[Part 2 of the author's "Chinese Servants, Wild West Stories, and the Vicissitudes of Homemaking in 1870s California: The Changing Genres of Jane Austen's Niece, Catherine Anne (Austen) Hubback"]
atherine Hubback was a prolific writer of novels and letters, whose work has undeservedly been neglected. While her first works of fiction are courtship novels closely modelled on, even directly inspired by, Jane Austen's novels, her later fiction needs to be seen in the context of the condition-of-England novels written by Disraeli or Gaskell and, after Hubback's move to America, of domestic anecdotes set in the American Wild West. Her descriptive letters from Oakland particularly deserve more attention as accounts of domestic life in California in the 1870s and as anecdotal writing that makes up for the relatively sparse output of fiction produced during her last years in America.
Providing intriguing insight into the customs, prevailing attitudes, and acutely observed prejudices in the small communities in which Hubback spent the last years of her life, her letters conjure up a vivid description of domesticity in the American West as experienced by an elderly Englishwoman who saw herself as an outsider commenting critically on "American" behaviour, but became actively involved in the community, an insider writing detailed accounts of her daily life to relatives in England. Her comments on her naturalisation or assimilation and the adaptation to American life undergone by the two sons who settled there are moreover significantly juxtaposed with her vividly descriptive and wittily critical accounts of the increasingly multiethnic composition of American society. Detailed with the same merciless acuity that readers of Austen's novels and her surviving letters are familiar with, Hubback's America casts a different light on prevailing attitudes at the time, sharply contrasting ideologies and politics with daily realities. Ranging from the first finished completion of Jane Austen's uncompleted novels, which clearly shows her indebtedness to Austen as well as the closeness of their writing, to letters about the domestic chores of Chinese servants in California, Hubback's writing displays a breadth of interest informed by a satirical eye for inconsistencies and hypocrisies that single out her letters as unique representations of the ideals and realities of assimilation in 1870s America.
Although Catherine Hubback published nine more novels after her completion of her aunt's abandoned fragment "The Watsons" under the title of The Younger Sister in 1850, her works have so far been unaffected by the growing interest in "forgotten" Victorian women writers. Her novels are now rarely read and hard to obtain; studies limited to her role as Jane Austen's niece — a reductive emphasis that was admittedly cultivated by Catherine Hubback herself. Although born after Austen's death, Hubback contributed much to the perpetuation of family history. When Austen's nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh published his Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870, he listed her as "one of the channels along which biographical information [about Austen] was transmitted" (235). Born on 7 July 1818, Catherine was the eighth child of Jane Austen's brother Francis, a successful naval officer who became Admiral of the Fleet, and his first wife, Mary Gibson, who bore him eleven children. Five years after her death in 1823, Francis married Martha Lloyd, who had long lived with old Mrs Austen and her two eldest daughters. Cassandra, Jane's elder sister, continued to be a frequent visitor, introducing Francis's daughters to their aunt's works, including the untitled manuscripts of what have come to be known as "Sanditon" and "The Watsons". Catherine either made copies for herself during one of these visits or managed to recollect enough details to use the characters and projected plot of "The Watsons" to write The Younger Sister years later. In his autobiography, Cross Currents in a Long Life, privately printed in 1935, her eldest son, John Henry Hubback, recalls his mother's and aunt's ability to carry on "long conversations on all sorts of subjects, almost entirely by means of quotations from their aunt's novels" and asserts that since Catherine "had studied this manuscript with her Aunt Cassandra so effectively," "she was able to reproduce from memory the text of this manuscript almost word for word, despite the seven years' interval since she had seen it" (5). As a channel for biographical information about Jane Austen, the Hubbacks continued to be of importance. Together with his daughter Edith Charlotte, John Henry Hubback wrote a biography of Austen's "sailor brothers", his own grandfather, Francis Austen, and his youngest brother, Charles. Until the recent publication of Brian Southam's Jane Austen and the Navy, John and Edith Hubback's book had been the only extensive account of Francis Austen's life.
While her family connections have resulted in sporadic references to her role as a channel for biographical information and the first to complete one of Austen's fragments, they have ironically also barred Catherine Hubback's inclusion in the revised canon of lesser known writers of nineteenth-century popular fiction. Like a number of women writers at the time, Hubback turned to the writing of fiction for financial reasons, and memories of Austen's fragments might have provided an easy start. In 1842 she married the barrister John Hubback. Their first child, Mary, only lived long enough to be baptised and died in 1843. John Henry, the eldest surviving child, was born in 1844, followed by Edward Thomas in 1846 and Charles Austen — whose second name is yet another indication of the family's cultivation of the Austen-connection — in 1847. In the same year John suffered a mental breakdown. After three years of disappointed hopes of his recovery, he was committed to an asylum, and Catherine returned to her father's house. It was in order to support herself and her three children that she started writing fiction. Whether a completion of Austen's fragment was seen as a guarantee of success, a desperate seizing of a plot, or simply the result of a long cherished youthful aspiration, sparked off during one of Cassandra's visits, unrelated to any more "mercenary" motivation, has to remain a subject of conjecture.
