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Utu: A Story of Love, Hate and Revenge

Margaret Bullock

Margaret Bullock

What we know of the life of Margaret Bullock is mainly due to research into her life by Bronwyn Labrum. Although we know that she was born Margaret Carson around 1845 in Newton, Auckland, little is known of her early life, until her marriage to George Bullock in 1869. The couple had five sons and lived in North Auckland until George’s untimely death in a shipwreck in 1877. After George died Margaret moved to Wanganui with her sons where her brother was the editor of the Wanganui Chronicle. Bullock worked with her brother as a reporter and an assistant editor at the paper and wrote stories for English and New Zealand papers under the pseudonym ‘Madge’, a name that she became quite well known for, especially in regards to her regular letters to the editor. On one occasion she had need to chastise another writer who ‘ignores literary etiquette by appropriating a nom de plume well known as mine’ (Wanganui Chronicle 23 March 1895)11. Bullock was well versed in the politics of the day due to her role as a reporter in the ladies’ press gallery at parliament of which she was one of the pioneers, which enabled her to be a parliamentary correspondent for several colonial newspapers.

Bullock’s political activism extended to women’s rights, and as such she was a member of the suffragette movement. She founded the Wanganui Women’s Franchise League in June 1893 and she was also a member of the National Council of Women. Bullock seems to have been someone who was not afraid to speak her mind. Passionate about the women’s movement Bullock had firm words to say at the annual meeting of the Wanganui Women’s Political League on 3 August 1899 in regards to what she perceived to be apathy on the part of women after they received the vote:

...we got the franchise, and then our sex had the ball at its feet. No catastrophe followed our enfranchisement. The National calamities so positively predicted have not eventuated. But neither can it be truly said that we have achieved all our warmest friends expected of us. Victory opened for us a broad road to many fields of usefulness formerly closed; croakers, discomfited, had crept out of sight and had women thenceforward stood shoulder to shoulder, united in Will, our sex would today be free of all disabilities and in a position to initiate with some hope of success, many an urgently needed reform. As it is, one sometimes rather sadly fears that our great initial victory – which should have begun a series – stands permanently alone. Yet in it we gained all the elements of perennial success. The vote, added to our united will, put all things within our reach. The absence of the “united will” renders the vote almost a nullity. Still, though the sex has not accomplished what it might have, the value and need of co-operation been generally realised, there can be no question that progress onward is being steadily made, in spite of the lamentable apathy exhibited by the majority (Wanganui Chronicle 4 August 1899)12.

Bullock was the delegate from the Wanganui Political League at the annual meeting of The National Council of the Women of New Zealand in 1900 and she spoke on a number of the important issues of the day. These issues included child welfare and women’s involvement in politics ‘She was quite sure that Parliament would be none the worse for the presence of women, and women would be none the worse by their entrance into it’ (Lovell-Smith 25)13. She was also passionate about the removal of women’s disabilities enabling them to have financial independence in marriage. In her own ardent words women would be ‘Aroused at last to a clear perception of her true destiny, women, no longer a chattel, no longer a plaything, no longer a dependant, but a responsible human being, the co-equal of man, would ere long take her place in regenerating the world’ (38-9)14.

As well as her franchise involvement, Bullock was active in many other community issues. In one notable case she reported charges against a warden in the Wanganui Old Men’s Home for unlawfully assaulting a patient, she then conducted the prosecution for the case which resulted in not only the defendant being fined 60 shillings but an awareness in the community of the treatment of the elderly in retirement homes. (Wanganui Chronicle 4 – 7 October 1897)15. She was not above giving praise where it was due either, in 1900 she wrote to the Wanganui Herald praising the current conditions she found in the Old Men’s Home, albeit very tongue in cheek:

Sir, - I have discovered a phenomenon, and hasten to record the fact. I went up yesterday to the Old Men’s Home, and found a sick man properly cared for, on a perfectly sweet and spotless bed, in a perfectly clean and odourless room...Truly publicity is a good thing. Gentle public, continue your interest (Wanganui Herald, 29 January 1900)16.

