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Chapter VI. — Women In It

page 65

Chapter VI.
Women In It

There once was a little restaurant just off Cathedral Square, in Christchurch. And, for that matter, I daresay that it still stands in the same old place. But on this particular hour out of all Eternity, I remember that the manageress didn't seem to mind whether bacon-and-eggs or cream cakes with “butterfly wing” trimmings was the cry, whether the ladies smoked or didn't, whether they stayed for an hour or two hours or from morn, till dewy eve. We were all in an inside room, sunflower-coloured, tiny mats and curtains of the bright gay yellow shining up against the outer greyness that is Christchurch on an early autumn day.

That was the time when women writers in Christchurch and from thereabouts (I don't mean placid social clubwomen with an occasional amateur writer thrown in like a silhouette on a Chinese lampshade, but women whose life was mostly writing or journalism) gave a luncheon to welcome a newcomer to the fold. Which was hospitable of them. I believe Mona Tracy, who was Mona MacKay once on a day, and who wrote a lilting little song about “Dusk on Akaroa town” that everyone remembers and puts into New Zealand's few poor wing-clipped anthologies, was responsible for getting it up. Most certainly she made a speech.

The most vital person I can remember, from that hour in a funny little Christchurch restaurant, was not a young woman, and didn't look a strong one. Thin, grey-haired, small, Jessie MacKay was some- page 66 thing of a source of anxiety to her friends. She would, so they said, sit up at nights a-writing; she would not at any price pay attention to regular meal-hours.…

And there was more real force in her than in any ten of the rest of us put together.

A Japanese visitor to New Zealand, a few years ago, was asked by a reporter what made him come to this country. His reply was that Jessie MacKay lived here, which is perhaps the finest tribute that any woman in New Zealand has ever received.

She was a journalist for long… . one of the few women in New Zealand ever entrusted with leader-writing work, in old Canterbury days. Keen insight into the world's affairs took her, the only New Zealander present, to fateful conferences in Ireland, where Eamon de Valera showed something of the card held by the most powerful and bitterly determined hand the Green Isle has known in a generation. She wrote of this, I remember, for the Christchurch Press, after the election when the Free State appeared to shake its shoulders free of the weight of domination laid on them over centuries. Her article impressed me as being the clearest-drawn thing I had seen in New Zealand journalism for years. Her Irishisms worry people like kindly but somewhat “precious” Quentin Pope, whose anthology of New Zealand verse, “Kowhai Gold,” has provided all our own playboys with the same old Aunt Sally. (It's pretty bad, but not so bad as many of the verses which he was criticised for leaving out: it could hardly have been so bad as all that.)

Edith Howes was there—from Dunedin—slender, still youthful, with soft bronze hair gay around a rather shy little face. A school teacher she once was. Then she wrote “Fairy Rings” and “The Sun's Babies,” and “Rainbow Children,” and “The Cradle Ship”—a new, very gentle life of nature delicately and deliciously patterned out for New Zea- page 67 land children. She has American publishers and a wide overseas reputation nowadays, of course.… but ages ago, long before the war, I can remember the most entrancing game, and it would never have existed without the good grace of Edith Howes. Bedtime, and the vasty white tent your coverlets can make becomes “Mother Earth's Kitchen.” There's the frightening box where Mother Earth's henpecked husband sits patiently keeping the earthquakes down, and the mill under the sea, where salt is ground out for ever and ever, to keep the sea properly flavoured, and at least three score and ten stage properties more. If Edith Howes hadn't written “Fairy Rings,” where would they have been? And I wonder how many children, nowadays, burrow into “Mother Earth's Kitchen” after dark? Hundreds, I hope; it's a most fascinating place, especially if you have the flicker of soft light from a tiny blue-enamelled lamp to restore you to mental tranquillity when you arrive back breathless from the Earthquake Box.

