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.
Australian Women Writers, Gen 1 Page (here)