[Part 3 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"]

decorated initial 'C'ohn Hubback, Catherine's husband, had been in an asylum at least since 1850, when Catherine returned to her father's house in Portsdown. After Francis Austen's death in 1865, circumstances became increasingly straightened and uncomfortable. Catherine Hubback's two younger sons still needed to be provided for, and she herself apparently found life in Liverpool, where her eldest son John had found work, uncongenial. In 1867 John set out on extensive journeys for business reasons, travelling first to Australia and then to America, spending five months in California in 1868 and then proceeding to Virginia, where his youngest brother, Charles, was to settle a few years later. A year after John's departure, Edward left England to seek his fortune in California. In the autumn of 1870 Catherine proceeded to join Edward to make a home for him as long as he remained unmarried.

It was a bold step for her to take. She was in her fifties and had not left Britain since her honeymoon on the Continent. Moving to America also meant leaving her husband behind, who was eventually to outlive her by eight years, spending the rest of his life in the asylum. In addition, California was still the far west, even if it was no longer the frontier, and Oakland, where Catherine Hubback was to settle till the last months of her life, a small township with a fluid population of immigrants and descendants of pioneers who had flooded to California in the rush to the gold fields. When John Henry Hubback arrived in 1868, two years before his mother, it struck him as "the farthest west". California was "the real thing":

Occasionally one met with an individual who had crossed the Plains, lucky enough to escape the notice of the Red Indians and to survive the privations of hunger and thirst in those unknown deserts. It was as a whole a marvellous community, mostly Americans but with a large admixture of many other nationalities. I had seen something like it in Melbourne, a city supposed to be rather Americanised; but here was the real thing, people from every state in the Union, north, south, east, all come to the farthest west." [Cross Currents, 28]

It was in this increasingly multiethnic Wild West that Catherine Hubback proceeded to make her permanent home, teaching in a Sunday school, giving lessons in lace-making and embroidery, and setting up a missionary society. Curious about her new country, she frequently undertook excursions, absorbing the landscape, language, and lifestyle of California for a series of American stories. Her interest in Oakland's Chinese population was fed by her curiosity for all the new impressions life in the "farthest west" meant for her as well as by the central role they played in Californian households as domestic servants. Her son's comments evince a similar duality of orientalism and the realities of homemaking. His description of Chinatown — generally perceived as alluringly exotic by European travellers at the time — is juxtaposed with references to the vicissitudes of finding domestic servants in the American West:

Then there was Chinatown, a quarter all to itself at one corner of the city, where the thousands of immigrants coming by the Great Republic or other suggestively-named trans-Pacific steamers were at once at home, disappearing in the crowds of their compatriots. Chinamen were the domestic cooks; Mrs Knox employed one at the boarding house, a very good specimen he was, with pigtail and blue blouse and crooked eyes, all as they should be. Also he was quite a god artist in the kitchen. Housekeepers used to say that they did not know how they could have managed without Chinamen; no white girl would take up domestic service. [Cross Currents 30]<

John Hubback's ironic jab at suggestively-named mass-transports of coolies reflects his mother's often sarcastic comments on the Republic's double standards, while his reference to the suitability of Chinese men to serve as cooks and parlour maids (the province of women in Britain as well as at the East Coast) also closely echoes a letter Catherine wrote to him in 1872: "were it not for China boys I don't know what we should do." (Hubback, Letters: 3 June 1872). Descriptions of Chinatown are markedly absent from her letters. It would have been unlikely that a middle-class female English expatriate would have ventured into it — in contrast to her son, who came as a business traveller and was about to travel further west. Nineteenth-century European guidebooks to San Francisco warned travellers that it was "not advisable to visit the Chinese quarter unless accompanied by a guide." (Tchen, 3) Whether Catherine Hubback's lost American stories contain any references to Chinatown or even include Chinese servants — who after all play such a central role in her letters — as protagonists can now only be guessed. Their discovery would undoubtedly shed a fascinating new light on California in the 1870s. Hubback's orientalist excursions seem to have been restricted to a fair — a "small 'Great Exhibition'" (Hubback, Letters: 27 August 1871) — where she particularly delighted in domestic articles from Japanese and Chinese stores.

