Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 22, 2019

(Further thoughts) Ever Yours, C. H. Spence (2005), edited by Susan Magarey, with Barbara Wall, Mary Lyons and Maryan Beams

As expected, I’m late for Bill’s 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 Spence!

Born in Scotland in 1825, Catherine Helen Spence became one of Australia’s most prominent women activists.  On her 80th birthday, the Chief Justice of South Australia Sir Samuel Way, offered this tribute:

The most distinguished women they had in Australia… There was no one in the whole Commonwealth, whose career covered so wide a ground.  She was a novelist, a critic, an accomplished journalist, a preacher, a lecturer, a philanthropist, and a social and moral reformer.  (Introduction, p.11).

Wikipedia goes further and calls her a leading suffragist, and Georgist, which (Wikipedia tells me)

is an economic philosophy holding that, while people should own the value they produce themselves, economic value derived from land (often including natural resources and natural opportunities) should belong equally to all members of society.

In 1897 when she was 72, Spence took advantage of the ground-breaking female suffrage opportunities in South Australia and became Australia’s first female political candidate after standing for the Federal Convention held in Adelaide.  (Read my review of Denise George’s biography of Mary Lee, SA’s indefatigable suffragist to find out how suffrage was achieved, and ditto for Clare Wright’s You Daughters of Freedom to learn about other heroes of the suffrage movement).

However, Spence was a late convert to the suffrage cause. In Chapter 9 of her autobiography, ‘Meeting with J.S. Mill and George Eliot’, she is dismissive about female suffrage as a priority and #ouch! arrogant about her own claim to vote compared with her ignorant, apathetic sisters:

I had also seen the dedication to Harriet Mill’s beloved memory of the noble book on Liberty. Of her own individual work there was only one specimen extant — an article on the ‘Enfranchisement of women’ included in Mill’s collected essays — very good, certainly, but not so overpoweringly excellent as I expected.  Of course, it was an early advocacy of the rights of women, or rather a revival of Mary Wollstonecraft’s grand vindication of the rights of the sex, and this was a reform which Mill himself took up more warmly than proportional representation, and advocated for years before Mr Hare’s revelation. [LH: See here for an explanation of the Hare-Clark system of voting which was the electoral reform which preoccupied Spence].  For myself, I considered electoral reform on the Hare system of more value than the enfranchisement of women, and was not eager for the doubling of the electors in number, especially as the new voters would probably be more ignorant and more apathetic than the old.  I was accounted a weak-kneed sister by those who worked primarily for woman suffrage, although I was as much convinced as they were that I was entitled to a vote, and hoped that I might be able to exercise it before I was too feeble to hobble to the poll.  (p.89)

‘Weak-kneed’?  I can think of other epithets!

She goes on to say that she was more effective in her Hare-Clark campaign because she was disinterested: she was working for equity on behalf of the men who would represent her, not for herself.

I have no axe to grind — no political party to serve; so that it was not until the movement for the enfranchisement of women grew too strong to be neglected that I took hold of it at all; and I do not claim any credit for its success in South Australia and the Commonwealth, further than this — that by my writings and my spoken addresses I showed that one woman had a steady grasp on politics and on sociology. (p. 89)

It must have been exasperating to Mary Lee and the other women working for female suffrage that this formidable woman was not disposed to lend a hand!

However, since the women’s suffrage movement got by all right without Spence, perhaps this can be forgiven when we read about her support for Caroline Emily Clark and her innovative reforms in the care of orphaned children.  South Australia abandoned the institutionalisation of orphans in favour of placing children in homes with families, and the other states soon followed suit.

The innovation which at first was scouted as utopian, next suspected as leading to neglect, or even unkindness — for people would only take these children for what they could make out of them — was found to be so beneficial that nobody in Australia would like to return to the barrack home or the barrack school.  If the inspection [of the foster homes] had been from the first merely official, public opinion would have been suspicious and sceptical, but when [philanthropical, volunteer] ladies saw the children in these homes, and watched how the dull faces brightened, and the languid limbs became alert after a few weeks of ordinary life — when the cheeks became rosier, and the eyes had new light in them; when they saw that the foster parents took pride in their progress at school, and made them handy about the house, as they could never be at an institution, where everything is done at the sound of a bell or the stroke of a clock — these ladies testified to what they knew, and the public believed them.  In other English-speaking countries boarding out to families is sometimes permitted; but here, under the Southern Cross, it is the law of the land that children should not be brought up in institutions, but in homes; that the child whose parent is the State shall have as good schooling as the child who has parents and guardians; that every child shall have, not the discipline of routine and redtape, but [the] free and cheerful environment of ordinary life, preferably in the country. (p.102-3)

If only Spence had turned her eye to the plight of Indigenous children in the missions!

I have to admit that the readability of the last eight chapters of this autobiography suffers from its hybrid origins.  Catherine Spence died with the autobiography unfinished, and these remaining chapters were written by Spence’s literary executor Jeanne Forster Young who completed it after Spence’s death.  As editor Susan Magarey says in the introduction, the decision to complete the autobiography as a first person narration was a collaborative decision by Eleanor Wren (Spence’s niece), long-term friend and fellow-activist Jeanne Young and editor William Sowden.  But far from ‘avoiding a break in the story’, these last chapters based on Spence’s diary and notes are stodgy and dull.  (Except maybe for scholars).

