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Towards the close of 1890 the Australian booksellers a cautious, conservative class in their attitude towards new fiction, especially that produced by the adventurous female writer of these latter days began to display so marked an interest in the work of Ada Cambridge, that one not acquainted with the circumstances of the case might have credited them with a friendly possibly a patriotic desire to give due place to a newly-risen native genius. And when, in the following year, another story from the same pen appeared, the popularity of the author was firmly established.

The neat red volumes were on every stall; the Mudie of Melbourne gave them a place of honour in his show-window, and the leading critical review said that the second story possessed a charm which ought to induce even the person who ignored fiction on principle to make an exception in its favour. It was the kind of gratifying recognition that the public always believes itself eager to offer the deserving young writer. Yet Ada Cambridge’s literary work had extended over no less a period than fifteen years. Of course, much of this delay in securing recognition might have been avoided. Probably in England she could have won a substantial reputation in a third of the time, and with half the labour expended by her in contributing to the Australian press. But, as the wife of a country clergyman, she had other matters besides literature to occupy her attention, and was content to write when there happened to be leisure for it, and to see her work in a few of the leading colonial newspapers.

About half a dozen novels were issued in this way, besides occasional articles and poems. The publication of the longer stories in the Australasian, a high-class weekly journal, ought in itself to have made a name for the author, and possibly would have done so, were they not in most cases so obviously a local product, and therefore not to be seriously considered. It was a repetition of the experience of Rolf Boldrewood. In the end, as usual, it was the English public that first accepted her novels for what they were worth.

Ada Cambridge is a native of Norfolk, the lonely fens and quaint villages of which are a picturesque background of some of her best stories. In 1870, shortly after her marriage, she went with her husband, the Rev. George Frederick Cross, a clergyman of the Church of England, to Wangaratta, in Victoria. After residing successively in several other country towns of this colony, they settled in 1893 at Williamstown, a waterside suburb of Melbourne.

A novel entitled Up the Murray, dealing with life in the colonies, was published by Ada Cambridge (the author continues to issue her work under her maiden name) in the Melbourne press in 1875. Others of the same character followed at irregular intervals. Two were issued in book-form by a London firm of publishers, but did not attain to much more than a library circulation.

When the author again came before the English public, it was with a novel in which the purely Australian interest was rigidly subordinated to dramatic quality and a richly sympathetic study of character. A Marked Man is the story of a younger son of an old English county family who, while sharing the pride and indomitable spirit of his ancestry, develops a hatred for conventional prejudices and religious cant, and, after making a final assertion of independence by marrying a farmer’s daughter, emigrates to New South Wales to establish a name and fortune on his own account.

The first half of the action takes place in England, the remainder in the colonies. The natural beauties surrounding the home of the Delavels at Sydney are not less delicately and poetically described than the village life they have left behind in the mother country the patriarchal rule of an old-fashioned, rather pompous house, over a people retaining the hereditary respect of vassals for their feudal lord; but the view given of Australian society is, in keeping with the relation to it of Richard Delavel and his household, of the slightest kind.

Delavel and the only daughter whom he has trained to be his second self, whose comradeship makes him almost forget the long-drawn thraldom of his early mésalliance, live in a world so much and so necessarily their own, that one is grateful for the good taste which excluded from it the bustle and commoner interests of colonial life. The novel met with general, and in several instances cordial, favour in England, and since then the author has yearly increased her reputation.

Three out of five of the later novels are, like A Marked Man, made comparatively independent of the distinctively local interest to which we have been accustomed in the works of most Australian authors. It is not possible, for example, to point out anything in the shape of an essentially local first cause for any of the principal incidents of Not All in Vain and A Marriage Ceremony. The passionate half-brute, Neil Hammond, who pursues the heroine of the former story across the world, and terrorises her with his unwelcome attentions, would have met a violent death, or himself have murdered someone, in his own country or elsewhere as inevitably as in Australia; and the man who killed him would not have found Katherine Knowles less faithful during the long years of his imprisonment had her sacrifice been under the daily observation of Hammond’s family and her own strait-laced aunts in their East Norfolk home.

