by Elizabeth Lhuede
A short account of writer, journalist and feminist, Ada A Homan, née Kidgell (1869-1949).
When I come across an author in the AustLit database who has only one publication and no biography listed, my detective nose twitches. While Ada A Kidgell may not be a household name, however, she can hardly be considered forgotten or overlooked. A short story writer, novelist, poet and journalist, Kidgell – under her married name, Ada Augusta Holman – has biographical entries not only in AustLit, but also in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) and Wikipedia.
Born into a literary family in Ballarat in Victoria in 1869, Ada was the eldest daughter of English journalist, Ebenezer Kidgell, and an Irish mother, Agnes (née Martin). A gifted debater, she showed early promise, winning prizes for her essays and short stories, some of which were published while she was still in her teens. In 1903 she married William A Holman, a one-time cabinetmaker and future first “Labour” premier of New South Wales. The bride was described by one commentator as “a clever and pretty blue stocking”. Her interest in writing, politics, current affairs and women’s issues ran in the family, with two of her sisters, Una and Stella, also working as journalists, while her only child, Portia Holman, published journalistic pieces and became a noted child’s psychiatrist who penned works on mental health.
A working writer, Ada Holman published under several by-lines, including both her birth and married names: Ada A Kidgell, Ada A Holman and Mrs W A Holman; as well as under several pseudonyms: “Tackra”, “Myee” and “Marcus Malcolm”. Her pieces were published in Punch, Sydney Mail, Sydney Morning Herald and the Freeman’s Journal, and she also edited a trade journal, the Co-operator. She was active in the Fellowship of Australian writers and, while discussing women’s writing, made the audacious suggestion that “every novel should be published anonymously and remain so for ten years. This would do away with sex prejudice and false pandering to names” (ref).
In the 1930s, Holman published two novels, Eve in the desert and Good courage, serialised in the Sydney morning herald. Just before her death, Memoirs of a Premier’s Wife (1947) was published, a tome described by her ADB biographer as “the disappointingly anecdotal memoir of meetings with famous persons”. Ada died in 1949 at Darling Point, NSW, and her papers are held at the NSW State Library.
So far our archive lists 49 of Holman’s works, spanning five decades, and there are many more journalistic pieces not identified or catalogued. While her earliest short stories are predominantly romance, several of her journalistic pieces reflect feminist demands which are all too familiar to contemporary readers: the right for women to be educated, work for equal pay, to have children, and the freedom to pursue their own talents, desires and interests.
One prescient short story – which might now be considered “speculative fiction” – was published in 1898 when Kidgell was only 19. Set eleven years in the future, “The triumphant candidate” depicts a radical young woman, a gifted debater, who stands for election to parliament in opposition to her conservative husband. As the right for NSW women to stand for parliament was still decades away, Kidgell could certainly be said to be well ahead of her time.*
Ada A Kidgell’s story, “The triumphant candidate”, will appear on Friday.
* Edited to reflect correction in comment below (formerly included women’s right to vote)
“A young parliamentarian,” The Catholic Press, 1 Jun 1901.
Heather Radi, “Holman, Ada Augusta (1869–1949)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/holman-ada-augusta-6710/text11583, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 17 January 2023.
H J, “Modern heroes and heroines“, The Australian women’s weekly 7 Oct 1933: 10.
Elizabeth Lhuede first published poems and short fiction in the 1990s while working at Macquarie University as a tutor and research assistant. After completing her PhD, she took a break before returning to Macquarie to teach English and Creative Writing. More recently, Elizabeth instigated the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge and, under the pen-name Lizzy Chandler, has had two e-novellas published with Harper Collin’s Escape imprint (romance and romantic suspense), one of which has been anthologised in print.