Ada Cambridge

Ada Cambridge was a prolific and gifted author. Reading her works, one can get terrific insights into the sensibilities and styles of the then English colonial society. Most of her novels have conventional romantic subtleties and paint vivid pictures of Toorak mansions or pastoral homesteads as the backdrops of her story settings.


Her central characters were usually newly arrived English gentlemen or ladies on the shores of uncharted British colonies. The storyline followed their trials and trepidations, while searching for love and life partner.


Throughout her career, her novels continued to explore the basis of marital choice and this quest was often combined with several lesser written about topics of the time like exile, sexual passion and the substitutes of organized religion. In the following years pastoral work took them to Wangaratta (1870), Yackandandah (1872), Ballan (1875), Coleraine (1877), Bendigo (1883), Beechworth (1885) and Williamstown (1893).


Ada was centred on but not confined by home and family in those decades and the busy life of their different parishes gave her a wide range of colonial experience which she later recalled in the engaging and valuable Thirty Years in Australia (1903).


This and her childhood reminiscences, The Retrospect (1912), inspired by a return visit to England in 1908, show to what extent she drew upon personal experience and private dream-world for her novels. She herself emerges as frail and charming, never robust after a carriage accident in the 1870s; her ideas were considered a little daring and even improper for a clergyman’s wife.


She revealed more of herself in her poetry, but although she was the first significant Australian woman poet her best work, The Hand in the Dark, did not appear until 1913. It contained some of the descriptive lyrics and reflective sonnets of the hastily suppressed Unspoken Thoughts (1887) which had expressed religious anxieties, thoughts on the limitations of sexual love and concern for the under-privileged.


In 1913 Ada Cambridge returned to England with her husband who had resigned from Williamstown at the end of 1909 with permission to officiate within the diocese until 1912; in 1910 they spent a few months at Carrick, Tasmania.


He died at Brighton, England, on 27 February 1917, and later that year Ada Cambridge returned to Victoria where she died on the 19th of July 1926, at Elsternwick, survived by a son and a daughter. Ada Cambridge and George Cross left Australia for England in 1912.


After the death of her husband in 1917, Cambridge returned to Australia, where she lived in Melbourne until her death at Elsternwick on 19 July 1926. A successful writer of fiction who also wrote lively autobiographical narratives, Cambridge was at her most meditative and personal in her poetry, which showed a marked development from the devout religious work of her youth, through the romantic lyrics of Echoes and The Manor House and Other Poems, to the more radical work of Unspoken Thoughts and The Hand in the Dark.


Recent criticism has indicated the extent to which Cambridges poetry may be regarded as the high point of her literary achievement; it provides an important record and response to womens experience in colonial Australia.