Sisters, Ada Cambridge


I have written before that I began “following” early Australian women’s fiction around 1990 when my local library (Nunawading, now Whitehorse, Vic) began carrying, and not just carrying but set up a separate display for, the titles then being revived almost singlehandedly by the efforts of Dale Spender, and I discovered some wonderful works in the tradition of Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell, say, but with a distinctly Australian twist.

The one that sticks in my goldfish mind concerned a woman down from the Riverina, living on the edge of the Melbourne CBD, walking up to the Royal Exhibition Building for afternoon teas during the  Melbourne International Exhibition, 1880. I’m sure this was an Ada Cambridge but sadly am yet to come across it again, though the Exhibition also features in The Three Miss Kings.

Ada Cambridge wrote around 25 novels over quite a long period, 1865-1914, while at the same time carrying out the duties of mother, and wife of a country C of E vicar in rural Victoria. Sisters (1904) is one of her later works, written in the vicarage of her husband’s last posting, Williamstown which was the original port for the settlement of Melbourne. I have no reason to imagine her marriage was unhappy – Lisa/ANZLitLovers has a comprehensive review of her autobiography (here) – but her theme in this book is that marriage is a decidedly dodgy business, for women anyway.

The story begins – and I had two or three goes at reading the first chapter before giving up and starting at the second – with a wedding and a funeral:

Guthrie Carey began life young. He was not a week over twenty-one when, between two voyages, he married Lily Harrison, simply because she was a poor, pretty, homeless little girl … a lady-help in hard situations, and never had a holiday.

A few weeks of wedded bliss, Carey’s off, returning twelve months later to find himself a father. He sets up a little cottage in Williamstown, collects his young wife from Sandridge (Port Melbourne), 15 minutes across the bay and the mouth of the Yarra (3.8 km. I know because I swam it in a race once. The jellyfish were horrendous and we were greeted with methylated spirits and showers to ease the stings). The wind comes up, the cutter is overturned, the little wife is lost, and the baby saved.

The baby is farmed out, Carey, first mate on a ship trading up the coast and to England, returns to sea. So far, no sisters. He meets a squatter’s son, Jim, in Melbourne and is invited to stay on Jim’s father’s property in the Western District. On a neighbouring station, Redford, are the Pennycuiks, who regard themselves as upper class. This seems to be not so much to do with Victoria’s budding squattocracy as with their antecedents in England, where as it happens, The Pennycuiks of Redford in _____shire were neighbours with the Careys at Wellwood of whom Guthrie was a poor relation.

Carey is worried that the woman caring for the baby is trying to lure him into marriage; he discusses this with Jim’s sister who agrees to take over the baby. In order to lure him into marriage. He escapes on a visit to Redford, where we at last meet the sisters, aged from mid twenties down to teens: Mary, red-faced, plain, competent; Deb, drop-dead gorgeous and very conscious of her status; Rose, your standard middle child; and Frances, still in the school room but about to bloom into a beauty to rival Deb.

Carey falls in love with Deb. Along with Jim, Deb’s godfather Thornycroft, and the dashing, supercilious Claud Dalziell. Carey of course agrees that his baby should be brought up on Redford, where it is greatly doted on but eventually dies of typhoid while the father is at sea.

This is a complicated story and not Cambridge’s best, though Brona (here) enjoyed it greatly. I’ll summarize it quickly.

Mary, who has never had a suitor, sympathizes with Carey about the death of his baby, he kisses her, heads off for foreign parts, is eventually believed to be dead, and Mary lets it be understood that they had “an arrangement”.

Carey returns, is reviled, Mary is forced to admit the truth, throws herself in the dam, is rescued by the local vicar, Goldsworthy, who is both grasping and a little declassé, and who takes this opportunity to become heir to part of the Pennycuik estate by marrying her himself. We are meant to understand that this means for Mary a life of unremitting misery.

Deb is engaged to the playboy Dalziell.

Mr Pennycuik dies, is found to be heavily in debt, the estate is sold to Thornycroft. The three remaining girls take a house in suburban Melbourne. Dalziell, not happy anyway about having Goldsworthy as brother in law causes Deb to break the engagement.

Rose thwarts her sisters to marry Peter, the boy next door (in Melbourne) who is the son of a wealthy draper. In trade! Deb and Frances will have nothing to do with her. You get the impression that the author is as astonished as the sisters that Rose goes on to live a loving, happy and productive life, despite sometimes wearing silk in the morning.

Frances, eighteen and no longer invited to parties, inveigles their rich elderly landlord into marrying her and heads for Europe. She briefly reappears, the subject of rumours concerning Guthrie Carey – who too has mostly disappeared from the story – not confirmed till many chapters later when her husband dies and Carey refuses to marry her because she is demonstrably a loose woman.

Thornycroft dies and leaves his fortune to his god-daughter who after years of poverty is now a millionairess. She too heads for Europe where she and Dalziell, though careful to avoid each other, move and grow middle-aged in the same wealthy, titled circles. Frances, who has married an Italian count, is beneath their notice.

