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The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge

January 13, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge (1887). French title: Les trois Miss King.

My only reading plans this year are to read the books for my Book Club and to read one Australian book per month. The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge popped up in the books other bloggers suggested when I asked for Australian books recommendations. This is also an opportunity for me to join the Australian Women Writers Challenge this year as it is compatible with my reading plans. I committed to read and review four books by Australian Women Writers. I’ve had mix-ups with names in the past, originally thinking that Miles Franklin was a man and Kim Scott a woman, so I hope I’ll get everything right in the future.

Here’s the starting point of The Three Miss Kings’ story, a beginning that sounds like a mother reading a bedside story to her children:

On the second of January, in the year 1880, three newly-orphaned sisters, finding themselves left to their own devices, with an income of exactly one hundred pounds a year a-piece, sat down to consult together as to the use they should make of their independence.

Elizabeth, Patty and Eleanor decide to sell their childhood home in the country to move to Melbourne. Their local attorney takes an interest in them after dealing with their father’s will and since his son Paul works as a journalist in Melbourne, he asked him to help the girls settle in the city. So, our three sisters pack everything, say goodbye to their home and pets and take the boat to Melbourne. They know they will be out of their depths there, at least at the beginning but they are confident in their judgment and skills to help them figure things out.

They had no idea what was the “correct thing” in costume or manners, and they knew little or nothing of the value of money; but they were well and widely read, and highly accomplished in all the household arts, from playing the piano to making bread and butter, and as full of spiritual and intellectual aspirations as the most advanced amongst us.

I will not go too much into the plot and how the three sisters enter into Melbourne’s society, find themselves a protector in a childless Mrs Duff-Scott who’s more than happy to “adopt” three grownup daughters and to play matchmaker. There’s also a mystery in the sisters’ filiation which is well introduced in the novel. It is a page turner, I wanted to know what would become of them, what twists and turns Ada Cambridge had in store for me. I switched off my rational mind and enjoyed the ride. If I have to compare The Three Miss Kings to other novels of the period, I’d say it’s something in the middle of A Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy, A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy, Miss McKenzie by Anthony Trollope and Lady Audley’s Secret by ME. Braddon.

Ada Cambridge’s style is also a reason why I enjoyed her book so much. It caught my attention and stirred various reactions. First, I loved her descriptions of the countryside where the sisters grew up.

Second, I noticed that she used French words in the middle of her sentences, like British writers of her time. One day I will note down all the French words in a 19thC British or Australian book to see whether there’s a theme. It seemed to me she used French words for love situations, food and fashion but I might be wrong. I didn’t notice any misuse of French words, I guess she was fluent.

Third, I was very puzzled by some English words or expressions that I’d never encountered before. Ada Cambridge used several times the word commissariat, like here: I am quite used to commissariat business, and can set a table beautifully. In modern French, a commissariat is a police station. Each time I saw the word, the image of a place full of policemen popped in my mind. Disturbing. Then, there was this Mrs Grundy business. The first time Ada Cambridge referred to Mrs Grundy, I thought I’d forgotten about a character of the book. I eventually understood she was not a character of the book and had to research her on Wikipedia. Phew. Talk about confusing.

But mostly, I loved Ada Cambridge’s cheekiness. Do you expect sentences like this is a 19thC book?

As the night drew on, Mrs. Duff-Scott retired to put on her war paint.


Mr. Westmoreland has fallen in love with her really now—as far as such a brainless hippopotamus is capable of falling in love, that is to say.

Who would have thought that war paint was already used at the time? I didn’t see any reference to a powder room, though. It gave me the impression that life in Melbourne’s upper-classes was far more casual and relaxed that life in London.

I enjoyed her style and her tone immensely. I closed the book thinking I would have loved to meet Ada Cambridge. There’s this lightness and humour in her voice but also her vision of life and women that seeps through the sweet story. Patty is a feminist, pushing for her independence and resenting Paul’s interference with their life.

Patty felt that it was having a fall now. “I know it is very kind of Mr. Brion,” she said tremulously, “but how are we to get on and do for ourselves if we are treated like children—I mean if we allow ourselves to hang on to other people? We should make our own way, as others have to do. I don’t suppose you had anyone to lead you about when you first came to Melbourne”—addressing Paul. “I was a man,” he replied. “It is a man’s business to take care of himself.” “Of course. And equally it is a woman’s business to take care of herself—if she has no man in her family.” “Pardon me. In that case it is the business of all the men with whom she comes in contact to take care of her—each as he can.” “Oh, what nonsense! You talk as if we lived in the time of the Troubadours—as if you didn’t know that all that stuff about women has had its day and been laughed out of existence long ago.” “What stuff?” “That we are helpless imbeciles—a sort of angelic wax baby, good for nothing but to look pretty. As if we were not made of the same substance as you, with brains and hands—not so strong as yours, perhaps, but quite strong enough to rely upon when necessary. Oh!” exclaimed Patty, with a fierce gesture, “I do so hate that man’s cant about women—I have no patience with it!”

