Home > 19th Century, Australian Literature, Classics, Highly Recommended, Novel, Spence Catherine Helen, Translation Tragedy > Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Helen Spence – Austenian, feminist and progressist

Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Helen Spence – Austenian, feminist and progressist

February 9, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Helen Spence (1865) Not available in French

According to Wikipedia, Miles Franklin called Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910), the Greatest Australian Woman. And after reading her biography, I can understand why. Born in Scotland, she emigrated to Australia when she was 14, after her family lost their fortune.

She became a journalist and a writer. She was the first woman to compete in a political election in Adelaide. She was a social activist and worked to  improve the quotidian of children living in institutions. She never married but raised orphaned children. Her plate on her birth house in Melrose, Scotland, says it all.

Mr Hogarth’s Will is her most famous novel. When the book opens, we’re in a solicitor’s office in Scotland. Mr Hogarth, a bachelor who raised his late sister’s daughters, Jane and Elsie, has just passed away. He was a gentleman with an estate in Scotland, not very far from Edinburg. He raised the girls as if they were boys, not because he’d wished they’re were boys but because he thought that a boy’s education was a lot more useful in life than a woman’s and that society shouldn’t waste half of its brain power.

When the solicitor unveils the stipulations of Mr Hogarth’s will, everyone is in shock. Jane and Elsie are left with almost nothing, because their uncle wanted them to use their skills to provide for themselves. He was certain that their education was enough to help them find a well-paid job.

His fortune and his estate go to his son, Francis Hogarth, a man in his early thirties that nobody has ever heard of. Mr Hogarth got secretly married in his youth and provided for his son and made sure that he became a sensible adult. Francis had been working as a bank clerk for 18 years when his father died. The will stipulates that Francis cannot help his cousins and cannot marry one of them, unless his inheritance goes to charities.

That’s the setting. What will Jane, Elsie and Francis become after this twist of fate? I’m not going to give away too much of the plot because it’s such a pleasure to follow Jane, Elsie and Francis in their endeavors.

Spence put elements from her own experience in the book and uses it to push her social and political ideas. The girls go and live with a former launderess Peggy Walker. She used to work for Mr Hogarth and now raises her sister’s children. She spent several years in a station in Australia and opens Jane and Elsie to the possibilities offered by life in the colonies. She’s a window to Australia.

Francis Hogarth is a good man, who is embarrassed by all the money he inherited. He would like to help his cousins but he can’t. He and Jane develop a good relationship, as he enjoys her conversation and her intelligence. He had to earn a living before getting all his money, and knows the value of hard work and well-earned money. He will experiment new things in his estate, to better the lives of the labourers on his land.

Elsie is prettier than Jane, more feminine too. She’s more likely to make an advantageous marriage. In appearance, she’s more fragile than Jane and relies on her older sister. She’l make a living as a milliner.

Of course, Jane can’t find a job in Edinburg because nobody wants to hire a woman even if she has the skills to be a bank clerk like Francis. Finding a job as a governess seems tricky since she can’t play the piano, embroider or paint. She eventually finds one with the Philipps, a Scottish family who got rich in Australia and is now back in the old country and lives in London.

Spence mixes a set of characters who have lived in Scotland all their lives and some who have lived in Scotland and in Australia. It allows her to compare the two ways of life and advertise life in the colonies. Through her characters, she discusses a lot of topics but I think that the most important point she’s making are that people should be judged according to their own value and accomplishments and not according to their birth.

Indeed, Jane and Elsie never look down on people who were not born in their social class and don’t hesitate to live with Peggy Walker or ask Miss Thomson’s for advice. They respect people who have a good work ethic, common sense and do their best with the cards they were given. And, according to Spence, Australia offers that kind of possibilities.

Spencer also insists on education as a mean to develop one’s skills and reach one’s potential. What’s the use of an education centered on arts and crafts? It’s a beautiful companion to other skills –Francis Hogarth is a well-read man—but how useful is it to find work? Why not help poor but capable young men to better themselves through a good education that gives them access to better paid professions? That’s what Jane does with Tom, one of Peggy Walker’s nephews. The social canvas is brand new in Australia, Spence says that capable people have better chances at succeeding there than in Scotland.

Reminder: this book was published in 1865. She was such a modern thinker.

Mr Hogarth’s Will isn’t just about giving a forum to Spence’s ideas. It is also a wonderful Austenian novel with lovely characters. Jane and Elsie have something of Elinor and Marianne and of Jane and Elizabeth. Francis Hogarth could have been friends with Mr Knightley. There’s a Miss Philipps who could be Miss Bingley’s offspring. I had a soft spot for Mr Philipps, an affectionate man who gives a real shot at fatherhood and has quite a modern way to interact with his children. He seemed to be a better version of Mr Bennet.

So, many, many, many thanks to Lisa, for reviewing this book. I would never have read this without her and I had a wonderful reading time in Jane, Elsie and Francis’s company. Thankfully, I am able to read books in English because this is not available in French. What a Translation Tragedy.

I wonder why this wasn’t transalted at the time it was published. Did the political and feminist tone of Mr Hogarth’s Will rubbed the male French publishers of the 19thC the wrong way? I’ve read five books of the 19thC whose main theme is the fate of women without a fortune or who are unmarried. I’ve read The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy (1888), Miss McKenzie by Anthony Trollope (1865), The Odd Women by George Gissing (1893), The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge (1883) and Mr Hogarth’s Will.

