The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
History—Maori and Settler All over Again!
History—Maori and Settler All over Again! The historical novel does not arise in a country's literature until there is both a history and a consciousness of history. William Satchell, writing in 1914, could almost have given The Greenstone Door the same subtitle as that which Scott gave to his first novel, Waverley; 'Tis Sixty Years Since. There were those alive among Scott's readers who, like Scott himself, had heard such tales from the lips of elders in their boyhood. Robin Hyde, writing Check to Your King in 1936, was required, on the other hand, to reconstruct a past with which she had no actual contact.
Only the more difficult reconstructed historical novel is now possible for writers who wish to go back to the Maori and the settler of the nineteenth century. With the approach of the national centennial celebrations in the late 1930s, interest began to grow, and was stimulated by novels such as Robin Hyde's and Nelle Scanlan's. The centennial itself called forth a good deal of community self-congratulation, in which the politicians, "Rose to the platform, hanging in every place/Their comfortable platitudes like plush/Without one word of our failures".19
Most of the historical novels which were written in the tide of our increasing national self-consciousness then and since, have, like the politicians, not remembered our failures. Hero and heroine in these stories, it is true, suffer great hardships; but they "win through". It is certain that success was not always the pioneer's reward. But in page 88 historical fiction, we pretend otherwise. No one yet—unless it is Robin Hyde—has written for us a tragedy.
Two stories with an honest purpose not quite realised in achievement are Helen Wilson's Land of my Children, 1955, and Georgina McDonald's Grand Hills for Sheep, 1949. As in Moonshine, Helen Wilson has fictionalised experiences from her own lifetime. The book is an interesting pageant, strongest where near to truth, weakest where the author tries to manipulate her material. The land, not the individual pioneer, is its theme. Grand Hills for Sheep won the literary prize offered in Otago to mark the provincial centennial. It concentrates on the personal relationships of colonial life, and on the experience of the women. Within these limits Georgina McDonald writes well, being successful in particular with the girl Shona, her stepmother, and the women at home. The meeting at which the opening tea for the church is planned is delightful; women writers today often record these minor community manifestations with shrewd witty pens. The men are cardboard figures, the goldfields over-dramatised. The family moves on in time through settlement, gold, wool, refrigeration, to prosperity. Sincerity, feminine sympathy, and an ear for the Scots tongue enable Georgina McDonald to make a quiet book in the domestic tradition. Her later story, Stinson's Bush, 1954, which deals with the Southland Irish, is not as effective.
As history began to sell, more and more tried their hands at it, most exploiting its supposed drama and frontier freedom from conventions. Somehow, our settler ancestors seem to have been more sex-obsessed than was ever acknowledged on the centennial platforms— or so a perusal of historical romances would lead one to suppose!
Brief mention should be made of several writers. Julian Mountain, in The Pioneers; A Romance, 1946, covers 1850-80, beginning with the emigrant voyage in the good old style, bringing in a back-country run, a Maori wife and half-caste baby, racial tensions, childbirth, villains, madness. All's well that ends well, however.
David King's The Mountains are Still Green, 1950, which covers 1836-1948, is a costume romance of the "and then" type. The Long White Cloud, 1960, a racing yarn by R. M. Rogers, is set in Hawke's Bay in the early 1900s. Will Lawson has written several stories with goldfield settings. Gold in Their Hearts, 1951, has a basis of historical research sufficient to provide interesting detail about the West Coast goldfields. Forbidden Gold, 1946, deals with the goldmining days of the 1860s in the Cape Terawhiti district, near Wellington.