Economies of Childhood in Nineteenth-Century Australia: Catherine Helen Spence’s Short Fiction for Children


In her long-running annual column for the Adelaide Observer, ‘Gossip about Children’s Books’, Australian writer and social reformer, Catherine Helen Spence, maintained that ‘the enjoyment of a good story’ was key to a good education. Literature and education were, for Spence, inextricably intertwined and mutually reinforcing and the fate of the South Australian colony in which she lived was dependent, she argued, on its young citizens receiving a decent education. While Spence’s successive critics and biographers have well documented her advocacy of education, children’s social welfare and women’s emancipation, little attention has been focused on Spence’s literature for children. This essay will argue that Spence’s didactic short stories for the young bring together these interconnected strands of Spence’s more public activism and are significantly influenced by the pedagogic thinking of late eighteenth-century British and Irish educationists, such as Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Maria Edgeworth. Moreover, this essay will further suggest that Spence's short stories significantly prefigure the critically acknowledged turn in Australian's children's literature to domestic urban realism and family saga in the 1890s and early 1900s. It will utilise as its central focus Spence’s short stories for children in Adelaide Observer published throughout the 1880s, as well as her two short stories for Australia's first homegrown school reader, The Children's Hour, published in 1889 and 1890. These stories, this essay will illustrate, explicitly develop an economic sub-narrative that positions their child readers (particularly their female child readers) as active participants in consumer culture and, potentially, a force for the collective economic good of the South Australian colony for which Spence worked so hard.

In her late-life autobiography, Scottish-born Australian educationist, writer and political reformer, Catherine Helen Spence (1825–1910), recognised the rich and sustaining interconnections of her life – its progress and development from early womanhood to becoming ‘the Grand Old Woman of Australia’ (Magarey v) – with the establishment and advancement of the South Australian colony to which she emigrated with her parents in 1839: ‘[s]itting down at the age of 84 to give an account of my life, I feel that it connects itself naturally with the growth and development of the province of South Australia, to which I came with my family . . . before it was quite three years old’ (1).1 This identification with South Australia and its evolution is a recurring idea that colours her thinking on children’s education and its centrality to collective moral, social and economic improvement.

This essay seeks to illustrate the overlooked role Spence’s children’s literature played in this reasoning, as well as to situate this literature in both Australian and Victorian traditions of writing for children. In so doing, it proposes that Spence’s children’s literature prefigures key late nineteenth-century trends in Australian juvenile fiction, particularly in its images of Australian city and suburban life, as well as its realistic depiction of Australian colonial children. It further attempts to show how Spence’s fiction for children stems from the broader Victorian genre of children’s didactic literature and draws, in particular, on the influence of prominent early British and Irish nineteenth-century writers of the genre, such as Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743–1845) and Maria Edgeworth (1768–1849). Working between these two contexts, this essay reads Spence’s short stories for young children as didactic economic narratives that figuratively position the child reader as an active participant in consumer culture and a potential force for collective social and economic good, as well as formative examples of Australia’s turn towards urban domestic realism in late nineteenth-century writing for children. Spence’s lifelong interest in education is also aligned in this essay with her support for women’s emancipation. In her economics primer for children published in 1880, Spence wrote that ‘[t]here is no greater mistake for girls to make than to suppose they have nothing to do with good citizenship and good government’ (Laws 9). This essay will thus finally explore how Spence’s literature for children is inseparable from her thinking about the future political role for her South Australian female readers.

Compelled by her family’s economic hardship in the nation-wide depression of the early 1840s, as well as a ‘natural turn for teaching’ and her own youthful ambitions – ‘I wanted to be a teacher first, and a great writer afterwards’ (qtd. in Magarey 26) – Spence worked as a governess in her initial attempts to earn a living for herself and for her family. From these humble beginnings, Spence managed to build a successful professional career as a pioneering writer of both fiction and social commentary; a ground-breaking female political, social and educational reformer; a leading advocate of women’s suffrage; and a lauded public speaker and intellectual. Her first novel, Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia During the Gold Fever, published in London in 1854, is now recognised as a founding text for Australian realist fiction (Modjeska 121), and the ‘first colonial work’ comparable to the writing of George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell (Perkins 145–46). Susan Sheridan affirms that Clara Morison successfully combines ‘social satire and domestic realism with the feminine form of romance’ (166) and Fiona Giles further situates the novel in the development of European realist fiction (225). Beyond her critically acclaimed literature, Susan Magarey explains that, by the 1890s, Spence’s ‘voice’ had an ‘established place in South Australia’s public affairs’ and that she was ‘a member of a district school board, and of the State Children’s Council’ (121). Further to this, she had established herself as a ‘regular contributor to one of the colony’s daily newspapers, the Register’: ‘[h]er voice was to be heard . . . in meeting halls throughout South Australia – indeed across south-eastern Australia, and the United States’ (121). Her success in public affairs was visibly crowned in 1879 when she became Australia’s first female political candidate to stand for election in the Federal Convention in Adelaide.

Spence’s commitment to social reform was consistently inflected by her early beginnings as a teacher and foregrounded her lifelong passion for education. As Helen Jones notes, Spence was ‘an educator in the broadest sense’ (22) and her long-standing and varied educational activities across South Australia gave her a wealth of experience on which to draw. Her appointment to The East Torrens Board of Advice in 1877 gave her a share in the management of schools in Adelaide’s eastern districts and, through membership of the board, Spence became familiar with the district’s schools, teachers and pupils. She also had first-hand experience of working as a governess and school teacher, as well as founding her own school. In addition, her prolific journalistic output frequently turned its attention to issues relating to education and child welfare. In 1880, and at the request of her friend and head of the South Australian Department of Education, John Anderson Hartley, she also published a preparatory textbook on economics for secondary schools, The Laws We Live Under, which was the first of its kind in Australia.

