The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Ninetyish Society. Several women writing in the 1890s may also be said to be interpreting the life they knew, trying to evaluate it as well as describe it. One such is Anne Glenny Wilson, whose two novels Alice Lauder, 1893, and Two Summers, 1900, depict comically the snobisme of the rising colonial gentry. Lady Wilson is no Jane Austen, and is not sufficiently detached from the society she portrays to maintain a consistent critical tone. Still, her work offers a lively picture.
In Alice Lauder, the raw Australian girl goes Home to study singing, meeting on the journey the cultured gentleman hero. The plot provides some nasty jabs at English snobbery as well as at colonial uncouthness. In the end, Alice "sacrifices" her art to marriage—for the feminist movement has begun to shadow even a love story.
Some remarks from Two Summers will reveal the author's critical attitude, as well as her uncertainty about the right loyalties for Aucklanders in the nineties. Were they English? Or Colonial? (Or—name it not—New Zealanders?):
"Alicia's circle and atmosphere had seemed to him hitherto too much and too consciously a copy of the English original; they were much the same as would be met with in any smaller English centre, but tinned, as it were, and of rather provincial flavour at that. Freddy . . . was always trying with might and main to be colonial. He wore the most extraordinary boots and riding clothes, and was always cracking a stock whip ... his wife [was] trying to be English . . . with a deeper British dye than ever."
Another by-no-means bad novel of the nineties, as well as picturing this provincial world, poses a special New Zealand difficulty, that of the social position to be granted to the educated half-caste girl. Jessie Weston's Ko Meri, 1890, gives an amusing sketch of upper class society in Auckland. We have the grammar school dance, the choral society's Messiah, social life and tea parties revolving round the Church, Christmas at the Antipodes, a little watercolour painting, page 25 tennis, and soulful religious discussions in which agnostic, churchman, and intellectual probe the secrets of the universe in very emotive prose. On the fringe is Mary Balmain, a half-caste Maori princess, whose uncertain hold on Christian belief makes another thread in the preachment. She is brought up by her guardian among the best people, learns to "dispense dainty cups of tea from a dainty teapot", and sings and paints a little as a lady should. Enter Captain Deering, an English gentleman, who falls in love with her. "Surely Paris never wooed Oenone or the Grecian Helen in a fairer land than this suburb of Auckland on the day that the English soldier declared his love to this daughter of the soil!" No wonder he was struck by her, for how different she was from the girls he knew at Home.
"... she paced up and down the room with a sweeping pantherlike grace, her eyes brilliant with that dangerous light never seen except in the eyes of native races, whose souls know no law but their own instincts and passions—a magnificent figure in her long trailing gown and splendid, voluptuous beauty, the veneer of civilisation fallen off, and the Maori blood surging wildly through her veins."
The Captain proposes, and Mary goes to England to marry him. When, however, he is killed, the uncertain poise of her training collapses; she returns to New Zealand and to the Maori way of life in the pa, claiming her Maori kindred with the words, "The night that has fallen upon my race has fallen upon me, and it is well that I should share the darkness with my own people".