In A Marriage Ceremony, the only advantage secured by taking the story from London to Melbourne instead of to New York, let us say seems to lie in whatever added strength the sense of greater distance imparts to the temporary appearance of a final separation between Betty Ochiltree and her strangely-wedded husband. The marriage that was a condition of their inheritance having been performed, bride and bridegroom part in accordance with a previous agreement. The former reappears as a prominent figure in the society of modern Melbourne the Melbourne of 1893, when the failure of banks and land companies was a regular subject of morning news.

Here, it might be supposed, was an opportunity for one or two vivid and instructive sketches of the sensational period that witnessed the proof of so much folly and its punishment, and wrought so many more effects on all classes of Australian society than could be noted in the common records of the time. But the great crisis is almost ignored in the novel. There are merely a few passing references to its progress, and a mention of the loss on the part of Mrs. Ochiltree of some of the wealth which she is beginning to regard as having been rather spuriously acquired.

Even the very successful story of the Three Miss Kings and A Mere Chance tell little of the city life of Australia, though their action is placed in it almost exclusively. The latter is a tale of match-making intrigue and money-worship in Toorak, but the main interest of the plot apart, the account of fashionable Melbourne is a singularly colourless one. As for Mrs. Duff-Scott and her Major, the amiable pair who in the character of leaders of Melbourne society undertake to find husbands for Elizabeth King and her sisters, and whose benevolent intentions are so effectually forestalled, they are as conventionally English as though they belonged to the pages of Miss Braddon or Mrs. Henry Wood.

Again, though during half of Fidelis we are given occasional impressive and delightful glimpses of Nature under southern skies, the principal characters are English, and in England is centred first and last the dominant pathos of the story. A complete absence of dialect from the novels helps to emphasise the author’s slender use of extraneous aids to interest.

The influence of Ada Cambridge’s twenty-five years’ Australian experience is shown in her general outlook upon life, rather than in the details of her work. The prevailing tone of her books is one of marked cheerfulness, sincerity, and simplicity; she has a hearty dislike for conventional stupidities, especially for the mock-modesty that stifles honest sentiment; and she gives emphatic endorsement to the pleasant dictum (which seems so much more feasible in sunny Australia than in colder northern lands) that the second half of life is not less fruitful and satisfying than the first.

As the general effect of Ada Cambridge’s teaching, so far as it can be gathered from her plots, and the few instances in which she has permitted herself anything in the shape of didactic expression, is to make us more patient with life’s complexities and perceptive of its compensations, and more content with whatever happiness may be drawn in our way by the chain of accidents called Destiny, so do her principal characters, in their foibles and their strength in the little acts and impulses which qualify alike their heroism and their baseness tend to make us more discriminative and charitable.

In almost every case they are strong studies from some point of view. Of deliberate analysis there is very little; but there are numerous realistic touches not commonly admitted in fiction, which, handled with skill and insight, keep the character within the pale of common experience and increase rather than alienate the reader’s sympathy. Thus, Richard Delavel’s outburst of relief upon the death of his first wife, so far from being vulgar and brutal, as it might have seemed in other circumstances, recalls and emphasises the high sense of duty and honour and the iron self-restraint which had enabled him to be in all essentials a good husband for twenty-five years to a cold-hearted creature, between whom and himself there had never been either common interest or feeling, and for whose sake he had relinquished the woman that would have been his real mate in intellect and sympathy. Delavel’s housekeeper, who is also a privileged friend, takes him to task for his unseemly hurry to go in search of this old love before his wife had been a week in her grave. He makes no secret of his relief. ’The sense that I am free is turning my brain with joy,’ he confesses.