Spence’s activities with education in South Australia were, moreover, continually tied to her belief in the centrality of reading and literature to a good education. The primacy of reading for Spence, and the importance of what a child read, is repeatedly emphasised in both her writing and the educational projects she founded. In her earliest days as a governess in the 1840s, Spence maintained that ‘story-telling’ is deeply ‘educational’ (Magarey 32) and, with the hope of ‘exciting a taste for reading’ among children, she founded the first library for children in 1859 in the Unitarian Christian Church in Adelaide (Wall 25). Barbara Wall demonstrates that the library’s collection of books explicitly combined amusement with instruction and also attempted to cater for children’s interests and changing tastes (28). The collection further illustrates Spence’s wide knowledge of children’s literature through the range of genres and number of books collected by the library. ‘No book was admitted before it was read’, and Spence’s detailed and intimate knowledge of children’s literature was in no small part derived through the management of this library (Wall 29). Spence contributed regular and long-running annual Christmas review columns on children’s literature – ‘Gossip About Children’s Books’ for the South Australian Register and Adelaide Observer, and ‘Among Children’s Books’ for the Sydney Morning Herald – that were both a type of ‘book-buying’ guide for parents, as well as an insight into Spence’s attitudes towards a variety of fictional and factual publications for children throughout the mid- to late nineteenth century (Jones 22).

These columns also reaffirm Spence’s earlier convictions that storytelling is instructive. At the heart of a good education, Spence writes in 1884, is the ‘enjoyment of a good story’ (‘Gossip’ 1884, 41). Literature and education were, for Spence, inextricably intertwined and mutually reinforcing and, moreover, the fate of the colony was co-dependent on its young citizens receiving a decent education. Writing to the editor of the Adelaide Observer in 1857, Spence argued that without a good education, ‘the political privileges which we have so recently won for our children will be worse than useless’ (‘Education’ 7), and she emphatically restated this in 1880 in The Laws We Live Under: ‘the well-being of the colony depends very much on all its children being prepared for the duties of citizenship by receiving a good plain education’ (10). Influenced by the political philosophies of J. S. Mill and Thomas Hare, as well as her engagement in 1865 and 1866 with prominent British educationists such as William Ellis and Barbara Leigh Smith, Spence also came to believe by the turn of the century that ‘education was a basic civil right’ (Magarey 96). Spence maintained her firmly-held faith in the centrality of reading to a child’s education as late as 1905: ‘[t]eaching a child to read intelligently, fluently, is of more consequence to his development than all of the rest of his school education together. It is giving him the key to the universe’ (‘Kindergarten to University’ 8).

While Spence is, then, comprehensively recognised by her successive critics and biographers as a key figure in the political, educational and social life of the colony of South Australia, as well as a major novelist of Australian realist fiction, her literature for children has gained very little scholarly notice. Wall gives only passing mention to Spence’s short story for children, ‘The Hen’s Language’ (1886), as a challenge to patriarchal assumptions and this is requoted by Magarey in the introduction to her updated biography of Spence, Unbridling the Tongues of Women (xxiii). Aside from this momentary recognition of the biting feminist satire alive in the pages of the story, however, Magarey later concludes that while most of Spence’s journalism was ‘serious, lively, literary and social criticism’, her stories for children – mostly published in the children’s columns of British and Australian newspapers – ‘were simply fun’ and mere trivial ‘sketches’ (111). Apart from this somewhat dismissive aside, there are no other critical responses to Spence’s literature for children and no in-depth critical analyses of this literature. Spence is not included in any of the major and long-standing literary histories of Australian children’s literature and all of these volumes expose a more general critical neglect of uncollected short fiction for children.2

This essay explores the gap in our understanding of how Spence’s contribution to Australian children’s literature is potentially a very significant part of her wider reasoning on education, as well as the ways in which that literature forms an important fictive space for implementing Spence’s pedagogic thinking. Understanding these stories in terms of their didactic economic narratives, this essay further suggests that Spence’s stories for children often prefigure some of the landmark Australian children’s fiction of the late nineteenth century, particularly in this fiction’s recognised turn towards ‘suburban life’ (Niall 3) and ‘domestic realism’ (Niall 76). In the above-cited histories, Ethel Turner’s now iconic Seven Little Australians (1894) is repeatedly hailed as the foundational text of Australian children’s literature, one which ‘created a new path’ for Australian children’s fiction with its strident focus on ‘domestic, urban Australian life’ (Foster et al., Australian Children’s Literature 16; 15). This is considered a significant move away from the imperial ‘outdoor adventure story’ that had dominated children’s literature in Australia up until the 1890s (Niall 76), stories set in Australia but often penned by authors who were not resident there. Even those writers ‘resident in the Australian colonies’ simply ‘followed the dominant patterns set by British writers’ (Foster et al., Bush 1). This essay will suggest that Spence was already beginning to explore domestic, urban Australian life in her newspaper fiction for children many years before the key period scholars have named as the transitional moment ‘from the emigrant tale and travelogue to Ethel Turner’s urban domestic stories’ (Saxby 158).

All of Spence’s literature for children appeared either in the children’s columns of the newspapers for which Spence was already a regular contributor on social and political issues, or in locally-produced Australian periodicals for schools, notably in Australia’s first home-grown school magazine, The Children’s Hour, founded by the government education authorities in South Australia in 1889. They comprise individually published stories in single newspaper columns, as well as lengthier serialised stories, and were published in a concentrated period throughout the 1880s and 1890s; a period in Australian literature that Peter Pierce notes saw an ‘upsurge in literature written for children’ (60), particularly by Australian-based authors. For a short period between 1881 and 1886, Spence also published an interlinked series of stories for the Christmas editions of the Adelaide Observer that utilised a repeat frame narrative as the medium through which a variety of reconfigured European fables and Irish legends could be retold. Spence’s stories largely reject fairy tale and fantasy and, instead, adopt a realist approach; even her retellings of fable and legend are framed within a realist context. In ‘Gossip About Children’s Books’ in 1880 – the same year that Spence published her first short story for children – Spence indicates her approval for realism based on its effectiveness in the nursery. ‘The great wave of realism which has come over all literature and all dramatic representations’, writes Spence, ‘is in the world of the nursery and the schoolroom quite . . . powerful’ (33). She goes on to argue that ‘it is in the goodness and the naughtiness, the scrapes and the escapes, the cowardliness and the courage of children, or of creatures who behave like children, that the interest is almost exclusively felt’ (33).

