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

South Islanders

South Islanders. Rolling stone novels set in the South Island on the whole have a better literary standard, as well as a more serious moral tone. A subtitle for most of them might well be "The New Chum Makes Good". The first to be noted is Alexander Bathgate's Waitaruna, 1881. Bathgate was a Dunedin solicitor, and author of several books, including Colonial Experiences, 1874, the kind of pioneer notes which found a ready sale in England. Waitaruna is similar material shaped into a novel, and has, especially in the incidental scenes, an authentic ring. The preface hopes that "the simple story ends in removing, however slightly, the great ignorance which prevails among many of the people of Britain, regarding these fair Southern Islands . . ." You notice that the motive is the one we have . met before, to inform, but Bathgate is here, not overseas {these islands, not those). He gives us two new chums of whom one fails, the other succeeds. Arthur Leslie becomes only too "colonial", and sinks to being the landlord of a bush pub and married to its barmaid; Gilbert Langton, a cadet of more incorruptible fibre, makes good on a Central Otago run. His virtue is rewarded, for he marries the owner's page 19 daughter (the easiest way of all to pioneer riches). Plotless and naive as it is, the book has an atmosphere, and the diggers of Mutton-town, milkless tea, the lonely "natter" (hermit), the servant problem, shearing, pighunting, river crossings, etc. are picturesquely described. The strong Presbyterian note sounds throughout, as in many Otago novels, and to confirm the moral emphasis it is the Goodie who gets the Girl. A later novel, Sodger Sandy's Bairn, 1913, is a sombre study of life in Otago fifty years ago, as the title page says. Events in it include the Shotover gold rush and shearing scenes among Scots station hands.

William Langton's Mark Anderson, A Tale of Station Life in New Zealand, 1889, bears even more noticeably the mark of the manse in a heavy formal style, varied with some vivid Scotticisms. Langton tells of Mark's emigration, struggles and final prosperity on a Dunstan station. The plot has an unusual twist, for the "Homey", instead of being the humble learner whom the colonials bait and only reluctantly accept, is a superior teacher of manners to the Otago locals, and shows them how to be gentlemen. He defeats cardsharpers, tracks down sheep thieves, masters a dangerous horse, refrains from swearing and eating with his fingers; in fact, he is an intolerable prig. As a reward he too gets the station-owner's daughter, who comes to prefer him to her first suitor, the home-bred he-man, Craig. It is interesting 'to compare Langton's colonial clodhoppers with those in the contemporary woman's novel, as well as with those who figure in the creative imagination of a pious posterity.

Dugald Ferguson is another Scot, who settled first in Australia, then came to New Zealand in 1862, and made his pile selling East Coast cattle to West Coast miners. Ferguson published several books of poems, and in 1893 a novel, Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand. His material, the usual autobiographical-pioneer stuff, is shaped by a commonplace melodrama. After 200 rousing pages in Australia, the teller of the story moves to Otago, where he finds his girl who had run off with the bushranger, is cheated by a gentleman station-owner, meets the diggers on the goldfields, and after bush work, shearing, and stock driving between Hokitika and Canterbury, makes money, marries and lives happily ever after. Ferguson published a second novel, Mates, in 1911. He can tell a tale, and manages men's dialogue well, but the women and the love scenes are stiff with starch.

W. S. Walker is a novelist who tried to cover his own times. An Australian, like Will Lawson and Rolf Boldrewood, he exploited the New Zealand setting for several stories. In Zealandia's Guerdon, 1902, he inserts a love and murder plot into a frightful ragbag of South Island information, with a dash of Kipling and Boer War patriotism thrown in. The book reads like a textbook on mineral wealth, tourist attractions, suitable sandhill grass, how to skin rabbits, etc. There is page 20 a lonely boundary rider, a half-caste with a marriage problem, an old chief's reminiscences of the wars, some poetic musings in Maoriland, and several tohungas. Neither style nor technique can be said to exist. You should endure through one such book before you can appreciate the calibre of our best; that is why I mention it.

