The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Chapter 3: The Forerunners (1910-1939)
Chapter 3: The Forerunners (1910-1939)
To the young man I would say:
Get Out! Look sharp, my boy, . . .
This land is a lump without leaven,
A body that has no nerves . . .
If you're enterprising and able,
Smuggle your talents away, . . .
Between 1910 and 1939 stretch thirty years in which the novelist in this country was searching for reality, for the means of depicting it, and for an audience to listen to him. Only at the end of these decades can anyone be said to have found these things, except Kath-erine Mansfield, who achieved success in short stories but did not live to write the novel which she planned to call Karori. It was a period when a writer's best hope seemed to lie in voluntary exile, which could provide both familiarity with techniques developed overseas, and that sense of perspective which would focus our experience and discipline our too provincial tone.
In May 1908, Katherine Mansfield, then in Wellington and absorbed in her struggle to get away, confided in her notebook: "Go Anywhere. Don't stay here."
And again: "I should like to write . . . about a girl in Wellington; the singular charm and barrenness of that place—with climatic effects —wind, rain, spring, night—the sea, the cloud pageantry. And then to leave the place and go to Europe—to live there a [word illegible; dual? real?] existence—to go back and be utterly disillusioned, to find out the truth of it all—to return to London—to live there an existence so full and so strange that Life itself seemed to greet her ... I should fill it with [word illegible; sinister? climatic?] disturbance ... I should call it Strife ..."
Katherine Mansfield lived that story, rather than wrote it; but it was the experience of a number of New Zealand authors during these years. In the end, the story was written, or part of it, twenty years later, in Robin Hyde's The Godwits Fly:
"Sometimes in class Mr Bellew talked about the godwits, who fly every year from the top part of the North Island to Siberia, thousands of miles without a stop. They fly north, they fly north." And again, "Most of us here are human godwits; our north is mostly England. Our page 36 youth, our best, our intelligent, brave and beautiful, must make the long migration, under a compulsion they hardly understand; or else be dissatisfied all their lives long."
Robin Hyde herself made "the long migration". On her way "north", in 1938, writing from China, she recognised the significance of the creative tide in whose turning she had shared. These are her words, in an article in T'ien Hsia:
"... in our generation, and of our own initiative, we loved England still, but we ceased to be 'forever England'. We became, for as long as we have a country, New Zealand."6
The material of the next two chapters will be an outline of what was accomplished by this generation from Katherine Mansfield to Robin Hyde.
Bread and Butter. The years 1910 to 1920 are singularly barren. Satchell, Bathgate, Ferguson, Edith Grossmann, who all published in this decade, are of the older era and have already been discussed. A. G. Hales touched on New Zealanders in his McGlusky war stories. Hubert Church, better known for his verse, wrote a novel Tanks, 1916, recounting the travels of an incognito duke who samples the Trentham races, fishing, Wairakei hot waters, the Sounds, Queens-town, etc., meeting a lot of silly people chatting pointlessly among the scenery. A. A. Grace's The Tale of a Timber Town, 1914, is a loosely built digger story founded on the Maungatapu Mountain murders of 1866. The casual lingo of pub and goldfields gives it still a flicker of life.
The 1920s, however, when the vast effort of World War I was over, are a period of revival and growth. The best known writer of this time is Jane Mander.
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.
A Local Problem. When Katherine Mansfield reviewed this novel in 1920,9 she discerned its unusual sincerity, though she had some very hard things to say about its art. She fastened in particular on sticky passages in the first chapter, where Jane Mander tries to show us all at once both her heroine and the world to which she is introduced. Katherine Mansfield picks out this passage from the paragraph on the "tremendous scenery" (page nine) :
"Stiff laurel-like puriris stood beside the drooping fringe of the lacy rimu; hard blackish kahikateas brooded over the oak-like titoki with its lovely scarlet berry." (Just before this passage readers have met for the first time the unfamiliar names kauri, kowhai and rata.)
She asks, "What can that possibly convey to an English reader?" This is the right question, asked in the wrong way. The true audience for literature is human beings, whoever they are. But in 1920, doubtless, it was the English reader who had to be placated. The real question remains, is this bit of native, local information relevant to the theme, significant, and contributing to the total effect? What is Jane Mander wanting to do? To convey Alice's state of mind? (Did Alice know the Maori names?) To make a picture for us? Or has she been betrayed into what is merely a pointless tourist blurb? The latter, I believe. Examine the rest of the passage. Is she not "romancing"— with kowhai, rata and clematis in bloom, and titoki in berry, all at the same time?
