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Utu: A Story of Love, Hate and Revenge

[Sensational Literature]

Deceit, revenge, murder, incest, cannibalism and false identities, Margaret Bullock’s Utu: A Story of Love, Hate and Revenge has it all. Bullock was asked by her publisher make the novel ‘as sensational as possible’ (Wattie 78)1 and she certainly took that advice and followed it through. Sensationalist literature was at its peak during the 1860’s in Victorian England, Bullock took a genre that was known for its mad women, ‘bigamy, illegitimacy, drug abuse, murder, inheritance scandals, and adultery’ (Fantina and Harrison ix)2, added an historical element and then brought the novel ‘down under’ for its dramatic conclusion.

Fantina and Harrison in their book Victorian Sensations: Essays on a Scandalous Genre state that sensationalist novels are often described as ‘novels with a secret’ (xii)3 and Utu certainly has its fair share of secrets. We find out in chapter two of the novel that the villain Jacques (for ease of identification he shall be referred to as Jacques, although in the novel he also goes by the names Monsieur le Comte de Pignerolles and Monsieur Conrad d’Estrelles) intends to blackmail his biological father, Mr Radcliffe, whom he believes murdered his mother. As well as money Jacques wants to be able ‘to solicit the hand of’ (Bullock 15)4 beautiful Eleanor, whom he mistakenly believes is his cousin. Upon Mr Radcliffe’s revelation that Eleanor is actually Jacques sister, Jacques determination to win her hand does not waver. Although as with any good sensational novel, this desire for marriage has nothing to do with love. As Fantina et al. state ‘The institution of marriage in these novels is often seen as a weapon to be wielded for financial gain. Love, in the sensation novel, often has very little to do with it’ (xv)5. In Jacques’s case there is more to his desire for marriage than money, he has a strong desire for revenge upon not only Eleanor for flirting with and then rejecting him, but also her intended fiancée for using his whip on him.

Fantina et al state that:

At the heart of many sensation novels lies the recognition of the fluidity of identity. Rather than embracing essentialist notions of class, gender, race, and religion, the sensation novelists often complicate and at times defy them (xxi)6.

Bullock uses all these elements. Jacques crosses all the class lines as he goes from a poor valet to a count thanks to his devious behaviour, but as justice would have it Jacques ends up as the lowest of the low by the end of the novel, looked down upon by even the lowest of the ‘savages’ of New Zealand. Eleanor performs the reverse, starting off wealthy and ending up quite literally at the end of the earth to exact her revenge. Bullock plays with gender roles by having Eleanor disguised as a man for the second half of the novel, intriguingly by having her remove her eye-lashes, one can only assume that they were quite feminine and long for her to have to pluck them out. Race lines are also blurred, as Jacques and Eleanor are products of a mixed-race marriage, their father having married a ‘Gitana’ or a Spanish gypsy. Jacques claims this gypsy heritage as a reason for wanting revenge upon his father stating that he ‘must know that with our people revenge is the highest virtue. I have been reared for vengeance’ (Bullock 14)7. There is also the introduction of a love interest in New Zealand where a young Māori princess by the name of Rau-kata-mea or Laughing Leaf, falls in love with Conrad d’Estrelles or ‘Konrat’ as she calls him.

Fantina et al also make the statement that ‘In many sensation novels, women act boldly to accomplish their goals, giving little thought to questions of propriety’ (xvi)8. Our heroine Eleanor is much the same. Although by the time she decides to act boldly, her lover’s heart has already been delivered to her pierced with a blade, her husband has already attempted to murder her and her father has died.

Bullock herself seems to have been embarrassed by the sensationalist aspect of the novel. In two letters that she wrote to Sir George Grey, to whom she dedicated the novel, she apologises for the sensational aspect in both of them stating in the first:

As to the story itself, my desire at the outset was to preserve the memory of manners and customs now obsolete, and fast fading from the recollection of even the natives themselves. To do this effectively involved the concoction of a story sensational from the beginning, so sensational, in fact that I am not sure but I ought again to apologise for asking you to read it (Grey 1894)9.

In her second letter to Grey she reiterates the sensationalist nature of first part of the novel, fearing that reading this part ‘will prove rather wearisome to one of your cultured taste’ (letter dated January 8 1895)10. Bullock did reconsider rewriting the first section before its publication in England but goes on to state in the letter that ‘the trouble involved, and my lessened interest after so long a lapse of time prevented my doing so’.

That this novel is sensationalist cannot be denied, but it is unique in that its scandalous events culminate in New Zealand in 1772. It gives us insight into how Pākehā at the end of the nineteenth century viewed Māori life before the arrival of Europeans, and their perceptions of Māori with their earliest interactions with European colonisers. But what of the woman who wrote this novel? Who was Margaret Bullock and how was this novel received in 1890s New Zealand?