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…

The full text of this essay is available to ALS subscribers

Please sign in to access this article and the rest of our archive.

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, doi: 10.20314/als.3f997ce2c0.