But The Story of a New Zealand River is nevertheless a novel which ought to be taken seriously, an attempt to interpret experience. In strength of feeling, in a creative vision of reality, in use of the possibilities of a New Zealand setting, in its frankness about sexual problems, it is well above any New Zealand novel published up to 1920. If today some of its didacticism seems flatfootedly obvious, its melodrama of childbirth and accidents by flood and field too highly coloured, we should remember what the difficulties then were of getting New Zealand experience on to paper. Jane Mander never developed any great technical skill, but she is clear-eyed, courageous, honest; she has a sense of form, and some understanding of artistic control.
She wrote three more New Zealand novels, and two with English settings. Unfavourable reception in her own country discouraged her after 1928 from further efforts.
The Passionate Puritan, 1922, brings a young school teacher into the Northland timber settlement of Puhipuhi, where a lively plot in- page 39 volves her in the usual love story. The value of this novel lies first in its documentary material, the amusing, vivid picture of the mill township and its inhabitants. Secondly, there is a good study of a young woman moving from romantic illusion to a more balanced and realistic attitude.
The Strange Attraction, 1923, deals with country journalism and politics. Allen Adair, 1925, takes up that persistent topic of the twenties, the pull between Home and home. Allen, son of middle-class New Zealanders with hankerings for Home, is sent to Oxford to become an Englishman. He hates it, and comes back, settling in the Northland gumfields and opening a country store. A second conflict then develops, for he marries a city-bred wife, whose longing is to return to the quick-profit materialism of the urban world. The novel ends quietly in compromise, with a wry acceptance of fate.
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.
Growing up. A quieter novelist is C. R. Allen, who retired from the church on account of blindness and lived in England during the years 1919-1926. His first three books have English settings. He also made a name for himself in plays and verse. His earliest New Zealand novel, A Poor Scholar, appeared in 1936. It is the story of the evolution from humble beginnings of a Rhodes Scholar. Ponto is studied from childhood, through Otago Boys' High School and university. The picture of his friendships, adolescent moods and longings, and his growth to maturity is set against a leisurely rendering of the life of Dunedin. Character drawing rather than action gives the book its quality. The Hedge Sparrow, 1937, has a similar theme. Nicholas Broadbent, whose blind father and washerwoman mother eke out a living in a poor Castle Street home, is helped to an education, and becomes a lawyer and a radical politician, winning a seat in the post-war election of 1919. His emotional problems as boy and man are the material of the story. These novels have not worn well, but they have a pleasant flavour.
This theme of the sensitive boy growing up in small town or suburban New Zealand life, making his adolescent explorations, revolting against his home, having passionate friendships and calf-love ecstasies, and arriving at last at an adult awareness of himself and his country—this theme haunts our last fifty years. The "portrait of the artist as a young man" is almost a local literary genre. Besides Allen's two novels, those of Hector Bolitho, Solemn Boy, 1927, and Judith Silver, 1929, are made out of the idea. It will recur, much more skilfully handled, in the 1940s and 1950s.
Solemn Boy begins in Opotiki with a study of the English grandmother who cherished her nostalgia for the culture of Home. Timothy the hero, stifled by this environment, escapes to Auckland, journalism, love, and the war. Judith Silver offers us Simon's development, from a start in Karangahake. Pat Lawlor's The House of Templemore, 1938, is in the same tradition, treating of a queer childhood in Wellington, with vignettes of Cuba Street, Boulcott Street School, and family life against a background of Irish ways.
Alan Mulgan. Alan Mulgan is well known as journalist, broadcaster, essayist and poet; he wrote one novel, Spur of Morning, 1934, which was reprinted following the interest roused by the publication of his autobiography, The Making of a New Zealander, 1958. It is not his best work. Like so many of the novels written here before World War II, it exhibits faults which suggest that the creative experiments of Henry James, Conrad, Hemingway, Joyce, or Virginia Woolf had passed quite unremarked at our end of the world. Mulgan's material is not moulded into shape under the pressure of an idea or an emotion, but is presented flatly at the level of fictionalised journalism. While there is considerable historical interest in the period of page 41 time covered, the persons, episodes, and dialogue do not take on any body of their own.