’I say it because I feel it. I am aware that it is in very bad taste, but that doesn’t make it the less true. Do you suppose people are never glad when their relations die? They are very often; they can’t help it; only they pretend they are not, because it seems so shocking. I don’t pretend at least, I need not pretend to you. The fault is not always not all on the side of the survivors, Hannah. I don’t think I am any worse than those who pretend a grief that they don’t feel. I was never unkind to her never in my life, that I can remember. I did not kill her; I would have kept her alive as long as I possibly could. I think I hope that if I could have saved her by the sacrifice of my own life, I should have done it without a single moment’s hesitation.’

‘I am sure you would,’ said Hannah.

‘But,’ he continued, with that unwonted fire blazing in his eyes, ’since dead she is, I am glad I am, I am! I am glad as a man who has been kept in prison is to be let out. It is not my fault; I would be sorry if I could. Some day, Hannah some day, when we have been dust for a few hundred years perhaps for a few score only people will wake up to see how stupid it is to drive a man to be glad when his wife is dead. They are finding out so many things; they will find that out too in time.’

Probably it will still appear to many that Delavel’s admission was at least indelicate and inconsistent with his chivalrous nature. It is not here possible to convey an adequate impression of his fiery spirit, his long heart-hunger, and the magnitude of the loss which a wholly uncongenial marriage must ever mean to such a man. When the full story of his life and that of his quietly ‘implacable’ wife is read, his conduct seems natural and excusable. It is as much a part of himself as the tremulous tenderness with which he ministers to the comfort of the frail Constance Bethune, after finding and bringing her home, or as his fierce grief when she dies.

Another very human spectacle that illustrates the author’s method is the reunion of Betty and Rutherford Ochiltree the frank selfishness of their mutual joy while the poor woman who had been an unconscious barrier between them lies dead under their roof. It is a somewhat painful episode, and precludes anything like high esteem for Rutherford, but it has the quality of intense actuality.

In like manner is Adam Drewe shorn of some of the merit of his devotion to the heroine of Fidelis by being shown in successive attachments to other women during his long exile in Australia. The author recognises that, ’the laws of literary romance being so much at variance with the laws of Nature,’ Adam is certain to suffer in the reader’s good opinion for having ’continued to hunger for feminine sympathy as well as his daily dinner.’ No doubt his stature as a hero lessens when it appears that though the absent Fidelia was ever in his thoughts, and a daily source of inspiration to him as a writer, he twice narrowly escaped marriage first with a servant girl at his lodgings, and afterwards with the daughter of his landlady and that at another period of his colonial life he became involved in a disreputable kind of Bohemianism. But he is not disgraced by these lapses to the extent that the author anticipates; at all events, they make him more human than he could otherwise have been.

It is this power of infusing a robust humanity into her characters that makes the distinctive feature of Ada Cambridge’s best novels. In each, whatever the quality of the plot, there are always two or three personages who talk and act as real men and women do now rationally or in obedience to custom, now passionately or with that perversity which, as the author once describes it, ’is like a natural law, independent of other laws, the only one that persistently defies our calculations.’ They are mostly big people with big appetites. The beauty of the women is the beauty of mind and of sound physical health.

Susy Delavel was tall, well grown, straight and graceful, with an intelligent, eager face, though ’her mouth was large, her nose not all it should have been, and her complexion showed the want of parasols and veils.’ She was ‘not handsome at all, but decidedly attractive.’

Sarah French, the girl in Fidelis whose comeliness so nearly drew the hero from his old allegiance, has ’a strong and good, rather than a pretty, face,’ with a ‘large and substantial figure.’ Adam Drewe concluded on first sight of her that she was a nice woman. Later on he finds her ’looking the very incarnation of home, with her cheerful healthy face, her strong busy hands, her neat hair, her neat dress.... She might have sat for a statue of Motherhood of Charity with a babe at her ample breast, and others clinging to her supporting hand; Nature had so evidently intended her to play the part.’

Katherine Knowles has fine physical symmetry and a strong, frank face. While lacking ’the airs and graces, the superficial brightness, of conventional girlhood,’ she is ’singularly vivid in her more substantial way.’

