Monday musings on Australian literature: Ada Cambridge

Photograph of Ada Cambridge by Spencer Shier c...

Ada Cambridge, c. 1920, by Spencer Shier (Public domain, from National Library of Australia, via Wikipedia)

It’s time, methinks, for another Monday Musings post highlighting a specific writer – and this time I’ve chosen Ada Cambridge. I discovered Cambridge back in the late 1980s when there was a resurgence (in Australia anyhow) in recognition of women writers. What was great about this resurgence was that it not only saw increased publication of contemporary women writers, but also the republication of past writers. I sussed out and read quite a few of these older, oft-forgotten writers, including, obviously, Ada Cambridge (1844-1926) who was, in fact, one of Australia’s best-known writers in her time.

She was a fascinating woman. Born in England, she married the Reverend George Cross in 1870 and a few weeks later emigrated with him to Australia for his work. They lived in several towns in Victoria until 1913 when they returned to England. Cambridge came back to Australia in 1917, on Cross’s death, and remained here for the rest of her life. Like many clergymen’s wives she worked hard supporting her husband. She suffered her share of sadness, including losing children to illness, and shocked her husband by writing of her experience of religious doubt and marital trials.

Cambridge was a prolific writer but, as is the common lot of women writers, her role as wife and mother came first. She wrote in her memoir*, Thirty years in Australia, that “housework has all along been the business of life; novels have been squeezed into the odd times” and in those days housework was far more onerous than it is today. She must have been a wonderful time manager! I have read only two of her novels: A woman’s friendship (1889), which was published as part of the Colonial Texts series edited by, surprisingly, the Australian Defence Force Academy, and Sisters (1904), which was published by Penguin in their Penguin Australian Women’s Library series.

While Cambridge’s first writings were religious in nature, she moved on to tackle more controversial subjects, particularly relating to women and their relationships. It’s many years since I read these two books but I remember my surprise at their content. These are not traditional women’s romantic novels. They confront, instead, the dual constraints women faced in terms of class and gender, particularly regarding the desire for independence and the physical and intellectual impositions of marriage.

A woman’s friendship explores the friendship that develops between two women (both married, one to a journalist and the other to a squatter) and a man through The Reform Club, of which they are the only members. It toys with the fine balance between marital responsibility, sexual attraction and the desire for intellectual companionship – and Cambridge is pretty up-front about the sexual tensions and jealousies that can lie just below the surface of friendships like this. Pretty interesting stuff for that time – and it makes me think a little of Edith Wharton. However, I think Wharton focused more on the notion of entrapment and was rather bitter, whereas Cambridge was more pragmatic about human nature and consequently less tragic.

In Sisters, according to the notes on the back of my edition, Ada Cambridge “dispenses with conventional romantic notions about marriage”. And this, as I recollect, is pretty right. She explores the marriage fortunes (or misfortunes) of four well-to-do sisters – what they decide (do they marry for love, for money, or not at all) and the implications of their decisions. Cambridge is unsentimental (cynical even) about the idea of “happily ever after” showing rather that “I do” is just the beginning. Indeed, as Cambridge writes of one lover who doesn’t win his girl:

He did not know what a highly favoured mortal he really was, in that his beautiful love story was never to be spoiled by a happy ending.

I couldn’t resist quoting that, but it doesn’t represent the totality of Cambridge’s attitude to marriage. A review from The Argus, in 1907, of a later novel, A happy marriage, suggests:

Mrs Cross [aka Ada Cambridge] apparently is no idealist in the matter of marriage. She looks for disillusionment and expects differences of opinion. But she recognises the possibility of ultimate happiness in spite of some incompatibility. Perhaps after all, this is the wisest view and it is more wholesome not to glorify what is not infrequently inglorious. It is, besides, the highest optimism to be able to forecast a happy future from an unhappy present. In any case our authoress is quite impartial in her distribution of blame and very sane in her judgments of men and women.

Cambridge was, for me, a wonderful find … and one day I’ll read more of her work. Meanwhile, if you’d like to read her, you can access some of her work (particularly Sisters) at the following websites:

* As reported in The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 July 1926.

25 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Ada Cambridge

  1. Interesting that she decided to move BACK to Australia after her husband’s death. That seems to be the opposite of the norm.

    I think I have one of her books on my shelf.

    • You’re right, it is interesting. I think she missed things about England but I found a newspaper report of her departure which said she left with regret. Of course, that would be the diplomatic thing to say to an Aussie newspaper reporter wouldn’t it? She had a son (at least) in Australia so that may also have been a reason for returning.

      BTW One contemporary newspaper report I read said that she had a bit of a following in the US and was a regular contributor to the Atlantic Monthly.

      I wonder what book you have on your shelf?