This realist approach comes to the fore in all of Spence’s stories for children and arguably forms part of what Brenda Niall views as ‘the first signs of . . . change’ in the representation of children in Australian juvenile fiction from one of ‘idealization’ to ‘imitation’: ‘before the 1890s, there were almost no [realistic] child-like characters in the children’s books of Australia’ (67). Spence’s earliest stories in the Adelaide Observer are distinctive in this regard. In January 1880, the Observer instituted a weekly ‘Children’s Column’ that, for the first year of its publication, was nearly wholly filled with an anonymously authored fantasy series entitled ‘Australian Elves’ – now thought to be written by the prolific Australian journalist and children’s author, Frank ‘Atha’ Westbury (1843–1901). These stories imported the conventional trappings of British and European elves and fairies into the rural landscape of Australia and peopled its tales with generic child characters that moved through the familiar rags-to-riches story arc. From 1881, the newspaper largely reprinted stories from popular American children’s magazines, mostly from St. Nicholas and Harper’s Young People. Other than a fictionalised retelling of the true story of a child’s rescue from drowning by sailors on the Murray River, Spence’s four-part serial family drama, ‘The New Mama’ (1880), as well as her later three-part ‘Lily and Carrie’ series – ‘The Story of the Three Little Pigs’ (1881), ‘The Wonderful Bottle’ (1883) and ‘The Hen’s Language’ (1886) – constitute some of the few Australian and realist exceptions to the newspaper’s otherwise fantastical, or imported, stories for children. In ‘The New Mama’, Spence’s domestic narrative relates the grief and courage of Bertie and Nellie Morton as they adjust to their mother’s premature death, their father’s new marriage and, eventually, their new stepbrother, Clement, and his early passing. Along the way, the story consciously dispels the myth of wicked ‘stepmothers in fairy tales’ (43). Set in the suburban environs of Glenelg in Adelaide, the story also rebuffs the rural landscapes that dominated so much of nineteenth-century children’s fiction in Australia and which certainly governed the stories told in the early years of the Observer’s column for children. Westbury’s ‘Australian Elves’ series is set from its first to last story ‘in the country – away from the dust and noise of the city’ (39).

Spence’s later published series for the Christmas editions of the Observer are no less pointed in their Adelaide setting. The series’ main fantastical narratives are introduced through a realist frame which is repeated in each of the stories – two friends, Lily Davis and Carrie Johnson, persuade their local newspaper to publish Lily’s auntie’s humorous (and often feminist) retellings of traditional European folk and fairy tales, which they get her to write down, so that other children can enjoy her tales at Christmas time. The newspaper’s child readers are reminded of this governing framework, its central characters, and the repeated literary device which enables the telling of the main story, each time. Moreover, it is in Lily and Carrie’s befriending of a local ‘printing man’ in the newspaper offices of Grenfell Street in Adelaide that the stories are firmly situated in their urban setting (‘The Story of the Three Pigs’ 7). The last story in the series, published in 1886, is also ironically self-referential over the current state of imported children’s literature in Australian newspaper columns. Lily’s increasingly recalcitrant aunt begins to argue that ‘the Observer printers could get better stories from England’, whereupon the girls respond that they think ‘the printer will be glad to get a real South Australian story’ (‘The Hen’s Language’ 21). Spence’s turn to the city, then, as well as her depiction of realistic Australian children and, in the case of ‘The New Mama’, of family drama, significantly prefigure the later ‘move in the 1890s towards domestic realism’ in the context of ‘everyday family life’ (Niall 76). This move is usually viewed as ‘an innovative feature’ of Seven Little Australians in 1894 (Foster et al., Australian Children’s Literature 15), one which is closely followed by Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong family sagas in the early twentieth century (Saxby 158). Spence’s advocacy of Australian-authored content for children is also in line with the late nineteenth-century’s steady burgeoning of Australian writing for children by Australian writers. Moreover, if Lily and Carrie are not quite as mischievous and fearless in the 1880s as Turner’s eponymous heroine, Judy Woolcot, in Seven Little Australians a decade later, they are nonetheless equally declarative of the right to be themselves as Australian children in their rejection of English stories. Like the Woolcots, they are ‘respectfully aware of the models of English childhood held up for them to emulate, but, at the same time, they [are] free to ignore those models without apology’ (Foster et al., Australian Children’s Literature 16).

Similarly, Spence’s two contributions to Australian school magazine, The Children’s Hour – ‘Julia and Her Strawberry Bed’ (1899) and ‘The Obstinate Children’ (1890) – are also distinctive in the first two years of the magazine’s publication. The Children’s Hour published a variety of different texts, including short stories, fairy tales and poetry, as well as regular and special-interest columns and feature articles, news reports and puzzles. Like the children’s fiction in the Adelaide Observer, it also borrowed heavily in its earliest years from fashionable children’s periodicals published abroad, both British and American, such as Aunt Judy’s Magazine, Child’s Pictorial and Leisure Hour. Religious and moralistic fable stories were a popular choice in these borrowings. The majority of the school magazine’s more locally-authored fictional content followed almost exclusively in the prevalent tradition of tales of white colonial children lost in the Australian bush. These stories mostly detailed the suffering, innocence, courage and endurance of such children, as well as their eventual death or providential rescue. In their separate book-length studies of this broader literary trope, Peter Pierce and Elspeth Tilley both concur that the lost child is a key emblem of settler-colonial anxieties about the landscape in Australian literature: ‘the lost child is the symbol of essential if never truly resolved anxieties within the white settler communities of this country’ (Pierce 4). In Australia’s school ‘readers’ or magazines, which Clare Bradford views as constituting a ‘powerful socialising force’, the story of the lost child is doubly resonant. These readers attempt to ‘manage the colonial past’ for their young audience (Bradford 15) and the repeated stories and images of lost children included in their pages, argues Jane McGennisken, become:

a fundamental ingredient in defining an Australian national identity and culture . . . Across school readers, the literary and visual production of children and childhood both excavates and suppresses concerns about claims to legitimacy and inheritance. This ambivalence is most strikingly manifested in stories and images of children . . . swallowed by the bush. (146; 152)

