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An Autobiography by Catherine Helen Spence – Australia in the 19thC

April 12, 2020 26 comments

An Autobiography by Catherine Helen Spence. (1910) Not available in French.

On October 31, 1905, I celebrated my eightieth birthday. Twelve months earlier, writing to a friend, I said:—”I entered my eightieth year on Monday, and I enjoy life as much as I did at 18; indeed, in many respects I enjoy it more.”

Catherine Helen Spence (1880) From WikipediaCatherine Helen Spence (1825-1910) was a Scottish-born Australian writer, journalist, social worker and political militant. After reading her novel Mr Hogarth’s Will (1865), a novel I described as Austenian, feminist and progressist, I wanted to know more about the woman who wrote it. So, when I noticed on Goodreads that she had written her autobiography, I decided to read it. EBooks are blessings, I don’t know how I could have put my hands on such a book here in France without an easy download of this free eBook copy.

CH Spence was born in Melrose, Scotland in 1825, in a family of eight. Her father was a banker and a lawyer. In 1839, after her father lost the family fortune, they emigrated to Australia and settled in Adelaide (South Australia). She belonged to a progressive family and benefited from a solid education. Her grandfather experimented with new agricultural methods. He left his farm in the hands of his daughter while he was pursuing other business ventures. In her family, women were part of the family business and not confined to domestic duties.

The capacity for business of my Aunt Margaret, the wit and charm of my brilliant Aunt Mary, and the sound judgment and accurate memory of my own dear mother, showed me early that women were fit to share in the work of this world, and that to make the world pleasant for men was not their only mission.

Her family was very religious (I didn’t understand what religious current it was) and it weighed on her vision of life. She says:

I was 30 years old before the dark veil of religious despondency was completely lifted from my soul, and by that time I felt myself booked for a single life. People married young if they married at all in those days. The single aunts put on caps at 30 as a sort of signal that they accepted their fate; and, although I did not do so, I felt a good deal the same.

She became Unitarian after settling in Australia and never married. From what she writes, I don’t think it was a real issue for her. She had the examples of two very active single aunts with full lives and made a lot of her own. She wrote books, did a lot of social work and was a strong advocate of effective voting. She also raised several orphaned children.

CH Spence writes about her literary career and the difficulty to have one when living in Australia, so far from London. I enjoyed the passages about Mr Hogarth’s Will and her experience as a writer. There are interesting passages about how much she earnt when she sold her novels and how precarious was her manuscripts’ journey to London. I loved her offhanded comment about classics

With all honour to the classical authors, there are two things in which they were deficient—the spirit of broad humanity and the sense of humour.

She knew French and could read book in the original:

It was also from Mrs. Barr Smith that I got so many of the works of Alphonse Daudet in French, which enabled me to give a rejoinder to Marcus Clark’s assertion that Balzac was a French Dickens.

Cheeky me wonders: why wouldn’t Dickens be an English Balzac? After all Father Goriot was published before Oliver Twist.

Besides literature and journalism, Spence explains her social work to improve the lives of women and children in South Australia. With Emily Clark they founded and promoted a system to take children out of destitute asylums and have them raised in approved families. I guess we call it foster care nowadays.

She also fought for a change of the voting system and advocated the Thomas Hare scheme. This is exposed in Mr Hogarth’s Will too and I confess that I didn’t understand the details of the scheme or the voting system in place at her time. The crux of the matter was to change from the current system that was not truly representative of the population to an enlarged pool of voters. Another battle was to obtain the secret ballot. As a feminist, she also petitioned for woman suffrage but thought that it was useless until effective voting was in place.

CH Spence travelled to England and Scotland, visiting the family. She also visited France and Italy. She went to the USA in 1893. She toured the country as a feminist speaker and mad a lot of public interventions. She also visited the Chicago World’s Fair. Imagine that she may have crossed the path of Marie Grandin, a Parisian lady who was at the fair too and wrote about it.

Spence’s autobiography lets the reader hear her voice, the voice of a caring, intelligent and energetic woman. She had strong beliefs and values and put her heart in the causes she chose to advocate. She fought all her life for effective voting. She was still on the board of various social services when she was in her seventies.

I’m glad I read Spence’s autobiography because there were a lot of interesting information in it but it’s not exactly a smooth read. Her prose is a bit heavy and sounds more like an account than a story. She mentions many people that didn’t mean anything to me. They may be famous Australians but as a French reader, it only slowed my reading and it became tedious at times. It feels like she was writing for her contemporary readership and not for posterity. It’s her legacy, an homage to her family, her friends and partners in all her social and political endeavours.

It is also a valuable account of Australia in the 19th century, especially South Australia and Melbourne. However, there is not a word about indigenous people. They don’t exist, it’s like Australia was a desert island at the disposal of colonizers.

