by Nathan Hobby
Nathan is a biographer who did his PhD on writing biography. He is naturally interested in how other writers portray their subjects. Here he discusses Matilda Jane Evans (1827-1886) who wrote under the name Maud Jeanne Franc.
In 1882 she gave up teaching and devoted her time to the North Adelaide Baptist Church as a deaconess and to writing. She contributed many short stories and articles to local journals, and wrote fourteen novels; some appeared first locally but all were published in London by Sampson Low & Co., and ran to at least two editions. In 1888 a collected edition of her Australian tales was produced by her London publishers. Her books were favoured as Sunday school prizes for their strong gospel message, and she found her inspiration and her characters in her own experience and locality. She was also devoted to the cause of temperance. HJ Finnis, ABD
Matilda Evans caught my attention when I was reading a history of Baptists in Australia. A brief profile talked of her significance as the first woman to have a novel published in South Australia (1859). In all, she published fourteen novels. She was a deaconness and married to a Baptist minister. I discovered a full-length biography of her had been published in 1994 – Our Own Matilda by Barbara Wall (Wakefield Press).
Alas, Matilda is a difficult biographical subject. Despite extensive research, Wall was only able to uncover a few letters written by her, and just one photograph. If she kept a diary, we do not have it. But even if she had kept one, I doubt Matilda could ever become a compelling biographical subject: Wall does her best to redeem her and the conventionality by which she lived and wrote, but can only do so much. A number of Matilda’s novels were temperance novels; all of them were favourites for Sunday School prizes, safe novels which inspired piety and respectable living. Of course, I’m missing Wall’s main point here: she takes to task the generations of male critics who have ignored or trivialised Matilda’s writing for these reasons. Wall insists – rightly – that the novels are fascinating social documents, providing insight into South Australian colonial life and the attitudes of her time. Yet from her own argument, Matilda’s writing will be of more interest to the historian than the literary critic.
The book is of interest to me for its insights into biographical method. What is the biographer to do when the subject does not reveal themselves? Wall attempts to fill the gaps by speculating on the basis of Matilda’s novels, drawing parallels to places and incidents to reconstruct Matilda’s likely experiences, fleshing out the bare facts provided by education records, obituaries and newspaper ads. It is a dangerous method, likely to be dismissed as invalid by some critics, but it seems fruitful and her suggestions reasonable.
Yet somehow, the analysis never quite brings Matilda and her world alive. As an example – and I probably place too much weight on death scenes – but for me they should usually be one of the stronger moments of the biography; there should be a way to convey some of the significance of a person’s life in their death, or at least to show how their death fitted their life. The death in this biography only shows the ordinariness of Matilda’s life and the lack of information about her:
She died on Friday, 22 October 1886, of peritonitis, and was buried on the following Sunday… [Obituary below]
I’m sure the historical record can yield no more than this, so what more can I ask of the biographer? I’m not sure. But perhaps it could be juxtaposed with an analysis of how Matilda saw death in her novels. Perhaps something of the place of death in Victorian-era Australia. Perhaps some background on death by peritonitis at that time. Perhaps even some more speculation about the circumstances of her death, drawing on social histories of death. Perhaps none of this would work; I’m only trying to anticipate method when I come to write a biography of my own.
Matilda Evans is perhaps not so neglected as Wall fears – there is another book looking at her literature; a thesis written on her and two other S.A. women writers, and an entry for her in Australian Dictionary of Biography. Abebooks reveals that her books (which remained in print right up until the 1930s) are worth hundreds of dollars. Our Matilda itself is an excellent piece of research, and a good analysis of her life and literature, aware of the shortcomings of Matilda’s writings while open to their significance.
Nathan Hobby is a Perth-based writer and archivist. His most recent work is a comprehensive biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard, The Red Witch (2022). The essay above originally appeared as Australia’s Greatest Temperance Novelist: Matilda Jane Evans aka Maud Jeanne Franc on Nathan’s blog..
The following obituary appeared in the Express and Telegraph (Adelaide) Mon 25 Oct 1886
THE LATE MAUD JEANNE FRANC.
We have already announced the death of Mrs. E. Evans, better known as Maud Jeanne Franc, which occurred at her residence, Clifton Street, Prospect, on Friday evening, October 22.
Her father, Mr. Henry Congreve, was a member of one of the oldest English families,which has numbered among its members several distinguished in literary as well as in scientific and philosophical pursuits. The name of the poet Congreve who was a member of the family,will of course be familiar to our readers.
The family of the mother of Mrs. Evans was also eminently distinguished in science and art. Her maiden name was Jacob, and so far as her grandfather was concerned it need only be mentioned as a proof of his musical genius that at a very early age he presided at the organ at the York oratorios, and for many years was organist at the church of the celebrated Rowland Hill, and an intimate friend of that gentleman.
Mrs. Congreve’s great grandfather being possessed of independent means, devoted himself to the study of the then dawning science of electricity, and in no small degree assisted in the development of that science. Mr. Henry Congreve was the son of a doctor in Bedworth,and was well known throughout the county of Warwickshire. His father succeeded in accumulating a large fortune, as may be imagined from the fact that on two occasions he presented his son with £10,000, which was only to be unfortunately lost in speculations.