This orientalism soon makes way for her accounts of the treatment of Chinese servants in Oakland and specifically of a prevailing racism directed at Asian immigrants that at first caught her by surprise. In a letter dated 14 July 1872, she recounts an incident in her Sunday school: "My schoolboys today, who last week told me 'their neighbour' meant one who lived next door, today remembered that it meant every one 'except Chinese' — 'they being heathens', and 'coming here and taking the work from white men' — you may guess I gave them a sharp lecture" (Hubback, Letters: 14 July 1872). As the children give voice to anti-Chinese attitudes, Catherine Hubback not only speaks out against the racist categorisation of immigrant groups, but also against the sense of superiority that underlies it, pinpointing the double standards of the Republic's ideals of equality. Her sharp lecture quickly leads her from an admonishment of their racism to a sarcastic attack on what she sees as a particularly American hypocrisy. Following up with a question about the ownership or discovery of California, she sets out to expose the boys' prejudices. California had, in fact, only been ceded to the United States by Mexico a mere two decades earlier. Hubback is aware that she is treading dangerous ground as a foreigner herself:

How came California to belong to the U.S., I asked, so they said 'we discovered it' — No, you did not, you coveted it, and came with an armed force, & stole it from the Spaniards, & drove them out. The boy murmured something about the English wanting it. No, the Spaniards invited the English, but before they could answer the U.S. soldiers had taken it — but this is not in our lesson, except as an example of coveting & stealing. Do you suppose the U.S. fathers & mothers will raise a rebellion on account of my teaching such shocking truths — I suppose that the declaration that all men are born free & equal, means only all nations of the U.S. in their opinion. [Hubback, Letters: 14 July 1872]

This liberal use of dialogue characterises all of Hubback's anecdotes, contributing to the liveliness of her letters. Her frequently sarcastic remarks on Californian society, political and also economic systems, and especially the inconsistencies of republican ideologies are her most witty, but also most insightful comments. Not all her sarcasms are as deliberately simplified as her pithy remark on American public morality in a letter of November 1874: "American leather is just like American public morality — got up in a hurry to look fine & attract but no durability or solid strength in it" (Hubback, Letters: 7 Nov 1874). Her attitude remains sharply critical, but without detracting from her fond descriptions of the country and particularly the countryside. She is aware that she compares the Wild West of the present with the England of her youth. On 24 December 1871, having observed the manners of Californian young ladies when dancing, she describes their fashionable attitudes with characteristic sarcasm: "The American girls carry themselves so badly, owing to the exaggerated Grecian bend, that they all look hump-backed, and poke frightfully as we used to be told when we stooped our heads & rounded our shoulders" (Hubback, Letters: 24 December 1871). Apparently, Hubback suggests, they think "setting up their shoulders and going head foremost is 'the thing'". She wonders if "English girls [have] all fallen into the same way of walking, hobbling and poking" (Hubback, Letters: 24 December 1871). The manners of the young, however, become a topic that is — just like the schoolboys' racist remarks — emphatically traced to what Hubback terms their "irrepressible republican nature", which "is always bursting out" (Hubback, Letters: 1 December 1872) in the children she is trying to teach:

Girls here come of age at 18, & can then marry whom they please in spite of their parents' wishes — then they can easily get a divorce too; such is the charming state of society — I wonder what the next generation will be in America, & the next after that. Their only universal creed is that the Republic is morally, intellectually, physically & geographically the first country in the world, and that all the European communities are slaves governed by rotten thrones & bloated aristocracy. Their one universal rule is to get on — in any way — to make money is the business of men — to spend itthat of women. [Hubback,Letters: 20 July 1872]

In view of Hubback's eagerness to seize on any inconsistencies or double standards to rail against republican ideologies and policies, her sympathies with Asian immigrants have to be seen more as a reflection of her own experience as a foreigner in the United States. Her earlier fiction, written years before emigration was even considered, evinces an essentially ambiguous attitude towards America and Americans. In The Three Marriages, a minor West Indian character of mixed parentage is described as having "adopted some wild republican ideas", which occasion an uncharacteristic outburst when she eulogises "America, the free, the strong, the brave, the mother who cares for all her children alike", with "the zeal of a convert to a new creed" (71-72). While the novel proceeds to treat both Australia and America as countries in which desirable fortunes can be made, but which by implication bring forth and foster impostors — and a character's great expectations of the fortune his uncle has made in Australia are central to the plot — the West Indian's outburst is easily patronised as an enthusiasm that reveals her emotional ardour. As one of her admirers puts it, one does not "mind her prejudices — she is so sincere in them" (72). Nothing is made of the racial hybrid's sympathies with republican ideas of equality.

