Everything is Possible to Will
III. Themes and Ideals in Everything is Possible to Will — "This simple story, pioneer in its unvarnished truthfulness" (70)
III. Themes and Ideals in Everything is Possible to Will
"This simple story, pioneer in its unvarnished truthfulness" (70)
“Women’s interests are fairly represented nowhere; neither in the social, political, nor religious world,”70 Ellis decried in 1883. Continuing this cry throughout Everything is Possible to Will, Ellen Ellis pre-empted all early feminist arguments, and was the only early New Zealand feminist writer to broaden the struggle for emancipation beyond the central preoccupation of female oppression.71
The main forms of oppression Zee struggles with are against the intellectual, spiritual, and legal domination by men. Ellis is not so ground-breaking as to argue for women to be allowed to work outside of the home. “The home,” she insists, “is unquestionably her sphere” (73). Instead she argues for the emancipation of women within their already socially-defined roles as homemakers and mothers. She saw marriage as part of women’s domestic role, but believed wives should be equal to husbands both in law and in practical consideration. In order for a better world to be created for all, she believed both sexes needed to “stand on an equally free, social, and above all, moral, platform” (73). Men and women would “rise or fall together,” for their interests “are identical, not antagonistic” (73). Ultimately, Ellen Ellis’s feminism is a subdued one, but still radical for her day. She believed it was the intellectual woman who was the equal of man. As long as women were prepared to educate themselves (avoiding the arts of “coquetry” encouraged by society (118)), and men were prepared to treat women equally, then both sexes could work together for a truly ‘moral’ society.
Ellen Ellis possessed a complex understanding of the nature of oppression which goes unmatched by many of the women novelists who followed her.72 In the tradition of Mary Wollstonecraft, Ellis considered how wives and mothers, dominated by cruel husbands and domineering fathers, were victims to male power and passion. “Cruelly oppressive as is woman’s legal thraldom” (74), Ellis ultimately contends that women are slaves to men, comparing the position of women to the position of slaves in America. As a wife she had lost “value in possession” (47), her husband was cruel to her merely because she was “the creature of his convenience,” (87), and the “drunkard’s wife and little ones” are the legal slaves “of the vilest slave-holder that ever owned human cattle” (124).
Ellis's keen sense of sympathy extended to all people suffering under oppression. She was unusual among novelists of the pioneer period in her sympathy and understanding of the Māori,73 and even more so for her outspoken nature upon the need for the Māori language both in New Zealand Government and in schools.74 Ahead of her time,75 Ellis encourages Māori in Everything is Possible to Will to “strike out with the pen, friend Maori, introduce us to the higher, diviner side of your race” (242). During the New Zealand Land Wars, she scorned the fact that Māori were expected to submit their land willingly to the Government, and also dismissed the idea that Māori wanted war in the first place.76 In Everything is Possible to Will she depicts Māori as an oppressed “scrupulously honest” people (118), suffering under the dishonesty of the “all-for-self greed of the European” (240). The only other pioneer novelist to discuss Māori and European interaction so seriously was Jessie Weston in Ko Meri (1890).77 However, Weston clearly believed in the Darwinist idea of the ‘dying race,’ deeming: “the blood of the Maori and the pakeha will not mix. Where the one plants his foot, the other fades into nothingness” (Weston 391). Ellis writes, in comparison, with considerable compassion, urging the point that there is “room for both races in New Zealand” (242).
Everything is Possible to Will is infused with evangelical morals, particularly Ellis’s belief in the “divine plan of the moral universe” (72). Writing in her fifties, much of Ellis’s novel is a critique of her younger self, especially of her religious beliefs. Her early religion was a “debased selfishness,” a “top-dressing,” a “conventional pretentiousness,” a “black heathenism,” and a “mere cloak” (43). Due to since following the “undenominational and unsectarian”78 teachings of the Reverend Samuel Edger, Ellis’s religion in Everything is Possible to Will is far broader than her previous “bethel-pillar” strictness, which she sincerely regrets (43). The religion of the future, for Ellis, must be above “Church squabble” and be a “religion of personal goodness, strong to rebuke, to love, to save - to save from sin not to sin” (199). Ultimately, for Ellis, “religion is character," a personal faith based upon truth, consistency, and moral behaviour (237).