The writer under these words appeared to have a progressist view of women’s place in society. She also refers to Darwin’s theories in passing and we know they were controversial at the time. Her vision of religion is also daring for her century. I had the feeling she was well-read and modern, that she was not afraid to speak up for herself and for her gender, that she was interested in new theories, in progress in social matters as well as in science. She comes out as a woman involved and in advance for her time.

On a personal level, I also share her vision of life, the one she describes in this paragraph:

“There is no greater mistake in life than to sacrifice the substance of the present for the shadow of the future. We most of us do it—until we get old—and then we look back to see how foolish and wasteful we have been, and that is not much comfort to us. What we’ve got, we’ve got; what we are going to have nobody can tell. Lay in all the store you can, of course—take all reasonable precautions to insure as satisfactory a future as possible—but don’t forget that the Present is the great time, the most important stage of your existence, no matter what your circumstances may be.”

Yep, definitely someone I would have loved to have a long chat with.

Reading The Three Miss Kings is also my participation to Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week. Talk about killing two challenges with one book!

  1. January 13, 2018 at 10:56 pm

    I really enjoy Ada Cambridge’s descriptions of Melbourne in the 1880s, and I’m a sucker for romance! Though as it happens I have another review – Cambridge’s A Marked Man – coming up in AWW Gen 1 week which is set in Sydney. As you’ve noted, Cambridge was pretty independent in her thinking, though she had to be a bit careful about what she wrote as she was married to a Church of England vicar. Thanks for taking part.


    • January 14, 2018 at 12:38 pm

      I loved her descriptions of the Melbourne International Exhibition. No offense, but I wondered how they expected anyone to come so far away for it. I’m sure it was fantastic for the locals but it must have been quite a trip for the exhibitors.

      I wonder how things were at home between her and her vicar of a husband! Either he was pretty liberal himself or they must have clashed. It says a lot about Australian society that she could even publish books with such ideas. She had a lot against her being a woman married to a clergyman.

      I’d love to read more by her. I find these books totally unrealistic but very good, like a sinful treat.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. January 13, 2018 at 11:26 pm

    I bought this used from a bookshop and the book seller seemed surprised that it was on his shelves. He also seemed to regret not reading it before selling it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 13, 2018 at 11:34 pm

      This one is for you even if you might find it a bit too romancey.


  3. January 14, 2018 at 12:11 am

    *snap* I have just finished reading Mr Hogarth’s Will by Spence for Bill’s AWW Gen 1 challenge too. I really liked it, so I’ll definitely be looking out for the Three Miss Kings as well.


    • January 14, 2018 at 12:45 pm

      Great! I’ll be happy to read your thoughts about it.


      • January 14, 2018 at 1:11 pm

        On the blog tomorrow, and also on Bill’s at The Australian Legend.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. January 14, 2018 at 12:05 pm

    A lovely perceptive review Emma. I read two books by Ada Cambridge – A woman’s friendship and Sisters – back in the late 1980s/early 1990s and it was her cheekiness too that I particularly loved. I mean she was a clergyman’s wife but she certainly wasn’t meek in her writing.

    I love your comments about the French words too. I’d love you to do that research!

    Finally, I was fascinated by your mix-ups about the genders of Miles Franklin and Kim Scott – but, thinking about it, I realise it’s completely understandable. And of course, Miles Franklin’s her first name was a female name, Stella.


    • January 14, 2018 at 12:44 pm

      I love her cheekiness and I find it remarkable that she was so free in her speech. Her husband must have been modern for his time too otherwise, he would have silenced her.
      As I wrote to Bill in an earlier comment, the freedom of speech she had says a lot about Australian society in those years.

      One day, I will highlight all the French words in an Anglophone novel from the 19thC. It’s easy to do with the kindle. I can tell you Cambridge’s French was a lot better and more precise that ME Braddon’s! I wrote about it a bit in my billet about Lady Audley’s Secret.

      I guess Miles Franklin is like George Eliot and George Sand. I just assumed she was a man until I researched her.
      And yes, sorry, but for me Kim is a female name, so my first thought was that he was female.


    • February 15, 2018 at 7:14 pm

      Thanks for the link to your round up of January reviews on the Australian Women Writer blog.


  5. January 14, 2018 at 12:14 pm

    I loved this book, I also enjoyed her style and tone. I wonder if there are other books by her available.


    • January 14, 2018 at 12:33 pm

      Yes, they are. I actually bought an omnibus collection on the kindle.


  6. January 14, 2018 at 1:42 pm

    I thought the same about Miles Franklin and Kim Scott. Sounds like an interesting book. I’d like to read more Australian literature as well but I will stick to my piles for now.


    • January 14, 2018 at 2:15 pm

      THANK YOU for your admission. I feel a lot less foolish now.

      It’s an interesting and entertaining book. I understand why you’d want to stick to decrease the TBR, though.

      I hope you’re doing well and that your eyes are OK.


      • January 14, 2018 at 2:24 pm

        Miles in fact wished to be thought a man but her identity as “just a young bush girl” was revealed by Henry Lawson in his introduction to My Brilliant Career. Later she concealed herself more successfully behind the nom de plume Brent of Bin Bin.