After emigration Hubback's conception of American republicanism was modified and became increasingly more concrete. Her early letters reflect the awkwardness of making her new home abroad, as she apparently faced prejudices that closely mirrored her own, or were indeed a response to them. Describing the 4th of July celebrations in 1871, she mentions her exclusion with a mixture of self-irony and dread of a social snub: "I was not asked so I stayed away. I thought the Wolseys or Mrs Kelsey herself might have asked me — unless they thought my English feelings would be hurt by the demonstration." Being foreign is a concern in "The Stewardess' Story" and runs through the increasingly sympathetic descriptions of different immigrant groups. Yet Hubback is undoubtedly aware of the racial component involved in naturalisation policies, even while she seizes republican inconsistencies to express her own feelings of exile as the lonely Englishwoman living apart from her insane husband, left behind in an asylum in England.

Her own struggles apart Hubback was clearly appalled by the increasing hostility towards the Chinese. "I do not know what the persecution of the Chinese will end in", she writes on 21 May 1876. The years Hubback spent in Oakland were indeed crucial in the changing attitudes to its Chinese community. In a recent study L. Eve Armentrout Ma has called the 1870s the beginning of "the most virulent phase of the anti-Chinese movement" (37). Chinese immigrants had begun to settle in Oakland in the year of its founding in 1852. In The Anti-Chinese Movement in California, Elmer Clarence Sandmeyer points out that in the frontier community, "the Chinese were looked upon as a veritable god-send", especially since there were few women, and "the Chinese supplied the need for cooks, laundrymen, and the like, as well as that of the heavier work of the mines" (14). But it was during the fiscal years 1873-1876 that the largest continuous influx of immigrants took place, "lending a background for the intensified feeling against the Chinese manifested during these years" (17). Anti-coolie clubs were established as economic depression hit California and a large-scale outbreak of violence took place in Los Angeles in 1871. Mid-1870s legislation was vigorously anti-Chinese. A revision of naturalisation laws eventually resulted in a clause that expressly prohibited Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens. (35). As an employer of Chinese, who served as cooks and housemaids, even took over the role of lady's maid in lacing her boots, and as a teacher at the Sunday school, Hubback would have been a witness to this increase in hostilities. Her arraignment of her schoolboys in the summer of 1872 preceded the growing antagonism. The letters she wrote in 1876 show its endorsement in politics and the legal system. The year 1876, in fact, marked a crisis in the anti-Chinese agitation in California, as numerous anti-coolie clubs combined to form the Anti-Chinese Union. Her letter of 21 May 1876 contains one of her most extensive remarks on the subject:

I do not know what the persecution of the Chinese will end in. They have passed a decree to shave all their heads if committed to prison, and they are constantly committing them for all sorts of things which they don't notice in any other people. Then they lay heavy taxes on their laundries. They tried it 2 years ago, and the Chinese beat them in a suit at law. Now, they say they can't afford to go to law again, but shall wait till the proper representations are made by the Chinese authorities, they being quite aware that the tax is an infringement of their rights received by treaties. Of course there is danger that the injustice here will be retaliated on Americans in China — and I suppose the other states would not like to give up the Chinese trade, however the Californians may resolve to drive them out of the country. [Hubback, Letters: 21 May 1876]

