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Everything is Possible to Will

Introduction — “[W]oman is slowly beginning to realise her power” (70)


“[W]oman is slowly beginning to realise her power” (70)

"Sir, I never write for writing's sake, still less for idle discussion," Ellen Elizabeth Ellis wrote sharply to the Editor of the New Zealand Herald in 1870, "my purpose is, to change the tone of public opinion."1 As an outspoken, provocative, and dogmatic woman, Ellis defied popular nineteenth-century convention with her pioneer femninist and prohibitionist beliefs, while also affronting the local Auckland public in her campaign against subjugation in all its forms. Composing her only published novel Everything is Possible to Will in her early fifties, Ellis hoped that by influencing public opinion she could convince society to "strike the chains of slavery from woman's intellect and heart" (233), and set women free to stand equal with men.

In 1882, Ellis sent her novel Everything is Possible to Will to be published at 63 Fleet Street in London. Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, founders of the Freethought Publishing Company at 63 Fleet Street, established their press in 1876 in order to publish their own radical writing and other 'freethought' books. In 1877 they reprinted and distributed a highly contentious pamphlet advocating birth control for the poor, titled: 'The Fruits of Philosophy, or An Essay on the Population Question,' by Charles Knowlton.2 As a result of the publication they were both arrested, tried, and sentenced to six months imprisonment and a fine of £200.3 Both Bradlaugh and Besant, despite the suspension of their sentence, received widespread fame from the highly publicised trial. Deemed "a disciple of Mr Bradlaugh and Mrs Besant,"4 Ellis considered Bradlaugh and Besant "fearless leaders" of the "thinking world" in their "noble stand" for birth control, and clearly hero-worshipped the pair (136).

The company descibed Everything is Possible to Will in their 1887 published works list as "a most useful Temperance story."5 A 'useful temperance story' it may have been considered in London, but back in New Zealand the novel, and its author, caused waves of unease. The novel reached the far-off shores of New Zealand in early 1883, advertised from the 26th until the 30th of March 1883 in the New Zealand Herald as a novel "addressed specially to women."6 Although published under the guise of a temperance novel and advertised in London under the conventional "rescue of a drunkard" plot,7 Ellis wrote the novel especially for "working women," purposefully to address "the woman question" (Preface III). The novel is an encyclopaedic catalogue of instructional morals set within a temperance plot, arguing against the evils of drink while also calling for equality for women (in law and in practice); fair rights for Māori to possess and sell their own land; the need for birth control; the ban of the corset; unsectarian Christianity; and the necessity of the Māori language within New Zealand schools and Government. Topics which are still even occasionally debated in contemporary New Zealand, but in 1882, were completely shocking to the New Zealand colonial community. At a time when many still held the conventional belief that a woman's "place is in the home" whereas a man's is "in the world,"8 Ellis stood flagrantly in defiance with her radical ideals and participation as a woman in the public sphere.

Ellen Ellis wrote Everything is Possible to Will not for literary purpose or the need for an income, but rather as a serious moral duty. As enlightened as her self-education had made her, Ellis desperately wished to help other women realise their power to speak. To the editor of the New Zealand Herald she wrote:

It is woman’s work to raise, refine, and redeem the human race from every form of moral, social, and political degradation, and she will do it, too, when she is free as man is free. Rightly understood, there is no self-glorification, no merit even in saying, I have faithfully discharged my duty to this best of my ability. It is simply disgraceful not to have done it.9

Ellis wrote Everything is Possible to Will for the betterment of society, a duty "by the unlearned for the unlearned" (70). Ellis hoped that the novel, if nothing else, would at least "set women thinking" (70). Upon its release in Auckland, however, the novel did not get the chance to enjoy a wide readership. Ellis's only surviving son John William (known fondly as 'Willie'), enraged at the portrayal of his late father as a drunkard, gathered all the copies of the novel he could find, and burned them.10 The novel, missing in twentieth-century compendiums and studies of early New Zealand Literature, has only recently realised a minor revival. Discovered in Ellis's favourite sister's book collection in the 1960s,11 Vera Colebrook's subsequent biography Ellen was published in 1980.12 Scholars Heather Roberts,13 Aorewa McLeod,14 Jenny Coleman,15 and, more recently, Kirstine Moffat,16 have since contributed to the study and examination of Everything is Possible to Will.

