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Everything is Possible to Will

I. A Survey of Plot and Genre — "It is a terrible mistake to make marriage the sole aim of life"17

I. A Survey of Plot and Genre

"It is a terrible mistake to make marriage the sole aim of life"17

Directly autobiographical, Everything is Possible to Will follows the bildungsroman journey of “whip-and-scorpion” Zee (a self-portrait of Ellen Ellis) as she fights to be recognised as more than the “incorrigible dunce” of her large family, into a woman who strives to be seen as the intellectual and social equal of her husband (45). The novel opens with Zee avoiding a proposal from the family-friend Wrax, whom she admires for his intellect, but does not trust. Eventually, Zee accepts despite her misgivings, and enters a marriage which is destined to be desperately unhappy. On discovering her husband is an alcoholic amidst his constant lies as to his late-night whereabouts, Zee struggles within the repressive life she is forced to lead because of her husband’s liquor habits. His refusal to treat her as an equal (embracing the creed: “[w]hat is yours is mine, and what is mine is my own” (219)), or even a person who can or should hold opinions, causes a rift between them which is never healed.

The couple emigrate to New Zealand for the sake of their frail youngest son, while also benefiting from the escape of their oppressive social-circle. Zee and Wrax embrace the challenges of living in colonial Auckland with vigour, yet time-and-again find themselves in constant debt due to Wrax’s extravagant spending, only saved by Zee’s quick-thinking and dogged determination. Suffering many hardships on their way to finally owning their own house, Wrax continues to make his family’s life a misery because of his alcoholism, his impetuous anger tantrums, and his refusal to allow Zee any allowance for clothes or food unless she pleads - and sometimes not even then. When Wrax suffers another period of severe illness, Zee finally realises her strength of will and offers him an ultimatum: that she will not tend to him unless he gives up alcohol. The novel concludes once Wrax pledges his abstinence to the Good Templar Society (a real temperance and reformer group which originated from the USA).18 The couple are then “rich in each other, and in their son, if in nothing else” (226). The novel ends with a plea to the reader: “Catching the key-note of a diviner state of being, have Zee’s life-lessons, reader, helped to make your life better worth the living? If they have you will take up your cross with renewed energy and hope” (226). Zee’s “life-lessons” are Ellis’s moral, religious, and intellectual guide to women, through a retelling of her own long-suffering experience as a wife, pioneer colonist, and mother. Although it is impossible to tell if Ellis exaggerated the portrayal of her husband as an alcoholic for the sake of the story (as Vera Colebrook believed she did, and certainly Ellis’s son, in burning her books, believed the portrayal of his father blasphemous to his memory), Zee appears as a weaker, less opinionated version of Ellen Ellis.

Everything is Possible to Will is a novel which, like its author, defies common classification. The novel spans across multiple genres, such as: temperance novel; colonial family emigration story; fictionalized autobiography; pioneer feminist novel, and even contains small layers of war story, school story, and romance. Aorewa McLeod ultimately places Ellen Ellis’s writing within the broad tradition of “religious humanitarianism.”19 Its multiplicity of genre stems from Ellis’s efforts to include all of her ‘freethought’ radical ideals within the chronological story of her life, seemingly caring little for plot construction or literary form.

According to Lawrence Jones in the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature, the primary modes of the 'Pioneer' novel are naïve realism, exploitative conventionalism, and didacticism.20 Everything is Possible to Will is largely didactic. An omniscient narrator narrates the entire third-person story, pausing often to add moral lessons, polemical comments, or to address the reader directly. The novel is almost completely devoid of dialogue, and it subsequently reads like a philosophical study. The novel is realistic in its attempt at historical accuracy of events and place description, and is sign-posted with time markings (such as the “Christmas of 1858” (90), or“24 May 1880” (217)). Due to the time markings, the novel can be seen as a form of diary, or even epistolary (especially with the inclusion of a real newspaper article in the last chapter). Historical figures such as Sir George Grey; Reverend Samuel Edger; Charles Bradlaugh, and the historic events such as the tragedy of the shipwreck Orpheus , are all mentioned within the context of the ‘fictional’ story.

The novel is written as a recording of real life, with only the names of the main characters (Zee (Ellen), Wrax (Oliver), their sons: Rex (William) and Piri (Little Tom)), fictionalized. Its realism also stems from the fact that Ellis originally set out to write the story as a pamphlet. The Appendix of historically important facts attached to Everything is Possible to Will, as well as the multitude of sermon-like didactic arguments throughout the novel, are evidence to this fact. Where Everything is Possible to Will stands out from other 'Pioneer' works is in its disregard of common conventionalism and propriety. Ellis is not afraid to broach the contentious topics of the nineteenth century, such as birth control, suicide, and divorce. The novel is only conventional in its adherence to the form of the prohibitionist novel where the ‘pure’ women ultimately ‘saves’ the debased alcoholic.21

17 A Woman (Ellen Ellis). "Women's Rights." Letter. Daily Southern Cross. 3 January 1871: 3.

18 "Lodges of Southern New Zealand." Friends of the Hocken Collections Bulletin (November 2002): 43.

19 Aorewa McLeod. “Ellis, Ellen Elizabeth,’ Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, updated 28 August 2014.

20 Lawrence Jones. “The Pioneer Period 1861-1889.” Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English. Ed. Terry Sturm. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. 110.

21 Kirstine Moffat describes the conventional prohibitionist novel as one always containing stock characters: the violent alcoholic (always a male), the victim (always a female or child), and the saviour (either a female or a clergyman). See: Kirstine Moffat “The Demon Drink: Prohibition Novels 1882-1924.” Journal of New Zealand Literature 23.1 (2005): 140.