Book review by Sylvia D: The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge (1844-1926) was serialised in The Australasian in 1883. It was then published by Heinemann in England and Australia in 1891 and I read a Virago 1987 edition.
The novel paints a picture of Melbourne in the year 1880 which is very different from the image I had in my mind. It is a portrait of a white, colonial city and there is very little sense of Australia, no description of landscapes, no mention of convicts or the outback or the indigenous peoples, no Australian slang. With its magnificent buildings, busy traffic, bustling shopping streets with Collins Street in particular featuring some very expensive shops, theatres, concerts, and big social occasions such as the annual horse races, it appears as a sophisticated city, almost a London in the sunshine although with a Governor instead of a Queen. For a while it was the second-largest city in the British Empire. And like London, Paris, Philadelphia and Sydney, in 1880 Melbourne had its own International Exhibition which was a great success and defied all expectations. The opening day drew huge crowds and the grand scale and magnificence of the Exhibition made Melbourne internationally famous. The Exhibition Hall, which still stands today, features quite prominently in the development of the story. Following a betrothal early one morning in the gallery of German paintings, for instance, an engagement ring is purchased in the jewellery hall.
Nor was Ada Cambridge an Australian. She was born in Norfolk. Her father was a gentlemen farmer and she was educated privately at home. However, in 1870 she married the Rev George Cross and four weeks later they left for Australia where her husband was to be a missionary/priest. After living in a number of different settlements, they arrived in Melbourne in 1893. The couple, who had been very homesick, returned to England for a holiday in 1903 and Ada found she had become Australian. Her husband, though, had not, so when he retired in 1912 they came back to live in Cambridge until he died. Ada then went back to Australia in 1917 and stayed there for the rest of her life and the Australians now view her as an Australian writer. She started writing because ill-health forced her to give up the duties of a clerical wife and also because, as she wrote, she wanted to buy ‘pretty things’ for her babies – (p ix). Her first successful piece of writing was a serial called Up the Murray which appeared in The Australasaian in 1875. This was followed by other serials for the Australian press, 18 novels (all romances), a book of short stories, two volumes of reminiscence and three volumes of poetry, together with sundry stories, articles, essays and poems which appeared in journals in Australia, England and America.
The Three Miss Kings is one of her earlier novels and is a rags to riches tale with several allusions to the Cinderella story. The story opens with the Miss Kings (Elizabeth, Patty and Eleanor (known as Nelly) sitting on ‘a grassy cliff overlooking a wide bay of the Southern Ocean’ (p 1), close to their cottage home, discussing how they should use the annual income of one hundred pounds they were each to receive following the sudden death of their father. Their mother had died several years before. Patty wanted them to go to London and Europe; her older sister Elizabeth counselled caution and suggested they started with Melbourne. Eleanor was happy to go along with whatever the other two decided.
Herein lies the clue to their characters, Elizabeth, nearly 30, calm, sensible, stately, striking but not pretty; Patty, impetuous, highly intelligent, musically gifted; Eleanor, whom I found to be the least developed character of the three, very pretty, compliant and with a rather insipid nature. All three girls have never left the remote seaside settlement where they were born; they are inexperienced, naïve, with very open natures. As Mr Brion, the local lawyer who looks after their affairs says, they were ‘three innocent and helpless lambs about to fling themselves into the jaws of the commerical wolves of Melbourne’ – (p 17). So they set off for the city taking only their piano and a very large, family bureau. In Melbourne they find it difficult to make ends meet on only £100 a year each, find they do not have the right clothes and commit various social faux pas. They are, though, befriended by the proud but impoverished Paul Brion, the journalist son of their lawyer who finds somewhere for them to live. Almost immediately Paul and Patty are at odds but the reader can sense that their relationship will eventually flourish romantically.
