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.

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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)

Wish, Peter Goldsworthy

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [SA]

Wish

Last week Sue/Whispering Gums’ Monday Musings was on the subject of deafness and Australian writing, and the very small number of works dealing with disability. Coincidentally, my next read for #ausreading month was Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish (1995), set in Adelaide, SA, which is on the subject not exactly of deafness but of communication by Auslan (Australian Sign Language).

Goldsworthy is (apparently) a well-known and respected Australian author, though not one of whom I was aware, and the subject of a glowing overview in the Introduction to this Text edition (I wonder what it says about Australian readers’ relation to Text Classics that the publisher gets a much bigger billing than the author or the title). Still, I found Wish uncomfortable reading, too long and boring in parts, and a protagonist who at times made me squirm – which may be my problem and not the book’s!

The protagonist, JJ, is a late 30s guy, living at home again – in Glenelg, on the beach – with his profoundly deaf parents after the failure of his marriage. Though not deaf himself, Auslan had been his first language as a child, and English only his second and not one with which he is ever entirely comfortable. As an adult he makes his living as a teacher of Auslan, mostly to people wishing to converse with deaf friends and relatives.

JJ’s marriage has failed, basically because he’s withdrawn from it, from both his wife and their teenage daughter. It’s not clear why, though it’s at least possible he is emasculated by his wife’s intellect and drive, and also by his discomfort with his own body shape (fat). At the commencement of the novel JJ, who has been away in the US, is offered a teaching job at the Deaf Institute, by a smart-arse who had formerly been his student.

There is a lot of discussion about Auslan throughout, some of it generated by JJ’s difficult relationship with his boss, who is not a native speaker, augmented by frequent sketches of hand positions. One of the features of Auslan is that everyone has an Auslan name, not just a transliteration of their name in English – which in any case can often only be rendered by spelling. So, the boss’s name, behind his back at least, is Miss-the-Point (the sign is a sweeping of one hand over the head, which you would think he might notice).

Another smug, high-beam smile. I had taught Miss-the-Point his first signs, and he wasn’t about to let me forget it. Some debts are too great to repay, let alone forgive.

Miss-the-Point gives JJ the beginners class in which his two best pupils are a 40ish sexy woman and her older husband, a famous animal rights campaigner. They, soon offer JJ part-time work teaching sign to their differently-abled foster daughter.

So the core of the plot is the triangle formed by JJ, the sexy mother and the daughter, for whom, and for only whom, JJ finds himself re-tumescing. The daughter, who is effectively unable to speak, blossoms as she learns sign. Between them, they choose for her the name ‘Wish’ and for the parents, the names ‘Star’ and ‘Saint’. Wish is past puberty and clearly has a crush on JJ. Star isn’t getting it from Saint, and when Saint goes overseas on book tour duty, makes it clear – in fairly humiliating fashion – that she wants it from JJ who has chucked in his job and is staying over. JJ is engrossed by his involvement in Wish’s progress, he thinks.

I slumped over the sink, wobble-kneed, paralysed. Horror at my actions filled me, the hands of sign-shame rose to hide my face. The noise of my coming would surely bring Wish down the stairs. I couldn’t face her; I could barely face myself.

He flees back to Glenelg, whose grey, almost landlocked waters are the only place he feels comfortable with his bulk

The first heart-stopping shock of cold quickly faded, and I felt only a warm glow as I floated beyond the surf line, sole swimmer as far as the eye could see. Less bouyant without my rubber suit, I was still unsinkable, more walrus than man.

Melanie at Grab the Lapels is conducting a one woman campaign against fat shaming in literature, which has certainly made me think more about representations of body shape. In this context it would be interesting to know if Goldsworthy is a) fat; and for that matter, b) fluent in Auslan.

The story takes a science-fictiony turn, a feature of Goldsworthy’s writing apparently, and maybe an early example of mainstream lit. turning to SF for inspiration, but only in the explanation for Wish’s behaviour. JJ returns. Wish refuses all attempts at communication, but when JJ goes to bed, there’s just one wall between them. It’s all getting too close to actual sex between teacher and adolescent student. I stop reading, at p 305 out of 377.

Sorry. If you want to know more you’ll have to read it yourself.

 

Peter Goldsworthy, Wish, first pub. 1995. This edition Text Classics, Melbourne, 2013

see also: Lisa/ANZLL’s review of Goldsworthy’s memoir His Stupid Boyhood (here)