Spence’s stories reject this trope. In ‘The Obstinate Children’ a much more urban setting is adopted compared to the other Australian stories that circulate alongside it, whereby the dangers for children lie in their uncontrolled desire for reckless consumption as opposed to the natural forces of the native Australian bush. While the story is less precise about its urban location within the text than Spence’s earlier newspaper fiction for children, it nonetheless, again, gestures towards a South Australian setting, embedding the story’s concerns within middle-class urban Australian life. The children in the story live in a ‘small house in a street’ (4) and have to navigate the ‘back streets’ to get to their friends’ house for play, the father of whom ‘was a very busy man, who sat in an office all day’ (5). The juxtaposition of the story in its middle section with a large half-page illustration of the National Bank of Australasia in Adelaide seems to foster a more explicit sense of place in the story (5). The illustration is one of several in a visual series of ‘the principal buildings in Adelaide’ inaugurated by the editors in the first issue of The Children’s Hour. The series continued up until March 1891 and arguably formed part of the magazine’s attempts to ‘introduce a local flavour’ to children’s school reading and participate in the ‘discursive construction of Australian identity’ (Cormack 156; Green and Cormack 242). The aspirational professional urban working life of Mr Thornton thus finds its place, via visual association, in Adelaide’s central commercial thoroughfare, King William Street. As in her earlier children’s fiction, Spence’s text here looks toward what Saxby calls the gradual ‘gentrification of the pioneer’ in Australian children’s literature of the 1890s (199). This gentrified move from bush to city, Saxby argues, signals the ‘more settled nature of Australian life’ (199) at the turn of the century as it moved towards federation and ‘social regeneration’, as well as the creation of an ‘increasingly important’ urban middle class in Australia (211).

If Spence’s literature for children, then, is clearly a precursor for the urban domestic realism and family dramas of the 1890s and early 1900s in Australian children’s literature, it is also, I want to argue, a nod back to late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British didactic fiction for children. Spence’s first story for The Children’s Hour was published in the sixth issue of the magazine in its first year of publication and is introduced as a potentially ongoing series entitled ‘Aunt Kate’s Cupboard’. The tales Spence proposes to relate are, she writes in the preface to her story, from memory, stories she heard or read as a child and which she hopes (in their textual retelling) to ‘reach a great many more children than I can with my voice’ (42). ‘My cupboard is my memory’, Spence informs her ‘young readers’, and ‘you are welcome to put the stories I tell you into your cupboards, so that they may be brought out when they are wanted’ (42). This preface to the proposed series is reminiscent of the literary conceit behind the very popular children’s stories collected in Evenings at Home; or, The Juvenile Budget Opened (6 vols., 1792–1795) by English authors, Anna Laetitia Barbauld and her brother, John Aikin (1747–1822). Barbauld was a poet, leading educationist and, for a time, school teacher in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Britain. In positioning realistic children at the heart of both her stories and her pedagogy, Barbauld revolutionised British and European children’s literature. Evenings at Home was translated into multiple languages and endured throughout the nineteenth century. The didactic stories collected in Evenings at Home are framed within a domestic narrative which sees the fictionalised Fairborne family collect their self-authored stories for children in a locked box at home. During the holidays, the box is unlocked and the stories are taken out at random by the children of the family and read out for the evening’s entertainment. These stories are grounded by the Enlightenment values of Barbauld’s pedagogic thinking and work to inculcate rational thinking and moral agency in children, shifting away from an education based solely on rote learning. This move away from repetition and memorisation in children’s schooling is also, notably, one of the objectives of The Children’s Hour. Alongside McGennisken, recent scholarship by Phillip Cormack, Bill Green and Michelle Smith has repeatedly argued for the ways in which Australian school readers were influential in both shaping ‘narratives of belonging to both the British Empire and the [Australian] nation’ (Smith 135), as well as transforming pedagogical practice. Cormack, for example, understands the beginnings of The Children’s Hour as ‘a solution to the problem of children learning their reading texts by heart’ and ‘an opportunity to shape a new kind of reader and teacher of reading’ (166).

In her autobiography, Spence recalls reading Evenings at Home as a child. Her series of short stories in The Children’s Hour mirror in their conception the framework of Barbauld’s text and arguably adopt its educational philosophies, philosophies that align with some of Spence’s original pedagogical imperatives and her advocacy of a new kind of learning for children. ‘Education has a twofold aspect’, writes Spence in 1877, ‘it is meant to teach many things it is necessary to be known, and it is meant in a still higher degree to train the mind, so as to enable it to learn many things for itself after leaving school’ (‘Middle-Class Education for Girls’ 4). As the father figure in one of Barbauld and Aikin’s tales in Evenings At Home tells his children, ‘[r]emember that nothing is more useful than to learn to form ideas with precision, and to express them with accuracy: I have not given you a definition to teach you what a horse is, but to teach you to think’ (136). This thinking is part of a much broader educational philosophy associated particularly with women’s moral and didactic literature in the nineteenth century and it is also one which has a type of social good at its centre. Mitzi Myers argues that late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century professional women writers in Britain and America shared their era’s appetite for educational reform and found in authoring children’s books ‘not just an outlet available to their sex, but a genuine vocation’: ‘the characteristic flavor of their didacticism and moral tone, the way they define power, heroism, and social good, all bear the impress of that active and benevolent maternalism which was a key component in the period’s female self-image’ (33). Spence’s second story for The Children’s Hour, ‘The Obstinate Children’, subscribes to these pedagogies centred on rational thinking, social goods and a nurturing mother figure. Within an Australian context, moreover, these pedagogies take on a very specific function in terms of the future political, economic and social good of the South Australian colony.

