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

The Novels

The Novels. The novels were written in the four years 1935-8, and reflect not only the thinking and feeling of her time, but the personal inner tensions which she was unable to resolve. When she set out for England via the East in 1938, she was, like the godwits from whom she named her last novel, making "the long migration" which seemed to her generation the only hope for New Zealand writers. (Get out, young man . . . ). She did not live to prove page 54 herself abroad; but almost as soon as she had left the country she attained enough perspective to look back upon the years of the 1930s through which she had struggled, and to assess what her generation had done.

In the article already quoted about New Zealand literature in T'ien Hsia she distinguished three stages of development, the early Maori and pioneer period, the Mander-Satchell generation, and her own, that of the depression of the 1930s.

The first stage, she said, was that of "unselfconsciousness, when writers knew without question, moralising or hesitation what they were, . . . not exiles or minds divided, but whole people", Englishmen that is, although transplanted. In the next stage, she said, in a false unreal atmosphere "the writers of my land and generation grew up: loving every inch of the terrain, feeling it grow into minds and bones, but knowing little of its story or cultural past". It was their task to become true New Zealanders, and she realised that in the third stage they had done so. But how difficult it was. "New Zealand ... is not easily put on paper." She ended the article with the words quoted earlier, "Remember us for this, if for nothing else: in our generation, of our own initiative, we loved England still, but we ceased to be 'forever England'. We became, for as long as we have a country, New Zealand."

What "New Zealandism" meant to her may be seen from a comment made as early as 1934 in Journalese:

"The Pretty Boys who've been to England once say ... we must develop a purely Colonial Style, no family or Windsor Ghosts, local colour laid on as thick as a chorine's grease paint. Sit about singing to tuis and babbling of bellbirds for the term of your natural life, but if you happen to think of something that might have occurred just anywhere in the world of man, woman and child, keep it dark. I hate these aggressively insular New Zealanders."

Putting New Zealand on to paper, then, a task of extraordinary difficulty as we have seen, was not to be a matter of tuis and bell-birds, but of human experience "in the world of man, woman and child", located here only because all human experience is of a time and a place.

This is the clue to all her novels, and to her story of her experiences in China, Dragon Rampant. Her theme is the people, "garrisons pent up in little fort"; they are New Zealanders, but she will not be "aggressively insular" about them, for what is of ultimate value is the revelation of truth about "man, woman and child".