your case especially hard – especially hard.’
‘I thought it was, till I heard of these numerous applications; and the sad thing to me is, that it is not especially hard…’ (p.39)

*”We do not see the need”.

Australian $5 note (Source: Wikipedia, this use compliant with RBA restrictions)

Along the way, Spence also pokes fun at British condescension about colonists; satirises the publishing industry and its formulaic products; and includes some (mercifully not too long) rants about politics (and her pet project, proportional representation).   These political opinions are digestible within the novel because they are delivered in dialogue by a lively cast of characters – and they have historical significance today because Spence’s career went on to include standing as the first female candidate for parliament in 1897 and being a potent activist for social, economic and electoral reform.

Australian 10c stamp (1975) (Source: Wikitree, Notable Australians)

Catherine Helen Spence was honoured on the Centenary of Federation $5 note, and she was also commemorated on a 10c stamp in 1975.  Miles Franklin named her as the  “Greatest Australian Woman” and on Spence’s 80th birthday she was named as a “Grand Old Woman of Australia’.  The Art Gallery of South Australia apparently has a posthumous portrait painted by her protégé Margaret Preston (known at that time as Rose McPherson), but all my attempts to find it using their collection search function have failed.  But if Wikitree: Notable Australians is correct, and the Preston painting was used as the source for the stamp image, it makes her look like a sour old woman compared to the painting by Maude Gordon, which portrays her a lively personality with twinkling eyes and an amused smile. Which is much more in keeping with the witty style and clever humour of Mr Hogarth’s Will.

Thanks for the recommendation, Sue!

Update 17/1/18 Thanks to Katherine Burton at the NLA who did a search of this series for me, I can now tell you  the following titles were published as part of the Penguin Australian Women’s Library:

  • The Peaceful Army edited by Flora Eldershaw (1988)
  • Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Helen Spence (1988)
  • The Fortunes of Mary Fortune by Mary Fortune (1989)
  • Kirkham’s Find by Mary Gaunt (1988),
  • The Letters of Rachel Henning (1988)
  • Mo Burdekin by Sarah Campion (1990)
  • Sisters by Ada Cambridge (1989)
  • Jungfrau by Dymphna Cusack (1989)
  • The Penguin Anthology of Australian Women’s Writing (1988)

The rest of the titles are about women’s writing but not, as far as I can tell, actually reissues of titles or collected works from the period.  A bit of a lost opportunity IMO.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Catherine Helen Spence
Title: Mr Hogarth’s Will (first published in Australia as Uphill Work but Mr Hogarth’s Will in Britain)
Introduction by Dale Spender
Publisher: Penguin Australian Women’s Library, Penguin Australia, 1988, first published 1865 serialised as Uphill Work in the (Adelaide) Weekly Mail.
ISBN: 9780140112337, 439 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Diversity Books, $6.00

Don’t even think about buying it new: all I could find at Fishpond or The Book Depository were very expensive ‘heritage series’ or scholarly editions.  But Fishpond does sometimes have second-hand copies: if you search for it there, scroll down the results until (if you are lucky) you see one tagged New and Used… on the day I looked there had been one at $16.99.  Other places to look for second-hand copies are Brotherhood Books and Diversity Books and also AbeBooks.  But do be careful: Mr Hogarth’s Will was originally published in three separate volumes, and the listings don’t always make it clear whether you are getting the whole book or not.

If you can bear it, you can read Mr Hogarth’s Will as a pdf courtesy of Sydney University.  But don’t print it out, the novel is 439 pages long!

Or try your library…


  1. Thanks for this great review Lisa … so many wonderful older Aussie writers to discover. I must say though that I haven’t actually read this one! But I have listed her a couple of times among early Aussie writers a couple of times.

    BTW People can download (send) this book to a Kindle or Kindle app (or other eBook reader) via Project Gutenberg (Here is the link: The e-versions of these novels aren’t pretty but they work if that’s all you can get. I agree otherwise that second bookshops and libraries are the way to go.


    • Thanks for the link, Sue:) I think what people might miss is Dale Spender’s introduction…it’s very feminist focussed, at the expense of other aspects of the book IMO, but it’s still worth reading.
      I wonder if Text Classics could do a re-issue, or if Penguin’s copyright would prevent it?


      • Oh yes, it’s always good to get the introductions if you can. If Project Gutenberg can publish it free that means, I believe, that Text could publish it as PG only publishes texts that are in public domain. (They have to use a public domain version of the book to do it, but providing public domain versions exist, they can do it and that means so can others?) It would be great to see them bring out these really old classics I think!


  2. Another woman whose accomplishments are mostly ignored and so pleased that there are those who like yourself give the time to promote her achievements which are so relevant to our contemporary world. Sisters still have a long long way to go.


    • Well, thank you, Fay, but really it’s Bill you should thank because it’s down to him that I actually got the book off the shelf and read it!


  3. Reblogged this on theaustralianlegend and commented:
    Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week 15-21 Jan. 2018

    Catherine Helen Spence is both the mother of the Australian novel and the mother of Australian Suffragism. I’m really glad that Lisa Hill chose Spence’s Mr Hogarth’s Will to review for this week, especially as I have been dilatory in reading and reviewing Spence myself. Thank you Lisa.


    • Well… that (reposting) gave me less control than I hoped. Still, I’m very glad to have it. Spence really wrote and lived ‘the Independent Woman’.


  4. It”s free for the Kindle on Amazon US. Tx for the review. Reminds me a bit of The Romance of a Shop: Amy Levy


    • Excellent news! I looked up The Romance of a Shop at Goodreads: it sounds interesting too…


      • It fails a bit in the end but then given the times, perhaps not too surprising.


  5. Great review and a book I’d like to read.

    I got it on the kindle for free and I agree with Guy, it sounds like The Romance of a Shop.


  6. Thanks, Emma, I look forward to seeing what you think of it!


  7. […] Catherine Helen Spence, Mr Hogarth’s Will, ANZLitLovers […]


  8. […] culpable – because as Catherine Helen Spence so ably demonstrated way back in 1865 in Mr Hogarth’s Will, if there are structural reasons why women can’t support themselves, then their dependence on […]

    Liked by 1 person

  9. […] reminds me of Mr Hogarth’s Will (1865)by Catherine Helen Spence.  It’s a brilliant novel which exposed with heart-breaking […]


  10. […] Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Helen Spence […]


  11. […] of the 19th and 20th centuries tackled it in a variety of ways.  Catherine Helen Spence in Mr Hogarth’s Will wrote  about the structural reasons why middle-class women wanted to be financially independent […]


  12. Thanks for the link to this post, Lisa. As you say, it shows distinct similarities to Gissing’s Odd Women. That section with Rennie in the bank is very like Mary Barfoot’s sermon/speech to her trainee young women, ‘Woman as an invader’ – i.e. of the male workplace, and therefore stealing the employment that is rightfully theirs (in the male view). I’ll have to see if I can find a copy – I hate those mistake-ridden e-texts.


    • And you know, it’s still happening. One of our high profile TV presenters asked for pay parity with her male co-presenter, and was told that if they did that, it would cost ten men their jobs!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. […] many, many, many thanks to Lisa, for reviewing this book. I would never have read this without her and I had a wonderful reading time in Jane, Elsie and […]


  14. […] they faced in a patriarchal society.  Like Catherine Helen Spence in Mr Hogarth’s Will (see my review), Tasma is not much enamoured of […]


  15. […] took me so long to get to it. I guess, despite Lisa/ANZLL’s glowing review of Spence’s Mr Hogarth’s Will, I expected Clara Morison to be stodgy. Dear reader, I was […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: