The author of this guest post is Narelle Ontivero who caught my attention last year with her essay “As Nature Bade Her”: Sensuality in Tasma’s Bush Stories (here). Narelle is a doctoral candidate at Western Sydney University in the Writing and Society Research Centre. Her current research explores the relationship between space, gender and identity in the works of Tasma, Rosa Praed and Ada Cambridge. Narelle, thanks for taking part.
Across Both Worlds: Ada Cambridge’s A Marked Man (1890)
When published in volume form by William Heinemann in 1890, A Marked Man garnered its author, Ada Cambridge, considerable attention. Contemporary reviewers praised the literary style of the novel as “remarkable”, “easy and vigorous” with a perfect blend of “[h]umour and pathos” (The Speaker: The Liberal Review, 20 September 1890: 335). The protagonist, Richard Delavel, is described as “a great and original creation […] one of the most striking and touching figures in contemporary fiction” (Westminster Review, February 1891: 218). And the Manchester Guardian assured its readers in its review that “[w]ith such power and finish Miss Cambridge ought to command popularity of the best kind for anything she will bestow on us in the future” (Manchester Guardian, 23 September 1890: 6). More than one hundred years later, there is still much to celebrate in Cambridge’s successful novel.
A Marked Man is cleverly presented in two parts: The first part is set in Dunstanborough “the ideal English village” lorded over by the aristocratic Delavel family (2). The youngest son of this family, Richard, is a rebellious Oxford seminary ‘drop out’ who impulsively pursues and marries Annie Morrison, “the village maid of romance—the ideal farmer’s daughter” (31). The perfection of this village is often pointed out. Even the “beach at Dunstanborough was spacious and level and firm—everything that a beach should be” (21). Alongside Richard’s romantic pursuit of Annie, Cambridge intelligently draws out many of the class structures and traditions which unfairly governed the lives of nineteenth-century British people. The reader is warned, for example, that in Dunstanborough “[t]he lower classes knew their place and kept it, dropping the loyal curtsey to their lord and lady and the young sirs and misses, not only in the street but in the church” (2). But on a more intimate scale, to prove his worth as a true gentleman, and not some common farmer, Richard hastily agrees to marry Annie and is disinherited when the elopement is revealed. As fate would have it, before a fortnight of marriage is through, Richard realises that he and Annie are entirely unsympathetic as a couple, but that they are legally bound to each other in unhappy marriage.
The second half of A Marked Man takes place twenty-five years later in the burgeoning city of Sydney, Australia. Now a self-made businessman, Richard’s sole comfort in his loveless marriage is his daughter, Susan. Together they read Matthew Arnold, question religious precepts, enjoy boating and time at their secluded camp on Middle Head; while driving the ostentatious and principled Annie wild. Notwithstanding the apparent stalemate in the Delavel marriage, the romantic quests continue in the second half. Noel Routledge, an ex-minister without pedigree pursues Susan; and Richard pines after Constance Bethune, his helpmate in his first years in Sydney and “the woman whom nature had intended to be his mate, but whom circumstances had denied to him” who suddenly returns to Sydney a widow (220). It is only once Annie drowns in a boating accident on Sydney Harbour that Richard and Susan are free to marry their respective partners for love.
The novel’s overarching exploration of love, marriage, tradition and modernity is made possible first by the transference to Australia; and, second, by the weight of Annie’s staunch traditionalism. In A Marked Man Australia is a testing-ground in which marital and religious traditions can be challenged and where people like Annie—who doubted “the use of being Mrs Delavel in a wild country where the name had no significance”—become stumbling blocks to the liberal spirit forging the new nation (130). We are told that,
In middle age [Annie] was—what she had been from her youth—the evenest-tempered woman that ever a well-meaning husband found it difficult to get on with […] She had conformed to the customs of a country wherein birth was disestablished like its ancient friend the church, and had no dependent ‘lower orders’ to take off the loyal hat and drop the humble curtsey to it as in the good old times […] Those customs, and all the fundamental changes in social state that they implied, had never ceased to be repugnant to what she called her instincts […] People and things might change with changing times and circumstances, but [Annie] never changed” (145).
