Delicious descriptions from Down Under: Ada Cambridge on the “bare necessities”

In her novel Sisters, Ada Cambridge describes the plight of one sister who is suddenly left penniless (more or less) and has to move out of her home. The scene is set … the character is packing to move, with the house and her life in disarray:

Deb sat amid the ruins of her home. She occupied the lid of a deal-packing case that enclosed a few hundreds of books, and one that was half-filled stood before her, with a scatter of odd volumes on the floor around.


‘That cottage you talk about,’ he said, ‘will not hold all those.’

‘Oh, books don’t take any space,’ she replied brusquely. ‘They are no more than tapestry or frescoes. I shall have cases made to fit flat to the walls.’

‘That will cost money.’

‘One must have the bare necessities of life …’

You can tell that Deb is going to be one of the more interesting characters in the book, can’t you?

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.