Watch, for instance, the author's way of conveying to us those details of the past which we must know. No attempt is made to focus our awareness of them from any consistent point of view; they are handed out baldly in the remorseless past perfect tense of a history book. (On page twelve, in thirty-two lines, that tense, "had married, had played", occurs ten times.) Occasionally a character steps out of the pages to expound in what is clearly the author's voice, as on pages 12-14, 189-90, 256-9. Technical clumsiness of this kind was, as we have seen, typical of the novels of those days, and Spur of Morning is by no means the worst example.
The story tells of Mark Bryan, red-haired and rebellious from his Sixth Form days in "Eden" (Auckland), who becomes a reporter, then a Liberal-Labour politician, in the era before World War I. By bringing in several couples whose social position and home life is different from Mark's, Alan Mulgan widens the scope of what he can describe. Mark falls unexpectedly in love with Sylvia Feldon, daughter of a rich South Island squatter, conservative and would-be English to the core. Thus the love story attempts to dramatise the two threads which hold the book together, the liberal-conservative struggle, and the division of colonial loyalties. There is a lot about "colonials" and "English snobs"; somehow, freedom, democracy, football, and New Zealandism are ranged against capitalism, a class system, and being British.
A number of the portraits in the novel are recognisable; Braxton must surely be a glance at Seddon, while the student Alice Somers, who makes a single appearance on page sixty, is a well known popular novelist. The anecdote related on page forty-nine is also related on page seventy-five in The Making of a New Zealander. This fidelity to actual experience gives the novel some historical and social interest: otherwise, it is unsuccessful. But its perusal remains a most useful critical exercise.
Maori Fiction Again. Plume of the Arawas, 1930, by Frank Acheson, is a historical romance of the Arawa tribe set in pre-Pakeha times. Acheson, a judge in the Native Land Court, acknowledges in his preface the help of his many Maori friends. He chooses for his hero the chief's son Manaia, "Plume of the Arawa", ancestor of the Ngati-Tuwharetoa of the Taupo-Tongariro region. He was one of the urukehu, the fair-haired strain in the Maori race. Acheson contrives for him a romance with Reremoa, a Ngati-Hotu maiden; the war between the Arawa and Tuhoe peoples provides the plot. There is no observing Pakeha as in William Satchell's Maori story. The reader who is sympathetic toward the necessary but rather large doses of Maori language and beliefs in the opening chapters page 42 will be well rewarded. Names, chants, oratory, are most poetically rendered. Some characters are memorable, too, granted the extraordinary difficulty of recreating them in the distant Maori past. Manaia (later called Tuwharetoa), with his divided loyalties, Te Puku the fat, the traitor Kahu, are quite good enough for an adventure story. There are good accounts of the makutu test of the tohungas, of single combats, and of canoe-building and fighting tactics. The chapter headings are from Maori poems in translation by Alfred Domett, Thomas Bracken, John White, and others. While there is some stilted language and guide-book material, love of the people and sensitivity to their atmosphere have enabled Frank Acheson to avoid many of the pitfalls of this type of fiction. It is to be hoped that his novel will soon again be in print. Readers will then be able to get a complete picture of the genre, with J. F. Cody's The Red Kaka, 1955, and Leo Fowler's Brown Conflict, 1959, to show what has been done more recently.
A story of contemporary Maori life is F. E. Baume's Half-Caste, 1933. Eric Baume, a New Zealand-born journalist who made a reputation in Australia, takes the hoary old plot of the half-Maori child who cannot fit into Pakeha society. Ngaire is born at Oparau Pa, near Kawhia, of a mother who "matriculated and slept with three lawyers and a Captain of Garrison Artillery" before she was 19, going on thereafter to Auckland University. Ngaire is brought up at the pa, taught to read and write, and to appreciate Ibsen, Swinburne, Oscar Wilde. At fourteen, she goes to a Pakeha secondary school in Auckland, where they call her "nigger", and think that her reading tastes are rather shocking. Baume then serves up further harrowing experiences designed to expose the colour bar, but contrived with such exaggeration that one merely laughs. Finally, having been rescued by a right-minded if eccentric English "Hon.", to whom she becomes a companion, Ngaire meets her fate in the shape of Peter, a Scot. They marry in style in the Methodist Church, have a bush honeymoon (like H. B. Vogel's Ngaia in A Maori Maid), and set off to foreign parts. When Ngaire finds that a child is coming, she panics, for she has not told Peter of her mixed blood. She runs home to the pa—but the baby has blue eyes! However, Peter forgives both her silence and her racial inheritance, so that all ends happily.