Esther Glen, who wrote “Six Little New Zealanders,” “Robin of Maoriland,” and at least half-a-dozen other rather lovable books for children, was the top of a Christchurch Sun column of which I was the tail end. We both gathered paragraphs, paragraphs almost without end, funny little bits that ought to have made womenfolk laugh, touching bits intended to make them wipe their retroussé noses (delicately, of course), more formal items advising Christchurch of the prospective movements of its many and harrowing women's societies and clubs. Composite thus, we were “Penelope.” It was rather fun, and “Penelope” flourished, all the more apace, long after I left the happiest newspaper office I have ever inhabited.

Esther Glen was Children's Editor. The lady editor was a slim lass, Miss Eliot. I was a soldier of fortune, sent off one day to write up an egg-laying page 68 competition (yes, as Heaven sees me!), another to trudge miles through drenching rain to an obscure little church, whose vicar was the first thereabouts to observe the now highly popular custom of Mothering Sunday. We all, I mean the three of us, lived together not in a little crooked house, but in a little top-storey office… one telephone, and lucky if somebody downstairs didn't cut in with one of those sweet-and-low conversations publishers always hold with their news agents.

Esther Glen's books weren't written in between office hopes and burthens. She used to go up to the mountains…… a tiny, tin-roofed cottage in Arthur's Pass, lent by a friend for times when she wanted to breathe crystal air and scribble, scribble, scribble. I have been to this place. It's very lonely, and quite neglected by the Government Tourist Department people, which may explain why it's so beautiful, its white wraiths of waterfall leaping out high up on the darkest hills, glacier ice greenish-black on Mount Rolleston, a murmur of wild bees among the manuka. It was unkind of the earthquake, which shook seventy or so devils out of the little settlement to desposit on Esther's bed (fortunately vacant at the moment), an enormous boulder, a sort of Troll King discovered proudly sitting there when she returned.

A little house in a side-street just beneath Tina-kori Hills.… . I remember yellowing poplar trees there, the one day I went to tea with Eileen Duggan, who is author of “New Zealand Bird Songs” and of many other poems. As a general rule, after school-days one more or less forgets about three sorts of wings in poems—to wit, those of angels, those of fairies, those of birds—but the most hardened sceptic would either have to make an exception, as regards Eileen Duggan's poetry, or else miss so much that is lovely… the gannets, now…

“A field of lilies, a meadow of birds.”

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The trouble would be, if it came to criticising Eileen Duggan's poetry, from a materialistic standpoint, that she really understands that other world of which she writes… .

“Said the oxen in a noonday
Lowing to the light,
‘Little Brother, little Brother,
Why are you so bright?’
Oh, the heavy, faithful eyes
Watched Him rise… .
And the sky was fluttering like a wing
Loosed from prisoning.”

And there you have it, an understanding of all the simplicities, great and lowly, not to be explained away.

She was one of the New Zealand writers whom Mr. D'Arcy Cresswell damned without the aid of the old-fashioned bell, book and candle, and without the usual tepid civilities of “faint praise,” after Mr. Quentin Pope's “Kowhai Gold,” which contained much of the verse of Miss Duggan, none whatsoever of Mr. Cresswell, had appeared in faint light on the literary horizon. Mr. Pope had probably the best and mildest intentions ever fixed in the breast of any young man endeavouring to “anthologize” a new country's literature—or lack of literature. Mr. Cresswell's earlier poems he could quite “see.” Mr. Cresswell's later and most ambitious ones, naturally the pride of his heart, failed to stir the perceptions of Mr. Pope. Developed an argument: continued a small sort of Holy War, which concluded, after “Kowhai Gold's” publication, in Mr. D'Arcy Cresswell's agreeing to write a frank critique for an English magazine, provided that what he wrote went into print without a hair out of place among its glossy tresses. It was a rather funny critique, only spoiled by the fact that Eileen Duggan and more than one other therein pulled to pieces could write so much better than the author of “Poet's Progress” page 70 has as yet shown signs of doing, what time he turns to “lisping in numbers.”

Of course there are decidedly entertaining little sidelights on the obscure position of women writers in this their “ain countree.” That starts long, long before I was born or thought of, long before older and better writers had started out to prove that what woman hadn't done, woman would none the less do.