In the same letter, Hubback mentions a "great many burglaries about Oakland" and her neighbours' surprise at her courage to stay home only protected by the young underservant, Phun, who stood in as her lady's maid as well as housemaid. Phun seems to have remained longer in her service than most of her other Chinese servants, whose frequent exchange indicates the fluidity of the Chinese immigrant population. A letter dated 26 December 1875 describes him as "a very nice little boy [ . . .] who mostly waits on me, & is in fact housemaid." Her last letters reflect a change in her attitudes towards her servants and a new awareness of their situation. The comedy of her earlier anecdotes has disappeared. By contrast, the accounts of Chinese servants in the letters of the early seventies display her merciless wit. It is not only the Chinese servants that are comically detailed, even though their description is informed by a reductive orientalism and clearly shows the limits of cross-cultural understanding in the 1870s. Yet the detailed anecdotes evince a potential for fiction. Just as Hubback neatly captures Californian expressions, which are then unfortunately reduced to a "shrill Yankee voice", her early uses of Chinese servants as the protagonists of her anecdotes express a delight in the exotic at home. In a letter of 27 April 1873, Hubback includes a lengthy description of her current servants. Her relish in the comedy of the protagonists' pathos is characteristic of her mercilessly sarcastic accounts of Californian society in general. The dialogue between her distressed servant and an interpreter is significantly poised against Hubback's more general exacerbation with servants in the American West:

I would much rather teach a Chinese boy than an English girl or even an Irish girl certainly — one never gets impertinence in words, & even if they are angry they only slam the door. They cannot speak well enough to be saucy. [ . . .] He [Her current servant] thought I was angry with him, & said pathetically 'Me go, you no likey Wan' — with his hand on his head, & his diagonal eyes blinking narrowly. [ . . .] We only came to terms through an interpreter. The scene between them was comical. The wash boy who interpreted is very handsome — like a Hindoo I think — mine 'Wan' is not beautiful as you may guess — he say Lon man tin shon ling mann kin wa — the other Wa kin mannling shon tin man lon — then the interpreter says perhaps 3 or 4 lines of blank verse of the same style & always in a chant, a gregorian, I believe — and like a French tragedy — if one says two syllables the other answers with 6 or 8 so as to fill up the cadence. [Hubback, Letters: 27 April 1873]

In a letter earlier that year, dated 9 February, Hubback refers to her difficulties in finding trained domestic servants, self-ironically expressing wonder at the exotic nature of her new life: "It is an odd world, when one comes to think of it. When I was your age I had little idea I should ever be teaching cooking to a Chinaman in California." The impossibility to obtain white servant girls was a frequently lamented problem in the American West. Hubback characteristically traces it to republican ideas of equality: "Nobody likes to go to service — it is mean for a free-born daughter of the U.S. degrading herself." (Hubback, Letters: 20 July 20 1872) In a letter of 23 June 1872, she writes of the impudence of would-be servant girls, which explains, she emphasises, a widespread preference for male Chinese servants instead of the traditional choice of young women for domestic service: "There was a young woman who came to Mrs Akerley to ask for a situation, as she wanted a girl to look after the baby — and among other questions the girl asked, what time did the baby go to bed, as she should expect to go out then [ . . .] — also what room could she have to receive her visitors, as she had been used to have the use of a parlour". Chinese servants provided a welcome relief; and since the immigration of women from China remained restricted, household tasks traditionally reserved for women soon became relegated to men. An 1877 letter by a white woman looking for work in Idaho gives an unusual account of the situation:

[T]he answer at each house was, 'We've got a Chinaman.' [ . . .] [One woman] wanted a girl if she could get one, having just discharged her Chinaman. I asked what she would pay a good cook. She said $3 per week; she said she had given her Chinaman $7, but he was much better than a white woman. I bade her good day, with a tear in my eye, wishing I was a Chinaman. [Idaho Avalanche: 31 March 31, 1877, quoted in Abraham]

Such accounts of course fuelled anti-Chinese sentiments. Although Hubback's anecdotes are undoubtedly deeply embedded in the racist as well as orientalist discourses of her time and derive their comedy from stereotyping, they nonetheless stand out among the outwardly hostile comments that proliferated in the 1870s — partly thanks to Hubback's critical, if not to say derogatory, attitude to what she sees as an American sense of superiority based on the double standards of ostensibly egalitarian ideals. Still, her accounts become increasingly sympathetic. When one of her servants feels threatened by an "overwhelming force of Chinamen [who] will come whilst [she is] out, & carry him away", she becomes aware of the violence underlying the economic realities of Chinese immigration. By 1876, her description of the situation has lost its anecdotal and comical tone.