The Introduction to the diary of 1894 tells a story in itself.  Spence kept a diary throughout her life, but instead of being deposited in an archive as they should have been, these diaries have disappeared.  And the one remaining diary is being hoarded by someone who wishes to remain anonymous. One can perhaps be grateful that this hoarder allowed Susan Magarey to borrow it for a week and make notes.  (I would have been tempted to get one of those tiny cameras that spies use!) [Update: see my PS below].  Because although much of this diary is of interest mainly for scholars, it also reveals a side of Spence that doesn’t come through in the autobiography that she wrote for public consumption and with some view towards legacy-building.  In her diary, Spence writes about the stinginess of a publisher but having to accept his offer anyway.  When she’s travelling, just like the rest of us, she has to think about getting the washing done.  She collects gloves she has ordered and buys ribbon for her slippers.  She berates herself for being lazy when she is horribly seasick.  She wishes her cough would go away.  And she’s 69 and still travelling the world and working like a woman half her age!!

The Introduction to the letters concedes that they deserve a study of their own.  There are aspects of life, not just Spence’s but Alice Henry’s and Rose Scott’s as well, that are known only from these letters.  What they show to me is that we stand to lose a lot in the present age of ephemeral digital texts: email and SMS.  I have written three ‘letters’ today: two chatty missives to friends by email, and one on paper in an envelope that The Spouse is posting for me right now to a recalcitrant government that persists in locking up its authors who dare to criticise it.  Only the last letter may survive.  The recipient may shred it, of course, but they can’t shred the copy that has gone to Melbourne PEN or the one stored in my computer either.  And I have taken the opportunity to remind the recipient about a previous letter, about the same unfortunate writer, that I sent in 2017.  So even if they shredded that one, they know that I have a copy of it.

Diaries, letters… what will our current era bequeath to the future, I wonder…

Ever Yours, C. H. Spence: Catherine Helen Spence’s An Autobiography (1825-1910), Diary (1894) and Some Correspondence (1894-1910) is a generous book at 392 pages (16x24cm in size).  It comprises an Introduction to Spence’s autobiography – unfinished at her death but completed (not without some controversy) by her literary executor Jeanne Forster Young; Spence’s only extant diary from 1894 (with an introduction) and (also with an introduction) letters from Spence to Alice Henry and Rose Scott.  There is a family tree in the Appendices, notes about sources, and an index.

Click here for a review by a proper historian (Janine, at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip),

*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.

PPS (Ten minutes later): Apropos the ‘hoarder’ I refer to above, Janine in her review at The Resident Judge says:

However, in a letter to the editor of the Australian Book Review in December 2010, following a review of Unbridling the Tongues of Women, Magarey indicated that the State Library of South Australia had been more persuasive than she herself had been, and that the diary was donated to the library and is now transcribed and annotated by Barbara Wall on the Wakefield Press website.

Author: Catherine Helen Spence
Title: Ever Yours, C.H. Spence,  An Autobiography  (1825-910), 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)


  1. Thanks for thinking of me and of course Spence was active right through the 1890s, but she is such a stalwart of Gen 1 that I am happy to leave her there and have linked your reviews alongside the existing entry for The RJ.

    I was completely unaware that Spence was late to the suffragist party so thanks for that too.


    • I knew she wasn’t ‘on board’ but I was still taken aback by her own summation of the movement. Especially since I’d read the bio of Mary Lee (SA’s most prominent suffragist) where I became uncomfortably aware of the snobbery against her because she was working class Irish.


  2. Though there’s no doubt she was doing good work prior, it seems reading between the lines that she might have feared not been taken as seriously should she join in with the suffragettes, having had a chance to be respected outside of that association, cowardly and self-serving on the one hand, and a survival tactic perhaps on the other. Once she knew the movement would succeed, fortunately she got on board!


    • I don’t know, I find it baffling because she was such a feminist in other ways. Her story Mr Hogarth’s Will (a very readable novel) is the most powerful indictment of the structural reasons for the barriers to women’s employment and financial independence I’ve ever read.
      We have to bear in mind that the militant UK suffragettes who were violent and abrasive and thus earned a reputation that did votes for women no good at all, are the ones that history tends to remember. The movement in Australia (which was successful unlike the UK one) was run by respectable Australian suffragists who were strategic, non-violent and logical in their activities. So for Spence in Australia, it wouldn’t have been a case of not wanting to be associated with women like Pankhurst & Co. IMO it looks like she was obsessed with her Hare-Clark hobbyhorse, was a bit blinkered about the women’s vote, and also (I hate to say it) a bit contemptuous about other women.
      (BTW Suffragists are people who advocate votes for women. Both men and women are, and have been suffragists. The Suffragettes were a specific group of (mostly) women defined by their membership of certain suffrage organisations at a certain time in British history. (p.xi, You Daughters of Freedom by Clare Wright)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. […] (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 linked […]


  4. […] reminds me of the way some of the papers of Catherine Helen Spence vanished, because among them there were details that offended her literary executor.  I myself am […]


  5. […] (Further thoughts) Ever Yours, C. H. Spence, edited by Susan Magarey, with Barbara Wall, Mary Lyons … […]


  6. […] Resident Judge)CHS, Mr Hogarth’s Will (ANZLL)S.Magery ed., Ever Yours, C.H. Spence (ANZLL) (ANZLL) (the Resident […]


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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: