Ada Cambridge is an Australian author of the late 19th century. She was born in Norfolk in 1844 but came to Australia after marrying a clergyman at the age of 26. She lived in many rural towns in Victoria before settling in Melbourne. Like many 19th century women writers she wrote to supplement the family income. Ada was a very popular novelist in her day (she wrote 18 novels and this one The Three Miss Kings was published by Heinemann in the UK in 1891 after being serialised in the Australiasian in 1883) but like many 19th century Australian women writers such as Rosa Praed and “Tasma”, Jessie Couvreur, she is virtually unknown today.
This is a pity because The Three Miss Kings is not only an enjoyable read it also provides a portrait of colonial Melbourne and paints a picture of the mores of daily life at that time. While the novel is essentially a romance, like writers such as Elizabeth Gaskell, Ada also deals with social themes such as philanthropy, religious belief, the role of women, and class – but with a light touch.
The three Miss Kings are: the maternal Elizabeth, the eldest; Patty, outspoken and artistic; and the youngest, the more susceptible, Eleanor. At the outset of the novel they are in their twenties and recently orphaned living in a remote cottage “overlooking a wide bay of the Southern Ocean”. Their parents lived in obscurity but brought up their daughters in a romantic way, steeped in music, foreign languages and the natural world. After their father’s death the sisters determine to make their way in Melbourne on the small amount of money made on the sale of the cottage. Landing in Melbourne by steamer they are initially taken under the wing of Paul Brion, a journalist and the son of the sisters’ solicitor.
Of course it’s “improper” for an unrelated male to involve himself with the women alone so he introduces them to a society matron, Mrs Aarons. Paul is mistaken in his opinion of Mrs Aarons who snobbishly slights the unsophisticated sisters. However at one of Mrs Aarons’ soirees Patty plays the piano and impresses a German maestro. It is here we begin to see there is more to the sisters’ past than meets the eye. Paul also falls for Patty partly through her music – he listens to her playing from the balcony of his rooms which are next door to the modest house where the sisters live.
Also at the soiree is the kind-hearted but overbearing Mrs Duff-Scott. She sees the innate refinement of the sisters and hopes they will becomes the daughters she never had, showering them with fine clothes and introducing them to society.
Historical events of the day provide backdrops to two crucial scenes in the novel. At the procession for the International Exhibition in Melbourne in 1880, Elizabeth becomes separated from her sisters and finds herself crushed by the press of spectators on the Treasury steps only to be saved by the strong arms of Kingscote Yelverton. And at that Australian institution, the Melbourne Cup, the sisters experience a social triumph. Shown to advantage in their special outfits they are universally admired as society beauties, but the Cup is also the scene of a misunderstanding between Patty and Paul that sends their budding romance onto the rocks of despair.
A turning point in the novel occurs when the sisters retreat from the tensions of their obligations to Mrs Duff-Scott and the choices to be made regarding suitors and return to their old home (conveniently bought by Paul’s father – the solicitor). Here a sightseeing trip to the local caves helps Elizabeth make up her mind about Yelverton and a chance discovery in the house leads to an unravelling of threads from the past.
Ada Cambridge sets up an intriguing dichotomy between “natural” worth – innate qualities such as artistic sensibility, sympathy to others, self-awareness – against social values such as wealth, position, custom, and I had hoped this would be developed more fully. However, as Audrey Tate states in her perceptive introduction, “in the earliest chapters the novel appears to be on the verge of developing an exciting feminist theme … but the pressures of society of one’s time are not easily disregarded”.
The novel may end as a conventional romance but Ada’s humour and irony shine through. Like Austen before her she employs a knowing omniscient narrator. When Elizabeth flings her arms around Yelverton’s neck, the narrator comments:
“It is not, I own, what a heroine should have done, whose duty it was to carry a difficulty of this sort through half a volume at least, but I am nevertheless convinced that my real Elizabeth did it, though I was not there to see—standing as she did, within a few inches of her lover, and with nothing to prevent them coming to a reasonable understanding.” p.249