Catherine Martin's Life and Writings

Catherine Martin was born Catherine Edith Macauley Mackay on the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Hebrides, in 1847 or 1848, seventh child of Janet (née Mackinnon) and Samuel Nicholson Mackay.note Samuel Mackay was an impoverished crofter who, like many other dispossessed highlanders, migrated to South Australia under the aegis of the Highland and Island Emigration Society, arriving with his family in 1855 aboard the Switzerland. He was engaged as a schoolmaster on the voyage to Australia, during which, according to the ship's papers, he taught the thirty-six Gaelic-speaking children from the Isle of Skye, Catherine perhaps included, "to read a little and to speak English".note

On arrival in South Australia the Mackay family settled in Robe and then in Naracoorte in the south-east. Samuel Mackay himself died in about 1856, but at least two of his sons began careers as successful pastoralists by working on large properties in the Naracoorte area. The eldest son ran a school at which Catherine apparently had a strict early education.note

In her twenties Catherine Martin lived in Mount Gambier, later claimed by her as "little short of a birthplace", where she ran a girls' school with her sister and mother, and where, among the German community, she made friends who "fostered an intimacy with all that was best in the immortal literature of their country".note She also gained sufficient knowledge of the language to include translations of German poetry among the verses she published, from 1868 onwards, in South Australian newspapers. However, while her first major novel, An Australian Girl, includes much discussion of German poets and philosophers, its heroine, seemingly like Catherine Martin herself, eagerly absorbs European culture but remains consciously Australian, speaking with "patriotic love and pride" of Australia as "the birthplace of thousands upon thousands who love it more dearly than any other spot in the whole world".note The collection of Catherine Martin's original and translated poetry which was published in 1874 as The Explorers and Other Poems featured a

  ― xviii ―
long poem based on the doomed expedition by Burke and Wills across central Australia.

During her years in south-east South Australia Catherine Martin apparently also learned something of the Yaralde language (also called Narrinyeri) of the Ngarrindjeri (Narrinyeri) people of the lower Murray area. She includes some Yaralde words in The Silent Sea, and, in her last novel, The Incredible Journey (1923), she refers to sometimes recalling "an Aboriginal phrase, or a stave from a Corrobboree chant"and to her mother's "unfailing kindness" towards Aboriginal people.note

Martin moved to Adelaide in about 1875 and, in 1876, met the writer and political and social activist Catherine Helen Spence at the inauguration of the University of Adelaide–the beginning of a long-lasting friendship.note In 1877 she gained a temporary clerical position with the Education Department, from which she was dismissed eight years later when, still paid at her starting wage, she attempted to apply for transfer to a salary scale in line with those of her male counterparts.note Her first novel, "The Moated Grange", a sometimes melodramatic story which combined Australian and European elements, was serialised in the South Australian Chronicle and Weekly Mail in 1877, and was followed by three short stories in South Australian newspapers: "A Bohemian Born" (1878), "After Many Years" (1878) and "Breaking the Law" (1879).

In 1882 she married Frederick Martin, an accountant and occasional essayist, who had emigrated from Birmingham as a child in 1851 and who belonged to a family well-known in Adelaide intellectual circles. Annie Montgomerie Martin, Frederick's sister, was a suffragist and founder of a progressive school, while John Howard Clark, his brother-in-law and editor of the Adelaide Register 1870-78, was one of the founders of the Royal Society of South Australia. Catherine Martin inscribed a copy of The Silent Sea note to Frederick's brother, Henry Maydwell Martin, who, at the time of its publication, was the manager of Stonyfell Vineyards, and later became the proprietor. Directly or indirectly, The Silent Sea reflects something of the interests of each of these people.note

The Martin and Clark families, like Catherine Helen Spence, were prominent Unitarians, although it is not certain that Catherine Martin herself, whose background was Presbyterian,

  ― xix ―
joined their denomination. While Unitarian perspectives on Christianity are reflected in her sympathetic delineation of Margaret Lindsay's beliefs in The Silent Sea, her dramatisation of Stella Courtland's spiritual quest in An Australian Girl makes use of Roman Catholic thought from St Theresa to Cardinal Newman.note The Silent Sea's allusions to Eastern religions, especially Zoroastrianism, odic forces and psychic phenomena such as unconscious memory and dream clairvoyance, indicate that Martin also had an interest in theosophy, possibly connected with the visit to Australia in 1889 of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-91), founder of the Theosophical Society.note

Martin published review essays of the Life of Edward Bulwer, Lord Lytton (1883), the works of John Ruskin, and John Walter Cross's George Eliot's Life (1885) in The Victorian Review in 1884 and 1885. She was critical of the writing of Bulwer Lytton (1803-73), best remembered today for his historical novel The Last Days ofPompeii (1834), remarking that the effect his works left on the reader's mind was "a troubled recollection of having been in the company of people who insisted on airing the result of recent excursions into an encyclopedia", while "even his female heroes are sometimes turned into mere vehicles for trotting out the endless memoranda of the author's commonplace book".note However, she showed an almost reverential esteem for the work of critic and social theorist John Ruskin (1819-1900), arguing, in part, that Ruskin's books were invaluable to "young communities like ours, where the paramount concern of life is either to amass wealth or to gain a livelihood; where no class has yet grown up with the hereditary privilege of leisure and the ardour for ideas, irrespective of their commercial value; where those who exercise the influence that is inseparable from riches are, as a rule, severely limited by the lack of any true culture". She described Ruskin's essays addressed to women as "the truest and the wisest words spoken to or of our sex in this generation–indeed in any generation".note Martin also wrote of George Eliot with great admiration, speaking, for example, of Eliot's "superb individuality", her "wide culture" and "intellectual grasp", and of "the depth of philosophic thought" which characterised her works and which "marks a new departure in fiction". However, she criticised the marriage that ends Adam Bede (1850) as a "serious blot" artistically, which "adds one to the many instances

  ― xx ―
in which George Eliot's women decline on a 'lower range of feeling' than, psychologically, there is any necessity for".note

Between 1890 and 1894, according to Catherine Helen Spence's later recollection, "Mr. and Mrs. Martin were travelling in Europe, and taking up their residence in most of the capitals and important centres".note But in January 1890, although Catherine Martin was in Rome, postponing her return to Australia until she had revised the proof sheets of An Australian Girl,note her husband was at Waukaringa as mine accountant or "purser" at the Alma and Victoria Mine. According to the Terowie Enterprise and North-Eastern Advertiser, he was also Treasurer of the Waukaringa Athletic Sports Club (31 January 1890, p. 3). In February 1890 Catherine Martin was in Naples, but she returned to South Australia in early April and, after a house had become available at the mine, she joined Frederick at Waukaringa in June or July.note