        • January 14, 2018 at 9:39 pm

          Why did she want to conceal herself? Apparently, there were other women writers in her time.

          PS: Brent of Bin Bin? Isn’t that a funny name?


          • January 14, 2018 at 11:43 pm

            I agree! From where I sit, women writers were popular and accepted yet some still took men’s names, Henry Handel Richardson (Ethel Robertson nee Richardson) was another. MF’s name means she (he) was Brent the owner of a property called Bin Bin which was in fact the name of her father’s old property, called in Australia a station, thousands of acres of grazing country


            • January 15, 2018 at 10:04 am

              It occurs to me that you should think of her alter ego as M. Brent de Bin Bin 🙂


            • January 16, 2018 at 2:13 pm

              Oh dear, I’ve done it again. I thought Henry Handel Richardson was a man…
              My stack of books for AWW just went up. 🙂

              Thanks for the information about Miles Franklin. I suppose this station looks a lot like the one in My Brilliant Career. (Next book to be reviewed…)


      • January 15, 2018 at 5:42 pm

        You’re welcome. 🙂
        I’m doing much better, thank you. Even thinking about finally going to Quai du polar. Last year I wasn’t allowed to travel because of the eye thing. I’m not someone who makes quick decisions . . .


        • January 16, 2018 at 2:14 pm

          That’s great news about you thinking of coming at Quais du Polar and since you have 2.5 months to make the decision to come, is that safe to say I’ll have the pleasure to meet you? 🙂


          • January 16, 2018 at 3:50 pm

            Let’s say – maybe. I’m looking into it. 🙂 It would be fun.


          • January 16, 2018 at 3:56 pm

            I just saw your answer to Tom – did you mean Entrez dans le gang – Adhésion, does that give you a laisser passer?


            • January 16, 2018 at 8:04 pm

              Yes. 30 euros you get a book and a laisser passer. Cool!!


              • January 16, 2018 at 8:32 pm

                It is. I’m really tempted.

                Liked by 1 person

              • January 16, 2018 at 9:38 pm

                I hope you give in to temptation.


  7. January 14, 2018 at 8:33 pm

    Great review. I love that last quote! So powerful. Thank you for sharing this. Wish you the best – speak766


    • January 14, 2018 at 9:33 pm

      Thank you and welcome to Book Around the Corner!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. January 15, 2018 at 10:25 pm

    How interesting. Thanks, Emma. Between this one and Mr Hogarth’s Will, I have a couple of nice ideas for the 19thCenturyLit group.

    I’ve seen ‘war paint’ used in a Balzac translation. I especially recall it being in Pere Goriot. I’d have to check what words Balzac used. The translation I more or less recall seeing it in was from around 1900. (I’ve read Goriot in at least six different translations, but I’m pretty sure it was in the one titled Father Goriot by Ellen Marriage. I’ve read that one about three times and it is the one at PG. This is assuming I’ve got the right book, lol.)


    • January 16, 2018 at 2:20 pm

      Thanks Dagny, I’m glad it gave you suggestions for you book club.

      Very interesting about the “war paint” reference. It sounds so contemporary.
      I wonder if it comes from books by Fenimore Cooper or something like that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • January 16, 2018 at 11:47 pm

        Good thinking, Emma. It could well be since Fenimore Cooper was one of Balzac’s favorite authors.


        • January 19, 2018 at 11:06 pm

          I didn’t know Balzac was fond of Fenimore Cooper. Thanks for the info.

          Liked by 1 person

          • January 20, 2018 at 2:25 am

            Reportedly one of Balzac’s three favorite authors. Another was Sir Walter Scott. I’ve blanked on the third. He had no English, so read them in French translations.


            • January 21, 2018 at 10:13 am

              One of these days I need to read Walter Scott and Fenimore Cooper and try to understand why they were so influencial.

              Liked by 1 person

  9. January 16, 2018 at 11:40 pm

    I had never heard of Ada Cambridge before but this sounds really fun! I’ll have to see whether I can find one of her books somewhere. Thanks for introducing her to those of us who didn’t know about her (though I admit I was almost put off by the comparison with Lady Audley’s Secret, which I really disliked when I read it some 10 years ago).


    • January 19, 2018 at 11:09 pm

      I had fun with Lady Audley’s Secret.
      I think The Three Miss Kings is superior, stylewise. I’m not sure you’ll find it in French, though.


  10. February 14, 2018 at 8:10 pm

    Don’t worry about the Miles Franklin gender mix-up. Quite a few Australians have thought she was a he. 🙂


    • February 15, 2018 at 7:03 pm

      Thanks and welcome to Book Around the Corner!


  1. January 21, 2018 at 2:04 am
  2. January 21, 2018 at 10:00 pm
  3. February 10, 2018 at 5:27 pm
  4. February 14, 2018 at 11:40 pm
  5. March 14, 2018 at 11:36 pm
  6. January 3, 2019 at 6:31 pm
  7. February 9, 2020 at 12:47 pm
  8. April 26, 2020 at 4:37 pm
  9. May 20, 2020 at 8:16 am

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