Eric Baume doubtless meant well, but had no conception of the complexities of the topic. Noel Hilliard's Maori Girl, nearly thirty years later, gets much nearer to the truth.
Four Established Experts. In the 1920-39 period four women writers appear who have made reputations for good entertainment both here and in overseas markets. They are, in order of publication, Rosemary Rees (first novel 1924), Nelle Scanlan (1931), Ngaio Marsh (1934), and Mary Scott (1934).page 43
Rosemary Rees has written over twenty novels. They all make the conventional romantic assumptions, as the titles indicate: April's Sowing 1924; Heather of the South, 1924; Wild Wild Heart, 1928; Penelope Waits, 1947, The Proud Diana, 1962. When the background is New Zealand, it is the wide sheep lands of Hawke's Bay or Poverty Bay, offering scope for open spaces, outdoor adventure, and strong suntanned heroes, a heady mixture for unsophisticated feminine readers. At this level, the characters can be only stock puppets, while the local colour is exotically painted in as required, usually in explanatory layers.
Nevertheless, such stories have their place in this account of New Zealand fiction. No national literature grows up overnight; there must always be a base of average, bread-and-butter writing which builds up a reading public accustomed to seeing its life used or misused as the material for fiction. In this way, the novels of Louisa Baker in the years around 1900 served a purpose. The stereotyped characters and the imposed patterns of romance in the novels of Rosemary Rees do not entirely prohibit some good New Zealand touches, and some truthful descriptions of men and things.
Nelle Scanlan. Nelle Scanlan's sixteen novels offer a wider range. Two appeared in 1931, but the first to make a name was Pencarrow in 1932.
The saga of a family has attracted many writers. At this time, John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga was at the height of its popularity, and may have been in Nelle Scanlan's mind when she began her Pencarrow series. Galsworthy's study was of a family and a social class disintegrating under the impact of war, change, and time. To link a family and its fortune with the fortunes of a country, even as small a one as New Zealand, was a very different matter. The English class structure gave Galsworthy much of his characterisation ready made, for the references were known to his readers. New Zealand local history, on the other hand, had to be retold from scratch. To ' make a settler family come to life, and through its story to tell also that of the growing community, was a task beyond Nelle Scanlan's powers. G. B. Lancaster also attempted it the next year, in Pageant, 1933, a Tasmanian saga.
The trouble is, perhaps, that the pre-suppositions of popular romance, the tricks, the dodges, hamper the author when she wishes to handle more stubborn material. The Pencarrow men and women are drawn in flat statements, and have to be tagged with recognisable quirks or labels, such as bad temper (Miles), passionate rebellion (Kelly), possessiveness (Kitty), and so on. Even with these devices, relationships are difficult to disentangle.
The same defect of flatness mars the historical setting. The family moves through the generations, children are born, grow old, and page 44 die, but we do not feel the passing of time. Only external details, such as buggies and clothes, fix our position, for there has been no imaginative re-creation of the past. Nelle Scanlan has been too much the exponent of her material. She does not make her story spring from dialogue and dramatic action. Politics, the war, and the influenza epidemic give us our bearings, that is all. The result is a workmanlike romantic entertainment, but no more. Perhaps some later writer will attempt this most difficult genre, and bring off a coup. It is to be hoped so, for the proliferating pioneer family is a feature of our history. Dates of the Pencarrow novels are: Pencarrow, 1932; Tides of Youth, 1933; Winds of Heaven, 1934; Kelly Pencarrow, 1939.
Among her other stories are several which have an insight and a humorous truthfulness well beyond those usually found in light fiction. She is particularly successful with young girls, of whom there are life-like portraits in The Young Summer, 1952, and The Rusty Road, 1948.
The basic defect of light fiction is, of course, that its development is according to pattern. There can be no organic growth, for the moral distinctions, like the course of the narrative, are dictated by the wish-fulfilment needs of a popular market. Yet if this is recognised—as we have recognised the weaknesses in earlier novels on which the Victorian plot conventions were imposed—then we may find much of merit in these novels. They are quiet, perceptive, and amusing as well as a little sugary. Dealing exclusively with personal relationships within a feminine world, they are aimed at readers not minded to struggle with intellectual concepts or difficult imaginative pressures.
