by Bill Holloway

Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910) was a notable author, the ‘mother’ of  Australian feminism, active in the Unitarian church, and an untiring social reformer. In 1910 she began her autobiography but died before it was completed. The last chapters were constructed from Spence’s diaries by fellow activist, Jeanne Lewis, and Catherine Helen Spence: An Autobiography was finally published in 1937. An annotated version was published in 2005,

An Autobiography begins with a chapter on Spence’s childhood in Scotland, which she left at age 13, when her lawyer father became destitute through ill-advised speculation, to come to “the province of South Australia … before it was quite three years old.”

She regarded herself as well educated, crediting the head of her school … “a born teacher in advance of her times. In fact, like my own dear mother, Sarah Phin was a New Woman without knowing it. The phrase was not known in the thirties.”

So, on the very first page, Spence situates herself in the New Woman movement of the 1890s, though its antecedents are generally held to be in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) and subsequent works by women authors modelling independence for women, not least Spence’s own Clara Morison (1854).

She has this to say about being unmarried:

It is always supposed that thoughts of love and marriage are the chief concerns of a girl’s life, but it was not the case with me. I had only two offers of marriage in my life, and I refused both. The first might have been accepted if it had not been for the Calvinistic creed that made me shrink from the possibility of bringing children into the world with so little chance of eternal salvation … I was 17, and had just begun to earn money … in six weeks he was engaged to another woman. My second offer was made to me when I was 23 by a man aged 55, with three children… Now, these are all the chances of marriage I have had in my life… I cannot forget these two men. I am constantly meeting with the children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of the first…

I believe that if I had been in love, especially disappointed in love, my novels would have been stronger and more interesting…

I was 30 years old before the dark veil of religious despondency was completely lifted from my soul, and by that time I felt myself booked for a single life.

Chapter IV. Lovers and Friends

From age 17 to 20 Spence earned money as a governess, then, in 1846 she opened a school, with the assistance of her mother and younger sister. At about this time her father died, and  a younger brother who had been left in Scotland for his education, came out and got a clerkship on the mines at Burra, which position is given to one of the male protagonists in Clara Morison.

She was already making up stories for children, and having stories published in newspapers. She says of her mother’s household: “We were all omnivorous readers, and the old fashioned accomplishment of reading aloud was cultivated by both brothers and sisters. I was the only one who could translate French at sight, thanks to Miss Phin’s giving me so much of Racine and Miliere and other good French authors in my school days.”

The school lasted five years, and soon Spence’s income was mostly from writing for newspapers. Around 1849 she started on her first novel, Clara Morison, to give Britons a picture, she said, of what Adelaide was like denuded of its menfolk by the goldrushes in neighbouring Victoria, and also as a response to the implication in Thackeray’s most recent novel, that Australia had a scarcity of educated women. It was offered to Smith, Elder & Co,, in London, who knocked it back, as they had Charlotte Bronte’s The Professor (before publishing Jane Eyre). It was subsequently published by JW Parker & Son in 1854. Smith, Elder did accept her next novel, Tender and True, which came out in 1856.

Spence wrote a number of other novels, most notably Mr Hogarth’s Will (1865) which “took up the woman question as it appeared to me at the time – the difficulty of a woman earning a livelihood, even when she had as much ability, industry and perseverance as a man.”

Meanwhile, she had made two important steps in her life. She, along with a number of members of her wider family, abandoned the strict Presbyterianism in which she was brought up and joined the Unitarian church; and she became a passionate advocate for proportional representation in elections, as advocated by JS Mill and Thomas Hare, writing the pamphlet A Plea for Rational Democracy. “In England Mr Hare, Mr Mill … all considered [it] the best argument for the popular side that had appeared.”

Amusingly, she had snuck Hare into Mr Hogarth’s Will, to better disseminate her arguments, and later met him and his daughters while visiting England. She says this was better than facing people in Adelaide she had never heard of who insisted they were the originals of characters in her novels; and mentions that she of course was not her heroine, Clara Morison. “I was Margaret Elliott, the girl who was studying law with her brother Gilbert.”

In 1865 Spence was in London and was taken to meet JS Mill, with whose brother in law she was friends in Adelaide. Of Harriett Mill, by then deceased, she writes:

Enfranchisement of Women, included in Mill’s collected essays [is] very good, certainly, but not so overpoweringly excellent as I expected. Of course, it was an early advocacy of the rights of women, or rather a revival of Mary Wollstonecraft’s grand vindication of the rights of the sex; and this was a reform which Mill himself took up more warmly than proportional representation … For myself, I considered electoral reform on the Hare system of more value than the enfranchisement of women… I was accounted a weak-kneed sister by those who worked primarily for woman suffrage, although I was as much convinced as they were that I was entitled to a vote”.

