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Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 2. 1969.

Books — The Prime of Life


The Prime of Life

Sylvia Ashton-Warner: Myself, An Autobiography. Published by Whitcombe & Tombs. Price $3.60.

Sylvia Ashton-Warner

This Is an autobiographical work about Sylvia Ashton-Warner's early experiences up the Wanganui River. It is for the most part written in a diary form and generally covers the period from 1940-1945 tempered with the ever possible threat of a Japanese invasion. She and her husband were running a two teacher school of mostly Maori pupils and at the same time bringing up a family of three children of their own. Sylvia Ashton-Warner is aware of the necessity to work at her writing and records the difficulties in achieving the time, the atmosphere and the surroundings for it.

Sylvia Ashton-Warner is at her best when writing about children as her previous novels have shown—the classroom sequences in this book are spontaneous and alive. She is a teacher thwarted by the timetable system and the policy of the Education Department but she still tries to cling to the remnants of ruined lessons in the chaos of the classroom turmoil. The imposition of the English system of education on these highly unsuitable subjects frustrate her attempts to marry the "inside" and the "outside" of the children so that she finally breaks with the rigidity of the system and involves the children in her own style of teaching, drawing on the background and surroundings of the children.

To call a book Myself would seem to make the book sound unduly heavy going. So much of Sylvia Ashton-Warner comes through her novels already that readers might baulk at being faced with a book exclusively devoted to herself. There are also difficulties to be faced in writing a contemporary biography.

Simone de Beauvoir in her autobiographical trilogy was accused of misrepresenting people or not treating their privacy of person with due respect. Sylvia Ashton-Warner would perhaps suffer from the same mistake.

Her relationship with her husband is dealt with clearly and forthrightly and her concurrent relationship with Dr. Saul Mada is presented with courage and honesty. She admits to loving them both, to not being able to live without either of them and flees from house to house to bury her feeling for each in the other or alternatively flees to her solitude and work. Her feelings and association with Mada could appear rather naive and harmful and I feel sure that Miss Ashton-Warner would have felt guilty about Mada's continual frustration and attempts to change or escape the situation. The writer is attempting to record the events as they occur and can only apply her own interpretation to the facts as she saw them at the time but she does not appear to have enough sympathy for the other protagonists. Perhaps this is human and more real than most of us care to admit but a person of Miss Ashton-Warner's sensitivity should have realised the rather biased view she gives of persons who are clearly dear to her and could still feel the pain of her revelations.

While working at "Selah", her retreat, Sylvia Ashton-Warner becames absorbed in the story of the young Maori couple who conducted a suicide pact in the house. Her interest in Maori life, language and culture make Miss Ashton-Warner's book informative reading. It has been written when she was younger and she clearly sees and examines the differences the Maori myths and realities bring about for both Maori and European families in the community. In her most recent, rather sadly unsuccessful novel Greenstone where she tries to marry the European and Maori cultures Sylvia Ashton-Warner attempted to write from the inside of both Maori and European adapting to one another with somewhat uneasy alliances.

Miss Ashton-Warner is a highly individual women, writer and teacher. Her incessant reading of Bertrand Russell during this period make her more perceptive and clear-eyed than perhaps even she would admit. Her autobiography is stimulating and exciting. She is at 30 struggling to see clearly her role as a mother, wife, lover, teacher, artist and writer, Her own high standards are the only ones which are important to her and this early autobiography reveals her achieving some success and harmony in her chosen fields.