by Elizabeth Lhuede

This latest essay in our forgotten author series focusses on Margaret Ann McCarter née Kinahan (1861-1913), aka Mrs McCarter.

Finding forgotten authors is sometimes a matter of luck. Last year, I was working on an entry for Marjorie Weatherley, whose married name was “Carter”. In a search for “Mrs M Carter” on Trove, a result appeared for a “Mrs McCarter”, author of the novel, Looranna (1908). I looked up the name on the AustLit database and the book was listed, with “Mrs McCarter” given as the author’s name, but no other titles or details.

Exploring various permutations of the author’s name, my usual detective efforts on Trove, and in various births, deaths and marriages records, came up with the following information.

The author “Mrs McCarter” was born Margaret Ann Kinahan in Kildare, Victoria, in 1861, to Elizabeth (nee Purdie) and William Kinahan. She married James McCarter in 1884 and died in 1913 in the Dandenong district of Victoria. There is a reference to her having a son who married in 1913, and she evidently had at least two daughters. The elder daughter, Kathleen, survived her mother by only nine years, while a 1915 wedding notice gives us the name of her other daughter Sarah/Sadie. This notice describes the deceased author McCarter as having been “the well-known authoress”. Further references to the family include a mention in 1932 of Margaret Ann’s sister, Kate Kinahan, who retired after 48 years of service to the Railways Department, and their brother John, who “toured Europe as an operatic singer under the auspices of the late Dame Nellie Melba”.

At some point this brother, John T Kinahan, adopted the stage name of “Gerard Kean”, and was described in 1920 in the Queensland Times as the “world-famed Irish-Australian singer”. His memoir, published in 1940, is not available online, so I don’t know if it touches on his early family life or mentions his sister, Margaret Ann. However, one reference linking the John’s and Margaret’s names does come up much earlier in 1902, in an advertisement for an appearance by John (then under his own name) at Oddfellows Hall, Beechworth. It turns out Margaret was to accompany her brother, and had already appeared at the Austral Salon as a performer in her own right:

Mrs. McCarter, a lady elocutionist from Rutherglen, and who recently appeared with much success at the Austral Salon, will also be present. (Murray and Ovens Advertiser, 17 May 1902: 10)

Further advertising for her brother’s appearance gives us the following description of the author’s talents:

Mr. Kinahan will be assisted by the GREAT ACTRESS, Mrs. JAMES McCARTER, whose success everywhere is tremendous. This Gifted Lady has the unique power of holding her audiences spell-bound, and on each appearance an ovation greets her. (Murray and Ovens Advertiser, 17 May 1902: 11)

A review of this performance referring to McCarter’s contribution does give some support for the advertisement’s hyperbole:

Mr Kinahan was assisted by Mrs J. McCarter, an elocutionist, who has the faculty of a perfect realisation of the subject, and by several local amateurs… A pleasing variation was … introduced by Mrs J. McCarter, who in her recitation, “The Uncle,” gave evidence of histrionic powers of a rare order of merit, arousing a storm of applause. (Murray and Ovens Advertiser ,17 May 1902: 9)

The two siblings appeared again in 1902, with one announcement describing McCarter and her brother as “both well-known metropolitan artists”. While her brother – after the name change – rose to prominence, McCarter’s own success appears to have been modest in comparison.

After her novel Looranna was published in 1908, a gossip columnist, reporting that it was to be dramatised, had this to say about McCarter and her stage aspirations:

Mr. Wilson Forbes has been engaged to dramatise Mrs. A. McCarter’s Australian novel, “Looranna.” The authoress, Mrs. McCarter, is a plump, petite brunette. She has a vivid imagination, is a brilliant conversationalist, and once aspired to histrionic fame. After many disappointments and heartaches she succeeded in interesting the publishers, and now “Looranna” is having a wide circulation. (Table talk, 14 Jan 1909: 8.)

While McCarter may have given up her dream of success as a performer, she was nevertheless still active in the theatre, as were her daughters. In May of 1909, the following report appeared in the Advocate, concerning the production of a drama she had written:

“The Great Yellow God,” a drama by Mrs. M. A. M’Carter, of Ballarat East, was staged at St. Patrick’s Hall on Wednesday afternoon… The piece deals with Australian life, and opens on the Ballarat goldfields. The plot is strikingly strong, and is well worked out by numerous characters. It affords all the essentials for many intensely thrilling situations. The representation was directed by the well-known actor, Mr. Wilson Forbes, and the various characters were filled by Messrs. H. Bambrick, J. O’Bern, and J. Reid, Mrs. and the Misses M’Carter. (Advocate 15 May 1909: 29)

Did McCarter have further success as an actor and dramatist? If so, I’ve found no evidence of it. And what of her writing? At first glance, her family reputation as a “well-known” authoress would appear to rest on the publication of her novel, Looranna.