      • You’ve inspired me to do a search for ‘ada cambridge atlantic monthly’. One of the first results was a copy of the magazine, circa 1909, with a piece of hers in it called “The Retrospect.”

        “The crude elements of death are certainly horrible to contemplate. That one’s precious body can become the thing we know it will become, that we must leave this warm home-world (which, by the way, we have so ungratefully grumbled at while in it, and whose beauty and comfort we have not hesitated to help to spoil) to be mere dust of dust in the cold bowels of the earth, out of sight and out of mind — who, old or young, can think of it without a shiver?”

        “Ada Cambridge,” says a note at the back, listing the contributors, “is the pseudonym of a well-known Australian writer.” They also recommend that I buy a box of grape-nuts. Further down the search page there’s a link to a piece by someone called Toby Davidson who argues that a different Atlantic Monthly article of hers called “The Lonely Seas” is “a vital, founding document” for “Australian metaphysical poetry.” So that’s interesting.

        • Thanks DKS. I thought to do the same but hadn’t got around to it. Interestingly her last book, if I remember correctly, was called Retrospect. Some of the obits and short bios I read said that her later works were more philosophical than fictional.

          She was a poet too … It would be interesting to read that article. I’m not sure I know much about Australian metaphysical poetry but I think it was a collection of hers, Unspoken thoughts, published anonymously I gather, that distressed her husband. She expressed her doubts about religion and also about the “bonds” of marriage.

        • Ah, I don’t know that one. There’s Sisters (which is about 4 sisters) and The three Miss Kings (which is about 3 sisters). I wonder if it is the latter one under a different title?

  2. I was going to be really sad because my local libraries only have The Devastaters, but then I checked Project Gutenberg Australia and they have Sisters and two other of her books. Hooray! Now, if I could only find the time to read them as easily.

    • LOL Stefanie, ain’t that the truth. I think you’d like Sisters if you found time to read it. I found a contemporary review which suggests that The devastators is not one of her more pleasing efforts and that it could have been one of Hardy’s “Life’s little ironies”!

    • Glad to be of service! Though I’m not sure you quite meant it that way! Still Cambridge is one I’m sure you’d really like … she has some lovely ways with words too.

      And ditto re your blog.

  3. I’m glad I can find a few of hers online…I thought I had one but now I can’t find it, should be between Brooks and Castro but it’s not there *mutter, mutter*

    • Books do just have a habit of moving around sometimes don’t they? Just as well she’s online — we are so lucky to be able to access these older books now. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to know it’s real.

  4. The Atlantic Monthly, issue 108, “The Lonely Seas.” Onya Google Books. She writes about her “apostasy.” “It is the delusion of the unthinking, who have never slipped their moorings, that the deep-sea voyager is but a careless runaway from home and duty, a shirker of sacred obligations, just everything that he particularly and peculiarly is not.” Also: “the secret of right living is just one thing only, personal sincerity …” This was published in 1911; her husband was still alive. Unspoken Thoughts came out in 1887 (I’m searching again). “Distressed her husband” — it looks as if he was a cattle farmer married to a vegetarian, so no wonder. She started off devout, she says in “Seas”, and then an archdeacon told her that the stories in the bible were legends rather than literal truth and it was all exploration and apostasy, gradual, painful, and convinced, from there. I’m liking this woman; I’m glad you drew my attention to her.

    I agree with Hannah about the photograph. With that ruff on her neck she looks like a cupcake made out of a severed head. Wattle would be my guess too.

    I used to live in the western suburbs of Melbourne, and when we went down to Williamstown we’d walk past her husband’s last church. There’s a road running alongside it now, and a block of housing commission flats on the other side. Keep going past that and you can buy ice cream.

    • Unspoken thoughts is available at the Uni of Sydney’s SETIS site.

      Here is the start of a poem called Reaction: Let us, dear Friend, in mutual strength arise/Against our tyrant Custom, and demand/Free souls and bodies at our own command.

      And the second verse starts: Let us abjure comfortable creeds/Approved by prudent minds, and revel free…

      Strong stuff for a clergyman’s wife at the time – it starts with religious doubts but moves onto wider issues about life. No wonder she published it anonymously.

      I’m glad you’re glad I drew your attention to her!

  5. We, Hungarians, know hardly anything about Australian fiction. I’m thinking of translating an Ada Cambridge novel. Which would you recommend? Would Humble Enterprise be okay?

    • Oh Péter, it would be excellent to translate one of her works. I don’t really know Humble enterprise. I think A woman’s friendship, Sisters and The three Miss Kings are better known works. Is there are reason you ask about Humble enterprise?

  6. Pingback: Blog Post 2:Creative – Te'annie's Blog

  7. Pingback: Blog Post 2: Ada Cambridge – Te'annie's Blog

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