Ngaio Marsh. Ngaio Marsh's overseas popularity makes her possibly the best known of our writers after Katherine Mansfield. Her first story, A Man Lay Dead, appeared in 1934, at a time when the detective story dominated the highbrow entertainment market. (Top place today perhaps is taken by science fiction.) Since then, Ngaio Marsh has published twenty-three novels, almost one a year. Three have New Zealand settings: Vintage Murder, 1937; Colour Scheme, 1943; Died in the Wool, 1944.
In all her stories the backgrounds are brilliantly drawn, while the puzzles posed by her plots rise convincingly out of them. So it is with the New Zealand trio, in which the events of the story are probable enough to hold the interest, while the local possibilities are most skilfully manipulated. The English theatrical scene however seems to provide Ngaio Marsh with more of those eccentric or outrageous characters whose presence makes her yarns so sparkling. It cannot be said that the New Zealand stories are her best. Are we too lacking in wit, too puritan, too comfortably conformist, to make good subjects for "a nice murder"?
Mary Scott. Mary Scott has also won a considerable degree of popularity here and overseas; her field, like Nelle Scanlan's, is the light love story, though two novels which appeared in 1934 and 1935 under the pseudonym Marten Stuart are more melodramatic. In 1936 she published a volume of sketches centred on the country housewife, Barbara, whose light-hearted idiocies had been amusing womenfolk in various newspapers in the country. A more recent collection, Barbara Sees the Queen, 1954, is well known.
Mary Scott's stories, Breakfast at Six, 1953, Dinner Doesn't Matter, 1957, Tea and Biscuits, 1961, A Change from Mutton, 1964, and the rest, are certainly readable; they follow an easily foreseen pattern, evoke the expected reactions, and provide comedy without ever stretching the faculties too far. By dint of repetition, she has almost established a stereotype in our fiction, just as the early novelists did in dealing with Homeys. The Homey or new chum was a fumbling fool, who had to be taught to be an acceptable colonial; Mary Scott has stylised the 'Townies' who similarly have everything to learn when they go into the Great Open Spaces. To a man—or rather more often, to a woman—they are flashy, butter-fingered, intellectual and incompetent. They do not know a cow from a bull, a sheep from a goat, or a teatowel from a dishcloth, and it is the business of her ever resourceful country folk to turn them into dinkum Kiwis.
Yet these novels, for all their shallow portraiture, have gaiety and life, with flashes of perception, and with enough information about country goings-on to build up some picture of what the North Island backblocks are like. This is just as well, seeing that they are translated into a number of European languages. One, The Unwritten Book, 1957, a serious novel, has an obvious autobiographical basis. It traces the life story of a girl graduate who in 1913 abandons the academic life in order to marry a farmer, and lives through events tragic, comic and sensational on a back-country farm until almost the present day. Of the lighter novels, the most successful is possibly One of the Family, 1958, in which a visiting English uncle is initiated into family and farm life.
More Pops. This is the point at which it will be convenient to mention briefly a number of other writers of light fiction. Alice Kenny's The Rebel, 1934, is a Coromandel story of brothers and sisters, a dominating father, and a supposed long-lost brother. Annie Clapperton's The Lauder Brothers, 1936, provides floods, sheep stealing, two brothers, a half-caste girl who manages her own farm, and an eccentric will, all in a Lake Wakatipu setting. Other women writing romances in the 1930s include Joan Hewett, Mary Blair, Prudence Cadey, Elizabeth Milton, and Hazel Adair. Dulce Carman, now well known as a writer of these exploiting novels, published her first, The page 46Broad Stairway, in 1924. Anna Whyte's Lights are Brighter, 1936, touches briefly at New Zealand in a cargo-liner love story.
Oddly enough, there are at this period few examples of the parallel masculine exploiting novel. W. G. Holder's Restless Earth, 1933, a sensational treatment of the Napier earthquake, is one. Two others are Frank Boreham's The Song of the Stars, a Maori romance, 1927, and S. S. Wright's Oak Uprooted; a romance of early New Zealand, 1936. Also historical are the stories of Norman Sadd.
Ordinary Jokers. In quite a different class is M. Escott's Showdown, 1936, a laconic first-person narration, in a colloquial style, of events set in the Waikato district. David Hawkes, a New Zealand farmer, is in love with an English society girl, and problems inevitably arise. The book manages to convey a sense of ordinary living among ordinary folk, has a local tang, and made a stir at the time.
Better still in this way, and remarkably original, is the work of F. S. Anthony, a naval ex-serviceman journalist and farmer who died in 1927. He was so little known in his lifetime that his name does not appear in E. H. McCormick's Literature and Art in New Zealand, 1940, though he merits a page to himself in the later Survey of 1959.