My favourite parts were about literature, her comments on writing and characterization, the origin of her novels and her literary interests. I leave you with a last quote for the road, as I know there are many Austen fans out there. 🙂

About this time I read and appreciated Jane Austen’s novels—those exquisite miniatures, which no doubt her contemporaries identified without much interest. Her circle was as narrow as mine—indeed, narrower. She was the daughter of a clergyman in the country. She represented well-to-do grownup people, and them alone. The humour of servants, the sallies of children, the machinations of villains, the tricks of rascals, are not on her canvas; but she differentiated among equals with a firm hand, and with a constant ripple of amusement. The life I led had more breadth and wider interests. The life of Miss Austen’s heroines, though delightful to read about, would have been deadly dull to endure. So great a charm have Jane Austen’s books had for me that I have made a practice of reading them through regularly once a year.

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

AWW_2020

Theatre: Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen

January 27, 2019 12 comments

Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen. (1954) Original French title: Le Livre de ma mère.

I had tickets to see the theatre version of Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen, and I decided to read it before watching the play. It was a whim I’m happy I indulged in.

Albert Cohen was a Swiss writer born in 1895 in the Jewish community of Corfu. When he was five, his parents emigrated to Marseilles after a pogrom. Cohen went to university in Geneva and asked for the Swiss nationality in 1919. His mother died in Marseilles in 1943 when he was working in London.

Published in 1954, Book of My Mother is the memoir of a son to a mother, a way to deal with the pain of losing her, a way to celebrate her life, to give her some kind of immortality and also a way to assuage Cohen’s guilt because of his treatment of her.

Cohen describes his relationship with his mother, their close bond. He mourns her unconditional love for him. She was devoted to his well-being, almost a servant to her son. He evokes his childhood in Marseilles and their routine and her summer trips to Geneva to visit him.

He knows he has been a neglectful son, in a way. He’s painfully honest about his faults towards her. He explains the unbearable pain caused by her death: he’s no longer a son, only an adult now.

Pleurer sa mère, c’est pleurer son enfance. L’homme veut son enfance, veut la ravoir, et s’il aime davantage sa mère à mesure qu’il avance en âge, c’est parce que sa mère, c’est son enfance. J’ai été un enfant, je ne le suis plus et je n’en reviens pas. To grieve one’s mother is to grieve one’s childhood. A man wants his childhood, wants it back and if he loves his mother even more as he gets older, it’s because his mother is his childhood. I was a child, I’m not longer one and I can’t get over it.

He was a fool not to realize that she was mortal; he wasted opportunities to spend time with her. He misses her unconditional love, the certainty that whatever his appearance, his flaws or his faults, her love was a sure thing. He didn’t need to do anything or be anyone to deserve her love, he had it. He had nothing to prove to her.

Book of My Mother is full of deep thoughts about death, enjoying one’s parents and not taking them for granted. Cohen left for Geneva in 1914 and never lived with her after that, except for holidays and visits. He had his own life but just knowing that she was a telegram away, that she was there somewhere and could come to him and that she knew him as a child was enough of a reassurance.

He describes with humor her recommendations and her fussing over him. As the memoir progresses, it gets darker and even morbid. It’s written in a beautiful and poignant prose. I have ten pages of quotes, out of a book of 170 pages.

However, the man was quite infuriating in his feeling of entitlement. He found it normal to have a mother-servant to wait on him. Reading his book, it’s clear that being in a love relationship with Albert Cohen was not a walk in the park. His mother was such a slave full of devotion than no wife could ever compare to her. Rightfully. Who would think normal to get up at three in the morning to deal with her husband’s insomnia and prepare marzipan to comfort him? And this spoiled little boy in a grownup’s body sighs:

Toutes les autres femmes ont leur cher petit moi autonome, leur vie, leur soif de bonheur personnel, leur sommeil qu’elles protègent et gare à qui y touche. Ma mère n’avait pas de moi, mais un fils.

All the other women in the world have their dear little autonomous self, their life, their thirst for their own happiness, their sleep that they safeguard and beware of whom compromises it. My mother had no self, she had a son.

Right.

I was also very uncomfortable with the pet names he uses for his mother. Who calls their mother ma pauvre chérie, ma petite fille chérie, (my poor darling, my darling little girl) I thought it was odd. Cohen and Freud worked for the same magazine in 1925 in Paris. I wonder what Freud thought about Cohen’s relationship with his mother…

Cohen’s mother is like other Jewish mothers you encounter in literature. His relationship with her made me think of works by Philip Roth or of Proust, whose mother came from the Jewish community in Metz. Thinking about how he misses her love, Cohen writes “Le milliardaire de l’amour reçu est devenu clochard.” (The billionaire of love has become a tramp.)

Six years after Albert Cohen published Book of My Mother, another Jewish author wrote in one of his most famous books, the one he wrote to celebrate his mother who died alone in Nice while he was in London during WWII:

Avec l’amour maternel, la vie vous fait à l’aube une promesse qu’elle ne tient jamais. With maternal love, life makes a promise at dawn that it can never hold. 

Promise at Dawn has also been made into a play, giving another eternal life to Mina, mother of Roman Kacew who later became Romain Gary.