Among the New Zealand Pioneer novelists, only Ellen Ellis and Edith Searle Grossman in Heart of the Bush (1910) connected the need to control excessive alcohol consumption by men as part of a larger issue in addressing the power imbalance between men and women.79 Like Anne Brönte’s convention-breaking Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), it is the “drink problem” in Everything is Possible to Will that provokes the violence that women suffer in their subjugation under men. Only in “total abstinence alone lay Wrax’s hope of rescue,” but equally, Zee’s only hope lay in Wrax’s total abstinence (78). Ellis urges the moral responsibility of women to ‘save’ men from losing their souls to drink. Zee receives heavy criticism from the narrator for her “unfaithfulness” in failing to secure Wrax’s “good rather than his goodwill” (140). For Ellis, the alcohol ‘addiction’ is not a disease, rather, it is a moral failing that the individual can correct if they possess the inner ‘will’ to do so. “The true man,” she insists, noting that Wrax is not a true man, “rises superior to every trial and temptation,” whereas “the moral coward [...] is certain [...] to go to the wall” (64). Backing the title of her novel, Ellis emphasises that "everything is possible" for "whole-souled men and women loyal to truth," and for those who have the moral courage to correct their behaviour (223).
One of Ellen Ellis’s most forward-thinking arguments is that on birth control. A follower of Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, Ellis believed, like them, that the need for birth control was imperative since the “population runs riot” (134). Ellis had personal experience with large families and the suffering motherhood entailed. Not only from watching her own mother experience “a slow martyrdom of twenty years” in birthing seventeen children (134), but also from the experience of her mother-in-law, who birthed thirteen children, and from her own experience, when she was seriously ill after the birth of her first child, and suffered deep depression after the birth of her third. In Everything is Possible to Will Ellis campaigns for men and women to consider, not how many children could they have, but rather “to how many children can I do full justice?” (134). Since Wrax failed to provide properly for the children he had, Zee “determined there should be no more of their children for other people to keep” (134). Ellis believed more so that women had the “moral right” to refuse to allow their bodies to be used by men, and that the “animal passions must be kept well under control” (134). For men to force their wives to submit to the “martyrdom of maternity” was “inhuman, brutish” (135). Abstinence was one such way she believed women could gain the right to rule their own bodies.
As the Scottish reviewer of Everything is Possible to Will lamented in 1883, it is a "difficult task to enumerate all the moral and social lessons which Miss Ellis [sic] seeks to inculcate in [...] Everything is Possible to Will.” 80 This introduction is an overview of some of the more striking arguments in Everything is Possible to Will, but hardly the total sum. In brief, Ellen Ellis also argues for female education to be academic, and encourages the progress of “lady-doctors;” she argues against subjects being tabooed as “unfeminine” (84); she pledges a hope that doctors will issue a “serious inquiry” into the high infant mortality rates (84); she insists corsets and the “wasp-waist” be banned, and for a new “contrivance which shall support the bust from the shoulders” be created (85); and she encourages divorce as a legitimate option for women suffering under the tyranny of cruel husbands. She also describes her own “mental darkness” in an unusually candid manner for her time (I).
In her Preface, Ellis admits that her own “unrestrained naturalness [...] may surprise conventional prejudices,” but she still hopes that her novel would encourage both women and men to live life with true “strength of will” (VII). Only in their strength of character would people live on, once (in Ellis’s own words): “this poor, limp nineteenth-century character of ours has sunk into deserved oblivion” (V).
70 A Woman. “The Progress of Women.” Letter. Auckland Star. 30 April 1883: 4.
71 Kirstine Moffat. “The Demon Drink: Prohibition Novels 1882-1924.” Journal of New Zealand Literature 23.1 (2005): 145.
72 Sandra Coney. Standing in the Sunshine: A History of New Zealand Women Since They Won the Vote. Virginia: Viking Books, 1993.
74 During the New Zealand Land Wars Ellen Ellis argued that the New Zealand Government should appoint administrators who had a thorough grasp of the Māori language, and that the full implications of ‘tapu’ should be examined and then explained to both settlers and troops. Ellis caused great angst among her family and within her local community by arguing strongly for Māori rights.
75 Some early New Zealand schools taught in Māori alongside English to encourage comprehension, but by the 1920s the Māori language was generally suppressed in New Zealand schools. It was not until the 1980s when the Māori language was implemented as a subject in schools, and not until 1987 when it became an official language. [“History of the Maori Language.” New Zealand History Online (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 30 July 2015. Also: Ross Calman. 'Māori education – mātauranga - Kaupapa Māori education', Te Ara - the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, updated 16 September 2015.]
76 Ellis wrote home to her parents in 1860, exclaiming: “the Maoris want law and order; my Maori friends want above all things to be allowed to live in peace” (Colebrook, 106).
77 Roberts, 33.
80 "New Novels." The Scotsman. 26 October 183: 3. See Appendix I for an in-depth discussion of the publication and reviews of Everything is Possible to Will.