Reading Ada Cambridge's 1891 novel The Three Miss Kings sent me off in search of her other books. The biographical note and the introduction to my Virago edition left me particularly interested in this memoir, published in 1903. As with so much of her work, it has long been out of print, but I downloaded a copy to my e-reader (where it sat). After I read another of her novels, A Marked Man, I was checking ABE Books, to see what else of hers I could find in paper. It was perfect timing, because a copy of this book was available for a reasonable price. It's an ex-library copy, and I don't usually buy those, because they tend to be beat up and marked up, but this one is in lovely shape for its 112 years. It even has that delicious old-book smell.
I took to the three Miss Kings pretty much from the first page, and I had the same reaction to their author in her turn:
I knew nothing whatever of Australia when I rashly consented to marry a young man who had irrevocably bound himself to go and live there, and moreover, to go within three months of the day on which the wild idea occurred to me. During the seven weeks or thereabouts of a bewildering engagement, the while I got together my modest trousseau, we hunted for information in local libraries, and from more of less instructed friends. The books were mostly old ones, the tales the same. Geoffrey Hamlyn was my sheet anchor, but did not seem to be supported by the scraps of prosaic history obtainable; we could not verify those charming homes and social customs. On the other hand, cannibal blacks and convict bushrangers appeared to be grim facts. . . When we had assimilated all the information available, our theory of the life before us was still shapeless. However, we were young and trusting, and prepared to take things as they came.She married her husband, George Cross, in 1870, when she was twenty-six. (She refers to him as "G." throughout the memoir, which reminded me of Vera Brittain's "G" in hers.) A month after their wedding, they sailed from Plymouth for Australia. They were bound for Melbourne, where her husband would serve for the next forty-two years as a priest in that diocese. Her memoir is structured around the eight parishes that he was assigned to, seven in the bush and the last in Melbourne itself. With each move, they had to re-establish a home and adapt themselves to the new community, which Cambridge usually enjoyed. In these years, she gave birth to five children, losing two to disease before they were five (another son died at seventeen soon after she wrote this book).
Ada Cambridge was a hard-working wife and mother. She was particularly proud of sewing her own and her children's clothes. However, she was frequently in such poor health that she was confined to the sofa, and she often spent time recuperating with friends in Melbourne. At one point she was left behind in a nursing home while her husband and children went off to a new parish, having been told by the doctors that she was going to die (of what, she never said). In part because of her health, she refused to play the usual role of the vicar's wife, or what she called the "female-curate's post." She was quite clear in her opinion that clergy wives were overworked, both by their husbands and the parish. She included one story of a model wife and mother, who ended up in an asylum after her husband told her one Sunday that she would have to play the organ for the morning services; it was the proverbial last straw. Cambridge for her part simply exempted herself from parish work, though not just because of her health. She also needed time for her writing, which she began "to add something to the family resources when they threatened to give out." She wrote first for the Australasian, and her stories brought recognition and praise, as well as excusing what she called her "desertion" from parish work. It also brought her friends, about whom she was very discreet, particularly those in high places. I've been trying to figure out the identity of the young woman, "now on the roll of the grandees of England, by her marriage an aunt to Royalty." This grandee kept up their friendship over the years, "none of the usual arguments of the world against it having any effect upon that faithful heart."
I very much enjoyed this window into Australia in the late 19th century. It was a completely new world to me, and while I know this is a limited view - and not just because the author hardly ventured out of Victoria - it is still a fascinating one. On the subject of travel, I did note for the Travellin' Penguin that Cambridge took a cruise to Tasmania, fell in love with the place in just a few hours, and decided to retire there (her husband chose England instead). After reading two of her novels, I was not surprised to find discussions of social and political issues, including a real estate boom and bust in 1886, and the Great Strike of 1889. The Virago biographical note states that Cambridge "accepted her cultivated friends' views on Australian issues of which she had little firsthand knowledge." It does concede that "Her interest in social reform, however, was often advanced for the Australia of her time." She was not very concerned with the indigenous people, who appear only in the margins of her story. But she very clearly condemned anti-Chinese prejudice, as well as government policies that treated "our coloured brothers as vermin unfit to live."
I've been fortunate enough to find paper copies of two more of Ada Cambridge's books, Sisters (in a very odd format) and A Woman's Friendship (recently reprinted from the original 1889 newspaper serial). I am resigning myself to reading e-versions of the books that haven't been reprinted. I do think though that Ada Cambridge would be a good fit for more Virago editions, or for Persephone.