Ilustration Hélène Builly

The play version of Book of My Mother focuses on the relationship between mother and child, on Cohen’s childhood and youth in Geneva and on his pain. It leaves behind most of the creepy passages and brings this woman to life and shows her giant, submissive and overwhelming love. She doesn’t even have a first name.  It’s funny and tender.

It was directed by Dominique Pitoiset. The narrator was played by an extraordinary Patrick Timsit who loves this memoir and has wanted to adapt it to the theatre for thirty years. There are some similarities between his personal story and Cohen’s.

Indeed, he was born in Algeria in 1956 in a Jewish family. They came to France when he was two after his father’s store had been attacked and burnt during the war of independance. The book was transposed to our days, the office where the author writes his memoir has a computer when Cohen’s had ink. Timsit lives Cohen’s words and it is apparent that they resonate with him intimately.

They resonate with us too when Albert Cohen transforms his story into a universal tale. In the end of his memoir, he addresses the reader and says:

Fils des mères encore vivantes, n’oubliez plus que vos mères sont mortelles. Je n’aurai pas écrit en vain, si l’un de vous, après avoir lu mon chant de mort, est plus doux avec sa mère, un soir, à cause de moi et de ma mère.

Sons of living mothers, don’t forget that your mothers are mortals. I will not have written in vain, if one of you, after reading my death song, is nicer to his mother, for a night, thanks to my mother and me.

I’ll go a little bit farther because I write this billet in 2019 and not in 1954. One of the benefits from feminism is that now, with a better equality between parents, there will be authors who will write Book of My Father. They will remember fondly of their dads taking them to school, teaching them how to tie their shoes, being up at night when they were sick or helping with homework. All these things that Albert Cohen associated with his mother’s presence.

One can forget their past, it doesn’t mean they’ll recover from it.

May 20, 2011 12 comments

Un roman français by Frédéric Beigbeder. 2009. 246 pages. Will be published in English (UK) in June 2012. Prix Renaudot 2009

Dear Frédéric,

May I call you Frédéric? I think I can after reading Un Roman français; after all, you’ve already let me enter into your head. Notice how English is comfortable here, I don’t have to choose between “tu” and “vous”. Convenient.

I received your book as a Christmas gift and I read it because I chose it for the Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s Challenge, category Take a chance. Read a book which you would rather not. For instance when the OH says ‘you’ll really like this’ and you’re thinking ‘no, I really won’t…’ Yeah, I know, that hurts your pride a little. If that can help, Michel Houellebecq is in my hell’s challenge too. Feel better?

It’s not your fault if I’m suspicious when famous people write books. And you’re famous, well at least in France’s media cosmos. Even I who don’t watch TV or read Elle or tabloids have heard your name. In short, I don’t really know your public character and I started reading your book reluctantly but with fresh eyes. So what’s the verdict? I enjoyed it. Aren’t readers won against their will the most precious ones?  

You say you started writing this autobiography in your head when you were arrested for cocaine abuse on the street. The chapters about your experience in jail aren’t my favourite ones. Don’t you exaggerate a little?

You’ve had a nice childhood and you know it. Your family has always been rich, partly aristocratic and with high connections. Your parents got a divorce; that happens. Your father was absent and week-ends at his place were more about partying than family life. Your mother changed of lovers but was present. Your elder brother looks perfect and you decided you could exist only by being his opposite. You two used to fight constantly.

All this is really banal.  

You’re at your best when you describe your mal de vivre, your clumsiness and your vision of life as a child, like here: “I spent all my childhood fighting against blushing. Someone talked to me? Rosy blotches blossomed on my cheeks. A girl looked at me? My cheekbones turned garnet. The teacher asked me a question in class? My face flushed bright crimson. I had imagined techniques to hide my blushing: redo my shoelaces, turn back as if there were suddenly something fascinating to look at right behind me, run out of the room, hide my face behind my hair, take off my jumper.”

I could feel the tenderness for your daughter Chloë and I appreciate you don’t try to disguise you fail her as a father sometimes. I enjoyed reading your book for its honesty. You genuinely tried to bring back the little boy you were. You also manage to give back the flavour of these years in France. I’m younger than you but I recognised parts of my own childhood. However, I wonder how your translators will deal with Mako Moulage and all those French references but it brought back those years.  

Something else, Frédéric. Stop dropping names and making literary comparisons such as “She was a tall, blond girl bended over her piano like a heroine in a novel by Henry James”. You use them as mental crutches to rely on but you don’t need them. Your writing is good enough, when you write such phrases as “When I left the church, I saw the sun dissolving into the branches of a cypress tree, like a gold nugget in a giant’s hand.” You don’t need to ask for literary approval by invoking the lares of all the dead writers you admire.

You wrote “I haven’t found a better definition of what literature can bring: hearing a human voice” Well, I heard yours.

Best regards.  

PS: I rescued your novel 99F from the archive room at work where it laid abandoned. I’ll probably read it.

 

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