Anthony's first book, Follow the Call, 1936, is the love story of a soldier settler living on a fifty-acre farm near Eltham. Mark, who tells the tale, has a keen tongue, and an amused worm's-eye view of farming life. There are good scenes on the land, and comic characters such as old Treadwell the district scandalmonger. The Taranaki rain, the ruinous cowshed, the leaky whare, 'flu, lumbago, an adequate heroine, local dances, and motor bike adventures add up to a pleasant enough novel.
Me and Gus, 1938, offers the same material and some of the same characters. It is of course barely fiction, for "Gus Tomlins" and Frank Anthony lived opposite each other on "Mossy Road", while Ned Wilson, Farmer Dan, Arty Wilcox, the Stead boys, and the rest, are recognisable local personalities. These sketches first appeared in the Weekly News and other papers.
Twenty-six years after his death, F. S. Anthony enjoyed a revival at the hands of Francis Jackson, who adapted his writings both published and unpublished for broadcasting, and printed them in 1951, with additional volumes in 1952 and 1955. Unfortunately, both the novel and the 1938 Me and Gus are out of print, so that it is not easy for readers today to appreciate Anthony as he really was. Funny as the revived Me and Gus of 1951 may be, the 1938 volume is the authentic version. Francis Jackson has pepped it up, pruning away descriptive matter or recasting it in dialogue, over-emphasising for -dramatic effect, and in general revising for the quick laughs of a radio programme. Where the current modern text seems merely farcical, it will usually be found that the original is better.page 47
Both in novel and in sketches, F. S. Anthony is an interpreter of our local scene. His broad humour, his easy rendering of cow-cocky vernacular, and his dramatic evocation of typically masculine dilemmas are most refreshing. He has created for us in Gus Tomlins a recognisable persona, a comic reversal of the solid, competent, do-it-yourself New Zealander who constitutes the popular image of a good Kiwi. Gus is a character to be remembered in New Zealand fiction.
It has to be admitted however that F. S. Anthony's stories are very near to life; Barry Crump's A Good Keen Man, 1960, or David McLeod's The Tall Tussock, 1959, are somewhat comparable. However, in getting the "ordinary joker" on to paper in the mid-1920s, Anthony "was well ahead of Frank Sargeson or Robin Hyde, and deserves credit for it.
Another Taranaki writer of the thirties is John Brodie, who wrote as John Guthrie. The Little Country, 1935, is a cheeky satirical piece. It strives too much for its crackle, and needs a binding central idea to redeem it from episodic impressionism, but it is lively, and challenges some of our assumptions. John Guthrie draws from a journalist's life—as Alan Mulgan did—but with sufficient heightening to make a memorable caricature. Examples of his highlights are the Tern Jubilee, the meeting of the Cod's End Borough Council, the Auckbourne Harbour controversy, and the unhappy fate of the reporter who commented on the smell of the local freezing works.
And what a good title—The Little Country. Guthrie was trying, he said, to show us "our faults as well as our fun". One character testifies, "We've been too busy getting somewhere, like most young countries, to know where we have been going. We've got no national consciousness, partly because we've practically no native songs and little native literature . . . Mentally we're still the nurslings of Britain . . . there's something that stunts our writing in this kinship ..." There were many who said these things in the thirties. That a character in a novel is moved selfconsciously to discuss the subject is a measure both of its importance to writers at the time, and of their lack of technical skill in handling it.
John Guthrie's next novel, logically enough, ventured into history, trying to discover "where we have been going". But So They Began, 1936, is shallow, recapitulating all the cliches of our pioneer fiction. A Maori marriage, the Maori Wars, the search for gold with Gentleman Jack, a remittance man of aristocratic origin, a wicked wooer, a Paul Revere ride, and final wedding bells, do not add up to a historical novel. The book handles its information clumsily, dragging Selwyn, Butler, and Seddon across the tracks of the story. The best things are the incidental sardonic comments on small town life.
After this Guthrie moved to England, where he made a successful career as journalist and editor. During the 1940s he wrote several novels with English backgrounds, none of them notable. In 1952 he page 48 returned to the New Zealand setting with two novels, Paradise Bay, and The Seekers. Paradise Bay is another satirical sketch of New Plymouth, which had already served him well. But his long residence overseas had cut him off from the original impulse. The fun is forced, and the character drawing has degenerated into a series of Dickensian eccentricities, while the basic seriousness which gave point to his earlier novel has gone. A display of verbal smartness does not hide the thinness of his material.
