Ada Cambridge (1844-1926) was English-born and came out to Australia as the young wife of a Church of England vicar, George Cross, who went on to serve in a number of parishes around Victoria. She took up writing she says to supplement the family income, and her serials in the newspapers under the initials ‘AC’ soon proved popular. “Overall she wrote more than twenty-five works of fiction, three volumes of poetry and two autobiographical works” (Wiki). In the “hastily suppressed” volume of poetry, Unspoken Thoughts (1887) she apparently expresses “religious anxieties, thoughts on the limitations of sexual love and concern for the under-privileged” (ADB).
As you can see by the cover above, The Three Miss Kings (1883) has been republished by Virago, but the version I read was on my kindle, courtesy of the AWW Challenge, Books by Australian Women page (here) and Project Guthenberg (here) – where I see her autobiography, Thirty Years in Australia is also among the titles available.
The three Miss Kings (shouldn’t that be the three Misses King?) of the title, Elizabeth, Patty and Eleanor, are sisters, young women in their twenties, orphaned following the early death of their mother and the recent death of their father. They live outside a town on the Victorian west coast, a town unnamed but which has both a steamer service and access to a rail service to Melbourne. The Rev Cross’ list of appointments does not include such a town and I’m guessing it is a composite of Port Fairy, Warrnambool and Port Campbell. At one point the action includes a visit to a ‘limestone’ cave. Port Fairy and Warrnambool in particular are in volcano/basalt country but geology daughter assures me that even there it might be possible to find sandstone caves, though not limestone, which takes longer to form.
Although the girls were brought up in relatively impoverished circumstances, their parents, and especially their mother, had been well educated and the girls were home schooled with special attention to their music.
The parents of the three girls had been a mysterious couple, about whose circumstances and antecedents people knew just as much as they liked to conjecture, and no more…. But the greatest mystery in connection with Mr King was Mrs King. He was obviously a gentleman, in the conventional sense of the word, but she was, in every sense, the most beautiful and accomplished lady that ever was seen …
On the death of their father the Misses King decide to sell up, realising a few hundred pounds, and move to Melbourne. This coincides with the opening of the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton in 1880, which forms the background for much of the remainder of the novel.
Assisted by their local solicitor’s son, Paul, they take rooms in a quiet street in East Melbourne from whence they can walk through the Fitzroy and Treasury Gardens into the city. They are slowly introduced into society, aided by their poise, their beauty (though Cambridge is at pains to tell us that Elizabeth is classicly-built) and by Patty’s excellent piano playing.
Each finds a man, and is eventually married; it is the setbacks and hurdles to be negotiated which of course are what makes a love story. Elizabeth and Patty are serious young women and concerned to find a man whom they respect sufficiently to accept being dominated by. This is something they discuss, and Patty specifically rejects any claims to independence. Eleanor is a bit empty-headed and is pursued by a young man who is likewise, but sufficiently well-off for her to finally accept him.
The mystery of their parents’ origins and their exile in Australia is explained satisfactorily, though it initially complicates Elizabeth’s plans for marriage. But the biggest hurdle for Elizabeth to overcome is that her lover (in the old sense!) is a pantheist, while she is devoutly orthodox C of E. Cambridge’s discussions, and Elizabeth’s eventual acceptance, of this, allow Cambridge to air concerns she must have had herself. Amusingly, in light of Gaskell’s beliefs in the previous review, Elizabeth on first being told cries, “Oh no, you’re not a Dissenter!”
Elizabeth ends up “rich beyond the dreams of avarice in all that to such a woman is precious and desirable”, her husband-to-be an Englishman using his wealth to provide opportunities for the very poor. Interestingly Cambridge thinks that the wealth should both be enjoyed – there is a magnificent family seat in the country whose parks are eventually, but not immediately, turned into fields – and disbursed wisely. For instance, she discusses the problem of building homes for the very poor where, if the homes were attractive enough, the intended beneficiaries would be forced out by workers a class above them.
Cambridge is not the writer that her fellow chronicler of C19th Melbourne, Tasma, is. That is, she is not as ‘literary’. But her writing is straightforward, the story itself is enjoyable – I of course love her descriptions of Melbourne, and of the Melbourne International Exhibition – and as with Gaskell, she is concerned to describe the process of finding a husband in both moral and religious terms. And that is something I find surprisingly acceptable, in the nineteenth century at least.
Ada Cambridge, The Three Miss Kings, first published 1883