[Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Diana Mary Gardener, great-great-great-granddaughter of Catherine Anne (Austen) Hubback for her hospitality and generosity in giving me access to her ancestor's letters and unpublished writing.]
n a letter from Oakland, California, to Liverpool, England, dated 23 June 1872, Catherine Anne Hubback, one of Jane Austen's nieces, wrote to her eldest son of her various difficulties in setting up her new home in the American West: "In this country of happy equality young women consider domestic service a disgrace, and contrive to make it such a grievance and mortification to their employer that were it not for China boys I don't know what we should do. Do our own work, I suppose." (Hubback, Letters: 12 May 1872) Californian domesticity in the early 1870s starkly contrasted with the life Catherine Hubback had left behind, even though her family fortunes had gradually declined since the day she was born in the Great House at Chawton in 1818. Hubback was in her fifties when she left England to make the United States her permanent home, and what survives of her late writing — produced between 1871 and 1877, the year of her death in Virginia — maps her gradual shift from an often sardonic outsider commenting on what she saw as Californian idiosyncrasies to an increasingly naturalised resident who nonetheless never lost her critical point of view.
What is perhaps the most striking aspect of her letters is her vivid description of domestic details and specifically her perceptive comments on the problematics regarding the roles of Chinese domestic servants in California. Her letters critically detail a growing anti-Chinese sentiment that was to culminate in physical violence and, ultimately, in a series of anti-Chinese laws. Hubback's writing stands out among the sparse accounts of domestic life in nineteenth century California not only in its critical stance, but even more markedly, in its repeated defence of Chinese immigrants against what is depicted as a telling limit of republican ideas of equality. While Hubback clearly seems to seize such inconsistencies as a welcome means to expose American policies, her letters provide intriguing insight into the little documented roles of Chinese domestic servants as well as more generally, into women's daily lives in the American West. Displaying much of the wit and vivacity, even the often biting sarcasm, of her famous aunt, whose writing she emulated throughout her own more modest career as a novelist, Hubback's late work casts a fascinating light on domesticity in 1870s California. Her own homemaking was inextricably intertwined with the roles of Chinese servants, while her gradual assimilation into the Californian ways of life sharply contrasted with their exemption from naturalisation.
Catherine Hubback had started writing fiction for financial reasons, at first building on her recollection of Jane Austen's unpublished works to move on to the production of Victorian triple-deckers that pandered for a wide readership of moralising popular fiction. After emigrating to America, Hubback turned to stories set in the Wild West, involving counterfeit banknotes, women stripped to be searched, and criminals that go free. Whether Hubback felt inspired by her surroundings to change her focus from orphaned heiresses, tortuous courtship, and tempestuous marriages in England to Yankee smugglers, or whether she decided to cater for the publisher's bias has to be left open to speculation. Of all the stories she wrote in the 1870s, however, only one was actually published: "The Stewardess' Story" by a Mrs C. Austen Hubback was printed in 1871, in the October issue of The Overland Monthly. Having had little success in finding appropriate venues for her other short stories, Hubback seems to have put all her literary energies into the writing of letters to her son and daughter-in-law in England. Full of lively detail and a good deal of dialogue, her correspondence includes anecdotes that read like short stories in themselves, often illustrated with her own sketches. In one of her letters, Hubback significantly compares a sustained correspondence to a novel printed in instalments, sharply contrasting it with newspapers and telegrams: "It upsets ones chronology sadly and deranges ones ideas when one has to carry on two series of dates — one by cables quite late, one by letter 3 weeks old. I don't think I like cables in consequence — they are like looking at the 3rd vol. first or getting the story out of a newspaper review." (Hubback, Letters: 3 June 1872)
In an unpublished account of Catherine Hubback's life, a manuscript entitled "Niece of Miss Austen," David Hopkinson has even suggested that it is her letters and notebooks that display "her wit and her tendency to make rather tart remarks" best. It is there, Hopkinson emphasises, that "one finds indications of affinity with Jane" (ch.5, 11). Comparisons with Jane Austen are central to the very few studies of Catherine Hubback's life or works and indeed not far-fetched, considering her promotion of the connection as well as her admiration and emulation of her aunt's fiction and style of letter writing. Nevertheless, such an exclusive emphasis necessarily tends to be reductive, ignoring Hubback's significance not only as an undeservedly forgotten minor Victorian women writer, but also as a perceptive critic of policies, ideologies, and domestic realities in nineteenth-century California. While her American writing needs to be seen in the context of her earlier works and ultimately also of the family's literary legacy, its importance by far exceeds a narrow focus on an "affinity" to Jane Austen. An analysis of her critical representations of an Englishwoman's domestic life in the American West is, in fact, of more interest to (literary) historians of the period than to Austen scholars. This article connects Hubback's literary significance — including her conscious absorption of Austen's influence — to the neglected insights offered in her anecdotal letters. Above all, Catherine Hubback is treated as a versatile Victorian writer in her own right — no longer overshadowed by her better-known aunt.
Last modified: 16 October 2003