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Ada Cambridge (1844 – 1926)

Ada Cambridge was born on 21 November 1844 in Norfolk, England, the daughter of a well-to-do farmer, Henry Cambridge, and his wife Thomasina (ne Emmerson). Cambridge was educated at home by a succession of governesses, although in her autobiography The Retrospect (1912), she claimed she learned little of value until I had done with them all and started foraging for myself. Cambridge began writing poetry in her late teens, and in her early twenties she published two volumes of hymns, with a collection of poems entitled Echoes following in 1869, and began to gain a modest reputation in England for her devotional verse. In 1870, she married a curate destined for colonial service, George Frederick Cross, and the couple sailed for Melbourne later that year.

George Crosss pastoral work took the couple to rural Victoria, first to Wangaratta in the Murray district, and, over the next thirty years, successively to Yackandandah, Ballan, Coleraine, Bendigo, Beechworth, and Williamstown. While Cambridge engaged in the kind of community work expected from a clergymans wife, she also continued to write, and from 1872 began supplementing the family finances by contributing poems and stories to the Australian press. The deaths of the couples first two children in 1874 and 1875 affected Cambridge greatly, and she seems to have used writing as a means of coping with her grief. A back injury caused by a carriage accident in 1877, which limited the amount of community work she was able to perform, may also have increased Cambridges literary activity. In the later 1870s Cambridge published several novels in serial form in both the British and Australian press, and a new poetry collection, The Manor House and Other Poems, was published in London.

Cambridge continued to be a prolific writer of serial fiction throughout her time in Australia. She also continued to write poetry as she later claimed, more for the pleasure of literary achievement than financial reward and it was in this medium that the authors changing worldview was most apparent. The anthology Unspoken Thoughts (1887), issued anonymously, showed Cambridge at her most thematically adventurous; the collection included poems questioning the philosophical underpinning of church orthodoxy, and criticising the roles allotted to women in Victorian society. Unspoken Thoughts sold poorly, and Cambridge later stated that she suppressed the work (though not until several years after its publication), for reasons that remain a subject of debate. Twenty-six of the poems from this collection were revised to form the basis of Cambridges final poetry collection, The Hand in the Dark (published in 1913), though those with an overtly feminist emphasis were omitted. As with the earlier collection, the work was published at Cambridges expense, and it too was a commercial failure.

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.

Poetry Collections
  • Hymns on the Litany London John Henry and James Parker 1865
  • Hymns on the Holy Communion London Houlston and Wright 1866
  • Echoes London William Macintosh 1869
  • The Manor House and other poems London Daldy, Isbister 1875
  • Unspoken Thoughts London Kegan Paul, Trench 1887
  • The Hand in the Dark and other poems London Heinemann 1913
Suggested Further Reading
  • Patricia Barton Reopening the Case of Ada CambridgeAustralian Literary Studies 1987 13.2 pp. 20109
  • Patricia Barton Ada Cambridge: Writing for her LifeA Bright and Fiery Troop: Australian Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century Ringwood Penguin 1988 pp. 13350
  • Margaret Bradstock Unspoken Thoughts: A Reassessment of Ada CambridgeAustralian Literary Studies 14.1 1989 5165
  • Ada Cambridge Thirty Years in Australia Sydney Sydney University Press 2006
  • Jill Roe The Scope of Womens Thought is Necessarily Less: The Case of Ada CambridgeAustralian Literary Studies 5.4 1972 pp. 388403
  • Audrey Tate Ada Cambridge: Her Life and Work 18441926 Melbourne Melbourne University Press 1991