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Stephen Mannington Caffyn (1850–1896)

by Geulah Solomon

This article was published:

Stephen Mannington Caffyn (1850-1896), surgeon and novelist, was born on 15 May 1850 at Salehurst, Sussex, England, son of James Caffyn, grocer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Mannington. He was educated at the University of Edinburgh (M.R.C.S., 1876; L.R.C.P., 1880). On 25 February 1879 at Chobham, Surrey, he married Kathleen, daughter of William Hunt of Waterloo House, Tipperary, and a relation of the poet, Aubrey de Vere. After education by English and German governesses Kathleen had trained as a nurse in London and probably met Caffyn first through this work. In 1880 they migrated to New South Wales where Caffyn worked as government health officer at Sydney and Wollongong. In 1883 they moved to Melbourne where many literary figures then seemed to be drawn to Brighton either as residents or visitors. There the Caffyns lived until 1892 in Black Street 'in an Oscar Wilde atmosphere which was attractive to the important impressionist painter Charles Conder'.

Caffyn practised as an oculist and surgeon in Collins Street and in the suburbs of Hawthorn, South Yarra and Brighton. From his student days when he fed the 'trollops, trulls and baggages of North London' on beef and pickles and Bret Harte at supper parties, Caffyn showed his concern for the deprived and ill. In Sydney his experience of the grim conditions of the quarantine station at North Head had led to a public inquiry in 1882 and many improvements. He gave evidence in Tasmania on the state of lunatic asylums in 1883, drawing on his own medical experience in England. In 1890 he and his wife gave evidence on Victorian charitable institutions. He had already publicly advocated the establishment of a society for organizing the distribution of charitable moneys collected in Melbourne and was vocal on such matters as the institutionalized care of alcoholics, in which he questioned the effectiveness and condemned the fanaticism of the Salvation Army. He invented an 'Improved liquid Extract of meat Compound' which he patented in January 1888. In 1883 he published several pamphlets including Eyes, Their Use and Abuse, With Hints on the Treatment of Colonial Eye Diseases; How, When and What to Eat; A Guide to Colonial Diet; and Quacks and Quackery, Being a Short Exposition of Homoeopathy, Bone-Setting and Other Anomalies Found in These Colonies and Elsewhere.

Mannington Caffyn wrote two novels, Miss Milne and I (1889) and A Poppy's Tears (1890). The former, the story of the blackmail of a doctor by his female patient and set in London and Sydney, ran to four editions in 1894. He also contributed to the Bulletin, the Centennial Magazine and other journals and was represented in Mrs A. Patchett Martin's Under the Gum Tree in 1890. He was a close friend of George Gordon McCrae, whose son Hugh remembered him as 'very thin, with a doctor's sweetish-smelling clothes, and dishevelled hair which shook while he gesticulated … A man with eager eyes … a stutterer', whose ideas cluttered the house with manuscripts while he despaired over their chaos. Alfred George Stephens, looking back at Bulletin contributors, said 'Mannington Caffyn is perhaps the one who rose highest as an artistic story teller. There are others who have gained as great, or greater results, but their work will not bear regarding so often'.

Mrs Mannington Caffyn used her nursing training to support her husband's professional standing; she was a founder of the District Nursing Society in Victoria and served on its committee for about two years, a keen advocate of lifting nursing from the 'sphere of Sarah Gampism into a scientific profession for educated gentlewomen'. In the literary field she was to eclipse her husband and achieve fame in her own right as a novelist. She wrote her novels as Kathleen Caffyn, Mrs Mannington Caffyn, but mostly as 'Iota'; she also contributed to the local press. Her sixty-page 'Victims of Circe — a Victorian Station Story with Melbourne and Tasmanian Associations' was published in Mrs Patchett Martin's Cooee: Tales of Australian Life by Australian Ladies in 1891. She also contributed to By Creek and Gully, edited by Lala Fisher in 1899. Of Iota's seventeen novels only A Comedy in Spasms (1895) and Dorinda and Her Daughter (1910) have any connexion with Australia; the only one written in Australia was her first, The Yellow Aster (London, 1894). It had four editions in a month and was widely reviewed as a 'book of the day'. The St James's Budget found it a 'peculiar' book, both 'Zolaesque' and betraying the influence of Ibsen, a product of 'morbid sentimental self-consciousness'. It is the story of a girl deliberately brought up without knowledge of the Christian religion, 'her powers of mind … highly cultivated but her heart starved'. She marries a rich and handsome gentleman believing herself 'sexless' and proving to be completely cold to her duties as a wife. Love floods into her heart only as her child is born. Reviewers condemned Iota's details on the approach of the infant as more suited to the pages of a doctor's book than those of a novel likely to fall into the hands of 'young and old, man, woman, and child'. To the Australasian it was 'vigorous writing, its faults being rawness of style (in places), a certain extravagance of description and obtrusion of incident, which might have been toned down or left out—the faults of a first attempt and bold ambition'.

From the first Kathleen Mannington Caffyn enjoyed outstanding success for her fiction. One reason for her popularity was that, despite an intricate verbose style and often obscure plots which dealt with art, religion, science and philosophy, her novels were essentially romantic with strong feminine appeal. Generally their themes were the analyses of women in their relations with men and were overlaid with associations of sex which were more significant than their ostensibly central plots. A second reason for her success was that she was undoubtedly skilled in character portrayal, a quality she shared with her husband. The decline of her popularity has been due as much to the changing conventions in novels on romantic love as to her own literary weaknesses.

In 1892 the Caffyns returned to London. Stephen died from phthisis on 2 October 1896 at Bethnal House Asylum. After his death Kathleen wrote most of her novels, the last, Merry Mirrilies, appearing in 1916. Though she ceased to write, she still pursued her other interests of hunting and polo. She died aged 73 after an operation in a nursing home at Turin, Italy, on 6 February 1926, survived by a son.

Select Bibliography

  • H. McCrae, My Father and My Father's Friends (Syd, 1935)
  • U. Hoff, Charles Conder: His Australian Years (Melb, 1960)
  • W. Bate, A History of Brighton (Melb, 1962)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 6, 8 Jan 1885, 6 Jan 1886, 18 Feb 1887
  • Australasian, 7, 24 Apr, 16, 23 June 1894
  • Times (London), 9 Feb 1926
  • Age (Melbourne), 11 Feb 1926.

Citation details

Geulah Solomon, 'Caffyn, Stephen Mannington (1850–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 22 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 May, 1850
Salehurst, Sussex, England


2 October, 1896 (aged 46)
London, Middlesex, England

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