The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Jane Mander. Jane Mander was forty-two when she published The Story of a New Zealand River, 1920. She was born near Drury, near Auckland; at fifteen she was school teaching; then she became a journalist on the Northern Advocate. After some years in Australia, she studied journalism at Columbia University, New York, and travelled in England and on the Continent. In later years she lived in Whangarei. Thus Jane Mander knew, as M. H. Holcroft has said, the "divided mind which was a feature of our literary temperament".7 But she was a second generation New Zealander, and the land
was in her bones. The material out of which her novels grew was not a matter of laborious reconstruction, but of family knowledge, and she wrote from the heart with deep conviction, remembering the prob-
lems both physical and intellectual of her own lifetime. It is this direct relation to reality which gives her books both their power and their weaknesses.
The Story of a New Zealand River, hailed as a classic in its time, page 37 was out of print for many years, but is now available again following the interest aroused by a radio version. It is set near Kaiwaka, the river being the Otamatea in its kauri-milling days. At one time Jane Mander's father owned timber mills in Northland, and lived at a river settlement near the Kaipara Harbour. Jane Mander's choice of setting is deliberate, for it is vital to the inner experience which she attempts to express. It is the stage on which the heroine works out her personal salvation, the dock for her trial by ordeal. Alice Roland is a puritan, limited by the Victorian teachings of her girlhood about religion, social class, a woman's duties, and the sinfulness of sexual impulse. Unable to make any kind of spontaneous outgiving of personality, she is only half alive. The little river community is most effectively chosen as the place where she can be taught the meaning of love and of life.
This, it seems to me, is what The Story is really about, Alice's rebirth as a thinking, independent, generous woman capable of response. Note how she enters upon her stage on page one, being towed up the river by Bruce, the remittance doctor who is to be the chief agent in her awakening. Immediately she has to face the brooding dominance of the natural world, typified by the bush, and the insistent claims of personal relationships from which she has previously sheltered behind class barriers. The frontier society begins to break down her taboos from the moment of her arrival.
Only incidentally during the story do we see Alice outside this world, until, having lived the new life to the full and learnt its lessons, she returns once more down the river, this time with Bruce beside her. Within the microcosm thus contrived, Alice Roland becomes a true person. Her daughter, Asia, child of the New World, welcomes all this experience, and is set in contrast against her mother as an example of unspoilt natural behaviour. Many of the problems which were important to the women of Jane Mander's generation are dealt with in this book. Some of them are crudely managed, in the manner of the didactic preachments of the earlier propaganda novels. Much is said of woman's independence, of a daughter's right to her own life and decisions, of religious doubt, of charity for human need, of tolerance in interpretation of the moral code. Much is said too of the colonial dilemma, the absence of books and ideas, the insistent dead weight of material interests, and of the woman's lot in a frontier community.
The Story has a pattern of contrasts; the generations are in conflict, while the educated wife of refined taste is set against the go-ahead pioneering husband for whom culture is sentimental nonsense. This basic difference in attitude between Alice and Tom Roland is one we have met with before. Samuel Butler noted it in 1863; "New Zealand seems far better adapted to develop and maintain in health the physical than the intellectual nature ... it does not do to speak page 38 of . . . Bach's 'Fugues'."8 And again, "A mountain here is only beautiful if it has good grass on it."8 In dramatising these attitudes, then, as well as the difficulties agitating the colonial wives and daughters of the 1900s, Jane Mander was truthfully reflecting the times.