1 All of the quotations are left as originally published. Ellis often uses ‘woman’ or ‘woman’s’ as a plural for 'women'. [A Woman. Letter. "What thou hast not by suffering bought, presume thou not to teach." New Zealand Herald. 27 October 1870: 3.]

2 Vern Bullough. Encyclopaedia of Birth Control. California: ABC-CLIO, 2001: 36.

3 Ibid, 37.

4 "Our Auckland Letter." Otago Witness. 14 October 1882: 3.

5 Works Sold by the Freethought Publishing Company, 63 Fleet Street, London. London: Freethought Publishing Company, 1887: 7.

6 "Advertisements." New Zealand Herald. 30 March 1883: 1, Column 3.

7 "A Book for Temperance Societies." London Times. 28 November 1883: 14.

8 "A Legislative Blunder."Manawatu Herald. 11 November 1879: 2.

9 "Everything is Possible to Will."New Zealand Herald. 22 March 1883: 5.

10 Vera Colebrook. Ellen. Dublin: Arlen house Ltd, 1980: 8.

11 Descendents of Emily Colebrook, Ellis’s younger sister, found the novel amidst Emily’s old books. Vera Colebrook (nee Locke [1903-1984], married Dr. Leonard Colebrook [1883-1967], the nephew of Ellen Ellis), upon inheriting the book and carrying out decades of research to discover more on the life of the mysterious Ellen Ellis, published a biography in Ireland in 1980. See Ellen by Vera Colebrook (Dublin: Arlen House Ltd, 1980). However, the biography contains no citations, and there is cause to be wary of the accuracy of the story Colebrook presents, particularly since it is so heavily based on ‘facts’ gained from Everything is Possible to Will. Colebrook states she based her evidence on the novel, letters she obtained from relatives, and an apparent early diary of Ellis’s. However, the letters and diary excerpts eerily match-up to passages in the novel, suggesting that either Ellis used her letters to form her novel, or potentially Colebrook took passages from the novel to create ‘letters’ from Ellis. Colebrook also used no newspaper sources, and did not discover the fact of Ellis's newspaper article authorship. Where possible, all facts gleaned from Colebrook’s work are backed up here by archival primary sources.

12 See: Vera Colebrook. Ellen. Dublin: Arlen House Ltd, 1980.

13 See: Heather Roberts. Where Did She Come From? New Zealand Women Novelists 1862-1987. Wellington: Allen and Unwin and Port Nicholson Press, 1989.

14 See: Aorewa McLeod. “Ellis, Ellen Elizabeth,” Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, updated 28 August 2014. See also: Aorewa McLeod. The Book of New Zealand Women, Ko Kui Ma Te Kaupapa. Eds. Charlotte Macdonald, Merimeri Penfold, and Bridget Williams. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books Limited, 1991.

15 See: Jenny Coleman. “‘Philosophers in petticoats:' A Feminist Analysis of the Discursive Practices of Mary Taylor, Mary Colclough and Ellen Ellis as Contributors to the Debate on the ‘Woman Question’ in New Zealand Between 1845-1885.” Diss. University of Canterbury, 1996.

16 See: Kirstine Moffat. “The Puritan Paradox: An Annotated Bibliography of Puritan and Anti-Puritan New Zealand Fiction, 1860-1940.” Kōtare 3.1 (2000): 28-69. See also: Kirstine Moffat. “The Demon Drink: Prohibition Novels 1882-1924.” Journal of New Zealand Literature 23.1 (2005): 139-161.