by Teresa Pitt

In March we ran Teresa’s essay on the life of Agnes Gillian Murphy (1869-1931), pioneering female journalist, feminist, music promoter, socialite and networker par excellence. She was widely travelled, wrote the first-ever biography of Dame Nellie Melba, and her writing implies she was probably a lesbian. Here Teresa reviews Murphy’s one novel.

Agnes Murphy’s only novel, One Woman’s Wisdom (1895), in which the heroine, Mary Hewson, is clearly based on Agnes herself, is divided into three parts or ‘books’. (Caution: my review contains spoilers).

Book I

Book I is set in Ireland, where recently-orphaned Mary Hewson, aged 9, has been sent to live with her uncle and aunt. They live in a poor cottage on the west coast. Mary, who is ‘recently transplanted from much gentler surroundings’ at Summerhill, near Dublin, is bewildered by her new environment.

It opens with the newly-arrived Mary meeting a neighbour’s child, Nellie Casey (a ‘peasant’). Here we begin to see the author’s intense interest in people’s appearance and clothing, which are described vividly and in great detail. There are many remarks about the ‘peasants’ and much stereotypical Irish dialogue. The writing is arch in the fashion of the time, but also very vivid in its descriptions of people and places. (It reminded me of Mary Grant Bruce’s writing in the Billabong books.)

Mary’s uncle John Hewson has known better days. His wife is referred to only as ‘Mrs Hewson’ or ‘old Mrs Hewson’ or ‘the old lady’; we never learn her given name. His widowed daughter, Nora, has died, leaving an infant son, Arthur Leslie, who is now being raised by his late father’s family in England.

Mary’s father, William Hewson had gone to Australia and made a fortune in the gold rush. On returning to Ireland he married into a wealthy family, but at the time of his death – not long after that of his wife, Mary’s mother – most of his money was gone.

The author talks about the Irish language (here called ‘Celtic’), and the nature of Irish English: ‘many of them spoke English with almost pedantic correctness, although their accent was often at variance with the elegance of their grammar.’ At first Mary has difficulty understanding the Irish accent, and cannot follow the Sunday sermon, which the priest delivers in Irish. We also get a description of Mary’s daily activities. She loves the convent school and the nuns, resists all attempts to keep her away from school to perform household chores, and spends a great deal of time wandering alone in the countryside.

Mary’s older cousin Arthur Leslie arrives for a visit from Manchester. There’s a detailed description of Arthur’s handsome appearance. Patrick (‘Patey’) Casey, ‘the wildest boy in Slane’, is in love with Mary; there is a harvest feast and a dance; Arthur returns to Manchester.

Mary, now fourteen, leaves school and returns to Summerhill. She gets a job as a solicitor’s copying-clerk, makes new friends and has fun. A letter arrives from her married sister in Australia, ‘of which country she gave such glowing accounts that Mary determined to join her’.

Before she leaves, ‘Patey’ Casey turns up on his way to the US to say goodbye. During their afternoon together Patey proposes, but Mary tells him she will never marry. Ten days later she hears that Patey is dead, killed by a gang of ruffians on the streets of New York.

Book II

Mary arrives in Bourneville (Melbourne) in the colony of Giltland (Victoria), only to learn that her sister died a month ago. She has been receiving a small allowance from her guardian, but the funds have run out. She tries unsuccessfully to sell bibles door-to-door, and lives on penny buns. At last, she is referred to ‘a leading firm of solicitors’, where she is immediately engaged as an experienced copying-clerk.

She grows in confidence, and we are treated to a detailed description of her hair, face, dress and manner. The head of the firm, a ‘clever young lawyer’ called Frank Robertson, takes an interest in her (we get a detailed description of his ‘fine physique’, hair, eyes, ‘faultless teeth’, etc.), and makes sure she progresses in her career. She also meets Frank’s mother and her friend Ethel Belvoir, with whom she becomes close. She decides to take up journalism, and leaves the law firm.

After a year’s experience with the press she has ‘wholly transformed her one-time diffidence into the most charming independence’. The author describes Mary’s ‘boyish manner and appearance, which were heightened by a marked simplicity in her style of dress’ and notes that ‘with women she became a special favourite’.

Three years later, it’s time for ‘the great racing carnival in Bourneville’ – i.e., the Melbourne Cup. Frank Robertson takes a party of his friends to the Cup, which is attended by a large crowd. Mary criticises some of the women’s choice of dress as being ‘more suitable to the ball-room’. After the big race, Frank confesses his love to Mary, but she tells him she will never marry.

Frank Robertson takes his family and some friends for a holiday at ‘The Bedford’, a grand hotel in the ‘Blue Ranges’ (the Blue Mountains). There are lengthy descriptions of mountain scenery, gullies, waterfalls, ferns, mists, etc. The Hon. Wilfred Edwardes and Ethel Belvoir discuss Mary’s opposition to marriage, expressing themselves with dreadful pomposity.

The author gives us an extremely detailed description of Ethel’s person, manner and clothing, and those of her cousin Lily Belvoir. Mary and Ethel have developed ‘a deep but most romantic friendship’. Their friends joke about ‘the singular earnestness of their young devotion’, and they speak openly together of their love for one another.

The Hon. Wilfred Edwardes learns that his sister, Lady Constance Edwardes, is on her way to Melbourne. Wilfred is clearly becoming very devoted to Lily Belvoir, but makes no declaration of love.

Mary’s cousin, Arthur Leslie, now living in Sydney, is elected to the NSW parliament.

