I have made some of my happiest book discoveries browsing through bookstores, libraries, and other people's shelves. I owe my introduction to Anthony Trollope, Margaret Oliphant, Georgette Heyer, Deborah Crombie, Rhys Bowen, and so many other favorite authors to this serendipity, to chance. Now I can add Ada Cambridge to that list, though I can't help wondering why it took the book fates so long to introduce us.
I found The Three Miss Kings on my recent trip to Powell's in Portland. It was the green Virago spine that first caught my eye, and the back-cover blurb that added it to my stack:
The three Miss Kings - Elizabeth, Eleanor and Patty - were brought up in a remote seaside settlement in Victoria, Australia, their father a mysterious man of "preposterous eccentricity", their late mother a dignified, accomplished woman who instilled in the girls an appreciation of "spiritual and intellectual aspirations" which compensates for their lack of worldly experience. Such virtues serve the sisters well when, on the death of their father, they begin a new life in Melbourne. Under the watchful eye of one of society's more respectable patrons, they learn quickly about "life, and love, and trouble, and etiquette among city folks" . . .
We meet the young women of the title shortly after the death of their father:
On the second day of January, in the year 1880, three newly-orphaned sisters, finding themselves left to their own devices, with an income of exactly one hundred pounds a year a-piece, sat down to consult together as to the use they should make of their independence.Patty, the middle sister, feeling all the wealth and independence of those £300, wants to "make a dash - a straight-out plunge into the world," to sail immediately for London or Europe. Eleanor, the youngest, doesn't care where, "as long as we go somewhere, and do something." It is the eldest sister, Elizabeth, who must be the voice of prudence, pointing out that they don't know how far their income will carry them, and they don't actually know much of the world outside their small coastal village, so perhaps they had better start with Melbourne. Patty finally agrees, reluctantly, "to begin with. Not for a permanence."
By the end of the first chapter, I was already captivated by the sisters and wondering where their story would take them. Their situation reminded me of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, with a wise elder sister trying to restrain a more impetuous younger one. Unlike the Dashwoods, though, these sisters are left without a mother's guidance (or a brother's interference). The close relationship between the sisters also brought to mind Louisa May Alcott, as did their cheerful habit of making the best of their situation, making do with the little they had, and creating a comfortable home from their limited means.
So off the sisters sail for Melbourne, taking with them two family heirlooms, their mother's piano and an antique bureau, containing family papers as well as their small stock of finery and jewelry, inherited from their mother. They intend to spend their time in the city's libraries and museums, filling in the gaps left by their education at home under their mother's care. All three are talented musicians, and they want to hear the music they have studied on their own. They also hope to make friends, the lack of which they have felt keenly, growing up in their isolated village. They have one contact in the city, Paul Brion, a well-known journalist and the son of the family lawyer. From the start, Patty scorns his help, wanting them to make their own way. However, the sisters quickly learn how unprepared they are for life in the city, for the very different ways of its society, and how the £300 that seemed such a fortune will hardly cover all their new expenses.
I don't want to say too much about the plot, but this book was such a delight, a Cinderella fairy-tale and a romance (three romances, actually, each as different as the sisters themselves). I found the Melbourne setting fascinating. A large part of the book revolves around the Melbourne Exhibition of 1880, which according to the introduction "put [the city] on the world map." I also learned from the introduction that Ada Cambridge came from England to Australia with her husband shortly after their marriage in 1870. He worked as a missionary priest in Victoria for many years. While raising their family, she began writing stories and articles for Australian journals, many of which were also published in Britain and North America. The books she wrote about her adopted country were popular at home and abroad, in part because so many people knew little about Australia beyond its gold mines and kangaroos. I had to laugh when one character in this book complained about people like "Trollope and those fellows," who "come here as utter strangers, and think they can learn all about us in two or three weeks." (Ada Cambridge, settled in the country for more than 20 years when this book was published in 1891, was presumably exempt from that criticism.)
It is not surprising that a book by a clergyman's wife would deal with faith and religious practice. What was surprising to me, though, is the way she handled these. One of the central characters, the real hero of the book, is a free-thinker, most unorthodox when judged by the traditional piety in which the sisters were raised (like one of Charlotte Yonge's characters, reading "'Thomas à Kempis' and the Christian Year daily"). There is no question that this is a good man, of real and practical - even heroic - charity. But can a woman of faith trust herself to someone who rejects the established Church and most religious practices, who believes there is good in all faiths, in all people seeking God under whatever name or face? This is one of the elements, with the societal questions that drive the hero's work, which give this book a depth beyond its Cinderella elements (while never weighing it down).
Regular readers of this blog will probably not be surprised to hear that I have already found more of Ada Cambridge's books, some as free downloads from Gutenberg, and a couple of others still available in print. Unfortunately, as with so many Victorian women writers, the larger number of her books are no longer available. Hopefully we will continue to see these rescued and published again at least as ebooks. Ada Cambridge would be a good fit for Girlebooks in particular, it seems to me.