The Seekers is a very poor novel indeed, and might well be taken as an example of How Not To Do It. It embodies the worst features of our bad Maori fiction of the 1890s. Everything in it is derivative, flashy, and spurious. I suspect that Guthrie was deliberately angling for a Hollywood offer. He fully deserved what he got. The place which he has in our fiction of the thirties is his by virtue chiefly of his best book, The Little Country.
G. B. Lancaster. G. B. Lancaster's work spans the century up to 1943; her first stories, written for the Otago Daily Times, the old New Zealand Magazine, the Bulletin, and other periodicals which sheltered young writers in those far off days, were gathered into the volume Sons O' Men, published in England in 1904.
Her second New Zealand book, The Tracks We Tread, appeared in 1907. Both are South Island in setting, with amateurish workmanship owing a debt to Kipling and Jack London, and dealing with the raw world of droving, mustering, and endurance in the outback. Twenty-six years later, having in the interval made a name with a series of historical romances set in various parts of the Empire, G. B. Lancaster returned to the Pacific area, with Pageant, 1933. This family chronicle of Tasmanian pioneering was a literary sensation in Australia. In 1938 she produced a similar story with a New Zealand background, Promenade, which tells of three generations of the Lovel family, passing through early colonisation at Kororareka, the Maori Wars, politics, agricultural and pastoral development, and ending at the Boer War. The family fortunes mirror the fortunes of the country. The point of view is feminine and aristocratic, for the Lovels set off in 1839 from Lovel Old Hall. The novel is a "promenade", a "pageant", built about the "insatiable promenade of generations . . . two and two, looking into each other's eyes and never seeing where they were going ..." The writing has an artificial glitter which gives the story brilliance without depth.
Her last novel, set in Canada at the time of Napoleon, is of the same type, as its title, Grand Parade, shows.
G. B. Lancaster was the pen-name of Edith Lyttelton, daughter of one of the early runholders on the Rakaia River in Canterbury. With the upbringing of a "nice girl" in the 1880s, she had to keep her writing secret, especially at first when it was turgid, masculine, and page 49 rather frank about love, blood, and sweat. "Kipling," she wrote, "was such a change after years of Sundays at Home."10 If you consider what most of the women in her girlhood were writing about, it is no wonder that Edith Lyttelton used a disguising pseudonym.
Finally. Finally, to end this survey of the fiction of the thirties, except for the major novelists to be considered in the next chapter, here are three further novels. A brief note should be made of Gloria Rawlinson's Music in the Listening Place, 1938, a fantastic tale involving the Maori fairies, (the turehu), and a teen-age girl with a haunting obsession. It will not be to the taste of all readers.
Beryl McCarthy's Castles in the Soil, 1939, is a historical novel set on the East Coast of the North Island, a complicated chronicle of early settlers, station life, Hauhau troubles, a mixed marriage, estrangement, and ultimate reconciliation. Castles in the Soil won third prize in the section for novels in the literary competitions organised in 1940 to mark the centennial of the founding of the Colony of New Zealand. In the field of the novel, these competitions did not uncover any great talent; it is interesting to note, however, that Frank Sargeson's short story, The Making of a New Zealander, and M. H. Holcroft's seminal essay in criticism, The Deepening Stream, were brought to public notice by the centennial awards.
Similar historical material is in Joyce West's novel Sheep Kings, 1936, a family saga of the Kings, whose founder came to Poverty Bay in 1841, and married a Maori wife. Acquiring in this by no means unusual way some of the wide acres so desirable for sheep, Stafford King established a dynasty, whose fortunes Joyce West then traces through the typical pioneer possibilities. Each generation has a King. Hero and heroine are done with a Byronic magnificence, intended to dignify large-scale land holding and glamorise the great open spaces. "His eyes were arrogant. His hands betrayed the horseman, brown, sensitive, sinewy hands." Neither in style nor in construction is the author equal to her theme, but her subject matter, at least at that time, was fresh, and she has a keen sense of the drama of this type of pioneer experience. The only writer who has yet made it into literature in this country is H. Guthrie-Smith, in Tutira, 1921. This astonishing record of a real sheep king's career proves that it is possible for fact to be more enthralling than fiction.
(Topics for Study and Discussion are given in the Appendix.)