Back in Bourneville, Frank’s mother hosts a picnic on the banks of the Yarra, near the ‘lunatic asylum’. Wilfred and Lily go off together for a walk, but he appears depressed and is very quiet. Suddenly a female inmate appears from the asylum, and seems to know who Lily is. She announces – shock, horror! –  that she is Wilfred’s wife. When Lady Constance Edwarde’s ship arrives in Port Bourneville (Port Melbourne) the next day, Wilfred is nowhere to be seen. Arthur goes to Wilfred’s rooms and finds him dead.

The Catholic Archbishop visits Lady Constance to offer condolences and prayers. There is a detailed description of Lady Constance’s looks, dress and manner (‘as fair to the eyes as the smiles of Spring’).

Mary is now 21, happy, confident, popular, and devoted to her society friends. She has been campaigning for higher education for women; a ball is held at Government House when the University decides to admit women. Mary and the Governor earnestly discuss the need for women doctors. There is a vivid, detailed description of the ballroom and of the clothing of the guests. Frank proposes again, but she turns him down, again.

Ethel doesn’t like many of the people Mary ‘so assiduously cultivates’. Mary says she likes the girls best, adding, ‘It must always be much more delightful to kiss the fresh soft lips of a girl than the moustached mouth of a man’. She also says, ‘I detest commonplace humanity’, and points out that all her friends are good looking. The conversation goes on for several pages and is both arch and pompous in tone. Mary repeats her aversion to marriage and says, ‘I have always thought that there is a certain degradation in the marriage tie’.

Frank arrives and joins in the conversation. They joke that Frank should go into Parliament, and Mary offers him a progressive political manifesto, which includes the establishment of an international council for settlement of nations’ grievances; all the domestic functions of married women to be recognised as an industrial activity; equality of opportunity; a minimum wage; a scheme of rational selection for the union of the sexes; improvement in the condition of the poor; the settlement of such absurdities as hereditary titles and legislation; and ‘purging the age of the shams and injustice that make the lives of the masses a pilgrimage of pain’.

Lily Belvoir spends several months on her father’s station, bored and miserable. On her return to Bourneville she begs Mary to help her find Wilfred Edwarde’s child.

Book III

Lady Constance has returned to England and entered a convent. There is a serious economic depression in Giltville. Mary loses her investments, and then her job. She keeps her financial difficulties from her friends, and earns some money by freelancing for various papers.

Ethel’s father is not well. Frank and his mother help her as much as they can, but Frank is still in love with Mary. He wonders whether he should offer Mary some financial help, but his mother advises against it, saying Mary is too proud and independent to accept it.

A boy is killed in a street accident, and we discover that he was Wilfred’s long-lost son.

Arthur Leslie goes to South Africa for an international conference. The Boer War is on. James Belvoir (Ethel’s father) dies, and Ethel goes to live with Frank Robertson and his mother. Frank proposes to Ethel and she accepts.

The Boer War ends. During the celebrations, honours are paid to a Sister Lenore, who has been ‘the angel of the campaign’. Arthur meets her and realises she is Lady Constance. The NSW government appoints Arthur as its agent-general in London. Sister Lenore is aboard the same ship. She leaves the nunnery and six months later she and Arthur marry.

Mary gets her old job back. She goes on a trip (with Ethel) to write about beauty spots. At the Debolan Caves, Mary and Ethel go for a walk and fall asleep inside an abandoned cottage. Frank and his mother arrive. A bushfire springs up, so Frank goes to look for them. They are trapped inside the blazing cottage. Frank undergoes mental torture deciding which of the girls he should rescue first. He heroically rescues both of them. But – oh dear! – which one does he love the most? It’s Ethel, as it turns out, and they marry.

Mary goes to London with Frank and Ethel. One day she runs across Patrick (‘Patey’) Casey, the boy from Ireland who was mistakenly believed to have died on the streets of New York. They spend an afternoon together reminiscing about their childhood in Ireland. Patrick tells her he has never forgotten her, and proposes again. Mary refuses.

Frank, Ethel and Mary settle in England (could it have been a ménage à trois?). Frank is elected to the House of Commons, where he supports many of the causes that Mary had suggested to him. Mary becomes Secretary of the Women’s Labour Union, where she becomes known as an ‘earnest and seductive platform speaker’.

And … that’s the end!


By the time she gets to this point, it’s pretty clear to me that the author is sick and tired of the whole thing. The strange, abrupt ending, and the cursory tying up of loose ends, left me as glad as she was that it was over.

One Woman’s Wisdom is like the curate’s egg – ‘excellent in parts’. There are far too many characters and sub-plots (several of which I’ve left out of this review), and I rather doubt that Agnes’ portrayal of the colonial upper classes is intended as satire. She shows us nothing of Mary’s professional and activist life, and gives us an excess of long, declarative conversations about Mary’s feminist beliefs and other issues, rather than showing us her beliefs in action.

On the other hand, she has a sly wit, and is definitely a dab hand at descriptive writing.

So, in summary, it’s an interesting artefact that gives an impression of society life in colonial Melbourne. But is it a long-lost masterpiece? No, I’m afraid not.

Nevertheless, I’m quite glad I read it.


Agnes G Murphy
One Woman’s Wisdom
Routledge, London, 1895

Teresa Pitt worked in the Australian publishing industry for many years, including as a Senior Editor with Penguin Books Australia and Commissioning Editor with Melbourne University Press. She is now a volunteer tutor with Yarra City U3A (Melbourne), teaching Australian Literature and Film Studies.