The three girls, who have been on excellent terms with the other members of their isolated settlement, find that Melbourne society is, as are other cities, defined by class and money. Paul tries to introduce them to a wider circle through the person of Mrs Aarons who finds the girls ‘extraordinary’ but is persuaded to invite them to one of her Friday night salons. Mrs Aarons herself (seen in the introduction as the wicked stepmother) finds it hard to break into Melbourne’s upper social circle because she is not a lady with those qualities that define a lady – ‘refinement, reserve, modesty, sensitivity, culture’ – (p xii). She is nouveaux riche, not of good breeding and, although married, she encourages men to ‘dangle’ after her. Even so, at her salon the girls are totally ignored until Patty, at Paul’s instigation, is prevailed upon to accompany an eminent Viennese violinist on the piano. This she does to great acclaim and the girls attract the attention of a society matron, Mrs Duff-Scott. Mrs Duff-Scott, unlike Mrs Aarons, is the perfect lady, of excellent pedigree, who always acts with dignity and propriety. She recognises that the girls have been brought up as ladies and assumes the role of their ‘fairy godmother’. She buys them clothes, dresses them for their first ball, takes them out into society, introduces them to eligible batchelors. By page 100 you have worked out exactly which Prince Charming each girl will end up marrying, although none of them were Mrs Duff-Scott’s first choice. It takes another 200 pages, however, for it all to be happily resolved.
Elizabeth’s suitor is an older Englishman, Kingscote Yelverton, who is shortly to come into a large fortune. Cambridge uses the character of Kingscote Yelverton not only to draw attention to the plight of the poor (he fills the ancestral home of Yelverton with the lowest of the low and intends to use his fortune to continue such work) but to initiate an ongoing discussion about the nature of faith which some saw as rather audacious for a clergyman’s wife. This was a time, some 20 years after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, when people were beginning to take a critical attitude to the Bible and to question religious faith, and Yelverton himself has come to reject the institution of the Church and its creeds. Mrs Scott-Duff reports that not only does he view all world religions as equal but he believes that all mankind are children of God, and brothers, and that personal religion to him seems nothing more than the most rudimentary morality – simply to speak the truth and to be unselfish’ – (p 165). This poses a fundamental dilemma for Elizabeth who is a devout member of the Church of England.
Yelverton is also haunted by a tragic family mystery. This is matched by a mystery about the Miss Kings’ family and why their parents came to settle where they did. Their father was a gentleman but reclusive, cantankerous and eccentric. He would never talk about his past and his will had never been found. Their mother, a beautiful, well-educated woman and talented musician, had ensured her daughters had an intellectual and literary education and learned the accomplishments expected of a lady. By the end of the novel we discover that Yelverton is their father’s nephew and that the father had hastily left England with the woman he loved after a fatal accident for which he thought he would be blamed. When his will is finally unearthed in a secret compartment in the family bureau, it is revealed that the English estate and the vast fortune have been left to Elizabeth and her two sisters. Elizabeth and Yelverton come to a workable compromise over their religious differences and Elizabeth uses her fortune to enable his work with the poor to continue when they are back in England as a married couple.
A third theme which is implicit in the tale but only surfaces briefly is that of the position of women in society. Patty for instance dislikes having to rely on the help of a man, Paul Brion, and protests that women are not ‘helpless imbecibles – a sort of angelic wax baby, good for nothing but to look pretty. As if we were not made of the same substance as you, with brains and hands – not so strong as yours, perhaps, but quite strong enough to rely upon when necessary’ – (p 36). However, given the expectations of society and lack of opportunities for women to support themselves, marriage necessarily becomes the ultimate goal. Only Nelly confounds expectations for a while by choosing to use her fortune to see the world before finally returning to Australia and marrying her erstwhile suitor.
The Three Miss Kings is an enjoyable story that moves at a rapid pace and although you can guess how things will eventually turn out, it has some unexpected twists. It has its funny moments and Cambridge succeeds well in engaging with the reader. It would be a disappointing read, though, for anyone who was expecting it to give a picture of the wider Australia.
The Ada Cambridge Prizes were first awarded in 2005. There are now four prizes: The Ada Cambridge Biographical Prose Prize, the Ada Cambridge Poetry Prize, the Young Ada’s Short Story Prize and the Young Ada’s Graphic Short Story Prize. The winners are announced at the Williamstown Literary Festival each year.