Betty Ochiltree’s beauty, too, is of the kind that wears well. She has a face ’frank and spirited, firm of mouth and chin, kind and sweet, as honest as the day,’ surmounting an ample body, and she carries herself with dignity, ‘as few Australian girls can do.’ And how impressive and consistent with her character is the noble, placid figure of Elizabeth King, ’perfect in proportion, fine in texture, full of natural dignity and ease!’

The author is fond of showing the attractiveness of such women at the age of thirty, or even more. ‘In real life,’ she once observes, ’the supremely interesting woman is not a girl of eighteen, as she is in fiction. Every man worth calling a man knows that. A girl of that age ... knows as much about love as does a young animal in the spring, and not a bit more. And the human male of these days so highly developed, so subtly compounded has grown out of the stage when that much would satisfy him. I mean, of course, the human male who in real life answers to the hero in fiction a man who must have left, not only his teens, but his twenties behind him.’

When one comes to the heroes, it is easy to recall half a dozen commanding figures who blunder in the most natural and amiable manner in their affairs; who think a good deal more of their immediate personal comforts than of religious or ethical abstractions; who like their own way and try to get it; who, in short, are mostly what the author wishes them to appear ’the men out of books that we meet every day.’ Of little men, in the physical sense, there are only two of any importance, but even these are virile and masterful. A general aim of the stories would seem to be to show the sexes what each chiefly admires in the other. It is first a sort of apotheosis of the mens sana in corpore sano, and after that an illustration of the independent attractions of sympathy, gentleness, culture, and high character.

Though in most cases the strongest attachments are formed between men and women arrived at an age to discriminate beyond mere physical charm, nevertheless physical charm is the most powerful, though not always acknowledged, motive of their choice. ‘Because of this,’ says the pathetic Hilda Donne in A Marriage Ceremony, touching her cheek, which is terribly disfigured by a birth-mark, ’I have never had love. Can you think what that means? You can’t. Once I thought I was not going to be quite shut out once; but I was mistaken. I have found out that it is for one’s body that one is loved, and not for one’s soul.’

Hilda unconsciously exaggerates, for it appears that Rutherford Hope, though at first affected with disgust by her disfigurement, and convinced that no healthy man could consort with ‘so unnatural a woman,’ had come at last to regard her as a possible wife before he was confronted with the sudden temptation to secure a fortune by wedding Betty Ochiltree, in compliance with the conditions of her millionaire uncle’s will. Yet Hilda’s comment is substantially sound. Even Rutherford, with all the sense of his mature years, and all the culture that enabled him to appreciate her poetic gift, would have had to argue himself into a marriage with her.

The ugliness of Adam Drewe, from which his mother turned in disgust at his birth, and which in youth drove him across the seas in an agony of sensitiveness from the woman he loved, was a less serious affliction than that of Hilda Donne; but we know that he continued to be keenly reminded of its disadvantages long after time had proved the sterling qualities of his manhood, lessened his deformity, and brought him fame and wealth.

Compared with the previous illustration, however, his case is at fault in failing to give a sufficient description of his deformity. But that he himself long thought it an insuperable bar to his happiness is clear. When he fell in love with Fidelia Plunket, she was temporarily blind. His affection for her was returned, and he knew it, but dreading the disillusionment that would ensue when her sight was restored, he fled to Australia and determined to abandon all thought of her as a wife. Urged to return, because ‘when a woman is a woman,’ and really in love with a man, ‘there’s no camel she won’t swallow for him,’ Drewe replied that his camel was just the one camel that no woman had been known to swallow, or, at any rate, to digest. And he remained for twenty years.

