Caroline Chisholm, or to give it its full title, Caroline Chisholm: An Irresistible Force, How one extraordinary woman helped shape a nation, is a new biography of the woman who single handedly changed (for the better!) the way the Australian colonies dealt with the huge influx of workers, especially women, we needed up till the gold rushes of the 1850s. The author, Sarah Goldman is a journalist – a tv news producer – who lives in Sydney with her partner, two sons and a dog. This is her first book.
Goldman believes that earlier biographers have focused on Chisholm’s work and her Catholicism at the expense of revealing her as a person. While adhering to the facts, she says, Goldman has at the beginning of each chapter “imagined scenes that related directly to incidents covered within the subsequent pages.”
Sir George Gipps, Governor of New South Wales … had been surprised when Caroline Chisholm had been ushered into the room, even wondered if he had misheard the name. Instead of the frumpy, bespectacled matron in plain gown and white cap that he had expected, he had been confronted by a handsome, even stately young matron, fashionably dressed and wearing a very fetching bonnet. [Introduction, Sydney 1841]
Caroline Chisholm was born in 1808 in Northampton, England. Her father, William Jones, by then 64, had started out as a farm labourer but was now a prosperous property owner and ‘hog jobber’. He died six years later, leaving Caroline an investment property with substantial rentals. Caroline’s mother, with a number of other children to support, promptly offloaded Caroline onto another Northampton women and then to boarding school where she seems to have obtained a good education. Later, Caroline names another (maybe the same) Northampton woman, Sarah Laws as her mother in the 1851 census.
Caroline early decided on a career in charity. In 1829 she turned 21 and became mistress of her own fortune, but only for so long as she remained unmarried. George Sand whose life we looked at a couple of weeks ago was at the same time in France in exactly the same position – the laws in both countries (most countries probably, I think this also comes up in Anna Karenina) gave complete control of a woman’s property to her husband.
A year later, thirty year old Lieutenant Archibald Chisholm, a Scotsman and a Catholic, returning home on furlough from ten years with the East India Company, met Caroline in Northampton and asked for her hand in marriage. She refused. Only relenting when he acceded to the condition that she retain the freedom to pursue her own objectives. Caroline, brought up Protestant, then converted to Catholicism.
I covered Chisholm’s life and work in some detail in my earlier review of Mary Hoban’s 1973 biography (here), but to give a ‘brief’ recap – Caroline followed Archibald to India where she established a school for the daughters, often mixed race, of ordinary soldiers; then, on his next furlough, they went to NSW, where Caroline took on the problem of female bounty migrants having no support on arrival. She stayed on in Sydney while Archibald went back for another five years in India, touring NSW extensively, escorting groups of young women to positions in the country and conducting an extensive survey into opportunities for rural labour. Here Caroline ventures into Australian Legend territory:
… travelling with the girls on the wagons or, later, riding her own horse, Captain. Her expeditions went “as far as 300 miles into the far interior, sometimes sleeping at the stations of wealthy settlers, sometimes in the huts of poor emigrants or prisoners; sometimes camping out in the bush, teaching the timid awkward peasantry of England, Scotland and Ireland, Protestant and Roman Catholics, Orangemen and Repealers, how to “bush” it.”
By the time Archibald returned, Caroline was well known and highly regarded, and her opinion was sought by – and more often pressed on – the fledgling Legislative Council.
In 1846 the Chisholms returned to England, setting up a base in the poorer part of London and Caroline began advocating for and organising female and family migration to Australia from Britain and Ireland (then in the grip of the Great Famine). There she met Dickens and elements of her survey appeared in the first issue of his magazine Household Words. He was later to satirise her unfairly as Mrs Jellyby* in Bleak House. The establishment of the Family Colonization Loan Society in 1850, and her being only the second woman ever to give evidence to a committee of the House of Lords, made her one of the best known people in Great Britain.
The Society chartered and, later had constructed purpose-built ships, including the Caroline Chisholm which was unfortunately commandeered for troop transport to the Crimean War. Archibald was despatched first to Adelaide, then to Melbourne, where he was subsequently joined by Caroline, to act as the Society’s agent. The Chisholms settled in Victoria, in Melbourne and then Kyneton, but the wave of immigration associated with the gold rushes of the 1850s meant that her work was no longer of such importance.
She was able to persuade the government to establish ‘shelter sheds’, accommodation for families walking between Melbourne and the Castlemaine/Bendigo gold fields, and continued to advocate for an Australian ‘yeomanry’ – family based farms to replace the huge runs taken up by squatters and worked mostly by single men.
Despite her Catholicism, Caroline Chisholm both advocated and practiced multi-culturalism. Attacked by the Protestant preacher John Dunmore Lang for bringing out Irish Catholic girls, Caroline retorted, “I have lived happily amongst pagans and heathens, Mahometans and Hindoos – they never molested me at my devotions, nor did I insult them at theirs; and am I not to enjoy the same privilege in New South Wales?” [reported in Sydney Morning Herald, 20 March 1846]. Later in Victoria Chisholm was to speak up in the same way for the largely reviled Chinese (I devoted a second post to Chisholm’s views on race here).
In straining to create historical women heroines we sometimes find they are given more prominence now than they were then. The reverse is true of Caroline Chisholm, and of many women authors, whose considerable reputations and influence at the time have not been brought forward by (male) historians. When you think about it, it is nonsensical that school students learn more about the failures of man-heroes Burke & Wills and Ludwig Leichardt than they do about about the successes of Caroline Chisholm, Mary McKillop or Catherine Helen Spence.
In this biography Sarah Goldman presents Chisholm as a powerful early practical feminist, making her way in a man’s world, creating opportunities for women and for families (though at the expense of some neglect of her own), with the unstinting support of her husband. I’m not sure Goldman gets very far behind the public face, though she (rightly) gets angry discussing Dickens and others dismissing Caroline as plump – as well she might be after eight children – and matronly.
The short imagined scenes are an interesting idea to provide an introduction to each chapter, but I was disappointed to find (in the End Notes) that one, where Caroline out in the bush with a dray load of women immigrants is held up by a bushranger, is totally imaginary. Overall however this is a powerful and very well documented work.
Sarah Goldman, Caroline Chisholm, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2017 (Review copy supplied by publisher)
Author interview (here)
Carole Walker, A Saviour of Living Cargoes – The Life and Work of Caroline Chisholm, (first published in Australia in 2009 by Australian Scholarly Publishing; republished in Australia in 2011 by Connor Court Publishing; UK edition published by Wolds Publishing, 2010)
Rod Stinson, Unfeigned Love: Historical Accounts of Caroline Chisholm and Her Work, Yorkcross, Sydney, 2008
Chisholm, Caroline, ed. by John Moran, Radical in Bonnet and Shawl: Four Political Lectures; and Little Joe. (Australia: Preferential Publications, 1994 and 1991)
M. Kiddle, Caroline Chisholm (Melb, 1957)
Eneas Mackenzie, Memoirs of Mrs Caroline Chisholm (London, 1852) preserved by Project Gutenberg Australia as an e-book (here).
see also the website http://mrschisholm.com/
*I originally wrote ‘Mrs Jellybelly’, a Freudian slip picked up by Professor Melanie (Grab the Lapels) below.