Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 18, 2019

Ever Yours, C. H. Spence, edited by Susan Magarey, with Barbara Wall, Mary Lyons and Maryan Beams

There isn’t any way that I will have completed reading Ever Yours by Catherine Helen Spence in time for Bill’s Australian Women’s Writers Generation 2 (AWW Gen2) Week at The Australian Legend and anyway it’s been reviewed by a proper historian (Janine, at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip), so instead I’m going to risk Bill’s wrath by discussing why this book is worthwhile research reading for authors of historical fiction here in Australia. (Bill doesn’t care for historical fiction: he’d rather read texts written at the relevant time).

But those of us who enjoy historical fiction as an activist’s tool for bringing untold stories to light, (see here if you need convincing), want it to be both authentic and illuminating.   Research needs to be thorough and it needs to come from diverse sources.  This very day I was discussing the authenticity of the girls’ curriculum described in Louise Mack’s novel Teens (see the comments, here) and was pleased to learn something new about the provision of education for girls in Sydney from the 1880s onwards.  It was equally interesting to learn about the education of well-born girls in Scotland in the 1830s, from Catherine Helen Spence’s own words…

The full title of the book is Ever Yours, C. H. Spence: Catherine Helen Spence’s An Autobiography (1825-1910), Diary (1894) and Some Correspondence (1894-1910) so it fits into Bill’s definition of this period of women’s writing: 1890 to 1918. It is fascinating reading this account of Spence’s life, especially since she is looking back on it at the age of 84 from the other side of the planet.  And so it is that there are gems like this:

In 1838 my mother bought a chest of tea (84 pounds) for £20, a trifle under 5s. a pound; the retail price was 6s—it was a great saving; and up to the time of our departure [from Scotland to South Australia] brown sugar cost 7½d., and loaf sugar 10d. It is no wonder that these things were accounted luxuries.  When a decent Scotch couple in South Australia went to a station in the country in the forties and received their stores, the wife sat down at her quarter-chest of tea and gazed at her bag of sugar, and fairly wept to think of her old mother across the ocean, who had such difficulty in buying an ounce of tea and a pound of sugar.  My mother even saw an old woman buy a quarter ounce of tea and pay 1½d. for it, and another woman buy a quarter pound of meat. [That’s just over 7 grams and 110 grams, respectively.] (p.22)

The historical novelist writing about emigrants in Australia in this period would do well to remember that whatever the hardships of pioneering families, there were aspects of life in this country which would have been regarded as plenty rather than privation.  Because here we have it in Spence’s own words that even middle-class people in Scotland struggled to afford staples like tea and sugar and that settlers here in Australia were aware of that and grateful for their comparative good fortune.

Apropos our discussion about the education of girls, there is this, on the topic of servants:

You could get a washer-woman for 1s. or 1.6d. a day, but you must give her a glass of whisky as well as her food.  You could get a sewing girl for a shilling or less, without the whisky.  And yet cheap as sewing was it was the pride of middle-class women of those days that they did it themselves at home.  Half of the time of girls’ schools was given to sewing when mother was taught.  Nearly two hours a day was devoted to it in my time. (p.23)

Spence considered herself fortunate that at Miss Phin’s girls school, this sewing time was used profitably:

The school in which as a day scholar I passed nine years of my life was more literary than many which were more pretentious.  Needlework was of supreme importance, certainly, but during the hour and a half every day, Saturday’s half-holiday not excepted, which was given to it by the whole school at once (odd half-hours were also put in), the best readers took turns about to read some book selected by Miss Phin.  We were thus trained to pay attention.  History, biography, adventures, descriptions, and story books were read.  Any questions or criticism about our sewing, knitting, netting etc., were carried on in a low voice, and we learned to work well and quickly, and good reading aloud was cultivated. (p.29)

I like to think that my skill in reading aloud would have saved me some time, at least, from the drudgery of sewing!

I have so far only read the excellent introduction to Ever Yours and the first two chapters of Spence’s life covering the period before her father suffered financial ruin and her voyage to South Australia, but it is fascinating reading.  Spence’s feminism shines through in her remarks about how her mother saw the fallacy in Mr Pitt’s sinking fund when her father believed in it, and how her father’s ruin meant he did not keep his promise to let Catherine, like her brothers study in Edinburgh.  Even at 13, she wanted to be a teacher, and a great writer afterwards.  It is pleasing for today’s readers to know that she achieved her ambition to be a great writer anyway…

Highly recommended.

Author: Catherine Helen Spence
Title: Ever Yours, C.H. Spence,  An Autobiography  (1825-1910), Diary (1894) and Some Correspondence (1894-1910)
Edited by Susan Magarey, with Barbara Wall, Mary Lyons and Maryan Beams
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2005, 392 pages
ISBN: 9781862546561 (jacketed hbk, with greyscale illustrations)
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.

Available from Wakefield Press  and from Fishpond: Ever Yours, C.H. Spence: Catherine Helen Spence’s An Autobiography (1825-1910), Diary (1894) and Some Correspondence (1894-1910)


Responses

  1. Of course I agree with you … will we change young Bill’s mind one day do you think!!? I would like to read this one day.

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    • *wink* We shall need to plot carefully. We need to find exactly the right book!

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      • Haha … you’re right … that’s the solution. Put’s thinking cap on!

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  2. I almost my history lessons through fiction and the discussions it evokes. There’s something compelling about putting a very human story at the centre of it and that’s often the only way we are to witness or imagine a woman’s role in that history, the textbook style versions more loyal to the masters.

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    • I feel the same… but I think we need a new word to distinguish Histfic of the bodice-ripping kind from HistFic that is about redressing historical injustices in the way that Fred Kumalo says it can.

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      • Isn’t that what was used to be called Regency, and outside that era Historical Romance, yes, point taken, I’m referring to the well researched, semi-biographical historical fiction that’s often inspired by real people and events – that’s the kind I’m interested in reading.

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        • Yes, that’s what I mean too. I want a better word to describe it.

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  3. I like bodice rippers. And I’m proud and not at all angry to have generated discussion, so thank you for mentioning me.

    I think Mack’s school – presumably Sydney Girls High – devoted on afternoon a week to embroidery.

    I’m a fan of CH Spence and am glad you’ve started on her autobiography – generally those words are followed by ‘completed by her companion, Jeannie Lewis’ (if I have the name right).

    The reason I dislike Australian and World War historical fiction is that I think modern authors put their own spin on their stories, which then misrepresent the period.

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    • Good to see you’re taking my teasing in the spirit in which it was intended:)
      Oh embroidery, how I suffered. I can do plain sewing.. I would say that any fool can with a good machine but I have siblings who prove that otherwise. But embroidery requires a delicate touch and I was no good at it at all.
      The story of who completed the autobio is a complex one, and addressed by Magarey in the intro, but I’ll save that for another day. Let’s just say that it’s always a good idea to keep the Last Will and Testament up to date, though whether there’s any way of making a literary executor behave as expected could probably fill many years of a PhD. I am thinking of one executor in particular, but won’t name names!

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  4. […] Australian Women’s Writers Generation 2 (AWW Gen2) Week at The Australian Legend* but further to my previous thoughts, I have finally finished this wonderful collection of writings from Catherine Helen […]

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  5. […] (ANZLL) also did two posts on Catherine Helen Spence (here) (here) but as I already had entries for Spence on the AWW Gen 1 page, I took the easy option and […]

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  6. […] was regarded as a plus, not as a pejorative. There were heroes such as Catherine Helen Spence, (see my review of her autobiography;) Mary Lee (see my review of Denise George’s bio); and the South Australian public servant […]

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