The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
William Satchell. One novelist remains, in all the early years up to 1910, whose work has endured and is still readable in its own right. This is William Satchell. The tragedy is that recognition came too late to help or to encourage him. When the Government in 1939 allotted Satchell a special pension—he was just on 80—Pat Lawlor records that royalties on The Greenstone Door had amounted to only £31 15s. 11d.; a reprint in that year was expected to harvest £30. Compare this with possibilities today for someone who achieves success.
William Satchell was born in London in 1860, and ventured into print with a first volume entitled Will o' the Wisp in 1883. He was settled in the Hokianga district by 1886, trying to farm. In the 1890s he moved to Auckland, where P. J. Wilson (in The Maorilander, 1961) page 32 has tracked him down as contributor to various local and Australian journalistic ventures. He used several pseudonyms, the chief being a partial anagram of his name, Samuel Cliall White. Most of this journalism is article and short story stuff on topics such as Thames goldmining, the gumfields, Maori superstitions, revenge and crime. Almost to the day of his death in 1942 he wrote articles for the old Saturday Supplement of the New Zealand Herald.
The Land of the Lost, like The Greenstone Door, was reprinted in 1936, but, alas, is not available today. The plot has the basic defect of the Victorian convention, that it functions independently of character; its creaking machinery of lost inheritance, wicked uncle, disguised hero, and unlikely high-minded heroine is imposed on a background of minor persons and setting to which it is really irrelevant. But the book has power. The life and atmosphere of the gumlands is very well conveyed; there are no patches of purple prose, but the sense of landscape seeps into your consciousness as you read from a multitude of details presented with a quite natural lack of emphasis. Incidental scenes are brilliant—the races, the betting groups of Maoris, society at the gumlands pub The Scarlet Man. There in particular you feel the tensions generated by homesickness, violence and suffering. You come to appreciate the casual male world, and the social strength of the unwritten laws of the "land of the lost" by which a man's business is his own. As a re-creation of a moment of life in our history, it has not yet been bettered, in my view. For Satchell, of course, it was not so much history, as an experience transfigured. Old-timers insist that the gumlands were not "lost lands", but Satchell makes you feel that they were. He also contrives to give you a long view, a sense of the littleness of this episode in the vast-ness of the earth's history, an awareness of time and fate. The book opens among the kauri forests of the past, it closes with a vision of the future. Jess Olive, the queer fellow, makes a prophecy— "There is a better day coming," he says. "Every year the settler is extending his landmarks and rooting himself like the trees he displaces. As the gum goes he advances ... I see the apple orchards and the vineyards of the future . . . The men we know—the reckless, the hopeless, the unhappy—are gone to their appointed places. I hear the voices of the children at play among the thick-leafed trees."
The Toll of the Bush also has the intrusive plot machinery of the time, the remittance man, the guilty secret. The story, set in a pioneer settlement in Northland, concerns two brothers of contrasted education, Robert the colonial, Geoffrey the English boy, who farm together. Geoffrey loves Eve Milward, daughter of the rich man of page 33 the district, but is rejected by her when he is wrongly accused of immorality. The letter proving his innocence is suppressed by his rival, the unpleasant Rev. Mr Fletcher, who thus gets Eve for himself. There is bush drama in plenty, including a search for the lost and desperate Eve who has fled there, and a fire which kills off the reverend villain. Robert meanwhile has married the daughter of a drunken Swede, Andersen, whose degeneration under bush conditions is sincerely presented. In spite of the high melodrama of the story, Satchell does suggest the malignity of nature. This is indeed, the toll of the bush; interesting comparison can be made between his picture and those in Helen Wilson's My First Eighty Years, Jean Bos-well's Dim Horizons (both are autobiography), or in Jane Mander's novel The Passionate Puritan.
The Elixir of Life is set on shipboard, but, says E. H. McCormick, "The ocean was a poor substitute for the gumfields, and the conduct of a shipload of New Zealanders gave the author only limited scope for his gift of sympathetic portraiture—it called rather for . . . the satirist."4 What can be made of the topic may be seen in a humorous novel of 1954, Voyagers in Aspic, by John Gillies.