R. N. Adams's The Counterfeit Seal, 1897, is one of our early historical novels, being a tale of the 1848 Otago settlement. It is very informative, and very Presbyterian.

GOLD! A special variety of novel is that set in the goldfields of the South Island. This topic would seem to guarantee success. That it still attracts our writers is indicated by Ruth Park's novel One-a-Pecker, Two-a-Pecker, 1957, as well as by the inclusion of episodes of goldfields history in stories such as Georgina McDonald's Grand Hills for Sheep, 1949, and Will Lawson's Gold in Their Hearts, 1951. New Zealanders however have not yet made fine literature out of the diggings.

First to publish goldfields fiction was Benjamin Farjeon, of the Otago Daily Times. His Shadows on the Snow (1865?) shows him to be a disciple of Dickens, both in his Christmas sentimentality and in his tendency to caricature.

Vincent Pyke merits three columns in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. He was an Australian miner and politician before he became secretary to the Otago goldfields in 1862, and later member of Parliament for Wakatipu. Among his many activities, he advocated irrigation for Central Otago, chaired the Vincent County Council, and was an active journalist. In 1887 he wrote the standard History of the Early Gold Discoveries in Otago. His first goldfields story appeared in Chambers's Journal in 1867; Wild Will Enderby was published in 1873, and its sequel The Adventures of George Washington Pratt in 1874.

Wild Will Enderby is an entertaining novel. The style is appalling, the plot melodramatic, and the author's perpetual posturing wearisome, but there is such exuberance, such gusto, and so much meaty detail in the picture given of the Dunstan diggings, that the reader skims along regardless, and with popping eyes. Wild Will, an Australian, disguised as Harry Grey, and Pratt, an American, are partners who strike gold. Will disappears, Pratt is accused of murder, but all ends happily, the hero of course getting the gold and the girl. The love story involves a villainess Florence Melmoth, as well as the heroine Mabel. Here is Florence: "a large, ripe, rich beauty. A beauty with lustrous sloe-black eyes, and glossy raven black hair; with creamy white skin, with full rounded limbs, and large but shapely hands and feet; with pearly teeth, and pink, shell-shaped ears; with a voice capable of multifarious inflections, and whose tones she knew how to modulate".

That sort of thing is mixed with digger slang (which is always page 21 glossed), with phrases such as "matutinal repast", "pellucid brooklet", "worthy medico", "whom we wot of", and with cliches in which strong men weep like a child at eventide, and so on. There is plenty of atmospheric scenery, done in the best purple prose. The characters are the stock types of our early novels, the comic Irish constable or servant, the remittance-man, the recluse miner, the blonde heroine, the dark-eyed siren, the incompetent new chum.

Nevertheless, the book has life, and for 1873 was remarkable in being published in New Zealand, and intended primarily for New Zealand readers. There was nothing of those distant islanders in Pyke's attitude to this country. Wild Will Enderby went into three editions in its first year, and was followed at once by The Adventures of George Washington Pratt. As "F. M. Renwick", Pyke also wrote in 1884 a Scottish novel Craigielinn. R. Carrick's Romance of Lake Wakatipu, 1892, includes Pyke as a character.

By the 1890s, our fiction was still only in a rudimentary stage of development. The new environment was so full of variety, sensation, and facts crying out to be noticed, that writers could hardly draw breath to consider, ponder, or select. It seemed at first enough to offer a "realistic and truthful description" of life threaded on to a perfunctory plot; a "faithful depiction of the historical incidents" appeared to provide all the action a writer could wish. Thus recording and exploiting are the main occupations of our novelists in the first thirty years. And to them they brought only the most elementary techniques, imported from the popular Victorian tradition along with other unsuitable pioneer bric-a-brac.

(Topics for Study and Discussion are given in the Appendix.)