The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Nelle Scanlan. Nelle Scanlan's sixteen novels offer a wider range. Two appeared in 1931, but the first to make a name was Pencarrow in 1932.
The saga of a family has attracted many writers. At this time, John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga was at the height of its popularity, and may have been in Nelle Scanlan's mind when she began her Pencarrow series. Galsworthy's study was of a family and a social class disintegrating under the impact of war, change, and time. To link a family and its fortune with the fortunes of a country, even as small a one as New Zealand, was a very different matter. The English class structure gave Galsworthy much of his characterisation ready made, for the references were known to his readers. New Zealand local history, on the other hand, had to be retold from scratch. To ' make a settler family come to life, and through its story to tell also that of the growing community, was a task beyond Nelle Scanlan's powers. G. B. Lancaster also attempted it the next year, in Pageant, 1933, a Tasmanian saga.
The trouble is, perhaps, that the pre-suppositions of popular romance, the tricks, the dodges, hamper the author when she wishes to handle more stubborn material. The Pencarrow men and women are drawn in flat statements, and have to be tagged with recognisable quirks or labels, such as bad temper (Miles), passionate rebellion (Kelly), possessiveness (Kitty), and so on. Even with these devices, relationships are difficult to disentangle.
The same defect of flatness mars the historical setting. The family moves through the generations, children are born, grow old, and page 44 die, but we do not feel the passing of time. Only external details, such as buggies and clothes, fix our position, for there has been no imaginative re-creation of the past. Nelle Scanlan has been too much the exponent of her material. She does not make her story spring from dialogue and dramatic action. Politics, the war, and the influenza epidemic give us our bearings, that is all. The result is a workmanlike romantic entertainment, but no more. Perhaps some later writer will attempt this most difficult genre, and bring off a coup. It is to be hoped so, for the proliferating pioneer family is a feature of our history. Dates of the Pencarrow novels are: Pencarrow, 1932; Tides of Youth, 1933; Winds of Heaven, 1934; Kelly Pencarrow, 1939.
Among her other stories are several which have an insight and a humorous truthfulness well beyond those usually found in light fiction. She is particularly successful with young girls, of whom there are life-like portraits in The Young Summer, 1952, and The Rusty Road, 1948.
The basic defect of light fiction is, of course, that its development is according to pattern. There can be no organic growth, for the moral distinctions, like the course of the narrative, are dictated by the wish-fulfilment needs of a popular market. Yet if this is recognised—as we have recognised the weaknesses in earlier novels on which the Victorian plot conventions were imposed—then we may find much of merit in these novels. They are quiet, perceptive, and amusing as well as a little sugary. Dealing exclusively with personal relationships within a feminine world, they are aimed at readers not minded to struggle with intellectual concepts or difficult imaginative pressures.