‘The Obstinate Children’ relates the story of the two young May children, Eliza and Jack, who decide to go to the house of some neighbouring friends, Louisa and Bob Thornton, ‘for an hour or so for play’ before the arrival of their mother’s visitors, the Penroses (3). The Thornton children enjoy a more affluent and generally unsupervised life than the Mays, which is part of the children’s desire to visit them, but they are also depicted as ‘naughty’, ‘quarrelsome’ and ‘ill-bred’ by the children’s mother, Mrs. May (3). Though cautioned by their mother, and reminded of this unfavourable behaviour, the children elect to go to the house of the Thorntons and promise to return clean and presentable in time for the visit of Mr. and Mrs. Penrose and their daughter, Ellen. Unhappily, the children return wet, muddy and in disgrace, their best clothes ruined and both on their way to developing ‘severe colds’ (6). They are sent to their room, miss out on the afternoon’s tea, cake and visitors, and have to remain in bed on the doctor’s orders the following day. They further have to suffer the humiliation of attending church at the end of the week in their school clothes, their best clothes still unrepaired from their escapades at their friends’ house. The misbehaviour of the Thornton children, meanwhile, has not even been registered by their parents and they appear in church ‘as handsomely dressed as ever’ (6).

On a surface level, the story attempts to instil in its young readers a more judicious frame of thinking when choosing suitable playmates, as well as to heed the kindly-intentioned advice of parents and curb excessive ‘wilfulness’ (6). The story is, I want to suggest, also indicative of how children in the nineteenth century are embroiled in ideologies of consumerism and burgeoning capitalist economics. Within this context, the story serves as a means of educating young children to develop communal well-being both in the domestic and more public economic sphere, as well as learning to value and cultivate what Deborah Weiss has termed ‘good economic character’ (395). Housed within the pages of The Children’s Hour, and its attempts to ensure ‘the proper morality of future [Australian] citizens’, the story further frames this economic behaviour within the broader well-being of the colony of South Australia (Cormack 160). Weiss’s work relates to prominent late eighteenth-century Irish author and educationist, Maria Edgeworth, and marks some of the most recent thinking around Edgeworth’s children’s literature. Spence was a keen advocate of Edgeworth’s work – she hailed her as the ‘almost creator of child literature’ and argued that her ‘influence extends to this day in several directions’ – and Spence’s own didactic tales and stories adopt Edgeworth’s (and others’) lines of thinking on promoting the rational agency of the child, as well as teaching sound economic principles (‘Two Eminent Women’ 41). Spence recalls reading Edgeworth’s moral tales in her youth as a secular respite from religious narratives and her review of Edgeworth for the Adelaide Observer in 1884 demonstrates her intimate knowledge of Edgeworth’s writing. Spence also included Edgeworth’s literature for children in the children’s library she founded in Adelaide, as well as other similar didactic and moral literature by leading British female writers and educationists, such as Sarah Trimmer (1741–1810) and Barbauld. Trimmer’s Early Lessons for Young Children (1790) was held in the library, as was Barbauld’s Evenings At Home, and over eleven different volumes of Edgeworth’s various collected stories for children are also listed in the library’s catalogues. Spence’s writing for children is heavily influenced by the thinking of these writers, in particular Edgeworth’s focus on consumer culture in some of her most popular tales for children, as well as Spence’s own aptitude for and interest in economics. Spence admits in her autobiography that ‘my own turn for economics was partly inherited from my mother’ (16) and, though she had had no formal training or education in the subject, Spence’s formal capacity as an economist is recognised by her inclusion in John Edward King’s Biographical Dictionary of Australian and New Zealand Economists (2007).

The lesson Eliza and Jack learn is not just about wilfulness, or recognising good temperament in other children, but about how to define their self-worth beyond prevailing ‘discourses of consumerism’, that is, discourses which associate human worth with what Dennis Denisoff terms ‘purchasing power and material possessions’ (1). Children were no less subsumed within these identity politics than adults and, in fact, Denisoff argues that children were more ‘open to influence and formation’ than their parents (6). By the mid-nineteenth century ‘the young, despite lacking actual money, played a crucial role in the production, consumption and distribution of consumerism. This was in large part because . . . [t]hey were recognised as the most accessible context through which consumerism . . . could become the driving force of cultural identity’ (Denisoff 6). In the Australian colonial context, material culture and consumption take on additional meanings. Mark Staniforth demonstrates that, during the colonial period in Australia, the signs of imperial material culture were used by white Australians to ‘distinguish themselves from the Indigenous people . . . and reassure themselves about their place in the world’ (2). According to Staniforth, consumption here becomes a means of ‘creating a new social order in Australia’ (8), as well as a way for colonial people to continually redefine themselves through their display of material goods and thus establish and maintain their social and racial superiority (6). Clare Bradford agrees that consumer society in nineteenth-century Australia is rooted in colonial anxieties around ownership – ‘possessing the land by filling it with the signs of a settler society’ – and recognises this narrative at work in Australian school readers of the period (32). Spence’s story seems to criticise the vulgarity and extravagance on which this new social order had come to be based in late nineteenth-century urban Australia, as well as the moral worth attached to it.

