The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
The Butcher Shop
The Butcher Shop. The emotional feminism of The Story of a New Zealand River is much more luridly present in Jean Devanny's The Butcher Shop, 1926. The theme of this book is shown symbolically in the cover design, in which a naked woman is bound to the earth by cords. The scene is a sheep station not far from Taihape. There arrives a Homey, to whom unfamiliar matters of farm routine can be explained for the reader's benefit. A strong plot develops, in which drinking, brutality, coarseness and violence are angrily displayed. The seventeen-year-old heroine reads Gissing, and marries "without realising what marriage is like"; she learns. When another man "whose mating time has come" turns up, and then another "awakened woman" who is French, and therefore "steeped in slave psychology", matters get complicated and bloody. The ending is suicide and murder.
The novel sold 15,000 copies, and caused a row. Yet everyone acknowledges that backblocks murder for passion does hit the headlines in our news from time to time. What, then, is wrong with The Butcher Shop? The answer, as so often with our novels at this time, is lack of technical skill. Like Jean Devanny's later New Zealand novels, Lenore Divine, 1926, Dawn Beloved, 1928, and Bushman Burke, 1930, The Butcher Shop has an undisciplined crudity, poster-coloured sensationalism, careless language, and over-emphatic character drawing. Yet it has some life. And it is clearly an attempt to express a deeply felt conviction. Like Jane Mander and Frank Sargeson, Jean Devanny is attacking our puritanism. Violent though it is, I would class it as an interpreting, rather than exploiting novel. Its author was a militant Socialist who belonged in spirit to the previous preaching generation. One is reminded of Edith Grossmann's early novels. Dawn Beloved, which has an autobiographical basis, is still perhaps worth looking at. So is Bushman Burke, in which an outback toughie nicknamed Taipo marries and tames a Wellington society girl.