It's a book of its own time; there's almost nothing in it of the aboriginals, for example -- as if Australia had been a blank slate, which is no doubt how colonials saw things, and maybe still do, on more than one continent -- but our writers have learned to pay more lip service to "sensitivity."
Go with it, though -- what it has to say is universal if it is universally applied.
Somewhat autobiographical, the tale follows the trials of a very young woman sent abroad to save her uncle the expense of keeping her, and her perseverance in the face of mounting difficulties in her new home, the environs of Adelaide in South Australia.
By birth a gentlewoman of Scotland, she hopes for work as a governess, but this proves difficult to find, and she is forced to "go into service" -- to take a series of jobs as a household servant, and learn to spend her days bringing in wood, carrying water, hand-washing linen, bringing and pouring the tea, and abiding slights, innuendos, and abuse without recourse. Deus ex machina in this plot is a handsome and gentlemanly sheep farmer, Reginald, who loves her from almost day one but spends the bulk of the five hundred pages getting clear of a prior engagement to a shallow and flighty lass "back home."
Class power relations are explored relentlessly, relieved by depictions of conversation among self-educated young colonials who have interest in, and insight into, current affairs, literature, music, and history. The influence on the families and the local economy of a series of gold rushes -- all the young men gone, and no one to bring groceries or fuel -- provides an undercurrent of extra stress, and while the reader must perforce stick with Clara in the kitchens and drawing-rooms, letters home from the diggings provide vivid glimpses of life in the nineteenth-century outback.
Spence goes into enough domestic detail that a reader can get more of a sense of the rhythm of life without electricity, petroleum, or indoor plumbing than one can from, say, Jane Austen, because Clara, brought up with some expectation of directing the help, must don the apron herself, and learns to answer every instruction with a docile "Yes, ma'am."
Quite a bit of the story finds Clara writing -- in her journal, in letters, copying out lyrics and poems from memory, and making copies of documents for a second cousin who is studying law. We who hardly ever see longhand used on such a scale might well take notice how little time has passed since a literate civilization ran on a knife, a goose quill, an inkstand, and some blotting paper. During her long stint in service, much of the writing, as well as her reading, is forbidden and clandestine, and it becomes a problem to her how to hoard bits of candle stubs and hide the feeble light seeping from her room late at night.
We are drawn to stories because we see truths in them concerning our own lives. One might think we (this "we" being those of us with a full refrigerator and Internet access) have not much in common with a nineteenth-century servant girl on the edge of starvation. But perhaps we do.
There is danger in being an attractive and apparently unattached female in a subordinate household position, and the climax of the work comes when, emboldened by the presence, in a nearby room, of her beloved Reginald, who has come to take her away in the morning, she faces down her latest tormentor:
'Now, you love my child, you loved her mother, say that you will love me—say that you don't hate me. Clara, give me an answer.'Mr. Beaufort has hoped, by keeping her in his house after the death of his wife, and behaving toward her as if she is his mistress, to force her into marriage by destroying her reputation, removing all hope of gainful employment or access to better men.
' I can never love you. I could not do my duty by you, nor by Lucy either. . . . But I am tired; let me go to bed.'
' If this is the last time we are to talk together, I have a great deal more to say; if you will give me another opportunity, I will let you off now. Besides, I must write you out your cheque, and not fly into a passion with it again.' He succeeded in writing it this time, and handed it to her. ' You would be offended if I offered you more than I owe you, or I would have made it double. I am sure you worked hard enough for this paltry sum. Now say, 'thank you,' and give me one smile. That looks a little better. You always thought my wife was too good for me, did you not?'
' Yes, I did,' Clara answered.
' Perhaps she was. I never cared much for her, and I dare say she would have found it out soon; so it is as well that she is taken away. You are different. I would give you far more of your own way than I gave to Mary. And don't fancy that I should make a bad husband. You have only seen me in a wrong box—I mean, in a false position.'
' Mr. Beaufort,' said Clara, solemnly, ' you would have preferred to keep me here against my will, until you thought I had no alternative but to accept you, whenever you might choose to make me an offer..."
One name for this is blackmail.
Another is rape.
These are omnipresent in a world in which too many people chase too few, or what are perceived to be too few, resources. Entropy is everyone's enemy, but some are disproportionately willing to fight off loss by causing loss to others.
Power relations are much the same everywhere, between couples, in families, in communities, and in the world, which is so much at the mercy of blackmail and rape, veiled in pretty terms, at the hands of the huge multinationals that would have us compromise ourselves time and again in selling of our time for buying power, in our access to goods -- we are urged to accept complicity in resource wars and torture and genocides, lower our standards for food and water, shelter and transportation, again and again, until we have enthralled ourselves to Goldman Sachs, Monsanto, Archer-Daniels-Midland, Bechtel, Pfizer, Microsoft, Chevron, and WalMart entirely. To really and seriously try to stem the tide of this degradation is to court unemployability, exposing ourselves and our loved ones to the specter of uninsurability, hunger, and homelessness. And how is that not blackmail? How is that not rape? We know what it is, even if we have been fortunate enough not to encounter it at home.
So you see why stories such as Clara's hold our rapt attention; once we have experienced the intimidation that follows upon accumulation of power, we know that we are Clara, and our happiness at her escape is but hope for our own.
Entropy, however, is a law -- it's how we seek to escape or accept it that makes the difference in who we are. Clara is an exemplar; she seeks not to starve, she wants a home and happiness, but chooses not to accept shortcuts and will not trample nor is willing to be trampled. We find ourselves -- well, all right, I find myself -- spellbound by her efforts to make her way through adversity with integrity. When I at last came to the page on which Clara's young man finds himself free to marry, and offers to her his isolated, dusty sheep-station for her portion in life, I wept for a good six minutes.
Liked it, in other words.