Eliza’s and Jack’s desire to visit the Thornton children largely stems from the wealth of luxuries that the Thornton children have at their disposal and this exposes Eliza’s and Jack’s unequal economic relationship to their friends. Eliza and Jack yearn for these indulgences for themselves, from ‘new puzzles’ and ‘picture-books’ to a ‘nice house’ and a ‘garden, full of fruit’ (3). Their mother also concedes, to herself, to understanding this desire and through her the story reiterates and emphasises the lavishness of the Thornton household: ‘[s]he did not at all wonder that Eliza and Jack liked to go there, for Mr. Thornton was very rich, and had a large house and fine garden, and the children had a great variety of beautiful and expensive toys and a spacious play-room, all for their own use, and also a profusion of sweet-meats’ (4). The possession of and access to such copious and affluent material goods, however, also defines the Thornton children in very particular ways and, in turn, how the May children perceive themselves in comparison.

The story stresses that the May children happily submit to ‘a little rough play and domineering’ at the hands of the Thorntons in the face of their sheer ‘delight’ at ‘the whole establishment’ (4). This is a level of highhandedness that they would not normally have tolerated from their social and economic peers, the ‘other boys and girls of their acquaintance’ (4). The Thorntons’ monetary wealth thus gives them, in the eyes of Eliza and Jack, a certain kind of social superiority to which the May children willingly submit. The Thorntons’ ownership of manufactured material goods in the form of toys, books and other playthings which, it is assumed, they did not buy themselves but were provided for by their parents, here engenders a relationship between the children and the consumer culture of the nineteenth century. Teresa Michals argues that whatever other values such material goods embodied, ‘[t]he possession of manufactured toys conveyed to children the pleasure of luxury goods. In treating their children as occasions for conspicuous consumption, the pleasure of commercial consumption [becomes] a key element of children's play’ (29). In the story, the desire for the new, for further commercial consumption, is explicit in the behaviour of the Thornton children. Louisa Thornton entreats Eliza ‘to be sure and come’ and play with the ‘furnished’ dolls’ house – ‘just like a real house, kitchen and all’ – and Bob Thornton pledges to teach Jack to play ‘bagatelle’, an indoor table-top ball-and-pin game (3). On arriving at the Thornton household, however, Eliza and Jack find the playroom empty, these new toys already forgotten, and their friends in the garden ‘engaged in a mock battle – Russians against English’ (4).

The value of luxury material goods (the bagatelle board game, the furnished dolls’ house) thus seemingly lies first and foremost in their novelty, rather than the enjoyment derived from playing with these goods, the latter of which seems to be rather short-lived. In the Thornton household, this novelty is repeated in order to gain and command the children’s attention, as well as respond to the children’s desires and exhibit the Thorntons’ wealth, and there is a perceived value in what this recurring novelty implies: the pecuniary ability (and willingness) on behalf of the Thorntons’ parents to repeatedly purchase such expensive goods and bestow them on their children. Such behaviour further intensifies the children’s desires, which are partially illusory – subconsciously it is not the goods, as such, that the children want, but the elation of participation in consumer culture – and the cycle continues. In turn, the possession of these goods, the knowledge that they can and will be continuously replaced with further luxury goods, and the children’s subliminal perception of sharing in the processes of consumption, imparts the kind of social superiority that allows the Thornton children to domineer Eliza and Jack May. As Denisoff notes, it does not matter that children and young people often lack money to ‘operate as consciously autonomous agents within consumer culture’, as the power of this culture to ‘affect the identities of young people’ still exists through the beneficence of their parents or guardians (7). This beneficence embroils children in the production of consumer culture. ‘Stimulation of desires that [foster] the purchase of goods’, and the ‘impact of these fabricated desires on the formation of human subjectivities’, are the two ‘key factors’, argues Denisoff, which fuel consumer culture (7). In the Thornton children, both these factors are present and the formation of their social identities impacts their relationship with the Mays, who are made to feel their social inferiority several times throughout the story. Eliza and Jack repeatedly experience feelings of shame: shame at wearing their school clothes in front of the Thornton children, and shame at the thought of having to object to a game they know will ruin their best clothes. It is notably these moments of indignity and the May children’s inability to withstand them that lies at the cause of their eventual disgrace in front of their mother and her visitors.

‘The Obstinate Children’ is not the only children’s story by Spence to discuss the ideologies of consumerism and it is clear that this subject is a predominant concern more broadly in Spence’s literature for the young. In her children’s tales for the Christmas editions of the Adelaide Observer, for example, the frame narrative involving the friendship between Lily and Carrie introduces the economic inequality that exists between the two girls and though their relationship is based on mutual amity, and the more well-heeled Carrie is not like the Thornton children in behaviour, the thinking that underpins ‘The Obstinate Children’ comes into play in these brief prefatory framework texts. In the first of this series of stories, ‘The Story of the Three Pigs’, we learn that Carrie’s parents are ‘rich and kind’ and that she had ‘three times more books and playthings than Lily had’ (7). In ‘The Hen’s Language’, Carrie is newly returned from a ‘visit to the Old World’ and, despite her existing abundance of expensive material goods which have been ‘bestowed on her’ by her parents, she arrives home with a ‘great many pretty books and toys, and especially with a Paris doll exquisitely dressed, with a wardrobe full of spare clothes, besides what she wore’ (21). Lily is certainly not domineered by Carrie, as are Eliza and Jack by the Thornton children, but like them, she is ‘disposed to stand a little in awe’ of her friend (7). The telling of the main story, however, is repeatedly engineered at either one or both girls’ disappointment with Carrie’s exquisite and expensive playthings. In ‘The Story of the Three Pigs’, Lily ‘eagerly’ seizes upon Carrie’s ‘beautifully illustrated copy’ of this story but is quickly disillusioned (7). It is nice ‘for pictures’, she admits to her friend, ‘but it is a stupid story’: ‘the fox is a wolf, and the pigs have got nothing to say. If you only heard my auntie tell the story, you would not care for this’ (7). Similarly, in ‘The Hen’s Language’, the two girls tire of dressing and undressing the Paris doll and Carrie recollects ‘the old interest in the stories that they had got printed in the Observer’ (21). Unlike the Thornton children, whose boredom moves them to expend in wasteful ways their imagination and creativity – the mock battle which ruins their expensive clothes and causes the Mays much unhappiness – Lily and Carrie are encouraged to useful activity, labour and enterprise which engenders a communal social good. In the first story of the series, they persuade Lily’s auntie to write down her story so that they can present it to the local newspaper for publication and share the story for the benefit, instruction and amusement of other children. In so doing, they also learn about the processes of writing, printing and publishing: ‘Lily was surprised to see that what her auntie could tell in half an hour took a long time to put on paper, and the printing man said it took a great deal longer than the time it took to write it, to pick up every little letter out of its case of types, and to set it up in its proper place’ (7). As a result, Lily and Carrie learn a useful lesson about the material goods that they own. They will be, marks the narrator, ‘more careful of their books after seeing how much trouble it costs to print a story’ (7).