Concerned about the welfare of all citizens Bullock was also a visitor to the women’s prison and she spoke out at the police commission about the below-average conditions that female prisoners were detained in and that ‘it was high time some alteration was made’ (Wanganui Herald 24 June 1898)17 to the accommodation for prisoners.

Bullock made use of her writing ability to support herself and her five sons. Along with her contributions to local and English newspapers she wrote three brochures for popular tourist spots in the North Island of New Zealand, and her only novel Utu: A Story of Love, Hate and Revenge. Utu seems to have been well marketed. An advertisement in the Southland Times proclaims the excitement felt at receiving advanced copies of the first four chapters and mentions that they have high expectations for the novel. Although they ‘make no comment’ on the content of the book they assure the reader that ‘when the story is published in Book form throughout the World it will create a sensation unknown in Literary circles for years’ (Southland Times 22 January 1894)18. It was first published in serial form in New Zealand Graphic, the proprietor of the journal being so elated at procuring “a work of the highest literary merit” that he intended to have it published in novel form in London as “it is unquestionably the story of the year and not a mere stringing together of well-worn facts of the last Maori war.” (Wanganui Herald 15 January 1894)19. The majority of contemporary reviews were overwhelmingly positive, most notably those from the Wanganui region, and one can’t help but feel the local pride emanating from these reviews. The Wanganui Herald states that Bullock’s ‘literary ability is fully displayed in the interesting pages of “Utu”’ (23 August 1894)20 and the Wanganui Chronicle states that the fact that the writer is one of their own should be sufficient enough reason ‘to commend it to local readers’ but that ‘“Utu” will sell itself for itself’ as the writer is ‘gifted with remarkable literary ingenuity’ (30 August 1894)21. Overall most reviewers tended to be impressed by the imaginative abilities of the author, one reviewer (who assumed that the author was a male) exclaimed with relief that characters as found in Utu ‘are not often met with in the flesh’, although ‘the reader cannot help admiring the inventiveness of the author in producing such a thoroughly detestable villain for his edification’. This reviewer then sums up by saying that ‘Utu is well worth reading, if only to discover the imaginative faculty so abnormally developed in the author’ (Poverty Bay Herald 27 August 1894)22.

However, not all reviewers were completely satisfied with their reading experience, one commenting that ‘It would have been better if the French words and phrases, with which the pages are too plentifully bespattered, had been omitted’ (Fielding Star 27 August 1894)23, and another not happy with the first part of the novel, believing it unnecessary, thought it ‘would probably succeed better in a purely Maori tale.’ This reviewer then goes on to criticise Bullock’s writing style: ‘Her style, however is capable of improvement, and the variety of languages used – English, French, Romany, Maori, &c. – is rather perplexing’ however as if to soften the blow of this critique the reviewer then goes on to state that ‘If “Utu” is a first attempt, it is, however, promising. The illustrations are fairly good’ Evening Post 18 September 1894)24.

Margaret Bullock dedicated both the New Zealand and English versions of Utu to Sir George Grey due to, as Bullock puts it, his ‘care and foresight’ that enabled the European settlers to ‘live in amity with the once warlike race’ (Bullock dedication page)25. A reviewer in the Hawera & Normanby Star found this a fitting dedication due to Sir George Grey’s ‘extended knowledge of and sympathy with the native race’ (30 August 1894)26. The letter that Bullock wrote to Sir George Grey requesting his permission to dedicate the book to him still survives, as previously mentioned she seems rather embarrassed by the sensational nature of the first part of the novel. She apologises to the premier for this and asks for his endorsement of the New Zealand portion of the novel stating that ‘one word of commendation from you will have more weight than pages of matter from critics who have no special knowledge of the subject’ (Grey 1894)27. Sir George Grey himself consented to this dedication but was non-committal about what he thought about Utu as a work of fiction: ‘without committing himself to any opinion [to] its precise perfections as a work of fiction, bears willing testimony to the fidelity and accuracy with which the Maori scenes and customs are portrayed’ (Wanganui Chronicle 29 December 1894)28.