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

Conditions of use


Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965

Philosopher Dick

Philosopher Dick. We spoke, at the beginning, of the four stages to be observed in the development of New Zealand fiction, those of recording, exploiting, preaching, and interpreting. Except for John White's unreadable Maori novels, the works discussed so far have been concerned chiefly with the first two stages, those of recording pioneer experiences, and of exploiting the literary possibilities of an unfamiliar and sensational background.

After 1890 the post-pioneer period was setting in. Settlers were consolidating their gains, looking back upon the melee of a receding past, assessing the present, building for a foreseeable future. It is at this point that New Zealand novels appear which, whatever their deficiencies, are trying to interpret something to somebody, to depict the thoughts and actions of characters representative of real life. The exploiting novel continues, as ever, to flourish, but the recording novel proper begins to die out.

The earliest novel which I would classify as serious literature—or attempting to be—is George Chamier's Philosopher Dick, 1891. It is the most mature of our novels before the turn of the century; it relies recklessly, however, on all the fictional devices of the age, letters, diaries, inset yarns, authorial intrusions, lengthy meditative musings. Richard Raleigh, the stock English emigrant-author-hero, is distinguished by education and some idealism from good-time Philistines such as W. M. Baines's hero in The Narrative of Edward Crewe. He has come to the New World hoping for better things; part of the interest of the novel is in his reaction to what he finds in New Zealand life, to its failure to exemplify the "pilgrim dream". As Allen Curnow writes in The Unhistoric Story, "It was something different, something nobody counted on". Richard Raleigh comes to Marino station, bringing with him those symbols of culture which we have already noted, a flute, the right books, and painting gear. (We are spared the Voyage Out, and begin forthrightly and naturally with "There was a large muster in the men's kitchen at the Marino station that evening . . .") In this assemblage of men of all types and histories, "Philosopher Dick" shakes down, sar- page 23 donically eyeing the standards and assumptions of this microcosm. Are these the Staunch Pioneers, setting up an ideal world in the Wilderness? Is this Progress? Is this the Good Life? Dick does not think so, concluding rather that "Creation is an armed camp, and the work of slaughtering its principal occupation". Disgust with his fellows accumulates. Dick takes on the lonely job of boundary rider, and broods among his mountain grandeurs upon the mystery of the Universe. Had Chamier been reading Hardy? He is not equal to the study which he has here attempted of the disintegration of a man under such conditions, but the themes he opens up are real, and to judge by their recurrence in our later writing, ones which are permanent in our way of life. Among them, for instance, are the un-happiness of the cultured man (or woman) in uncongenial surroundings (Edith Grossmann, Jane Mander), the utilitarian values of the mushroom towns (David Ballantyne, John Guthrie, Gordon Slatter, Bill Pearson, Janet Frame), and the need for fellowship among men (John Mulgan, Guthrie Wilson, Frank Sargeson).

The novel is a shapeless holdall, exasperating and baffling, but full of good things. The pricking of the balloons of pioneer rhetoric is particularly effective—as are the satirical comments on life. Here are some samples:

"The pig has some distinguishing qualities of the successful colonist, —so it prospered." "A man with an overdraft of £50,000 could only be considered a personage of great weight."

(About New Zealand politics.) "Their everlasting tinkering at legislation, their pettifogging local squabbles, their miserable subserviency to every popular outcry, and their lavish expenditure." (True, now as then?)

Chamier's book gives an excellent picture of the working sheep and cattle men of a big Canterbury run, uses New Zealand vocabulary and slang effectively without feeling any need to explain it, and gives the details of daily life in vigorous profusion. The style is uneven, varying suddenly from an upholstered rhetoric in scenic descriptions to unpretentious New Zealandisms, and with some of that distressing tendency to polysyllabic humour for which Dickens is probably to be held responsible. The tone of the book is not consistent, either, for Raleigh's wry sarcastic attitude shades off at the end into a different one of inquiring interest. Instead of philosophising in revolt against the way of life he finds about him, Raleigh ends by partly accepting its basic premises. When he turns his analytical gaze "philosophically" upon it, some of his musings will remind readers of "Sundowner's" recent contributions to the New Zealand Listener.

Philosopher Dick, then, attempts to interpret, not merely to record life as George Chamier knew it. It is a muddled, odd book, but for all its faults it is a genuine New Zealand novel, not a travelogue, a Maorilogue, or a flight of romance. "In more senses than one," writes page 24 E. H. McCormick, "it is a pioneer work, an attempt to impose some coherence and form upon a formless mass of experience."2

In a sequel, A South Sea Siren, 1895, Philosopher Dick Raleigh is living in the small settlement Sunnydowns, ironically amused at the goings-on of the farmers of the district, "not the common cockatoo, but gentlemen farmers", who "with very little capital, less knowledge, and no practical experience whatever" were trying to set up a miniature Old World in the New. "A goodly company—while they lasted." The story turns on the contrast between Dick, with his brilliant superstructure of ideas, and his opposite number who has eyes only for the main chance. Dick in the end is accepted by the girl of his heart, and goes to Wellington to become a journalist on the Monitor.