The plots of Ada Cambridge’s novels are of the episodical order, and the author, despite her openly-expressed scorn for the unnaturalness of the average conventional novel, has not disdained employment of some of its time-honoured methods. Occasionally she is at pains to explain the feasibility of coincidences employed to secure dramatic interest. They are certainly never of an impossible kind, and no one would deny the truism that real life abounds in them. But has not a distinguished writer aptly pointed out that there are matters in which fiction cannot compete with life? As a rule, however, where a few such weaknesses exist, they do not count for much with the average reader when the principal scenes are as finely drawn as those in A Marked Man or Fidelis, or The Three Miss Kings. The latter story in some details puts a greater strain upon the credulity than any of the other novels, yet so well conceived and absolutely natural are the characters of the three girls, and so humorously and pictorially presented the chief incidents in their development, that the dubious points of the plot become almost insignificant. The qualities of the novel as a whole are similar to those which obscure the artistic defects of Geoffry Hamlyn, and which for thirty-seven years have made it one of the most popular of Australian stories.

In the presentation of tragic or pathetic incidents lies Ada Cambridge’s chief power, as far as her plots are concerned. In A Marked Man it is accompanied by her highest achievements in portraying a variety of well-contrasted character. Fidelis, which opens at the Norfolk village of the earlier novel, and reintroduces the Delavels, contains fewer developed characters, as may also be said of A Marriage Ceremony. But the three novels are equal in the high standard of their emotional quality. No quotation of moderate size could do justice to any of the principal scenes of A Marked Man: the chivalrous sacrifice of Richard Delavel’s youthful marriage; the inward repentance of it for twenty-two years; the revival of his love for Constance Bethune; his painful anxiety for her health, hungry enjoyment of her companionship, and anguish at her death; and his own death soon afterwards. In the more briefly detailed tragedy that brings into such striking relief the sprightly drama of A Marriage Ceremony, there is a scene giving a fair example of the author’s style in touching passages. When Hilda, deeply in love with Rutherford Hope, hears of his union with another woman, she takes the readiest means of effacing herself by suddenly marrying a shallow coxcomb who seeks her for mercenary reasons, and going with him to Australia. Years afterwards she is so affected by the sudden reappearance of Rutherford, and by subsequent ill-treatment received from her jealous husband, that an exhausting illness follows, and to save herself from insanity she commits suicide. Meanwhile the long separation of Rutherford and Betty Ochiltree, which began on the day of their marriage, is coming to an end, and Hilda’s death removes the final impediment. Together they pay a last visit to the dead woman:

Incapable of speech, he lifted a tress of hair flowing free over the rigid arms, because it was really pretty, and thus had to be made the most of and pressed it a moment to his bearded mouth. In that gesture he seemed to ask her forgiveness for having been a man like other men, as Nature made them.

‘Kiss her,’ Betty whispered, pushing him a little. She, too, felt that it would be something, if not much, to put to the account that was so frightfully ill-balanced a kiss from Rutherford before all was wholly over.

He stooped and laid his lips scarcely laid them on the waxen forehead. And he thought how he had nearly kissed her once, in the scented spring dusk, at her father’s gate, and been repelled at the last moment by the thought of something that he could not see.... He turned back the sheet and straightened it, and nobody but hired undertakers had anything more to do with Hilda Donne. He put out the lamps, leaving her in the dark, which, as a living, nervous woman, she had always been afraid of; and he took Betty in his arms to comfort her a little, before he opened the door upon the light and life of their own transfigured world.

There is a characteristic vein of realism in the subsequent view of the lovers’ self-absorption and short-lived sorrow, and the callousness of Donne.

No later than the same Saturday afternoon [Hilda was buried in the morning], her Edward was cheering himself with his preparations for New Zealand, whither he was easily persuaded to set off at once as a means of distracting his mind from his domestic woes, and of retiring gracefully from a Civil Service that was otherwise certain to dismiss him; and there he shortly found a number of absorbing interests, including as Rutherford had predicted a rosy-cheeked second wife, who, as he wrote to Mrs. Ochiltree when announcing his engagement, was all that heart could wish, and had apparently been made on purpose for him.... No later than Saturday afternoon and early at that Rutherford, having parted with the widower and seen him off the premises, ran upstairs to his wife’s door, with a spring in his step and a light in his eyes that plainly showed his mourning to be over. Hilda was dead and gone, but Betty was alive in her splendid strength and beauty, and he was her husband and bridegroom, and his hour had come! The grave had closed over that broken heart, which had ached as long as it could feel, and ached most for him; but the world was still glorious for him and his love, and never so glorious as now. They began to bask in their happiness, as the house in the sunshine that flooded it, now that the blinds were drawn up. The shadow of death, close and terrible as it was, could not dim it for them any more.

