Title: The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965

Author: Joan Stevens

Publication details: Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 1966

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Sylvia Johnston

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965

Maori Fiction—Exploiting

Maori Fiction—Exploiting. Major Stoney in his Taranaki: A Tale of the War, on the other hand, is out to exploit our material rather than to record it. He offers "An Account (chiefly taken from the Despatches) of the Principal contests with the Natives ..." as well as a violently sensational plot. The Maori race and the wars of course gave a masculine romancer just the chance he was looking for. With Fenimore Cooper, G. A. Henty, and later Rider Haggard to copy, who could go wrong? You needed only the hero, preferably of officer caste, a Maori princess or a settler's daughter or both, tribal jealousies, a tohunga or two, some military skirmishes, a few bloodcurdling yells, and the trick was done. Mix well with muskets and inaccurate Maori, and serve up to a London publisher. Immediate followers of Stoney include Emilia Marryat's Amongst the Maoris, 1874, and J. H. K.'s Henry Ancrum, A Tale of the Last War, 1872. The latter is just too bad to be even funny.

Both G. A. Henty and Jules Verne exploited the Maori opportunity in blatant potboilers. Henty, in Maori and Settler, 1890, at least took the trouble to get his facts right. He offers the Hauhau troubles, and is stodgily informative. " 'There is Cape Horn,' said the Captain."

Jules Verne's book A Voyage Round the World, 1877, has twice the kick of Henty's. The aristocratic hero and heroine navigate the Waikato River, ascend a tapu mountain (Tongariro) causing it to erupt, are captured, tattooed, nearly eaten, and survive to emerge through the primeval kauri forests at Poverty Bay much wiser for all the lectures which their accompanying geographer Paganel has served up to them on botany, history, geysers, birds, etc. As specimens of Verne's information I quote the following: "The sportsmen found whole coveys of the kiwi." "These moas which Paganel was chasing, the contemporaries of the Megatherium and the Pterodactyles, must have been eighteen feet high." And here is the tattooing of Paganel: "He bore on his chest a heraldic kiwi, with outspread wings, which was biting at his heart." The cannibal feast—at which the hero narrowly misses being the chief dish—is described with enormous relish: "The bodies, still reeking, were dismembered, divided, cut up not into morsels but into crumbs. . . . The drops of hot blood splashed over these festive monsters. . . . but for the cries that emanated from these flesh-sated throats, the captives might have heard the bones crunching under the teeth of the cannibals."

Here are others of this Maori fiction: R. P. Whitworth, Hine-Ra, or The Maori Scout, 1887; H. Nisbet, The Rebel Chief, 1896; R. H. Scott, Ngamihi, or The Maori Chief's Daughter, 1895; W. R. Hodder, The Daughter of the Dawn, 1903; Rolf Boldrewood, War to the Knife, 1898; Atha Westbury, The Shadow of Hilton Fernbrook, 1896.

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UGH! UGH! Many of these Maorified romances appeared after 1886, the date of Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines. The novelist's Maori is a weird creation, speaking a lingo compounded of Cockney, Red Indian (of the "Ugh, ugh" tradition), and the Bible. Some details from H. B. Marriott Watson's The Web of the Spider, 1891, will serve as a further example. It tells a Saturday afternoon serial story of the bush adventures of the hero and his heroine, Ida Caryll. Specimens of the prose are: '"Twas but a little ere he had wrought a hole through which he might espy", and "The stars enkindled the heaven as though 'twere moonlight, suffusing a still and mystic glow." Aotea, a Maori princess, aids the party, and the mixture includes taniwhas, Te Katipo the Hauhau chief, dampers, billy, swags, moonlight massacres, bark sandals, roasted fuchsia berries, and a fight in a flax swamp in the course of which Ida hides in the creek. She emerges at dawn with coiffure and clothing unruffled. Greek letters are found carved on a cliff; translated, they mean "crevice under the third cabbage tree past red face rock westward. Remember Ida". These and the pointing finger of a skeleton finally reveal a hidden treasure. All the party are enriched beyond the dreams of avarice.

Another example of the exploitation of a Maori setting in the interests of a "yarn" is R. H. Chapman's Mihawhenua, 1888. This purports to be a manuscript addressed to the Editor, and found attached to a Maori kite on Mount Alta near Lake Wanaka. It tells a first person story of a mountaineering party that fell down an ice-slide into the lands of a lost tribe, the "Ngati-moe". There are volcanoes, geysers, hakas, and moas used for riding, in a species of Maori paradise.

Two stories which do show some real knowledge of the Maori, and have a serious instructive purpose, are G. H. Wilson's Ena, or The Ancient Maori, and John White's Te Rou; or The Maori at Home, both of 1874. Wilson used Macpherson's prose version of the Ossianic sagas for his chapter headings, presumably feeling there was an affinity between the primitive Gael and the Maori. "This not altogether fictitious story," he writes, "will be acceptable to many who desire to know something of those distant islanders." (Note again the firmly English viewpoint of the phrase those distant islanders.) Ena is a chief's daughter, who befriends the only Pakeha in the story, Mary Morven, survivor of a shipwreck. The mixture otherwise is much as usual—warriors in conclave, tohunga, cannibal feast, treachery, the warpath, storm, battle, the retreat to Kapiti, and so on. Like the chapter headings, the Maori rhetoric is out of Ossian, and is unbelievably stuffy in a Victorian way.

John White was a notable Maori scholar who acted for years as official interpreter to Sir George Grey. From 1876 he was occupied in translating manuscripts of Maori lore for the Government. The page 15 seven volumes of his The Ancient History of the Maori appeared between 1887-1891. He wrote two novels of Maori life, Te Rou, and the posthumously published Revenge, A Love Tale of the Mount Eden Tribe, 1940. Both are ambitious, fully and accurately informed, and amply documented. Yet they are virtually unreadable. Why?

This brings us to the question of the difficulty a novelist of the time faced in recreating the Maori world of the past. Victorian literature provided, as models for the historical novel, chiefly Scott; as models for the novel on native life there was Melville's Typee, perhaps, or Fenimore Cooper; otherwise there was little to copy. There was no body of accepted conventions about prose style, or the presentation of information; a writer of Maori novels had to establish everything for himself. And then the world he was attempting to portray was so totally unfamiliar—its landscape, its people, its history, its customs; even the motives for action could not be taken for granted. And how to render speech?

As a result, Maori novels, if they are serious, tend to sink beneath the weight of explanation. The purely exploiting, entertaining novelist can pluck out the colourful titbits he needs and skim the rest; however wildly improbable his yarn, there will be readers to swallow it. But the truthful imaginative artist who is drawn to fiction with a basis in the past of the Maori people faces a task of enormous complexity.