Catherine Helen Spence

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Catherine Helen Spence

Among the more prolific writers of nineteenth century colonial Australia, Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910) provided valuable insights to life in South Australia through her various novels, magazine articles, and lectures. A dauntless social activist, she dedicated much of her life and times to the education of girls and toward improving conditions for poor children. Near the turn of the twentieth century Spence became increasingly involved with the struggle for women's suffrage and contributed to the success of that movement in her adopted homeland.

Catherine Helen Spence was born in Melrose, Scotland, on October 31, 1825. She was the daughter of David S., an attorney, and Helen (Brodie) Spence. The fifth of eight siblings, Catherine Spence was well educated as her parents were well to do. The family moved to Adelaide, South Australia, for a fresh start in November 1839, after their father lost a sizeable fortune as a result of untimely speculation in the wheat market. The South Australian territory at that time was a newly established British colony on the verge of a gold rush that peaked from 1850 to 1860.

Pioneer of the Australian Novel

Spence, who never married, went to work as a governess at age 17. As an advocate for destitute children during the course of her lifetime she opened her home to three separate families of orphaned siblings and devoted much of her effort to the education of girls. Over time her concern for children led her to open her own school.

Encouraged by relatives and teachers, she entertained a notion also of pursuing a career as a writer. After authoring articles for local publications, her first piece of fiction was published anonymously in 1854 through J. W. Parker of London. Clara Morison, A Tale of South Australian Gold Fever, is widely regarded as her best work. It was the first of seven novels written by Spence and was the first novel to be published about Australia by an Australian writer. The story, which she had written in her spare time over a period of years, has been likened to a Cinderella tale. Described as a domestic novel by the author, the book offers a quasi-autobiographical point-of-view in the supporting character of Margaret Elliott who charms the reader by means of her self-satisfaction. Elliott's ability to maintain a strong sense of self—despite her status as an unmarried woman—provided a provocative and incongruous notion to Spence's contemporaries.

After expenses, Spence received a sum of 30 pounds sterling for the book, which was republished by Rigby in 1971 and again in 1986, during a two-decade long revival of Spence's works related in part to the Australian bicentennial. Additionally, Clara Morison was included in theQueensland University Press Portable Australian Anthology, as part of an author-specific volume on Spence.

Spence's second novel, Tender and True: A Colonial Tale, was published in two volumes by Smith & Elder of London in 1856. She received a payment of 30 pounds sterling for the manuscript, which like Clara Morison was published anonymously. A second edition of Tender and True was published in 1862 and was printed as a single volume. An 1867 novel, Hugh Lindsay's Guest, appeared in serial form in the Adelaide Observer, and Bentley published the work in book form under the title The Author's Daughter. Although she sometimes hid her identity as a female and abandoned fiction altogether during her final years, Spence is regarded highly among the genre novelists of the Australian gold rush era.

Activist Calling

From the 1850s onward, the parliaments of the six Australian colonies were voted by the populace. Although a variety of electoral methods prevailed, each permitted victory by a simple one-vote margin. In the late 1850s Spence espoused the political theories of Thomas Hare regarding proportional representation in government and strengthened her resolve to bring about social reform in this arena. Her awareness of the need for a more egalitarian government soon permeated her writing. Hare's promise of pure democracy became a foundation of Spence's political beliefs throughout her lifetime. Among her early political writings, an 1861 pamphlet, entitled A Plea for Pure Democracy, touted the Hare system of proportional representation. Although South Australia would not convert to a preferential voting system until 1929, other colonies converted earlier, beginning with Queensland in 1892.

Also high on Spence's political agenda was the need for gender equality. In 1859 she began to work as a correspondent for the Adelaide Argus, but she was forced to assume the identity of her brother, John Brodie Spence, or risk certain exclusion from assignments over the issue of her gender. Overall publishers feared that her notions were too extreme to gain acceptance and frequently greeted her radical ideas regarding feminism and egalitarian government with apprehension. Several of her works could not be sold during her lifetime because publishers viewed them as too extreme.

In her serialized novel, "Uphill Work," Spence deals directly with the issue of gender discrimination and with poor working conditions and wages among middle-class women. The installments were published in the Adelaide Weekly Mail in 1863 and 1864, for which she received 50 pounds sterling altogether in payment. A book-length manuscript was published in three volumes as Mr. Hogarth's Will, by Bentley of London in 1865. Spence received one-half of the profits for the publication of the novel, with her share totaling 35 pounds sterling. It was the first of her fiction works to be published under her true name. The editor of Argus prior to his death acknowledged that the novel by Spence served as a motivation behind his gift of 5,000 pounds sterling per year—left in his will—to Melbourne charities. He left an additional sum to Victoria causes.