When New Zealand women were engaged in a seems when one considers Mrs. Pankhurst and her lilies, how they grew, and how the Suffragist excitement in England was only thrust out of the limelight by the greater and more sanguinary sensationalism of war days), there was a little lady down in the Marlborough Province, a very discreet and restrained and modest little lady, whose husband most definitely Did Not Approve. He didn't like women writers: he was nauseated by the idea of women voters.

Oddly enough, his criticisms made least impression where they should have made most—in the bosom of his demure lady wife. In the secrecy of her chamber, she sat her down and wrote — firm newspaper articles, pointed ones, witty ones, human interest ones, all making it clear to the simplest mind that Women had Rights and was right after them. She wrote under an alias, of course, and her articles were all published in Southern papers. They created no little political sensation, and are deemed to have played their part in influencing the doubters out here. (New Zealand was the first country to get universal suffrage, you remember, even if the way its women have used their power is quite sufficient to put us in the backward-children class of Mother Earth's school.) I've always loved my little overshadowed lady, mainly because I can picture her, upstairs perhaps in a small beflowered attic sort of room, and with a softness of lamplight page 71 flickering over her mischievously, her face bent down earnestly to her evil genius, the ink-bottle, one blameless white sheet after another gradually ensnared in this sinful spider-web — a woman's secret thoughts, her personality and her demands. And then, when the hastily scribbled sheets had been sent off on their lawless errand, perhaps she went downstairs to her parlour again, and played little limp well-chosen moment musicale sort of items for her lord on her spinet. She was brave, alias or no alias. If you doubt it, go look upon the bewhiskered countenances of the menfolk whose legion portraits adorn the Parliamentary Buildings. Here were fellows not to be trifled with, no matter how engaging the trifle.

Two years ago, in the Auckland Library, I came on a dejected-looking copy of Sylvia Pankhurst's book “Suffragette.” It's not so very much of a book, really, though it gives glimpses of the remarkable Suffragist organisation. But in it was featured a cable received by Mrs. Pankhurst from the women of New Zealand, in the first days of the Suffrage crusade. It stated that the vote was the one and necessary political weapon women must demand, if they would a-reforming go.

Somehow that sureness gave me a feeling of sadness. What have we done with it, how lost it so utterly? “That one talent which is Death to hide. .” Year of Grace, 1932. No woman in New Zealand's Parliament yet; Elizabeth McCombs hadn't yet been elected on what everyone, of course, promptly described as “a sympathetic vote.” Women wageearners, pensioners, women with tiny incomes, could all be taxed on practically every penny they earned. No Government relief, save a contemptibly small ekeing out of clumsy and inadequate charities, was available for the unemployed women among us. Arbitration defending women workers was shattered, perhaps for a decade. I saw that happen— page 72 listened to the long, dreary fight in the Lower House, heard Labour Party members, never a woman among them, get up and wage guerilla warfare around clause after clause of the measure, which was to make “voluntary arbitration and compulsory conciliation” the blackest evasion of facts and responsibilities ever placed in our legal code. The Labour Party did try, and gamely enough, to do something for women workers in that sauve qui peut. But—not a woman among them. I thought of two people that day: one was my little anonymous lady of the fiery vote-seeking articles. She must have been so proud when she lived to see universal suffrage passed. The other was an old woman in an Auckland slum. The inspector of a charitable society had taken me into her hovel. She'd been alone, a pneumonia case, for some days. Case discovered and reported by accident. Well, there she lay, nothing to eat in the house, gas and electric light both cut off, her nightgown very grimy, a dirty cup of stagnant tea all that was left to remind her of past glories. And trying to make her new tea was no use, because there wasn't any, nor yet anything with which to light the fire. She was removed to hospital, of course. I often wonder if she had the good luck to die there. She was a rather gentle old lady, and though she couldn't sit up or say much, the tears ran down her face because her room was “in such a mess.”