There’s other stuff, nearly all of it based on snobbery about which I am terribly disappointed. Carey ends up squire of Wellwood. Mary’s husband dies and she is happy for the first time in her life. Deb comes home to Redford married at last. Jim ends the book still a bachelor, and now Deb’s farm manager, out in the garden in the night looking in the window at Deb playing the piano for her husband.


Ada Cambridge, Sisters, first pub. 1904, Penguin Australian Women’s Library, Melbourne, 1989. Introduction by Nancy Cato. Cover painting: Self Portrait, Dora Serle, 1900.

see also:
Australian Women Writers, Gen 1 Page (here)

23 thoughts on “Sisters, Ada Cambridge

  1. I’m surprised that people farm out their children. On Netflix there is a show called Anne With An E, which is a much more realistic and dark telling of Anne of Green Gables. Some of it is completely made up and not in the book, including a part during which Anne returns to the orphanage where she was raised to see if there are records of her dead parents. While there, a man drops of his two children, saying his wife is died so CLEARLY he can’t care for them (were men so incapable in the late 1800s??). The woman who runs the orphanage asks if she should get his info for later or if she should tell the children he died. He says “died” and off he goes. So of course, Anne thinks maybe her parents dumped her off and faked their deaths on the records.


    • I think it was relatively common that a single father would find a foster mother for his kids – usually rellos of course. Guthrie Carey in this book was a sailor and his own rellos were in England so he didn’t have much choice. There is a well known Australian story, memoir really, Caddie, from the 1930s – she put her children in a Catholic orphanage so she could work and the rules were she could only visit them one hour a week. Milly and all her sisters were in a ‘home’ for a while when her mother couldn’t cope, and I had an old friend, my parent’s age, who was put into Fairbridge – a well know orphanage/farm in WA – when his mother went into a mental home, until he could be sent off to be a farm labourer.


      • I’ve heard people talk about how people, especially millennials, are so stressed, and why are they so stressed, and why is it everyone has to have anxiety and depression now. Your example reiterates the point that people have always struggled with mental health issues, but the way we dealt with them has changed. I’m so sorry to hear that Milly was in in a home for a time. I hope her experience was at least not completely horrible.


      • It wasn’t too long and all the girls were kept together except for the youngest, who was a baby, which made them anxious. Hopefully we deal better with poor mental health these days, there seems to be a lot of it around.


    • I hope you keep an eye out for Ada Cambridge in second hand shops. Those C19th Australian women were republished around 1990 by Penguin, Virago, Pandora and Sirius, so you still see them around. In fact the Penguin Australian Women’s Library should be right up your alley.


  2. Great to see a review of this Bill. I read it back in 1989/1990 – the edition you have here. I wrote a Monday Musings on her back in 2011. She is, for me, one of the shining lights of turn of the century women writers. and is interesting because despite her seemingly conservative life as the wife of a minister she was so clear-eye AND vocal about women’s lives! Perhaps as the wife of a minister, particularly if he was a caring/pastoral one, she saw a lot that informed her ideas about women and the constraints they faced.


    • Cambridge is clearly in the ranks of Australian women writers who expressed their concern about the unfairness of marriage for women, a tradition which despite all the evidence still doesn’t get much support beyond us readers, and there are hints that she was a bit of free thinker too. Presumably she wrote as AC (in newspapers, I wonder if that applied to her books too) to spare her husband’s blushes.


  3. I’m a bit disappointed by this one… as you noted (thank you) I’ve read her Thirty Years in Australia, and she is an author whose novels I intend to read in due course. Perhaps The Three Miss Kings is better than this one.


  4. I enjoyed The Three Miss Kings. I love these stories with many implausible twists and turns but I like them anyway, thanks to a heavy dose of suspension of belief.

    PS : I didn’t know about the use of declassé in English and I’m not sure I understood the concept of “squattocracy”


    • Declasse (no acute on my phone) I used as aspiring to (upper) class but falling short – interesting given that she was an Anglican clergyman’s wife.

      Original landholdings outside Sydney and Melbourne were enormous- of the order of 100,000 acres of lush country – and the landholders became our de facto aristocracy- the squattocracy – with posh accents and all and of course their sons at the two or three ‘best’ schools then Oxford or Cambridge


  5. Reading your review, I find myself considering Sisters as a soap opera. In many ways, I can see from the synopsis how this relates to Austen’s writing style!

    I’m sorry you were overall disappointed. But it sounds like you’re still on a quest to find this potentially Cambridge novel that’s sticking in your mind. Is there a process to your quest, or are you just hoping to find this book as you continue to read Cambridge’s work?


    • Firstly, thankyou Jackie for joining in. Our perspectives, from the Mid-West and from outback Australia will sometimes be very different (and sometimes might coincide – cowboys!) I’m sure you are aware that my work as a long distance truck driver means both my posts and my replies to comments are sometimes a bit tardy.

      If I were serious in my ‘quest’, many of Cambridge’s books are available free as ebooks, but I’m sure I’ll come across it one day in the normal course of my reading. And yes, definitely a soap opera.

      Liked by 1 person

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