Out of the five, only the Trollope is available in French, because, well, it’s Trollope and still, the translation dates back to 2010!!! I’m a bit suspicious. Isn’t that a strange coincidence that these novels who question the place given to women in the British society were not made available to the French public? I think that the French society of the 19thC was a chauvinist society and that it lasted decades into the 20thC. The French 19thC had many women leading literary salons but no prominent female writer except George Sand. At least, no published ones, because, who knows how much talent was wasted? Is it farfetched to think that these British and Australian novels were questioning the established order regarding the roles of men and women and thus were judged too controversial for translation?

Update on April 26, 2020. I’ve decided to join the Australian Women Writer Challenge for 2020. This is my first contribution. 


  1. February 9, 2020 at 12:53 pm

    What an interesting thought, that the novels you list were neglected for translation into French because French society was chauvinist! It’s always surprised me that France, whose revolutionary ideals inspired democracy around the world, took so long to give women the vote!


    • February 9, 2020 at 12:57 pm

      Napoléon was a fan of the Roman empire: the place given to women in the French law is inspired by that. And women in Rome were forever minors.
      It was a set back after the Revolution.
      Then, the Third Republic resisted the idea of giving the right to vote to women because the men thought they’d vote according to what the church would tell them to. And the church side was more on monarchy than republic…


      • February 9, 2020 at 2:59 pm

        Are there heroines in the movement for French female suffrage like there are in the movement in Britain and Australia?


        • February 9, 2020 at 3:31 pm

          No one that I can think of. So I looked on Wikipedia and the movement in France in the 19thc. Doesn’t seem to have taken the country by storm.


          • February 9, 2020 at 3:36 pm

            It could just be that no one’s got round to it. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that there was a proper history of the movement here in Australia.


            • February 9, 2020 at 3:44 pm

              Maybe. But in any case they aren’t famous like Florence Nightingale or Marie Curie.


              • February 9, 2020 at 3:50 pm

                Yes, they are women I knew about even as a girl…


              • February 9, 2020 at 11:43 pm

                Exactly. The only ones I’ve heard of are Olympe de Gouge (Révolution) and Flora Tristan.


              • February 9, 2020 at 11:51 pm

                I’ve heard of Olympe, off to Wikipedia now to find out about Flora:)


  2. February 9, 2020 at 12:57 pm

    Emma, I think it’s wonderful that you read and enjoyed this book (I take a little bit of the credit for persuading Lisa to read it in the first place, not that I have myself). Spence was a great leader of the women’s movement in Australia, and a good writer besides. I like your speculation about why a translation wasn’t published in France. Much Australian women’s fiction of this time was stridently anti-marriage … this forms the background to My Brilliant Career, which you have also reviewed … and probably it was not very popular with publishers who were of course all men. I will add this review to the Australian Women Writers Gen 1 page straight away.


    • February 9, 2020 at 1:01 pm

      You can take credit, indeed, since your event about reading Australian women from the first generation pushed Lisa to pick Mr Hogath’s Will on the shelf. Thanks for addding my billet to your page.

      I wish I could investigate this idea of chauvinist censorship but I don’t have the skills for that or the time. Still it’s intriguing, isn’t it?


      • February 9, 2020 at 12:12 pm

        Here is a link to the book in PDF format
        (please edit it out if the link is against your policy)
        In the C19th Australia was just a subset of the English market, though royalties for sales in the colonies were only a fraction of royalties for sales in the UK, which made life hard for colonial writers. Still, all these women got published. It was only when we got publishers in Australia that women – notably Miles Franklin and Christina Stead – were refused publication.


  3. Vishy
    February 9, 2020 at 3:45 pm

    Beautiful review, Emma! I haven’t heard of Catherine Helen Spence before. This book looks wonderful! I want to read this! The first part of the book felt like the first season of the TV series ‘Downton Abbey’, which explored many of the same themes in the beginning. Have you watched that? Loved reading all the comments too. Very insightful and thought-provoking. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂


    • February 9, 2020 at 11:45 pm

      Thanks Vishy!
      Can’t say I’m a fan of Downtown Abbey. It’s too much about the good old days for my taste.
      But as far as Mr Hogarth’s Will is concerned, I really recommend it.


      • Vishy
        February 11, 2020 at 12:22 pm

        Yeah, that is true, I agree with you 😁 Will try to read Mr.Hogarth’s Will soon. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. February 9, 2020 at 5:41 pm

    This sounds such an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. I’ve not read Spence but I’ll look out for her now.


    • February 9, 2020 at 11:44 pm

      I really think you’d like this one. Go for it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. February 9, 2020 at 11:58 pm

    PS Flora Tristan is *fascinating*! And Maria Vargos Llosa has written about her in The Way to Paradise, which I have reserved at the library!


  6. February 19, 2020 at 3:02 am

    I have this one already and have yet to get to it.


    • February 19, 2020 at 11:34 am

      You’ll probably enjoy it. I’d say it’s your kind of book.


  1. April 12, 2020 at 9:02 am
  2. April 26, 2020 at 4:37 pm

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