I tried to persuade one quite open-minded young newspaper man to let me write about “the likes of 'er.” Nothing doing. We were all too depressed about the depression—thing to do is, pretend it doesn't exist, maybe to-morrow we'll wake up and find Santa Claus has dropped in. Besides, this wasn't a very respectable old lady. So many of them weren't: it made one feel happier, more (what's that dear old cliche?) in tune with the Infinite, when one found them alone and dirty and starving in page 73 dark bleak rooms. We do so love straining at gnats and swallowing camels, don't we? Nevertheless, I shall continue to feel that State murder is an uglier and more cold-blooded sort of sin than private adultery can possibly be in any walk of life.

But no, I don't suppose really that it's much use bothering about slum tragedies. It would be all right, if the bulk of the people who had to be dragged into an interest in such were merely criminals, because a criminal you can almost always scare. But you can't frighten fools, until it's too late.

I know one New Zealand woman writer who was one of the Suffragette band in Merrie England at its merriest, the time when ladies were busy chaining themselves to railings outside important-looking public buildings. She is an Englishwoman, New Zealander by adoption: and first I saw her face, a rather fascinating one gaily topped by a tam-o'-shanter, in a portrait which decorated the little subterranean office of Pat Lawlor, editor of The N.Z. Artists' Annual. Pat is like Esther Glen, inso-far as everyone sends him portraits, or else libellous caricatures. He has some originals of George Finey cartoons which make one see at once that Lombroso would be in his element, could he but be reincarnated among Australian politicians. More definitely criminal types (after the Finey pen has done with them) you couldn't, at the most morbid moment, possibly wish to meet.

Margaret Macpherson, the tam-o'-shanter lady, was then sole editor of a tiny paper run far up North in Kaitaia, just beyond loneliness and the drabness of a few far north hamlets and an almost menacing sense of adventure queerly mixed up. I never saw the Advocate whilst Margaret Macpherson edited it, but I am persuaded that it can never have lacked ginger. On one occasion, I know, a prominent advertiser (the dear things we all live for in journalism nowadays) took exception to statements page 74 in an editorial, and withdrew his prominent advertisement. Margaret made the space more prominent still. She left it “blank as Death,” save for a neat little caption explaining that Mr. So-and-So's advertising had been withdrawn, and for what reason! Personally, I think the idea was funny, even if not profitable.

Handling a children's page for a newspaper is a matter only less delicate than cruising through the social shoals. Witness the horrid experience of the Aucklander, Winifred Tennant, who was “Red Feather” and queen of the kids' kingdom on the late lamented Auckland Sun. She had to christen so many dear little pen-friends, also to bestow on them suitable “circle names.” Indian ones, she found, caught on to a quite remarkable degree. A little lass up North loved her selected pen-name, “Laughing Water.” And please, Red Feather dear, could her brother join, too? “Red Feather” had no objection, and christened the new aspirant “Little Prairie Flower.” He arrived in her office to see her next week. He was huge, alarming, nearly seventeen, and from one end of his district to another he was now, beyond prayer or pardon, “Little Prairie Flower.” I don't quite know how “Red Feather” passed the situation off; personally I should have offered to supply free beefsteak for black eyes over a period not exceeding six months.

Who now reads Lady Barker's delicious journal of early pioneer days? It's up in the Turnbull Library: it goes back to the time when crinolined women were only a little less uncomfortably habited when riding “up the airy mountains, down the rushy glen,” than when handing around their few dainty fragile pieces of porcelain, brought out from “Home,” never to be replaced. Lady Barker was a darling.… Her journal is a very simple Canterbury tale; it tells of such things as a loved child's death, roses in a yellow glorious array storming the walls of her house, an adventure with a wild boar, a lonely young page 75 Englishman living in vast and utter solitude by a blue lake that sounded like a place for troll-maidens. .… “Lost flame nobody remembers.”