Looranna was first published in serial form in the Advocate from December 1907 to July 1908, and only later appeared as a separate title. A review of the novel gives the following summary:

‘Looranna’, an Australian story by Mrs McCarter (George Robertson and Co.) deals with the life of a young Catholic governess in a modern autocratic family, and her many trials and tribulations, which finally led her to well-merited happiness form the principal theme of the story. The authoress has a sympathetic style, and, if some of her characters are a trifle overdrawn, others are very true to life, and the story, itself, with its sketches of Australian life, makes very interesting reading. The authoress never loses an opportunity of ‘pointing a moral’, and in describing the up-to-date follies of some of the home circle at ‘Looranna’ takes the opportunity to deplore the aimless pleasure-seeking existence of the fashionable world of to-day. The setting of the story is altogether Australian, the scene of one chapter being the Melbourne Cup.” (Advocate, 12 Sep 1908)

It has already been noted that Looranna achieved a wide circulation, but regular readers of this blog won’t be surprised to learn it wasn’t the author’s only published work. Trove has preserved for us several poems and short stories, all written by “Mrs McCarter”:

The bigot wave (1907, poem)
The broken chain (1907, poem)
Eternity’s day (1907, poem)
Good night (1907, poem)
His warrior (1907, short story)
Is father here? (1907, short story)
Let him sleep (1907, poem)
Over-stepping (1902, short story)
Pray and sleep (1907, poem; with note: “a sister of Gerard Kean, the singer, now with Amy Sherwin’s company”)
What he forgot (1902, short story)
While the jackass laughs (1902, short story)

While I’ve only read one of McCarter’s short stories, “Over-stepping” (1902), I find it a good foil to the short story we published earlier this year, Ada Kidgell’s, “The triumphant candidate” (1898). Whereas the young Kidgell advocated for women’s right to vote and stand in elections, among other progressive views, in “Over-stepping”, McCarter presents a much more conservative view. She writes:

[T]here are some who prate of “women’s rights,” and crave more power for the gentler sex. What greater “rights” can woman have than the power to rule the brainy sons of Adam with that never failing, omnipotent influence Poets call love? (Advocate, 17 Sep 1902)

McCarter’s protagonist Clara Maybanks is depicted as shallow, envious, materialistic and thoughtless, and her influence on her hard-working husband is dire, the opposite of the kind of “power” McCarter implies a wife should be exerting. The moral authority of the story is clearly the author herself.

By the time McCarter writes Looranna, she shows evidently shows a stronger side to her women. As one reviewer notes:

She [the author] thinks that an Australian woman can do anything, and proceeds to exemplify it all through the story she tells, which is alternately pathetic and patriotic, with a gentle feminine tone running throughout it. (Advocate, 5 Sep 1908: 23)

While I haven’t read Looranna, the style of writing in “Over-stepping” reminds me of the work of much earlier authors, like the “Pet perennials” series of “Patty Parsley” (Clarinda Sarah Parkes), published in the 1850s. It won’t be, I imagine, to the taste of many contemporary readers, but it does give a fine example of Irish brogue – and may even hint at a little Catholic vs Protestant or English vs Irish tension – that I find entertaining. (My mum was a Murphy and my grandmother a Ryan, so that may explain it.) The story has merit, I think, even if only for historical and cultural reasons.

Which brings me to a different point.

Writing a series on forgotten writers, I’ve wondered why some writers are taken up by the canon and others abandoned. Could McCarter’s conservatism be the reason she – and many writers of her ilk and generation – have been overlooked by successive generations of critics, many of whom have celebrated more progressive ideas? Perhaps it played a part. But Kidgell’s similar experience of being forgotten suggests it’s not a simple equation, as her ideas were progressive.

Aesthetic values, too, I’d argue, must come into play, including a historic distaste for the sentimental – McCarter’s poem, Good night, arguably falls in that category – as well as questions regarding the quality of the writing itself. Neither “The triumphant candidate” nor “Over-stepping” show any great feats of of linguistic dexterity or complexity, for example. It’s most likely, therefore, that a combination of these and other factors have influenced successive generations of critics when deciding what is worth remembering and what is best forgotten – as well, of course, as the perennial issue of gender bias. At least contemporary readers have an advantage over previous generations in assessing the value of such works: we have Trove. We can go back with ease to find and read these historical texts, and make our own judgements, whereas earlier generations had to rely on extensive archival research or re-publication via successive “best of” anthologies or reprinting.

Even if such forgotten authors’ works don’t prove worthy of being adopted by a new canon, they are still, to me, intensely interesting. If nothing else, they offer us a glimpse into the lives, struggles and values of a range of different women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women of my great-grandmothers’ era, whose unseen influences still, I believe, affect us all.

Mrs McCarter’s “Over-stepping” will appear here on Friday. Her novel, Looranna, can be read online in its original serial form (1907-08) via Trove, or in its published book form (1908) via the Colonial Australian Popular Fiction Digital Archive.

Concert, Euroa Advertiser, 23 May 1902: 2.
Family notices, Argus, 17 May 1913: 13.
Family notices, Advocate, 20 July 1922: 25.
Gerard Kean, Queensland Times, 2 Nov 1920: 4.
Kinahan, John T (Gerard Kean), Sunset: a drama of life – on and off the stage (1940; memoir).
Looranna“, Advocate 1 Aug 1908.
Personal, The herald, 7 Sep 1932.
Wedding bells, Advocate, 2 Oct 1915: 29.

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.