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Catherine Helen Spence: Writing career

A guide to Catherine Helen Spence featuring writings about her and a chronological bibliography of her works.

'When I see the volumes of press cuttings I have I know that a great deal of my very best work was given to the daily press—that ephemeral channel.'

So wrote Catherine Helen Spence in a letter to Alice Henry, held in the State Library of South Australia.

Catherine Spence was Australia's first fully professional female journalist. It is true that some women before her wrote for the newspapers, but none of them, either before her or for many years after, wrote so copiously or covered such a wide range of subjects or wielded such influence as did Spence. She published stories, poems, articles and letters in newspapers and periodicals, in South Australia particularly, but also in other states and other countries. Many items, especially leaders, were published anonymously. In her Autobiography (p.55) she explained that she wrote the leaders, that is, editorial articles, at her own risk. If they suited the policy of the paper they were accepted, otherwise not. Many other articles were published anonymously, and Spence also used her initials and several pseudonyms, notably 'SPES' and 'A Colonist of 1839'.

From 1878 until she left for a tour of the United States of America in April 1893, Spence was on the outside staff of the South Australian Register, one of Adelaide's two daily papers, and most of her work was done for the Register, but she wrote also for the Adelaide Observer, Adelaide Advertiser, the Adelaide Herald, the Melbourne Argus, Age and Leader, the Sydney Morning Herald, Mail and Daily Telegraph, the Brisbane Courier and the Queenslander, among other papers. This was her most productive period, but she first began publishing in newspapers in 1845 and the first episode of her last journalistic effort, her Autobiography, appeared in the Register alongside her obituary in 1910.

Spence wrote poems, novels, short stories, stories for children, acting charades, puzzles, and many articles about literature and children's literature. Education, particularly the education of girls, women's issues, and the welfare of women and children were continuing interests. For fifteen years she was a member of a School Board of Advice. She served on the Boarding-out Society, on the State Children's Council and on the Destitute Board and frequently used her experience to comment on relevant issues. She had a continuing interest in politics and for fifty years she pursued the cause of proportional representation (which she called effective voting) and she was active in the fight for woman's suffrage. Social issues interested her: taxation, labour issues, the treatment of criminals, destitution, the drink question, gambling, prostitution, domestic violence, the treatment of servants. In addition she wrote about travel, religion, and history; about America, Canada, Great Britain and about the ways they differed from Australia. She also wrote many book reviews dealing with a variety of subjects. She never conducted a woman's page. Whenever she wrote about and for women, as she did frequently, she set women's needs and interests in a social or political context. In most cases her titles give a good indication of the subject matter.

She became a popular and successful public speaker and preacher. She gave many lectures which were reported in the papers and she attended and spoke at many meetings. I have included in the bibliography reports of meetings at which she spoke; many of these reports contain summaries of her speeches or papers or contain significant comments by or about her. Others merely record her attendance, but in doing so help to show the width of her interests and the extent of her influence.

Catherine Helen Spence's autobiography, though a valuable source, is unfortunately often misleading. She was 84 and in indifferent health when she began to write it, and died before she had completed it. (It was completed by her much younger friend Jeanne Young.) She was constrained to compress a very long life into a series of short newspaper articles and she had revised only the first three chapters before her death. It is not surprising that the autobiography shows evidence of haste and faltering memory, that events are telescoped, and that there are many omissions.

by Barbara Wall