So while Annie’s death is a hefty price to pay to secure the happiness of the remaining Delavels, it is symbolically important for Annie with her ‘Old-World’ values to disappear in A Marked Man.
Of course, it is also through Annie and Richard that A Marked Man questions the British laws that bound men and women to unhappy marriages. As is likely well-known by the readers of this blog, the ‘Marriage Question’ was generating a substantial amount of controversy in the 1890s when the novel was published. And it was certainly an issue addressed by the Gen. 1 writers of this blog series—authors like Rosa Praed, Tasma, Catherine Martin, Catherine Helen Spence and Ada Cambridge, to name only a few. Marriage as a source of women’s forced economic dependence and sexual labour were two central issues raised and protested by these admirable and talented women writers through their fiction.
In the Australian colonies, the view of marriage was particularly dim. For first wave feminists, it seemed ineffectual to enforce strict marriage laws in Australia where the unattached, roving, drinking and licentious bush man was idealised with fervour. A country where male domestic violence was a common occurrence, and
It was [still] quite common for men to bash up their wives and the strange thing was, if you were to kick a dog, another man would kick you. But if you were having an argument with your wife, nobody would interfere (McCalman, 1984: 26; see also: Lake, 1986).
And where “marriage made no difference to a man’s life [but] all the difference to a woman’s life” who was enjoined to live for her husband and children’s happiness (Magarey, 2001: 37). While there is no abuse in Richard and Annie’s marriage, it is a penance to the former. And over his entire life there lingers one question: why suffer the bond of wedlock when love is not in it? Richard’s last regret, as he lays dying, is that in fifty years of life, he was only allowed three happy years with Constance, his true love.
In contrast to Annie—who cannot swim or row and only leaves the house to pay social visits—Richard, Susan and Noel are continually moving from Double Bay, on one side of the harbour, to Middle Head on the other. Their mobility, proficiency in navigating the waters of Sydney Harbour and rowing skills analogise their intellectual and spiritual progressiveness. Indeed, the core complaint of the three ‘black sheep’ is “the inadequacies of that inelastic integument to the growing soul” that longs to be free of customs, practices and beliefs that hold no relevance to its personal life (169). Susan, of the three, is particularly obstinate and rebellious;
She was full of schemes for a working life; she wanted no bridal tour, she said, and her heart was set on living at the camp, where and her husband [Noel] would be unmolested by the world of fashion, which would surround and absorb them if they established themselves in a brick house (312).
Despite Susan’s tenacity, she materialises and achieves what her father only dreamed of—autonomy in early life, the right to marry for ‘true’ love, and a life unbridled by time-honoured customs. In doing so, however, she becomes the antithesis to her mother, Annie. To the point where their mother-daughter relationship is full of bitterness and misunderstandings, and Annie dies before they reconcile. Though not perfect, Susan represents the ‘next generation’ in her family and the ‘next’ Australian generation. As Elizabeth McMahon (2010) suggests, colonial Australia offered itself as a place where “range of possibilities” was possible, and as a “measured counterweight of the northern hemisphere”—just as Susan is the counterbalance to both her parents (McMahon, 2010: 181).
Then, as now, Cambridge’s most popular novel, A Marked Man reveals important truths about ideals, faith, tradition and rebellion. And, set as it is, across both worlds, it will not fail to capture your imagination. And as Richard would advise Susan, I encourage you to discover these truths for yourself.
Cambridge, Ada. 1987. A Marked Man: Some Episodes in His Life. London, UK: Pandora Press. [first pub. 1890]
Magarey, Susan. 2001. Passions of the First Wave Feminists. Sydney: UNSW Press.
McMahon, Elizabeth. 2010. “Australia, the Island Continent: How Contradictory Geography Shapes the National Imaginary”. In, Space and Culture 13, no.2: 178-187.
Lake, Marilyn. “Historical Reconsiderations IV: The Politics of Respectability: The Masculinist Context”. In, Historical Studies 22, no. 86 (1986): pp.116-131.
McCalman, J. 1984.Struggletown: Public and Private Life in Richmond, 1900-1965. South Melbourne: Hyland House.