Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Stevenson, Margaret (1807–1874)

by Leith G. MacGillivray

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Margaret Stevenson (1807-1874), by Adelaide Photographic Co., c1864

Margaret Stevenson (1807-1874), by Adelaide Photographic Co., c1864

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 11337

Margaret Stevenson (c.1807-1874), poet and satirist, was born at Chester, Cheshire, England, only child of John G. Gorton (d.1835), journalist, and his wife Margaret, née Hutton. Young Margaret grew up in a literary family. Her father was a writer and translator, and under his editorship the Globe (London) became a vigorous Whig opponent of the Tory Morning Times. With a classical education in Paris, she became fluent in French, Italian and German and an accomplished pianist, helped her father with his General Biographical Dictionary (London, 1828) and was music critic for the Globe. Among her friends was Kate Hogarth, future wife of Charles Dickens.

Margaret married George Stevenson, a Globe journalist, on 12 May 1836 at St George's Church, Hanover Square. The Stevensons and Margaret's mother sailed for South Australia in the Buffalo with Governor Hindmarsh, arriving in December 1836. As editor of the South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register, George was a trenchant critic of official policy, encouraged by his wife. In Douglas Pike's words, with their intellectual capital and advantageous social network, the colony had gained 'a formidable couple almost impossible to overawe'. Together they wrote a diary from 1836 to 1837 containing Margaret's early, elegant prose impressions of South Australia.

George and Margaret settled on land between Finniss and Melbourne streets, North Adelaide, and built Lytton Lodge, later known as 'Buffalo Cottage', where they had a celebrated garden. They also established a plant nursery (Leawood Gardens), managed by Margaret's mother, in the Adelaide Hills and a small inn nearby. Margaret was a prolific private versifier, sometimes in French and Italian. Some poems were addressed to her husband. Two from 1838 compared European with indigenous societies. She frequently satirized Adelaide's politics and its pretensions. In her husband's newspaper, under the pseudonym of 'A Colonist', she made scathing attacks on (Sir) James Hurtle Fisher, accusing him of private profiteering. Though Fisher sued for libel, he was awarded only £2 on one occasion and a shilling on two other occasions.

Under the same pseudonym, in 1838 Margaret ran literate weekly columns for women. Drawing on her classical background, she quoted from anecdotes, moral fables and brief biographies of classical Greek and European masters and from newspapers as wide-ranging as the Edinburgh Review, Liverpool Mail, Blackwood's Magazine and the Spectator. In 1838 she wrote a dramatic piece for Twelfth Night, using classical characters whom she identified with local worthies.

Between 1839 and 1849 she gave birth to three children. George became insolvent in 1852. After her mother died that year and her husband in 1856, Margaret became increasingly isolated and alienated, although she managed to educate her children well. Her last extant poem was written in 1860. By 1864 she had moved to Norwood. She died of congestive heart failure on 28 September 1874 in her daughter's home at Glenelg and was buried beside her husband in St Matthew's churchyard, Kensington. Her daughter and one son survived her. Stevenson's unpublished verse was circumscribed by contemporary romantic conventions and her satire was localized, not always sharp, but fearless. Some of her poems praised music, others lamented the life of an upper-class woman, transplanted to a colonial, cultural wilderness, utterly remote from the congenial, literary world of her upbringing.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Pike, Paradise of Dissent (Melb, 1957)
  • M. Stevenson letter, 6 Nov 1856, PRG 527/5/174 (State Library of South Australia)
  • V. de Mole papers (State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

Leith G. MacGillivray, 'Stevenson, Margaret (1807–1874)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stevenson-margaret-13207/text23911, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 28 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Margaret Stevenson (1807-1874), by Adelaide Photographic Co., c1864

Margaret Stevenson (1807-1874), by Adelaide Photographic Co., c1864

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 11337

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Gorton, Margaret
Birth

1807
Chester, Cheshire, England

Death

28 September 1874
Glenelg, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Occupation