Imaginative industry is here also positioned as an antidote to the false desires of consumer culture. In ‘The Story of the Three Pigs’ we learn that though Lily lives in a household where there is ‘not much money’, this is made up for by her aunt’s ‘ingenuity’ and ‘splendid’ storytelling (7). Lily adopts and encourages this resourcefulness in her friendship with Carrie and it helps her to recognise the false charms of the manufactured picture book that instigates the far more amusing retelling of her aunt’s version of ‘The Story of the Three Pigs’ (a story notably about the rewards of industry and labour). The energy, time and patience that the two girls invest in their publication (which takes several weeks in process) is rewarded with a genuine desire to see their story in print, as well as the foretold imagined pleasures that the girls will enjoy (repeatedly) on being able to finally read their story in the Christmas edition of the newspaper. In contrast, though the Thornton children are moved by a similar incentive to seek amusement – like Lily and Carrie they are bored by their own expensive playthings – their imaginative industry is given no guidance and simply becomes destructive. Their game ends in ruin and argument and their imaginative energies are seen to be squandered. Nevertheless, and unlike Lily, who has a positive effect on Carrie, the May children begin to lose their sense of self-worth in the face of the Thorntons’ wealth. The children confuse the Thorntons’ economic advantages over their more modest middle-class standards of living with moral superiority. Against their mother’s objections to the Thornton children’s characters, Eliza argues that they are ‘good-natured’ due to the doll Louisa Thornton gives her, and the kite Bob Thornton bestows on Jack (3). They seem not to understand, or want to listen to, their mother’s explanation that they had been given these things simply because ‘Louisa was tired of the doll, and Bob had torn the kite’ (3). Only at the close of the story, do the children seem to learn (or are reminded of) their true self-worth outside of these consumerist discourses.

Creeping in at the back door to avoid Ellen Penrose, Eliza once again feels shame but this time at the thought of Ellen witnessing her inevitable punishment and dishevelled state. Ellen, we are told, has been especially brought along with her parents to visit ‘Eliza May’ of whom she was ‘very fond, because [Eliza] had kept the French medal as head of the class for a week’ (6). In her state of disgrace, however, Eliza cannot ‘have any pleasure in the thought of Ellen’s being there’ and her shame derives from the reminder of her good character at school (her hard work, good behaviour and resulting academic achievements) and the possibility of that good character now being compromised (6). Conversely, this ultimately reinforces her moral character above her false sense of worth against the Thornton children and she recognises their behaviour for the self-interest that it exhibits. By the close of the story, Eliza has learned ‘not to care for the opinion’ of her ‘selfish friends’ (7). She notably reduces any sense of shame at having to put up with the scornful looks of the Thornton children at church while in her school clothes to a necessary part of her repentance, rather than an indication of her self-worth (7). The last lines of the story tell us that the next time Ellen Penrose came to visit ‘Eliza was on the doorstep to welcome her’ and that the two girls had a ‘splendid time’ playing with all of Eliza’s and Jack’s books and toys, which, ‘after all, were none the worse for being old familiar things’ (7).

Eliza’s resourcefulness and communal good-will at the end of the tale are thus configured as signs of her rational economical thinking and they exist in stark contrast to the waste, extravagance and selfish indulgence of the Thornton household. Eliza has also significantly developed this good character through her own deductive thinking and this ensures the development of her rational agency. Eliza’s mother does not prevent her from going to the Thornton household (despite her cautions), neither does she lecture the children on their disgraceful return (despite her silent disapproval), but allows them to deduce for themselves the bad character of their behaviour and for the ‘lesson to sink into their hearts’ (7). This lesson resonates with the didactic imperatives of Edgeworth’s most popular tale for children, ‘The Purple Jar’ (1796), originally collected in The Parent’s Assistant, as well as echoes earlier Australian didactic writers who also looked towards Edgeworth’s texts as exemplary reading for children. Irish-born Australian writer, Hannah Villiers Boyd (1807–1865), for example, signalled a comparable caution against waste, extravagance and consumer desire in her didactic tract for parents, Letters on Education to a Friend in the Bush of Australia (1848), and, like Spence, argued that the ‘training’ and education of young children would have ‘a serious effect on the future destiny’ of the Australian nation (8). Boyd also recommended Edgeworth’s Early Lessons (1801) and The Parent’s Assistant as good reading material for children (18). ‘The Purple Jar’ was republished multiple times in its own edition throughout the nineteenth century and in Spence’s children’s library in Adelaide, it is singled out and catalogued separately to the other tales with which it originally appeared. Like ‘The Obstinate Children’, it is concerned with the moral dangers of children’s consumer desires and the lesson Mrs May attempts to teach her children mimics the strategies of the mother figure in ‘The Purple Jar’. Overwhelmed by the shop-window displays of the London high street, the story’s young protagonist, Rosamond, unwisely chooses to buy a decorative vase (of which she already has many) over her mother’s caution that she desperately needs new shoes. Like Mrs May, Rosamond’s mother refrains from telling or coercing her daughter to take the action she believes is morally and economically right and instead encourages Rosamond towards rational agency and her own moral thinking. Rosamond very quickly comes to regret her indulgent purchase over her more utilitarian needs as her shoes slowly fall apart and, like Eliza, indicates at the end of the story her distaste for overindulgence and luxury.