Feminist on the Early Lecturer Circuit

Spence on an 1865-1866 lecture trip to Britain included a return visit to Scotland for the first time since her early childhood. Over the next two decades her public presence increased, beginning in 1868 when she became the first woman ever to receive an invitation to read papers at the South Australian Institute. Having earlier converted from her traditional Scottish Presbyterian religious beliefs to Unitarian, she became a preacher in her newly adopted faith. Some years later, in 1884 she penned a memoir-like chronicle of her Journey through Conversion. The manuscript was published by Williams and Norgate of London. In 1904 she published Each in His Own Tongue: Two Sermons through Vardon & Pritchard.

As her writing grew more political in orientation, in 1878 she advanced her theories of social reforms through a collection of articles that she had published in the Melbourne Review. The causes that she endorsed included child welfare, parliamentary reform, and tax reform. Also among these articles were essays about the lives and works of her contemporaries, including George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) who was a personal friend of Spence's. Coincidentally with her contributions to that journal, in 1878 she secured a position as a regular outside contributor to The Register. She penned word games, wrote book reviews, and proffered views on a wide variety of social topics, from children's issues to industrialization and electoral reform. Her articles included such as "Some Social Aspects of South Australian Life" (1878), "A Literary Calling" (1880), and "The Australian in Literature" (1902).

In 1879, in association with the South Australian Minister of Education, she wrote a text for children, entitled The Laws We Live Under, With Some Chapters on Elementary Political Economy and the Duties of Citizens. The manuscript was published by the Government Printing Office in Adelaide in 1880 and was adopted by the South Australian Schools as a civics/social studies text in 1881.

Spence's futuristic novel, Handfasted, was completed in 1879, but the manuscript failed to win recognition when submitted to a competition sponsored by the Sydney Mail. Radical in tone and theme, Handfasted in fact remained unpublished until 1984, long after the author's death. In the book, Spence describes a utopian society in an American valley called Columba. The story, which advocates a revision of social standards, espouses enlightened humanism. The term handfasting refers to a legendary custom of trial marriage.

Her 1881 novel Gathered In is seen as one of her best works, second only to Clara Morison. Although her efforts to find a publisher in 1878 went unrewarded, the tale appeared in serialized form in the Observer, Brisbane Courier, and Queenslander. Publication of the manuscript in book form, however, was delayed for nearly 100 years, until 1977.

"A Week in the Future," believed to be Spence's final work of fiction, was serialized in Centennial in 1889. This science fiction piece relates a tale of a utopian London in the year 1988. The first book-length publication of "A Week in the Future" was delayed until 1987 when it was published in anticipation of the 1988 setting in which the story takes place.

From the 1890s until her death she devoted her efforts almost exclusively to the furtherance of social reform programs. She joined the South Australian Women's Suffrage League in 1891, and as vice president of that organization she helped to bring about the women's right to vote in state elections and the women's right to stand for the state parliament. These measures were accepted in South Australia in 1894, at which time the women of that colony distinguished themselves as one of the first communities in the world to enfranchise women. Spence was instrumental also in founding the Effective Voting League in 1895. She worked toward establishing a South Australia chapter of the National Council of Women and continued to fight for women's suffrage in other sections of Australia. In part through the efforts of Spence, the women of Western Australia earned the franchise in 1899 as did the women of New South Wales in 1902.

In 1893 Spence went to the United States as a representative of the South Australian State Children's Council at the International Conference on Charities and Correction. At the end of that conference, which was scheduled in conjunction with the Chicago World's Fair, she extended her tour, traveling throughout the United States and Canada. In the course of her travels she presented lectures on a number of political issues, not the least of which was women's suffrage. She toured England and Scotland the following year and in 1897 made an historical run for office, becoming at that time the first Australian woman to place her name in candidacy for the federal convention elections. The significance of the event was not diminished by her loss in the election.

In 1907 Spence published State Children in Australia: A History of Boarding Out and Its Developments, in support of her ideas that orphaned children should be migrated from public institutions into private foster homes. At the time of her death, on April 3, 1910, in Adelaide, Australia, she was involved in writing her autobiography. The book, published as Catherine Helen Spence: An Autobiography, was completed by Jeanne F. Young, a close friend of Spence.


Blain, Virginia, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy, The Feminist Companion to Literature in English: Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present, Yale University Press, 1990.

Buck, Clair (ed.), The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature, Prentice Hall General reference, 1992.

Samuels, Selina (ed.), Dictionary of Literary Biography: Australian Literature, 1788-1914, The Gale Group, 2001.

Wilde, William H., Joy Hooton, and Barry Andres, The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, Oxford University Press, 1985. □

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