Clara Morison, Catherine Helen Spence

Every time I read an excellent book off my own shelves – and it happens surprisingly often – I wonder what 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 wrong.

In my recent review of Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor I made some references to Clara Morison but a better comparison would be between Catherine Helen Spence and Elizabeth Gaskell. Mrs Gaskell (1810-1865) was English and grew up in rural Knutsford, Cheshire (see Cranford). Her faith was Unitarian and the young women in her novels are principled and concerned with the poor. Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910) was born in Scotland and came with her family to Adelaide, South Australia in 1839, when she was 14 and the new colony, famously settled without convicts, was barely begun.

Spence was brought up in the Established Church of Scotland but converted to Unitarianism around 1854. She chose not to marry and while she does not seem to choose that path for her heroines, as Miles Franklin did for instance (50 years later), one of Clara Morison’s cousins, Margaret, does seem to stand in for Spence, with her outspokenness, independence and desire for ongoing education. Interestingly, in her review of Spence’s A Week in the Future (1888) the Resident Judge connects the author’s utopian views back to George Eliot. But I haven’t read/retained enough Eliot to make the connection myself.

This, as you might have guessed, is Clara’s story, told in the third person and mostly, but not always limited to her point of view. Spence is an accomplished writer and the novel whizzes along for all its 400 pages despite a good deal of philosophy. In that sense it’s a very C19th novel and its failure to be ranked with the similar works of Brontë and Gaskell and Eliot is all to do with our (Australian) failure as readers over the past century and a half, not any inherent weakness in the novel itself.

Clara, living in Edinburgh with her father and older sister, Susan, has been educated not so much above her station as above her gender, and has served as her father’s intellectual companion while neglecting to pursue the womanly arts. When he dies, she is left destitute. Her uncle determines that he will retain Susan as governess for his children and that Clara will be sent out to South Australia with a letter of recommendation and £10 in her purse. In Chapter II which “will probably be missed for it only describes a long voyage”, she, aged about 19, sets out from Leith in the autumn of 1850.

Over the course of the novel we get to know quite well an interesting variety of characters. Clara had been born into to that upper stratum of the middle class which is educated and has an independent income. So for her, much of the novel is to do with how she manages with little or no money. Positions as a governess are much harder to find and keep than she, or her uncle expected, and at one stage and I think for more than a year, she is employed as a general servant, by a tolerant lady willing to train her up from complete incompetence.

Of course she is in love with a good man, Mr Russell, who is both patently above her present station and who in any case has a secret fiancee of his own, living with his mother, back home. This fiancee is now 26 and waiting less than patiently for Russell to make his fortune and return. Interestingly, the right age for marriage comes up a few times and it is generally held that a woman is not on the shelf until at least 25.

The other main characters, and there are probably at least a dozen, all depend on their own efforts to maintain or improve their position in society, that is, they must work for their living, and they range from well off businessmen and farmers, and their wives and children, to the lower middle class men in her boarding house who subject her to ‘witticisms’, to the plainly destitute, including an abandoned single mother. And then there are the Elliots, 2 brothers and 3 sisters, all educated, living together just above poverty. Margaret Elliot studying law alongside her brother, not with any hope of ever being able to practice, but simply for the pleasure of the intellectual accomplishment.

The other ‘stream’ of the book is mining. One of the Elliot men and the fiance of one of the sisters work in administration at ‘the Burra’, the prosperous copper mine 100 miles north of Adelaide. But the big problem for Adelaide is that the goldrushes have begun, first at the Turon (Bathurst, NSW) then in neighbouring Victoria, at Mt Alexander (Castlemaine), Bendigo and Ballarat. All the men, the Cornish miners at Burra, the working men, the professionals, the businessmen make plans to sail to Melbourne or simply to walk the intervening and largely unsettled 400 miles.

Spence paints vivid pictures of an Adelaide peopled almost entirely by women, and via letters and conversation, of Melbourne with its wide avenues and dirty, unregulated back lanes; of the goldfields; of daily life when the mail is nearly always lost, when ships can’t sail because they’ve lost their crews; of the SA Police having to provide an escort for gold back to Adelaide to prevent the complete collapse of the South Australian economy.

Spence was later a formidable player in the political sphere, and she was clearly paying attention in the early 1850s. This is an absorbing book and highly recommended.


Catherine Helen Spence, Clara Morison, first pub. 1854. My edition Seal, 1971 (not the one pictured). 408pp.

see also:
Catherine Helen Spence (ADB)
CHS, A Week in the Future (my review) (the Resident Judge)
CHS, Mr Hogarth’s Will (ANZLL)
S.Magery ed., Ever Yours, C.H. Spence (ANZLL) (ANZLL) (the Resident Judge)


28 thoughts on “Clara Morison, Catherine Helen Spence

  1. I’ve known about Spence for a long time now but have not read her. Why? She sounds up my alley, particularly if she can match it with Charlotte Bronte (not that Charlotte Bronte is one of my favourite authors but you know what I mean).

    I wonder why the unusual spelling of Morison? And, why are these great Aussie women’s books so little known?

    Oh, and I know what you mean about having excellent books on my shelves that I wonder why I hadn’t (or still haven’t) read sooner!


  2. I’m glad to hear that the copy you have has a different cover: the colours on my screen look faded on this edition, to the point where I can barely see her pupils, so she looks like a little zombie girl. *giggles* But on a more serious note, it’s not fair that this novel is relatively unknown whereas the Brontes get all the glory (not to begrudge them personally), as per the point you’ve made in a previous post. The mining subplots interest me. That’s always been a topic that’s captivated me. Quite a bit of fiction from Eastern Canada takes on that scene too.


    • You’re right, the girl on the cover is a bit spooky.
      You can only say that Australian educators from 1900 to at least 1960 engaged in a conspiracy to conceal from the reading public any evidence of the predominance of women’s writing in the C19th, and it was only the determined efforts of one woman, Dale Spender, that brought it back into the open, not that it is yet widely read or appreciated.
      Spence’s concern here is the social effects of mining and of mining speculation, though we do spend some time at the diggings around Bendigo. Madame Midas by Fergus Hume (my latest review) actually takes you down a working mine at Ballarat 100 km south, and describes in some detail what is going on. It’s Text so your library might have it.


  3. This sounds great – I prefer Elizabeth Gaskell’s work to most of the Bronte novels, and Middlemarch by Eliot is one of my all-time most loved novels, so I’m interested by those comparisons. Obviously the plot about a wealthy, educated woman having become independent and get by with very little is a pretty common one for novels of the 19th century – but it doesn’t become less interesting for that!


    • Getting by with very little was something those authors were quite familiar with. I probably prefer Gaskell to the Brontes too. I find the Brontes a little melodramatic, though I am preparing a review of Jane Eyre later this month, following my reading of The Professor, and so I am appreciating Charlotte more. I’ve also been meaning to review Gaskell’s Ruth for some years and I really must get round to it. I have LibriVox recordings of all these authors and so I am more familiar with their writing than I have been since boyhood probably. I have no doubt that Spence should be up there with them, and that it is a great injustice that she is not.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting. I’m sure you’re right. I often only have a sense of who the characters are while I’m reading, without being able to recall their names. It might be a little while before I can make the correction.


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