At one time the son purchased 50,000 acres of land in Canada, which at the present day would have yielded an ample competency to every one of his descendants in the colonies. Nothing daunted by the failure of his speculations Mr. Congreve settled in London, where he married Miss Jacob. The subject of our notice was born at Peckham Park, Surrey, on August 7,1827.
Having studied medicine under his father Mr. Congreve turned his energies in that direction, and as a specialist in the cure of consumption was very successful. Owing to his continued speculations he became rather embarrassed in circumstances, and having a family of growing sons and daughters he thought he would seek the shores of Australia.
His sons, Mr. Henry John Congreve, now editor of the Gawler Bunyip, and Mr. William Congreve, who for many years past has resided in Victoria, had preceded their father to the colonies by about three years, The father of Mrs. Evans arrived at Adelaide in the year 1852, and before he could get his affairs into anything like order he died somewhat suddenly at his residence, North Adelaide.
The energy of the deceased lady, which was always great, became more than ever prominent at this stage, and despite great difficulties the younger members of the family were kept together and their education completed.
Mrs. Evans had at an early age given proof of a desire for literary habits, and when 34 years old received £10 for the copyright of a small volume of poems for the young. When residing in Mount Barker she commenced the popular story of “Marian, or the Light of Someone’s Home.” This was published by Mr. Waddy, of Mount Barker, in monthly parts, and the sale in South Australia was for an early publication very large. These parts were sent to a Bath firm of publishers, Messrs. Binns and Goodwin, and a gentleman now living in Adelaide informs us that the subsequent interest manifested in the work was if anything exceeded by that of Messrs. Binns & Goodwin’s compositors, who vied with each other in obtaining the “copy” before it was committed to print.
Some time later Messrs. Binns and Goodwin’s establishment having failed, the business was taken over by Messrs. Sampson Low & Co., of London, who have ever since been the publishers of the stories issued by Maud Jeanne Franc.
We have already referred to the number of books which Mrs, Evans has given to the world, and it is only necessary here to enumerate them. They are as follow:—”Emily’s Choice,” “Vermont Vale,” “Minnie’s Mission.” “Golden Gifts,” “Silken Cords and Iron Fetters,” “John’s Wife,” “Hall’s Vineyard,” “Little Mercy,” “Beatrice Melton’s Discipline,” “Two Sides to Every Question,” “No Longer a Chiid,” “Into the Light,” and “The Master of Ralston.”
These works have had a good sale, not only in England but in the colonies as well, and their popularity is certainly on the increase. Mrs. Evans has left one or two finished short stories and an unfinished story, the latter being a sequel to “Wooden Crosses,” which was published in the Christian Colonist. She has written several tales for the Christmas number of the Chronicle, and we shall in December next publish what was probably the last effort of her pen.
Miss Congreve was married in Adelaide to the Rev. E. Evans, a Baptist minister, who was a hard-working, highly-respected clergyman in the Angaston district, Only four years had elapsed when Mr. Evans was seized with a paralytic stroke, brought on by excessive devotion to his duty, and died. The widow thus practically thrown upon her own resources once more, and this time with four children, two the result of her husband’s former marriage (Mr, E. E. Evans and Mrs. Lines of Tarcowie), showed herself equal to the occasion, and she removed from Nuriootpa to Angaston where she established a ladies’ school. The success attending her tuition and the solicitations made by friends in the metropolis induced her to come to Adelaide, which she did in the year 1868.
Here, notwithstanding the excessive worry necessarily attendant on her educational labors, and the times of trial and difficulty she experienced, she managed to devote her few leisure hours to that which was undoubtedly the joy of her life—literature.
About five years ago Mrs. Evans, owing to the demands upon her pen, gave up scholastic pursuits and entered upon a quiet life so far as the outside world could discern. But all this time she was exceedingly busy, and she issued more than one volume which has been read with interest.
She was a member of the North Adelaide Baptist Church until her death, occupying for a considerable period the position of deaconess, which involved no little labor; and
although for the last year or two they were a great tax on her physical power, she scrupulously carried out the duties of her office, Last year it was discovered that she was suffering from a painful disease, and hopes at one time were held out of her recovery, but a sudden change which set in on Friday week proved that the end was
near, and she died as we have stated.
She leaves two sons—Mr. H. Congreve Evans, leader of the Advertiser reporting staff; and Mr. W. J. Evans, who occupies a position in the commercial department of the same paper.
Her other near relatives are a younger sister, Miss Emily Congreve; and her brothers—Mr. Henry John Congreve, Mr, Wm. Congreve, Mr. Fred. J. Congreve (of Condowie), and Mr. James Congreve (of Sydney). Mr, George Thos. Congreve, of Peckham and Brighton, England, is a half-brother of the deceased lady.
We understand that the late Mrs. Evans has left behind some interesting and varied information in the shape of a diary and in other forms, which her sons contemplate publishing at some future date.
The funeral of the deceased lady took place on Sunday afternoon, the remains being interred in the West Terrace Cemetery. A number of vehicles followed the cortege, and a very large gathering of the late Mrs. Evans’s wide circle of friends and acquaintances
assembled at the grave. Had it not been also for the rough weather prevailing during the afternoon no doubt many of those who only knew Maud Jeanne Franc through her works would have been present. The Rev. W. E, Rice performed the burial service.