In the autumn of 1876, Hubback left Oakland permanently after Edward's marriage to an American girl, to whom she apparently failed to warm, to stay with her youngest son Charles, who had previously married a Swedish girl he had met on his passage from England and settled in Virginia. It was a cold winter and Catherine Hubback died of pneumonia on 25 February 1877. Her last surviving letters from Virginia are bitter; her remarks on Charles's servants not only sarcastic, but racist; her last comments on American customs hilariously derogatory. In October 1876 she plans to replace the "'coloured persons' who are so idle and independent" with "germans [sic] or Swedes [, who] make the best servants". In the last surviving letter, written on Christmas Eve 1876, she describes the thanksgiving festivities in Pittsbourgh, "a day on which patriotic americans [sic] stuff themselves with turkey and pumpkin pies, & their nasty mince pies, which are so gross they make one sick". Her remarks neatly encompass the simultaneity of grotesque sarcasm and critical exposure in her American letters. Her feasting acquaintance, she writes, has "the effrontery to compare their occupation of this country to the children of Israel in Canaan. To be sure so far as exterminating the original inhabitants they are something alike". While her own writing is never completely free of racist remarks and, in fact, repeatedly deploys racial stereotypes among the wide range of types and clichés that are at once used and exposed in her works, it nevertheless evinces an interest in the changing population of the American West. As she mentions her friendship with a Scotswoman, refers to the Jewish family living next door, whose children she considers particularly American, teaches lace making to the Dutch Consul's daughter, stresses "the quality of a mixed Californian audience" when the choice of a religious or secular tableaux is considered in Oakland in August 1876, and wonders at the lives of her Chinese servants, she describes an important and still neglected aspect of American history. It is precisely because her writing continues to be informed by a critical stance towards everything American that it offers a special depiction of life in nineteenth-century multiethnic California.

While Catherine Hubback's letters are important accounts of her new homes, abounding moreover in descriptions and anecdotes, they clearly cannot make up for the loss of some of her later fiction. "The Stewardess' Story" is so far the only rediscovered piece of fiction that shows the promise of her Californian writing. Hopkinson has remarked that "it is pleasing to find that Catherine has abandoned rich heiresses in favour of plain working women" (ch.9, 6). Hubback apparently planned to continue writing fiction even after the completion of the two stories rejected by The Overland Monthly. In 1871 she practises in her letters "to keep [her] Californian aired, for use in [her] stories". The centrality of Chinese servants in her anecdotal letters indicates that they might have appeared in her fiction as well, and it is there that perhaps the greatest loss rests. Nevertheless, her accounts of Chinese immigrants in nineteenth-century Californian undoubtedly stand out among the writing of the time. While she cannot be expected to write outside the racial and orientalist discourses of her age, her prejudices against "American" ideals — already prevalent in her early novels — ironically engender critical analyses of the ideologies and realities at the time. The criticism most often voiced with regard to Jane Austen's writing can certainly not be applied to her niece's. As R.W. Chapman has put it in his introduction to Austen's letters, edited by Deirdre Le Faye, a "familiar complaint is that they have nothing to say about the great events that were shaking Europe" (ix). Hubback's letters, by contrast, are full of the events and changing conceptualisations of nineteenth-century Britain as well as America. Although her writing continues to show her indebtedness to her aunt, Hubback's significance clearly transcends her role as just Austen's niece. As Hopkinson has put it in the unpublished "Niece of Miss Austen," she was the only one "among all Jane's nieces and nephews, to become a novelist whose novels were published" and "alone among all the Austen females [to visit] the New World." (ch.4, 4) Catherine Hubback's fictional and non-fictional works span two decades and continents as well as various genres, deserving to be reassessed in their own right. Her later writing is of particular significance for her representation of domestic life in the American West, but the reconstruction of her entire oeuvre will shed intriguing new light on a range of aspects of Victorian literature and the historical contingencies of an aspiring nineteenth-century woman writer who took Jane Austen's literary legacy across the Atlantic and into different genres.


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Last modified: 16 October 2003