In all the novels there are memorable scenes of tenderness, among the best of which are those between Fidelia and Adam Drewe, first in their brief meetings as girl and youth she with her weak eyes bandaged, but reading him through his voice and bashful deprecation; he yearning to remain with her, but forcing himself away and then in long years after, when he returns to find her in widowhood and poverty, and to all seeming hopelessly blind.

The conception of the latter scene is quite the best to be found in the whole of Ada Cambridge’s work, and has not been equalled in its kind by any other Australian writer. The simplicity and verbal reticence of this chapter of intense feeling gives also a good sample of the author’s style of expression. Seldom ornate or much studied, it is ever a lucid and easy style. As a narrative specimen, the following, from the same novel, is conveniently quotable:

It was not much of an accident, but it was enough. The engine buried its fore-paws in the soft earth of the embankment, where engines were not meant to go, and then paused abruptly in the attitude of a little dog hiding a bone in a flower-bed; the embankment sloped down instead of up, and the monster hung upon the edge of it, nose to the ground and hind-quarters in the air, looking as if a baby’s touch would send it over. Several carriages, violently running upon it and being checked suddenly, stood on tip-toes, so to speak, and fell into each other’s arms with a vehemence that completely overset them; one rolled right down the bank, head first, and the others tumbled upon its kicking wheels. It was all over in a moment; and the dazed passengers, realising in a second moment that the end of the world was still an event in the future, picked themselves up as best they could. No one was killed, but some were badly shaken, and most of them screamed horribly. The sound of those screams, mingled with the clanking and crashing of riven wood and metal, and the hissing of escaping steam, conveyed the idea of such an appalling catastrophe as would make history for the world.

Though not a satirist she does not hate well enough to be that Ada Cambridge has occasionally a neat and forcible way of describing character. Richard Delavel’s first wife was ’a gentle and complaisant being, soft and smooth, apparently yielding to the touch, but dense, square, and solid as a well-dumped wool-bale.’ When opposed in will or contradicted in her opinion, she smiled resignedly, and, if it appeared due to her dignity, sulked for a period. Yet generally she was ’the evenest-tempered woman that ever a well-meaning husband found it difficult to get on with.’ A pattern of order and conscientiousness, ’governed by principles that were as correct as her manners and costume, and as firmly established as the everlasting hills,’ she might have made an admirable wife for a clergyman, but was totally unsuited to Delavel, as he to her.

Still, she was very proud of the look of ‘blood’ in her Richard, and when he became wealthy, and she a fashionable hostess in Sydney society, nothing delighted her more than her opportunities of making the aristocratic connection known. Her own origin as the daughter of a farmer was quite forgotten. ’Annie might have been a Delavel from the beginning, in her own right, for all the recollection that remained to her of the real character of her bringing up.... Years and certain circumstances will often affect a woman’s memory that way a man somehow manages to keep a better grasp of facts.’

Yelverton, the lover of Elizabeth King, an English aristocrat spending some of his wealth in lessening the misery and vice of London, was ’not the orthodox philanthropist, the half-feminine, half-neuter specialist with a hobby, the foot-rule reformer, the prig with a mission to set the world right; his benevolence was simply the natural expression of a sense of sympathy and brotherhood between him and his fellows, and the spirit which produced that was not limited in any direction.’

His friend, Major Duff-Scott, ’an ex-officer of dragoons, and a late prominent public man of his colony (he was prominent still, but for his social and not his official qualifications), was a well-dressed and well-preserved old gentleman who, having sown a large and miscellaneous crop of wild oats in the course of a long career, had been rewarded with great wealth, and all the privileges of the highest respectability.’