The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Good in Parts
Good in Parts. Higher up the ladder of serious artistic purpose comes a group of writers who are endeavouring to get something truthfully observed on to paper, as well as to provide satisfaction for the daydreams of their readers. Often their novels are marred by the stock conventions of plot and character adopted, and by the uncritical manipulation of tired language. Yet they will always be good in parts. There will be neat satirical glimpses of home life, of men's ways as women see them, of social habits; there will be bits of genre painting, observations of places and people, flashes of psychological perception, evocative echoes of New Zealand speech among children or womenfolk. It is for these things that this body of work should be valued.
Margaret Jeffery's first novel The Forsaken Orchard was produced as a radio programme in 1953, and published in book form in 1955. It is set in the apple lands of Nelson, where the author grew up, and is a natural readable story of a girl's adolescence, marriage, griefs and happiness. On the community doings of a small place the author writes well; there is much enthusiastic but rather irrelevant scenery, a rich uncle, and some melodramatic horrors, but such amateurishness can be pardoned for the sake of the real attempt which the novel makes to interpret something to somebody. Two later novels were disappointing, but Mairangi, 1964, triumphantly redeems the promise of the first book. (See chapter eight.)
Florence Preston has published four novels. Her first, A Gallows Tree, 1956, will recall to readers the themes of Edith Grossmann, Jean Devanny, and Jane Mander, for the "tree" is the experience of a woman tortured by a difficult marriage. Her sufferings are rather dramatically overdrawn, so that the writing tends to be hysterical, but there is power behind it. The style has a literary air, page 86 especially in the rendering of speech, but the plot is not imposed, arising logically and truthfully from the premises of the story. As so often in these "Wives and Daughters" novels—the phrase is Mrs Gaskell's—the men are not drawn as well as the women and children.
Harvest of Daring and its sequel Great Refusals, 1957-8, make up a family chronicle beginning in Otago in the second half of the nineteenth century and coming to the present day. Without overmuch explaining, the author gets us into life on Seven Levels, the big Lakes station. She is knowledgeable about Otago history, about the land and the life, about emotions. The writing is straightforward, the result a sensible romance with something of the feel of New Zealand. The Gay Pretensions, 1959, breaks new ground, not very happily. Caroline is a teenage "case", who is seduced, is tried for attempted murder, finds that her supposed mother has gone off with the seducer, escapes from Borstal to take refuge with her loved foster father, and finally marries him. This summary, however, does not do justice to the realism of the book, which obviously has a theme too big for it. In all her writing, Florence Preston's professional skill is not equal to her emotional impulse, but she is serious, and worth watching.
In The Dark Water, 1954, Margot Campbell uses a hackneyed idea, that of the girl who makes her life on a big sheep station, and is wooed by a farmer hero. The book gives convincing detail about the technicalities of managing a high-country run, for Bess is that rare phenomenon, the woman owner who really knows the job. (So few of the glamorised heroines of romances ever look out of the lounge window!) The writing is rather dull, and the construction is lame, but a picture of the life does emerge through the expected trappings.
Also set in the South Island are the six novels of Essie Summers, of which the first, New Zealand Inheritance, 1957, is the best. The English reader is obviously in the writer's mind; scenery and Maori motifs are exploited for their exotic effects. But the story is well contrived and the dialogue easy. Essie Summers has salt as well as sugar in her mixture, which has a bite now and then.