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Letters from Early New Zealand

Charlotte Godley — (an impression)

page xv

Charlotte Godley
(an impression)

Charlotte Wynne was the daughter of Charles Griffith Wynne, of Voelas and Cefnamwlch, in North Wales. His father was Charles Finch, a younger son of the third Lord Aylesford; but he had assumed the name and nationality of his mother, Jane Wynne, heiress of the Wynnes of Voelas, and the Griffiths of Cefnamwlch. Charlotte was one of a large family, of whom eight—four sons and four daughters —lived to grow up. In 1846 she married John Robert Godley, eldest son of John Godley, of Killegar, co. Leitrim. Their eldest child, John Arthur (known always by his second name), was born in June of the following year. Their daughter Rose was born in New Zealand, and three younger daughters, Eleanor, Mary, and Margaret, after the return to England.

The circumstances of their stay in New Zealand have been explained in Professor Newton's introduction, to which no word need be added. As for my grandmother herself, few things can have been further from her mind than to imagine, in print, these records of her life, written from day to day, during the years of separation from her own people; such separation as, in these days, can scarcely be realized. That they can be presented, even for limited circulation, in this very complete form, without infringing the privacy which she valued above most things, is a fact in itself characteristic of her. To those who knew her, every word of affection, or of longing, for her childhood's home, and all that it meant to her, signified a feeling a thousand times stronger than any words could have expressed; but reticence in words, where their deepest feelings were concerned, was natural both to her and to her family. The understanding between them was such that there was no need page xvifor outward expression; to her, as to them, emotional outpourings would have been a waste of time and of nervous energy. They wanted to know, and she wanted to tell them, what she was doing, and what scenes met her eyes, in her daily life; so that they might visualize her, as far as possible, in the Antipodes, just as she visualized them in Portman Square, at Voelas, or at Cefnamwlch.

My grandmother was, by birth and upbringing, essentially an early-Victorian. She herself would have seen nothing to be ashamed of in the circumstance; and I hope it will be admitted that few, after reading her letters, could apply the term to her in a disparaging sense. She once told me that among the objections urged by her sisters to the New Zealand voyage for her, was the danger of "spoiling her hands". It would have been a great pity, for they certainly were very good ones; and I doubt whether, in all her journeyings, she used them, except on a few specified occasions, for cooking, housework, or any other task that would have been considered unsuitable at home. With the invaluable Powles at hand, 1 am not sure that she even did her own hair. Yet there are many tributes which show, beyond all question, that the civilizing effect of her personality was of more service to the colony than the manual work that she, or any one woman, could have achieved. She had all the grace, gentleness, and dignity of the Victorian ideal; together with a most charming gaiety, and powers of observation and sympathy all her own. Further, she was not only diffident by nature, but held such truly Victorian views on the subject of public life for women, that I cannot speak, without a feeling of apology towards her, of what was undoubtedly her public influence; an influence all the more marked for being so largely unconscious.

Looking back, I cannot recall that she ever spoke much of her New Zealand experiences. They were stored in her mind; but she disliked talking of herself, and seldom did so, except for very special reasons. The present interests that could be shared; the help that she gave, in countless ways, to her intimate circle, and to her many friends; all this was far more absorbing. The children of the family especially appealed to her; all her life she was a true, and page xviiI might say Inspired, lover of children. She was adored, successively, by her nephews, her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren; indeed, her eldest nephew used to tell how, on her wedding-day, he, being then aged four and a half, made use of a pair of new boots to assault the bridegroom, for taking away his favourite aunt. Her insight in dealing with the very young amounted to genius, and might have put many professed child-psychologists to shame. Modern theories of "self-expression", if put into words, would have horrified her; but in her careful consideration of each child's individuality, its likes and dislikes, she was far in advance of her age. Not that she was blind to youthful faults; it was remarkable, at any children's gathering, to see how few signs of character escaped her. "Nasty little thing!"—she would say, in the kindest of voices, of a selfish or ill-mannered, or affected child. (This last type, I may add, was her pet aversion, and she could detect it in its most subtle forms.) Thrice fortunate were those children whose shortcomings she allowed herself to overlook, and whose happiness she was bent on securing. To speak of the material side alone; as a deviser of treats, and as a chooser of gifts, I have scarcely known her equal.

My grandmother died in January, 1907, at the age of eighty-five. Her later years were spent, for the most part, in London, and it is in her house in Gloucester Place that she will best be remembered. Her drawing-room was a centre where all branches of the family might meet. As she sat reading, or working, with her accustomed air of perfect finish and tranquillity, no figure could have been more admirably typical of the time and place. It seemed almost impossible to associate her with that primitive life—to use their friend Mr. Fitzgerald's words—"on the shores of a scarcely inhabited island". But she was not only a Londoner, I believe she was never happier than during the summers she spent at Cefnamwlch; the house that stands on a stretch of the Carnarvonshire coast, unknown, in those days, to tourists. This delightful place was often lent her by her nephew; and, throughout her stay, it was a bad day indeed—a really Welsh wet day—when she did not drive down to the sea, and spend the afternoon in a sheltered page xviiicorner of the rocks. Those were pleasant expeditions; there was an outdoor fire, tea for everyone, and books or shrimping-nets, according to age. I have never since visited that beach—now invaded by the latest seaside developments— without recalling her, in her black rough cape and shady hat, absolutely at home in the surroundings of her childhood. She belonged to that country; it was there she had learnt the love of open-air life that enabled her to face, and often to enjoy, situations undreamt of by most young women, in the eighteen-thirties, who had viewed life, from Portman Square.

I must not close this short impression without saying how little my grandmother would have wished that any claim to special self-sacrifice should be made for her, in leaving her home, her people, and a civilized world. She was, and I am sure considered herself, one of many thousands of women who did the same, either from duty or from necessity; to many of them, as to her, the two words had much the same meaning. Each alone knew what was her own sacrifice, and her own reward. One thing is certain; they were, collectively, no less indispensable to the new settlement than the men whose homes they made. Possibly, some who read these letters will see, in imagination, beside the statue of John Godley in Christchurch, the figures of his wife and child; for it is surely on the family, and not on the man alone, that the future of every colony must depend. And I will venture to say, of Charlotte Godley, that, young as she then was, no one knew better than she did how to build up, or to value, family life.

Eveline C. Godley.