These two very different novels by women provide a wealth of suggestive information about the women’s history being reclaimed and re-established by Australian feminists. They also happen to be intrinsically good novels, accomplished and charming in contrasting ways.
Add Cambridge’s The Three Miss Kings, reprinted in the Virago Modem Classics series, was first serialised in 1883 in The Australasian, published in novel form in 1891, and soon became one of Cambridge’s most popular novels. It draws upon the familiar form of the romance, but it also, in its translation into an Australian setting, illuminates an idiosyncratic colonial grafting onto that form.
Its story of three young women, recently orphaned, entering the world (and the marriage market), for the first time, learning the precise forms of behaviour necessary to define female gentility and fit them for marriage to gentlemen, is a familiar one. In novel form, its origin is probably Fanny Bumey’s Evelina, a fictionalised ‘handbook’ whose very young heroine must learn the necessity for prudence, above all, in her entry to the world. Jane Austen followed, and a masculine tradition of defining the gentleman can also be traced from Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison on through Thackeray and Trollope’s novels.