Everything is Possible to Will
Appendix II. Ellen Ellis as Newspaper Correspondent — "I write in desperate despair"103
Appendix II. Ellen Ellis as Newspaper Correspondent
"I write in desperate despair"103
Everything is Possible to Will survives as Ellen Ellis’s only published novel, but it is certainly not the only remnant of her writing. As well as a few surviving letters that she sent monthly back to England,104 Ellen Ellis wrote prolifically to the editor of the three colonial Auckland newspapers: the New Zealand Herald, the Auckland Star, and the Daily Southern Cross (until it was subsumed into the Herald in 1876). She wrote occasionally under her married name of Ellen E. Ellis on such topics as the Contagious Diseases Act, but primarily submitted her opinion articles under the pseudonym “A Woman.”105 The protection of anonymity offered by such a non de plume allowed her to share her radical opinions in a safe forum, where potentially even her husband (who “fiercely oppos[ed] her attempts” of self-education (219)) was unaware of her public persona. Her chosen pseudonym is significant: Ellis not only foregrounds the fact that she is writing as a woman, but in doing so she also challenges the dominant opinions surrounding female participation in the public sphere. “A Woman,” in calling out sexism in her own community, reported that the catch-phrase: “[n]o woman ever wrote it” was a common cry “if anything particularly good [...] appeared in print.”106 By writing on all political and social matters that either interested her or caught her ire, Ellen Ellis as “A Woman” participated often in local politics and the newspaper literary community of her day.
Ellis first published an article in October 1866, less than a year after her return from England, during which visit she had been encouraged by her brother-in-law to write. Embracing the advice enthusiastically, Ellis submitted a letter in which she gives counsel to men on how they should treat their wives: with sympathy, patience, and, most importantly, “as his equal at all times.”107 Apparently enjoying the opportunity to share her opinion unguardedly, Ellen Ellis wrote with increasingly frequency to the newspapers, and was particularly active during the years 1870 and 1871 (alongside, and occasionally debating with, the feminist writers Mary Ann Müller and Mary Colclough, who also used pseudonyms108 ). Her writing diminished in her last few years, but she did publish an occasional article on public matters in the early 1890s.109 As “A Woman,” Ellis wrote articles on: women’s education; the difference between men and women; the moral education of children; the suppression of liquor sales; on marriage; on love, and on her support for the teachings of the Reverend Samuel Edger.
Her articles did not go unnoticed. Indeed, Ellis caused more controversy through her articles than she did with her novel, inflamed by the fact that, especially in the 1870s, public voices in support of equality for women were few. In writing an article titled “On Woman,” Ellis compared the treatment of wives to the treatment of slaves, because she considered both as enslaved property to men. She proposed the viewpoint: “if the negro can rival the white, if the woman can do the man’s work, they have a natural right to do it.”110 The article was criticized by an anonymous “A Man” respondent, who slammed Ellis’s writing as being an “unsparing and indiscriminate attack on [...] the masculine gender” and argued that women ought to be ruled by the “absolute authority” of the “superior” male sex.111 It is easy to see why Ellis fought so diligently for her intellectual freedom amidst such oppressive sexism. Her own response to the article was swift and caustic, arguing that she wrote not for pleasure, but in a duty to change the tone of public opinion, against such “indignities heaped upon [women] by bad men,” as “A Man’s” article exemplified.112 “I write in desperate despair,” she defends, “with a sort of last wild hope [...][that] I may touch a chord in the heart of one who is worth saving.”113
As ‘Ellen E Ellis,’ Ellis also engaged in a public debate with Mary Steadman Aldis (known publically as Mrs Aldis), “the most prominent woman's voice in Auckland,”114 which continued from 1889 till 1891. The opinionated pair debated over the need for prohibition, which Ellis believed Aldis was failing to support. The two women were waspish towards each other, with Ellis telling Aldis to answer her questions and stop “wasting time and space on side issues,”115 to which Aldis responded: “if Mrs Ellis will ask a plain question I will answer it to the best of my ability; but the question must be plain, and therefore must not be smothered in so many words.”116 Ellis promoted her own opinions regardless of the cost to her reputation.
Like Everything is Possible to Will, Ellen Ellis wrote opinion letters to the newspapers out of a sense of duty. She not only hoped to save men from themselves, but also to encourage women and girls to pursue self-education, stand strong in their moral virtues, and fight for the right for legal equality.
103 A Woman. Letter. "What thou hast not by suffering bought, presume thou not to teach." New Zealand Herald. 27 October 1870: 3.
104 Both Ellen Ellis and Oliver wrote frequently home to their parents while on ship and while living in Auckland, some of which letters survive in the hands of descendants, while others are held in the Surrey History Centre [Reference 1717/4, 1717/9]. An 1859 letter of Ellen Ellis’s was published in the Waikato-Historical Journal [59.1 (1991): 25-28], and was said to be one of many submitted for publication by a great-granddaughter living in Te Awamutu.
105 Although correspondents to newspapers were required to include their name and address details, the final confirmation of Ellen Ellis’s identity as “A Woman” can never be confirmed because such records are no longer available. However, Jenny Coleman uncovered in her 1996 Thesis ‘Philosophers in petticoats’ significant evidence to prove Ellen Ellis was “A Woman,” including the revealing facts in various "A Woman" articles that the author is: one of seventeen children, was known as an ‘incorrigible dunce,’ is the second eldest, a supporter of Samuel Edger, was married to a drunkard, known what debt was, and, as well as her writing tone and style being similar to Everything is Possible to Will , “A Woman” is very concerned with the nature of not only the soul, but also what makes ‘true’ moral men and women. For a full discussion on Ellen Ellis as “A Woman,” see: Jenny Coleman. “‘Philosophers in Petticoats’: A Feminist Analysis of the Discursive Practices of Mary Taylor, Mary Colclough and Ellen Ellis as Contributors to the Debate on the ‘Woman Question’ in New Zealand Between 1845-1885.” Diss. University of Canterbury, 1996: 361-365.
108 Mary Ann Müller (‘Femina’) and Mary Colclough (‘Polly Plum’) were both well-known contributors to the ‘woman question’ in New Zealand newspapers under their given pseudonyms, especially in the 1870s, and Mary Colclough also became a famous public figure by giving lectures on women’s rights. Mary Ann Müller’s 1869 An Appeal to the Men of New Zealand is considered the first piece of feminist writing in New Zealand. For an in-depth historical introduction to their writings, see: Charlotte MacDonald. The Vote, the Pill, and the Demon Drink: A History of Feminist Writing in New Zealand, 1869-1993 (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books Ltd, 1993): 13-31.
114 David Hastings. Extra! Extra! How the People Made the News. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2013: 196.