Sheila Macdonald, “Sally in Rhodesia,” is widely known, and her lovable, intimately written South African novels widely read. But I have heard that the first, the Sally one—may the blossoms on Sally's lovely misty-blue jacaranda trees never grow less—brought her in a little over £11; she was very inexperienced as regards business. Of course it has been a best-seller for the past decade, and though Sally has written other and very delightful books since, she must often rue the day when her literary first-born passed from her hands. New Zealand was very unlucky in losing Sheila Macdonald, for hers was the warm, spontaneous, homely flower of writing that would have blossomed here as certainly as it did in South African sunshine.

Never let it be said that I forgot the one New Zealand novelist who has written a trilogy which has won most definite and well-merited praise overseas. Several have tried to catch the spirit of the New Zealand landscape—a subtle task, with all its tricky dull blues and greens and greys, the undertones of its surroundings and its life so much harder to depict than the critics (who, after all, are very seldom writers of any distinction) trouble to realize. Nelle Scanlan has probably come nearer success than anyone else. She chose the haunting loneliness of “Pencarrow” for her theme: has written around the history of a New Zealand family three novels which anyone interested in New Zealand letters will inevitably give a foremost place on the book-shelf.

She has worked for her success, and it did not come to her easily, or in her youth. When I saw her first in the little women's Press Gallery at the House, she was a grey-haired woman. Her journalistic style was clever and whimsical, and soon she page 76 was in London, in other places just as dazzling to Macaulay's New Zealanders, sending home to the Evening Post, the Dominion, and the Free Lance articles with the racy touch for which newspaper editors say prayers regularly every night before going to bed.

Next meeting was up in Auckland. Nelle Scanlan, smartly tailored, confident, wearing the sort of little toque and veil you don't wear unless you are quite sure you're a success in life, was about ten years younger than at the earlier meeting. Seems evident that a sense of humour and fortitude have carried her clear through, and there should be work to look forward to from the pen of a New Zealander who has returned to England, implying in everything she does and says that Dick Whittington can still become “thrice Lord Mayor of London.”

She is the only scribe I've heard get a smart thrust home at the New Zealand farmer, who, taking him by and large, has made the local depression so very much more depressing. Backbone of the country he is, of course, and sees no need for a head-piece to complete the job. Nellie talked over the radio to the country folk: at the end of her pithy lecture, “Well, good-night, all you little Backbones,” said she clearly.

Jane Mander, who wrote “The Story of a New Zealand River,” and several other novels—all of them officially “recognised” by approving overseas criticism, but none of them quite lucrative enough to be the real crock o' gold, is still looking for rainbow's ending, working hard during a year or so's stay in her native land at new novels. A thin, fair, Eton-cropped little woman, Jane, whose New Zealand river book has an unusual strain of beauty and reality in it, certainly goes down among the Dominion's baker's dozen or so of “women who did.” She is now reading the manuscripts of budding New Zealand authors—fee, a guinea a time.

Rosemary Rees—more New Zealand novels, light- page 77 hearted and light-styled ones—Isabel Maude Peacock (otherwise Mrs. I. M. Cluett), whose “My Friend Phil” enchanted me in childhood, and who still writes books for the young in between running the Writers' Club, rival in Auckland city to the N.Z. League of Penwomen, Elsie K. Morton, of the Herald, whose “Along the Road” was a best-seller— and some lights that have failed, and some that might yet burn up brightly enough, given incentive and a little more constructive criticism: one feels it's unfair not to mention them, and yet rather silly to speak of what has been accomplished, in view of the great mountainous pile that has yet to be done if we're to have any individual or national self-respect as regards New Zealand letters… I say only to critics, search very carefully for what was beautiful and worth preserving among what has already been done, for Time will prove more surely, if more gently, a destroyer of the unessential than anything you can possibly say or write. And to be clumsy in handling what was sincerely written as truth or beauty is surely a very gross mental defect… . And look where you will, you will not find anything in all the earth more lovely than a flame new-kindled, or one that shines up for the last time, or the ghostly memory of one that for an instant, long ago, flickered in the dark chasms of the heart.

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