Good moral and economic character is something that Spence saw as especially important for girls to nurture, particularly in terms of their future adult contributions to the colony or nation. Bradford argues that children’s literature seeks to ‘promote sociocultural values that incorporate views about . . . the moral and ethical questions important to the present, and about a projected future in which child readers will be adults’ (8). In Spence’s ‘The Obstinate Children’, there appears to be a similar impetus, particularly towards the future adult woman that Eliza will become, not just in Adelaide, but more broadly in a soon to be federated Australian nation. A few years after her publication of ‘The Obstinate Children’, Spence published an article in the Adelaide Observer on ‘The Democratic Ideal’, where she castigated the poor distribution of the ‘amazing material prosperity of the United States’, noting that such prosperity was like ‘the magician’s serpent, devouring all the other agencies which might have worked in better direction’ (41). The potential sharing and dispersal of material prosperity is here superseded by individual self-interest, as well as waste and extravagance. Spence would later come to see Australia’s ‘women electors’ as playing a key economical role in this regard: ‘women who are the housekeepers ought to support economy in the housekeeping of the State. Our lives are a constant war with dirt and with waste. We want a clean and wisely economical Government . . . let us women put fair play and common sense into the national housekeeping’ (‘A Few Plain Words to the Women Electors’ 6).

Eliza’s emulation at the end of the story of her mother’s economic ingenuity – her mother’s darning of the children’s torn clothes, her ‘making’ of Eliza’s ‘best frock’ (6) – seem to anticipate these later public commentaries and position Eliza to understand and participate in future matters of ‘national housekeeping’ (‘A Few Plain Words to the Women Electors’ 6). As Magarey demonstrates, Spence was ‘ready to imagine’ the community of provinces that would eventually constitute the Australian nation in 1901 earlier than other ‘colonial educators’, particularly through the ‘carefully inductive economics’ she laid in out in The Laws We Live Under in 1880 (xviii). Eliza learns with Ellen to re-use and re-imagine her ‘familiar old things’ and to no longer desire the excesses of material possession that characterise the Thornton household (7). She thus expresses, as Lawrence Glickman notes more broadly of Victorian consumer society, her ‘citizenship in and through acts of consumption’ (xi). In this regard, Eliza’s education in economic matters potentially foreshadows the broader education for girls that Spence viewed as ‘essential’, particularly in the light of women’s potential ‘suffrage’ and future ‘electoral responsibilities’ in Australia: ‘[i]f women are to be allowed to participate in the full benefits of suffrage it is essential they should undergo a training befitting the proper discharge of their electoral responsibilities’ (‘The Education of Females’ 13).

In this light, the story’s final educative focus on Eliza (rather than Jack), as well as Spence’s earlier realistic depiction of characters like Lily and Carrie, is notable. Spence clearly understood from personal experience how significant female role models are for a young female reading audience, owning in her autobiography that she derived her sense of women’s political and social potential from the women in her family circle; ‘[t]he capacity for business of my Aunt Margaret, the wit and charm of my brilliant Aunt Mary, and the sound judgement 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’ (11). Foster et al. argue that Turner’s Judy Woolcot is ‘an unruly feminine subject’ and a ‘danger to the social order’ who is eventually killed off in the novel in order to save her from an adult life of ‘domesticity and motherhood’ (Bush 289). Likewise, Tamara Wagner recognises in colonial women’s ‘[d]omestic fiction about everyday life’ in Australia’s urban spaces the ‘greater freedom’ granted to colonial girls compared to their British counterparts, but also ‘the sudden constrictions imposed on them when they reached adulthood’ (141–42). Lily, Carrie and the ‘obstinate’ Eliza arguably offer an alternative narrative for their young female readership, channelling their otherwise unruly girlhood independence into economic goods of benefit to the colony and preparing them for a politically engaged (rather than purely domestic) role as emancipated South Australian women. At the celebration of her eightieth birthday in 1905, Spence declared: ‘I am a New Woman, and I know it. I mean an awakened woman . . . awakened to a sense of capacity and responsibility, not merely to the family and the household, but to the State; to be wise, not for her own selfish interests, but that the world may be glad that she had been born’ (qtd. in Magarey viii–ix). Spence’s fiction for children attempts to educate its female readers, in particular, towards this ‘sense of capacity and responsibility . . . to the State’ through her didactic economic narratives for young people. This reading also opens up our current understanding of Spence’s children’s literature as work which both prefigures the turn to urban domestic realism in the 1890s in Australian fiction for children, as well as significantly draws on earlier Irish and British traditions of didactic writing. Most significantly, it repositions Spence’s children’s fiction as an important part of her broader literary oeuvre, rather than a mere trivial aside, and as a key part of her life-long advocacy of the centrality of education in South Australia to the political and economic progress and development of the colony.


  1. I would like to thank the following postgraduate students for their collation and annotation of crucial materials in The Children's Hour and Adelaide Observer for this essay: Amy Mead at Flinders University and Winnie Dunn at Western Sydney University. Their research assistance was invaluable to finalising this essay.

  2. Brenda Niall’s Australia Through the Looking-Glass. Children’s Fiction 1820–1980 (1987); Stella Lees and Pam McIntyre’s Oxford Companion to Australian Children’s Literature (1993); John Foster, Ern Finnis and Maureen Nimon’s Australian Children’s Literature: An Exploration of Genre and Theme (1995) and their follow-up, Bush, City, Cyberspace: the Development of Australian Children’s Literature into the Twenty-First Century (2005); and Maurice Saxby’s A History of Australian Children’s Literature, 1841–1941 (1998).

Published 9 July 2018 in Volume 33, No. 2. Subjects: Australian children's literature, Education, Catherine Helen Spence.

Cite as: Jamison, Anne. ‘Economies of Childhood in Nineteenth-Century Australia: Catherine Helen Spence’s Short Fiction for Children.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, 2018.