Chapter IX. Meeting with JS Mill and George Eliot

Also present at Spence’s one meeting with Mill was Harriett’s daughter, Helen Taylor, who chided Mill for asking for the vote for women on more restricted terms than for men. In 1869 Mill sent Spence a copy of The Subjection of Women, with a very nice covering letter.

While she was London she also went to the home of George Eliot who was unwell and gave her a frosty reception. But Spence was a fan of Eliot’s work and later had an essay on her published in the Melbourne Review which came to Eliot’s attention. Eliot wrote Spence, apologizing for the earlier meeting and promising her another if they were ever in London at the same time.

On her return to Australia, Spence took up, in a small way, what was in her sixties – 20 or more years later – to become her main avocation, public speaking. Then, around 1870, she began her work finding homes for wards of the state, so “that my friends are apt to say that, if I am recollected at all, it will be in connection with the children of the State and not with electoral reform. But I maintain now, as I maintained then, that the main object of my life is proportional representation”.

These middle years of her life she spent on (mostly unpaid) government committees, writing for newspapers and magazines, and being invited to preach at Unitarian churches. I must mention that in 1876 at the opening of the University of Adelaide she met Catherine Martin then writing the serialized novel, Bohemian Born and occasional articles, “I drew to her at once. She has [since] published two novels – An Australian Girl and The Silent Sea—which so good a judge as F. W. H. Myers pronounced to be on the highest level ever reached in Australian fiction, and in that opinion I heartily concur. I take a very humble second place beside her, but in the seventies I wrote  Gathered In, which I believed to be my best novel—the novel into which I put the most of myself.

Spence’s next novel, which she is almost too embarrassed to admit to, was An Agnostic’s Progress (1884) and then Handfasted which was refused by the Sydney Morning Herald as “calculated to loosen the marriage tie – it was too socialistic and consequently dangerous” and remained unpublished until 1984.

The death of her mother in Dec 1887 left Spence free to travel and promote proportional representation, to which her brother gave the name “effective voting”. In 1893 she left Adelaide bound for America  as a Government Commissioner and delegate to the Great World’s Fair Congresses in Chicago. “I felt that it was a big order for a little woman of 68 to undertake the conversion to electoral reform of 60 millions of the most conceited people in the world. Still I went.”

She lectured throughout the US and Canada, speaking not just on voting reform, but state education, the care of destitute children, Robert and Elizabeth Browning, and George Eliot; her lecture in San Francisco organised by Charlotte Perkins Gilman; meeting many, many other notable writers and reformers, not least Harriet Tribman, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Jane Addams.

Homecoming was via Glasgow and London, where she spent time with Jane Hume Clapperton, author of Scientific Meliorism, which was the philosophical basis of Spence’s last novella, A Week in the Future (1889).

She came home to the recession and bank failures of the 1890s, which greatly reduced her savings, but, heading into her 70s, she was appointed to more boards and commissions; formed and headed a league to promote effective voting, beginning her partnership with Jeanne Young; toured the state once again, lecturing. In 1897 proportional representation was adopted in Tasmania; and she stood, unsuccessfully, for one of the 10 South Australian places in the Federal Convention (in the lead-up to Federation).

As was the case with nearly all of Australia’s first wave feminists, she was opposed to war, in this case the Boer War from 1898 to 1901. “In Miss Rose Scott I found a sympathizer on this question of the war; and one of the best speeches I ever heard her make was on Peace and Arbitration.”

And so she continued to work and travel into her 80s, maintaining a voluminous correspondence around the world and making all along new friends and allies. “Among the many friends I had made in the other States there was none I admired more for her public spiritedness than Miss Vida Goldstein… Although I was the first woman in Australia to become a Parliamentary candidate, Miss Goldstein has since exceeded my achievement by a second candidature for the Senate.”

By the time of her death in 1910 she was “a member of a church which allows women to speak in the pulpit, a citizen of a State which gives womanhood a vote for the Assembly, a citizen of a Commonwealth which fully enfranchises me for both Senate and Representatives, and a member of a community which was foremost in conferring University degrees on women.”


Catherine Helen Spence
Catherine Helen Spence: An Autobiography
pub. commenced in South Australian Register, 1910
first pub., with Jeanne Lewis ed. 1937
Ever Yours: CH Spence, Susan Margery ed. pub. 2005

Note: Margery in her Introduction says there was an initial publication in Dec. 1910. My source for the 1937 first pub. is Hooton & Heseltine, Annals of Australian Literature


Earlier posts in this series:
The Independent Woman in Australian Literature
Bev Roberts ed., Miss D and Miss N: An Extraordinary Partnership (review)
Elizabeth Macarthur
Eleanor Dark, Timeless Land trilogy (review)
Caroline Chisholm, Married and Independent
Caroline Chisholm, Radical
Catherine Helen Spence, Woman’s Place in the Commonwealth