Hubback was, however, already collecting material for her novels during the journeys in search for health that followed her husband's breakdown, thus showing that she was planning to continue writing fiction and to choose settings and subjects different from her aunt's. Malvern, a watering place where Catherine and her husband stayed immediately after his collapse, served as the setting of her fourth novel, Malvern, or the Three Marriages (1855), and her collection of material in South Wales in 1849 became the subject of The Old Vicarage (1856). Hubback's most successful novel was Agnes Milbourne (1856), a story dealing with a young woman's dilemma over the conflicting claims of the Episcopalian and the Presbyterian church. The publication of The Younger Sister moreover predated the canonisation of Austen. Roger Sales has suggested that the popularity of James Edward Austen-Leigh's reverent patronising of Austen's age in the Memoir "can be seen as launching the Austen industry" (3) As Brian Southam has pointedly put it, the "seventy years from 1870 to 1940 saw the emergence of Jane Austen as a popular author, the most widely read and loved of all the classic novelists of English literature" (102). In 1860, Catherine's son John was later to recall "[n]o one of my new acquaintances or associates knew anything about Jane Austen and her novels; they were not at that period highly appreciated outside of literary society" (Hubback, Cross Currents, 7). In contrast, when he published Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers together with Edith Hubback Brown in 1906, he felt the need to preface the book with an apology for yet another work on Austen's family: "Perhaps some apology may be expected on behalf of a book about Jane Austen, having regard to the number which have already been put before the public in past years" (vii).
Nevertheless, Catherine Hubback clearly capitalised on her relationship with the famous aunt she never met when marketing her books, although this tendency became more pronounced after the publication of the Memoir. In a letter to her son John, dated September 1871, she admits having used her maiden name as a publishing strategy for "The Stewardess' Story" and refers to additional short stories intended to appear under her new pseudonym: "By & bye they can be all put in a vol. & published again. I mean in future to have my name printed Mrs C. Austen Hubback & make believe the A. stands for that. I never have written it at length so nobody knows and Austen is a good nom de plume" (Hubback, Letters: Sept 1871). The "A." of course stood for Anne. Before the publication of "The Stewardess' Story" Hubback had published as plain Mrs Hubback. In the dedication to The Younger Sister, she describes herself as a niece of Jane Austen who, "though too young to have known her personally, was from early childhood taught to esteem her virtues and admire her talents" (dedication). As a similar tribute to her aunt's writing, Hubback named the heroine of her second novel, The Wife's Sister, finished in 1851, Fanny Mansfield. The heroine's name, however, is the only connection to Austen. A mid-Victorian story with a moral that is emphatically driven home, concerned with the shifting laws of marriage and the legalities of inheritance, the novel has more in common with Victorian sensation novels of the 1860s.
This shift is anticipated in Hubback's completion of "The Watsons". The Youngest Sister is modelled closely on what had been handed down as Aunt Jane's intentions by her family, yet it adapts the plot to introduce specifically Victorian preoccupations. Mr Howard's shortcomings, for example, are subjected to a phrenological analysis: "Had phrenology then been in fashion, it is possible that the origin of this weakness would have been discovered in the absence of the bump of self-esteem." (vol.2, 114). When Tom Mosgrove (Musgrave in Austen's fragment) proposes to the heroine's sister while drunk and then denies the engagement, her brother moreover instantly recognises "a brilliant perspective of litigation, an action for breach of promise of marriage to be conducted" (vol., 114). The Younger Sister is a self-consciously historical novel and at the same time, a fond recreation of the Regency that predates the large-scale "Victorianisation" of Jane Austen and her time in the Memoir. As a result, Hubback's use of "The Watsons" caused resentment among some of her cousins for more reasons than one. An 1862 letter from Anna Lefroy to James Edward Austen-Leigh clearly shows their fears that Hubback might similarly appropriate "Sanditon", Austen's unfinished last novel: Have you seen or heard of E.A. Leigh's vol — Lady Susan — I think he's mean not to send it to me — very mean and real ugly, & I feel quite bad about it & shall not have a good time till I get it — I am real mad — (not that I am a bit — but these are Californian expressions — ). He has not said the first thing about sending it. I have to keep my Californian aired, for use in my stories, so I practice it on you." (Hubback, Letters: Sept 1871)
More importantly, Hubback's triumphant outburst shows her intentions to continue using a Californian setting and to keep her "Californian aired," as she put it. Yankee voices feature in "The Stewardess' Story," even while the main protagonist is an Englishwoman. The issue of The Overland Monthly that printed Hubback's first Wild West story includes entries with revealing titles such as "Tropical California," "In the Wilds of Western Mexico," and "The Oregon Indians". Hubback was aiming for a particular venue and a particular — primarily Californian — readership, yet it clearly emerges from her letters that she was genuinely fascinated by her subject. Her earlier fiction, though markedly different, prefigures this absorption of a region as well as of topical preoccupations. Just as she took up legal issues and specifically inconsistent marriage laws — a theme that came to be central in mid- and late-Victorian fiction, from Wilkie Collins's sensation novel Man and Wife (1870) to Mrs Frewin's little known, anonymously published, The Inheritance of Evil, or The Consequences of Marrying a Deceased Wife's Sister (1849), which might have inspired Hubback's own novel, her American writing shows the influence of her surroundings as well as of fiction published at the time in California.
