Thanks to Lisa at ANZ LitLovers I have spent a happy week reading a book with the writing style of Jane Austen and the political sensibility of Ezra Klein. Remarkable, given that Catherine Helen Spence wrote the book in 1865. Financial difficulties caused her family emigrate to Australia from Scotland when she was 14; her father died a few years after their arrival and she had to support the family. She became very successful in her endeavors as a novelist, public speaker, and journalist, according to the introduction to the book.
The launching point of the novel is the death of Mr. Hogarth, thus unleashing his unexpected will upon his heirs. He had kindly raised his two nieces, Jane and Elsie, and lavished an expensive, but unique education on them. They had a tutor and later studied in Edinburgh as if they were boys, so they did not learn the skills that young women could use to be a governess. They learned accounting, various sciences, skills useful in management. Mr. Hogarth had a son by a disreputable woman that he had separated from her. Francis was also well educated, but had never met Mr. Hogarth. The will left everything to Francis and stipulated that if he aided his cousins, the estate would be withdrawn from him and given to five charities.
The sisters were unable to find work because very few opportunities were open to them. Jane, the more capable sister, spent a few days in Edinburgh trying to find work and was told by employers that they could not hire a woman, no matter how qualified she might be. Francis tried to help Jane find work and as they become friends, Jane inspired Francis to use his inheritance in a wise and kindly way. He improves the housing for the workers on his estate and makes land available to those who would become successful developing it. After two years, his estate was worth more than it had been when he received it. With Jane's encouragement, Francis enters politics and becomes a respected member of Parliament.
Meanwhile Jane and her sister receive help from a few independent women who are far from their social set. They live with Peggy Walker, a washer-woman who had returned to Scotland from a more successful life in Australia to care for her orphaned nieces and nephews. Through Peggy they get to know others who have returned to Britain after making their fortune in Australia and the sisters find employment with one of those families. The story unfolds in a Jane Austen kind of way, and you don't mind that the good are so good, and the evil are even more evil than you thought. And everyone ends up in Australia.
The author makes the case for feminism, a more inclusive political system (as late as 1884 60% of the male population of the UK could not vote because of property requirements), and the more egalitarian life in the colonies that allowed for social mobility.
Catherine Helen Spence, Mr. Hogarth's Will, Penguin Books Australia, 1988, 439 pages (originally published in 1865). Available at the UVa library and through Amazon. Apparently it's free on kindle, but only shows up if you search by author.