The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Exploiting and Recording
Exploiting and Recording. The first New Zealand novel is an "exploiting novel", spiced with sensational events drawn from the Maori Wars and loaded with handbook information. This is Major B. Stoney's Taranaki: A Tale of the War, 1861. The second is a "recording novel" using emigrant family material, also spiced and loaded, but not quite so blatantly. It is Mrs J. E. Aylmer's Distant Homes, 1862. Between them, in material as in title, these two established the pattern of the early fiction of the colony.page 11
To take Isabella Aylmer first. The full title of her story is, Distant Homes; or The Graham Family in New Zealand. Mrs J. E. Aylmer, an Englishwoman who never visited our country, compiled this "novel" from the letters written home by her relatives, filled out with chunks of information extracted from the authorities of the time, Shortland, Thomson, the Settler's Handbook. The Rev. Mr Aylmer, her husband's cousin, was the first minister at Akaroa in the 1850s; he and his womenfolk must have been good correspondents.
Distant Homes —the title indicates the unquestioned English point of view of the book, for one might ask, "distant from where?"—is an artless story, thick with sentiment, comically inaccurate, stuffed with cliches, yet revealing here and there tantalising glimpses of the truth. Its construction is the plain chronological "life and adventures" scheme which served later writers for so long. Typical pieces of these emigrant novels might be labelled: Leaving the Old Home, Shipboard Life, First Sight of Maoriland. At this point the author usually pauses to give us the history, geography, flora, fauna, Maori customs, and so on of "the land we are going to". There follow: Our First Home, Christmas at the Antipodes, The Bellbirds' Morning Hymn, The New Church (omitted of course in those pioneer-emigrant novels which had no religious basis), A Maori Scare. The usual ending might be entitled Success at Last, and would show a group of decently clothed natives, suitably subservient and pious, celebrating with the family their happy establishment in a smiling, tamed countryside. The whole is liberally spiced with the strange new vocabulary: "cowrie", "billy", "tussac", "swag", "Pakeha", and with patches of purple prose inspired by birds, dawns, alps, and bush.
Distant Homes has Swiss Family Robinson in its literary ancestry; no doubt many emigrant families felt very Robinsonish, though there was usually no wreck to swim to for supplies. The earnest, pious, middle-class striving towards economic success which Swiss Family Robinson reflects was just what moved our settlers. Isabella Aylmer, scribbling away back in England as her relatives' astounding letters arrived, had in mind less the question of literary achievement than that of moral and national improvement. She offered a fictional supplement to the emigrant booklets of the time.
The Graham family lose all their money and set off to New Zealand, leaving the eldest son at Cambridge to "master one or two of the languages of the Pacific" before joining them. Captain Graham has with him his wife, two daughters Lucy and Beatrice, and the second son Tom. On the voyage, the author, as I have said, seizes her chance to educate us all, saying, "I think we might employ ourselves very well in finding out something about New Zealand", and remorselessly inserts her facts: "There are several kinds of parrots . . . eighty-three kinds of birds . . ." and so on. The party makes landfall near Nelson, where Captain Graham goes ashore, travelling page 12 overland to Canterbury through "cowrie jungles".
Meanwhile Mrs Graham and the girls continue through Cook Strait. Isabella Aylmer proceeds thus: "... a faint white pillar of smoke rose from the volcano of Mount Egmont ... a sight that one who has once seen never forgets, burst upon them—the volcano in action. . . . Said the pilot; 'the old mountain never gives us warning in vain'."
Promptly upon this there follows the Wellington earthquake of 1855, and the sea almost boils. The ship's captain is equal to the emergency however. He recites to Mrs Graham the psalm, "They that go down to the sea in ships".
Incredible adventures follow. The Grahams buy land in Canterbury near a native "pah", are welcomed to it by a Maori tribe, build a house, have a sentimental Christmas, survive a flood, and buy a piano "to soften and refine human nature". Lucy sets up a school for the local Maoris, who in return befriend her when a rising is fomented by the wicked Wiremu Kingi. She and Beatrice grow up into real pioneers—here is a morning chore, cheerfully performed: ". . . at six o'clock . . . when dressed, Lucy went off to feed the poultry; Beatrice to milk the cows, and make butter for breakfast." Obviously, the Graham family did not let the grass grow under their feet.
In spite of its laughable badness, Distant Homes touches on several topics which recur in early biography and fiction. One is the servant problem. (Bridget the Irish servant is the first of a long line of loyal servants whose dialect provides a comic element.) The maid sits down while Mrs Graham is talking to her, and explains, "You don't let your servants sit down in England . . . but you ain't in England now, and servants are not known here. We only take situations to attend upon people, and expect to be treated like one of the family." Another topic is that of the persistent good works of the daughters of the house, teaching the "cocky's" children, reforming the rough colonial male. Another is the cultured woman's urge to maintain her standards in spite of a hard life; the Grahams bought a piano (like Samuel Butler). Other settlers made do with a flute, but the impulse was the same.
Distant Homes is a novel only half emerged from its chrysalis of fact and personal experience. You can see Isabella Aylmer wavering now and then. In chapter 12 she says: "Captain Graham and Tom [went] to visit an old friend, who had settled at Akaroa, with his family. Akaroa is one of the prettiest and most thriving little settlements in Canterbury; the church and parsonage, built by the Rev. W. Aylmer, one of the best out here." Note what has happened; the author has forgotten which is letter writer, which novelist. "Out here", she says unguardedly, though in most of the book the viewpoint is English. And what is the Rev. Mr Aylmer doing there, with church and parsonage, a character among other characters in page 13 his cousin's book? Distant Homes is certainly a "recording" novel.