"The Stewardess' Story" is a short, almost pithy, wittily told story about a stewardess's innocent involvement in the smuggling of instruments to produce counterfeit banknotes. Far removed from the rambling triple-deckers which Hubback had, in fact, been partly forced to write by her publishers, the story is fast-moving, driven by suspense, and moreover interspersed with Californian expressions that greatly contribute to its vividness. Mrs Ford, the stewardess, is tricked by two friendly passengers into hiding a piece of equipment in her trunk and to conceal a mysterious envelope. The couple claims to be concerned about the invention of a new spool which they wish to have patented. Helpfully carrying their infant son on shore, Mrs Ford is subjected to the degradation of being physically searched by the rough Yankee women in the customs office. The description becomes almost farcical: "She shrank from the examination, she cried, she sobbed, she grew hysterical; and, her nervous excitement being mistaken for guilt, she was in consequence subjected to a more rigorous examination" (340). The pandemonium that breaks loose alerts the stewardess's captain, who interrupts the procedure, and Mrs Ford is saved. When they later discover the friendly passengers' true identity as part of "a gang of forgers who have been passing counterfeit greenbacks" (341) and the nature of the smuggled items, they quickly destroy the evidence, since an investigation would implicate Mrs Ford. The criminals are thus allowed to go free, only punished by Mrs Ford's snub and the destruction of some of their equipment.
It is this refusal to furnish the story with a moral ending that not sharply distinguishes it from Hubback's earlier fiction, but also accounts for its refreshing quality and expresses her interest in the Wild West as a source of stories. That Catherine Hubback did not necessarily think much of justice in the American West clearly emerges from her letters, and her comments are not always light-hearted. "I do not think the morals of California have been making a very brilliant figure in the world lately," she writes in a letter in December 1872: "Mrs Fair's murders, trials and acquittal, the forgeries and escape of the Brothertons and the great fraud about the diamond fields, have made more conspicuous that creditable figures" (Hubback, Letters: 1 Dec 1872). In May 1876 she refers to "a great many burglaries about Oakland," but stresses that she feels secure with only her Chinese boy in the house:
That is one reason why people think me so brave because I don't mind being left with only little Phun in the house. How should anybody know. Phun could only tell his countrymen, and I am not afraid of them. I never hurt any of them — and I don't believe they would hurt me." [Hubback, Letters: 21 May 1876).
The role of her Chinese servants in her letters is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of her late writing, pinpointing both her change of focus from English Great Houses to domesticity in the American West and a corresponding shift from an increasingly moralising tone in her novels to a witty and markedly perceptive critique of double standards in her late stories and letters. Her repeated defence of the China boys against what she sees as a crucial inconsistency in ostensibly egalitarian conceptualisations of republican ideologies stands out among the representations of Chinese immigrants at the time. In the anecdotes that abound in her letters, Hubback repeatedly makes use of the hypocrisy that the treatment of the Chinese comes to embody to rail against what she sees as specifically American attitudes. While her exposures of what she shows to be an assumed American superiority are as refreshing as they are witty, they are admittedly also interrupted by a central contrast between a nostalgically recalled England — and particularly the English manners of her youth — and Yankee freedoms.
Hubback's initial reaction to the American West is reflected in her first American short story, "The Stewardess' Story". The rough women who have to search Mrs Ford scream in their Yankee voices, creating a comically detailed pandemonium: "added to Mrs Ford's hysterical screams, were the remonstrances of the searchers, delivered in the highest key of a Yankee voice" (340). Yet there is also a more sinister aspect to Mrs Ford's situation as a wrongly suspected Englishwoman in America. If the evidence is not destroyed, her captain argues, she might "at any rate, have a whole peck of trouble; and, being English, I think she might, likely enough, have some difficulty in establishing her perfect innocence." (343) Her status as a foreigner was one of Hubback's early grievances. In "The Stewardess' Story" it is this fear of being in a particular "peck of trouble" because of a failure to be American that leads to the destruction of the evidence, thus doubly forming one of Hubback's jabs at justice in the Wild West. A closer look at her letters reveals significant shifts in her point of view and insight into the changing problems of homemaking in the American West in the 1870s.
Last modified: 16 October 2003