The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
James Courage. It is the novels of James Courage, especially The Young Have Secrets, to which these remarks are leading. Courage, like Sargeson, was recognised and successful overseas. Unlike him, he was a permanent exile, moving further and further away from the refreshment of actual contact with the world he was impelled to write of. Has this not led to nostalgic falsity of rendering, as well as to thinness of texture, in his novels?
His first New Zealand novel, The Fifth Child, was published in 1948, and is set in the North Canterbury of his boyhood. Courage was born in 1903 at Amberley, the eldest of five children, brought up on his father's sheep station, and given an education at Christ's College and Oxford. From 1923 until his death in 1963 he remained in England, except for. brief visits home. His first novel, One House, was set in England. Following it, he tried to find a publisher for New Zealand fiction, but in the mid-thirties, as we have seen, there was page 75 little interest in our novels overseas, except as a tourist curiosity "babbling of bellbirds".
The germ of each of James Courage's novels is a remembered experience which struck such deep roots into the boy he was between 1903 and 1923 that he could draw upon its substance twenty-five or thirty years later. Katherine Mansfield, the obvious parallel, was never as far away from her past as that. The perils of the situation are obvious, and it cannot be said that Courage surmounts them. The Fifth Child is good in parts. Mrs Warner, at forty-six about to bear her last child, takes a house in Christchurch for the winter to think over her marriage. The children are well drawn, especially Barbara the teenager, with her motor-biking boy friend. The family life is that of 1948, but the setting, with servants, private schools and swaggers on the streets of a Christchurch suburb makes the psychology an anachronism. Were there motor-bikes in the swagger days? The New Zealand scene is rendered self-consciously in the bad old manner, nor'-westers and the Cathedral being given real blurb treatment. The theme too, is not new in our fiction; Edith Grossmann and others had been busy on the situation where a husband insists on his rights, while a bored, anxious wife dreads more childbearing.
Desire Without Content, 1950, is equally unsatisfactory. Its plot is what would be called "strong". Mrs Kendal, the mother-heroine, is left to manage a big Canterbury run with the assistance of one of those crusty Scots lovables who crop up continually in our 1890 novels. She has a retardate son, Lewis, to whom she devotes her life. When he is in his teens, his abnormality troubles her, but the problem is shelved until later when she gives hospitality to the young fiancee of the local minister. Effie, daunted by the prospect of parish life now that it is just ahead of her, finds Lewis interesting, draws him out, provokes his love. When Lewis threatens to marry Effie, Mrs Kendal is faced with an unresolvable conflict of duties. The story gains force toward the end, with the foreseen tragedy of murder and madness coming to pass. Mrs Kendal is left to struggle with her inner confusions.
Fires in the Distance followed two years later. Again, it is a tragic love drama, a foursome, set in the Canterbury back country. The time is 1921. Donovan, fiftyish, an Irish colonial, and his wife, very English, drag along together. Mrs Donovan is the consciously nostalgic exile, cultured, over-sensitive to the brutality about her. (There are plenty of echoes there!) Neurosis is her refuge, as liquor is her husband's. There are three children, Katherine, who like her father, enjoys sheep work in the open air, Leo, who resembles his mother, and Imogen, who is an average accepter of what life offers. For a short visit there comes a young farmer's son from near by, who writes poetry and is about to "go to far-off England". Katherine, Leo, and Mrs Donovan all fall in love with him, being in their cir- page 76 cumstances ready to be drawn emotionally to any kind of escape. As a result the mother gets up from her neurotic bed and tackles life again, Leo moves out from home into a job on the coast, Kathie rushes off and marries the neighbouring boy she was plighted to. There is a lot about love, moonlight, breasts, and thighs, on a level of sentimentality barely above that of romantic light fiction. Some attempt is made to relate the emotional distortions of the characters to their setting in time and place, but Courage in this is not as successful as Jane Mander. His technique however is never amateurish, as hers was. '