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It was due to Mrs. Webster's second visit to Adelaide to exchange with Mr. Woods that I made the acquaintance of Mr. and Mrs. E. Barr Smith. They went to the church and were shown into my seat, and Mrs. Smith asked me to bring the eloquent preacher to Torrens Park to dine there. I discovered that they had long wanted to know me, but I was out of society. I recollect afterwards going to the office to see Mr. Smith on some business or other, when he was out, and meeting Mr. Elder instead. He pressed on me the duty of going to see Mrs. Black, a lady from Edinburgh, who had come out with her sons and daughter. Mr. Barr Smith came in, and his brother-in-law said, "I have just been telling Miss Spence she should go and call on the Blacks." "Tom," said Mr. Barr Smith, "we have been just 20 years making the acquaintance of Miss Spence. About the year 1899 Miss Spence will be dropping in on the Blacks." What a house Torrens Park was for books. There was no other customer of the book shops equal to the Torrens Park family. Rich men and women often buy books for themselves, and for rare old books they will give big prices; but the Barr Smiths bought books in sixes and in dozens for the joy of giving them where they would be appreciated. On my literary side Mrs. Barr Smith, a keen critic herself, fitted in with me admirably, and what I owed to her in the way of books for about 10 years cannot be put on paper, and in my journalistic work she delighted. Other friendships, both literary and personal, were formed in the decade which started the elementary schools and the University. The first Hughes professor of English literature was the Rev. John Davidson of Chalmers Church, married to Harriet, daughter of Hugh Miller, the self-taught ecologist and journalist.
On the day of the inauguration of the University the Davidsons asked Miss Clark and myself to go with them, and there I met Miss Catherine Mackay (now Mrs. Fred Martin), from Mount Gambier. I at first thought her the daughter of a wealthy squatter of the south-east, but when I found she was a litterateur trying to make a living by her pen, bringing out a serial tale, "Bohemian Born," and writing occasional articles, I drew to her at once. So long as the serial tale lasted she could hold her own; but no one can make a living at occasional articles in Australia, and she became a clerk in the Education Office, but still cultivated literature in her leisure hours. She has 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, the only novel I wrote with tears of emotion. Mrs. Oliphant says that Jeanie Deans is more real to her than any of her own creations, and probably it is the same with me, except for this one work. From an old diary of the fifties, when my first novels were written I take this extract:--"Queer that I who have such a distinct idea of what I approve in flesh-and-blood men should only achieve in pen and ink a set of impossible people, with an absurd muddy expression of gloom, instead of sublime depth as I intended. Men novelists' women are as impossible creations as my men, but there is this difference--their productions satisfy them, mine fail to satisfy me." But in my last novel--still unpublished--felt quite satisfied that I had at last achieved my ambition to create characters that stood out distinctly and real. Miss Clark took the MS. to England, but she could not get either Bentley or Smith Elder, or Macmillan to accept it.
On the death of Mr. John Howard Clark, which took place at this time, Mr. John Harvey Finlayson was left to edit The Register, and I became a regular outside contributor to The Register and The Observer. He desired to keep up and if possible improve the literary side of the papers, and felt that the loss of Mr. Clark might be in some measure made up if I give myself wholeheartedly to the work. Leading articles were to be written at my own risk. If they suited the policy of the paper they would be accepted, otherwise not. What a glorious opening for my ambition and for my literary proclivities came to me in July, 1878, when I was in my fifty-third year! Many leading articles were rejected, but not one literary or social article. Generally these last appeared in both daily and weekly papers. I recollect the second original social article I wrote was on "Equality as an influence on society and manners," suggested by Matthew Arnold. The much-travelled Smythe, then, I think, touring with Charles Clark, wrote to Mr. Finlayson from Wallaroo thus:--"In this dead-alive place, where one might fire a mitrailleuse down the principal street without hurting anybody, I read this delightful article in yesterday's Register. When we come again to Adelaide, and we collect a few choice spirits, be sure to invite the writer of this article to join us." I felt as if the round woman had got at last into the round hole which fitted her; and in my little study, with my books and my pigeon holes, and my dear old mother sitting with her knitting on her rocking chair at the low window, I had the knowledge that she was interested in all I did. I generally read the MS to her before it went to the office. What is more remarkable, perhaps, is that the excellent maid who was with us for 12 years, picked out everything of mine that was in the papers and read it. A series of papers called "Some Social Aspects of Early Colonial Life" I contributed under the pseudonym of "A Colonist of 1839." From 1878 till 1893, when I went round the world via America, I held the position of outside contributor on the oldest newspaper in the State, and for these 14 years I had great latitude. My friend Dr. Garran, then editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, accepted reviews and articles from me. Sometimes I reviewed the same books for both, but I wrote the articles differently, and made different quotations, so that I scarcely think any one could detect the same hand in them; but generally they were different books and different subjects, which I treated. I tried The Australasian with a short story, "Afloat and Ashore," and with a social article on "Wealth, Waste, and Want." I contributed to The Melbourne Review, and later to The Victorian Review, which began by paying well, but filtered out gradually. I found journalism a better paying business for me than novel writing, and I delighted in the breadth of the canvas on which I could draw my sketches of books and of life. I believe that my work on newspapers and reviews is more characteristic of me, and intrinsically better work than what I have done in fiction; but when I began to wield the pen, the novel was the line of least resistance. When I was introduced in 1894 to Mrs. Croly, the oldest woman journalist in the United States, as an Australian journalist, I found that her work, though good ehough, was essentially woman's work, dress, fashions, functions, with educational and social outlooks from the feminine point of view. My work might show the bias of sex, but it dealt with the larger questions which were common to humanity; and when I recall the causes which I furthered, and which in some instances I started, I feel inclined to magnify the office of the anonymous contributor to the daily press. And I acknowledge not only the kindness of friends who put some of the best new books in my way, but the large-minded tolerance of the Editors of The Register, who gave me such a free hand in the treatment of books, of men, and of public questions.
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An Autobiography -by- Catherine Helen Spence