A Paradise Rubric: Introduction to The Bird of Paradise, by Sara Berger.
I. Caveat Lector
The Bird of Paradise is “A Romance” divided into two parts, set in the southern United States prior to the Civil War. It was written by Dr William Henry Dutton, and published in Dunedin in 1896. In this case, the life of the author is particularly relevant to his book. At the age of approximately 21, William Dutton graduated from the University of Melbourne's Trinity College in 18791 with a Bachelor of Arts. He next went to the Royal College of Surgeons of England, from which he graduated in 18822. He returned to Australia by way of New Zealand3, and married Mary Dent Oswald in 18844. He pursued his practice in various locations in Victoria and New South Wales and later in New Zealand. His marriage produced three children; in every other respect, it appears to have been unhappy, and one of the children died in infancy. An ugly and well-publicised divorce was won by his wife, and Dutton went to New Zealand, where he lived for the short remainder of his life.
This is the most simple account of his biography; it is more sordid in the newspaper accounts of the time. It is more dramatic again in Dutton's novel, which upon examination of Dutton's life reveals itself to be his own story of the events which eventually disgraced and disillusioned him. Readers are therefore warned that the humour, while present, is dark; and the romance is a misdirection.
1 “List of Graduates.” 25 March 1879. The Argus, Melbourne, p6.
2 “Register of Medical Practitioners.” 16 January 1896. The New Zealand Gazette, Wellington, p72.
3 “Piako voyage number 4". London 17th August 1882 - Dunedin 11 November 1882. Passenger list. Held by National Archives of New Zealand, Wellington. Archives reference: IM 5/4/37, No. 480
4 “Marriages.” 13 August 1884. The Argus, Melbourne, p1.
II. The Life of the Author
The Bird of Paradise was not published as an obvious autobiography. A reviewer of the time seems to have taken it at face value; the Otago Witness remarks drily that it is 'difficult, inasmuch as, like many first novels, it contains characters and incidents sufficient to set up two or three modern novels...'1 The length is a problem:
The closing paragraph of the book describes the death of Eugene, which the ordinary novel reader would have no doubt welcomed earlier, for these days we are imbued with the idea that life is brief indeed, and that the wit which suits us best is that whose soul is brevity.2
(In life, if not in the novel; the Otago Witness reviewer roundaboutly gets his wish; Dutton died in November of the same year, and one obituary supposes the unfavourable reception of The Bird of Paradise as a cause: 'Owing to disappointments of a private nature – the cool reception his novel, The Bird of Paradise, received, was one–'3).
It is common to say of a novel of the times that it was based on the author's life. Lawrence Jones, writing in the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature, notes: 'A recurring type of fiction is the clearly autobiographical novel in which the hero's career has been fictionalized and made more dramatically coherent by an admixture of melodramatic romance.'4 Check. Clearly this was a style that was easy and profitable to imitate. But this observation has the advantage of hindsight, and therefore the advantage of Dr Dutton. He wrote his 'Romance' less than two years after the divorce with which it is mostly concerned. The simultaneity of his life and literature are illustrated by a curious page of the Otago Witness, on August 16th, 1894, which contains a letter to the editor:
SIR- The Trustees of the Arrow Hospital recently appointed, with a great flourish of trumpets, as surgeon to the hospital, a Dr. W. H. Dutton, of Victoria, a medical genius with a string of letters to his name as long as the tail of a kite...5
The writer, a “Nemo”, goes on to criticise the 'degrading' conditions of the hospital and suggest that only a doctor ignorant of its status, or lacking self-respect, could have been induced to take up the position. The very next item on the page is 'A Melbourne Divorce Case: Alleged Cruelty of Dr. Dutton'6, which reports the case in detail, probably drawing from the Melbourne Argus. The placement speaks of remarkable editorial comment, however 'silent'. The notoriety of the case appears to have cost Dutton the Arrowtown practice; the Argus's trial notes report that, 'as to the New Zealand appointment, he had received telegrams stating that in consequence of the reports appearing in this case, it had been cancelled.'7
This is not the typical colonial writer creating a pleasing, or socially apposite, tale from her experiences, dressed up in the popular melodramatic style of the time. This is a writer whose life story had already been printed when he came to write it. Jones notes that 'most of the Pioneer novels were written by amateurs, with fiction at best an occasional avocation in the midst of lives dedicated primarily to the more material concerns of a pioneer society...'8 Dutton turned to that 'occasional avocation' after the other side of his story had damaged his reputation as a respectable man, and thus his career.
1 "Among the Books." 21 May 1896. Otago Witness, Dunedin, p42.
3 “Lake Country - Deaths.” 26 November 1896. Otago Witness, Dunedin, p23.
4 Jones, Lawrence. 1998. The Novel. In Terry Sturm (ed.) The Oxford History of Literature in New Zealand. 2nd edn. Auckland: Oxford University Press. 119-244, p122.
5 'Nemo'. 16 August 1894. “The Arrow Hospital Again.” The Otago Witness, p23
6 “A Melbourne Divorce Case.” 16 August 1894. Otago Witness, Dunedin, p23.
7 “Painful Divorce Suit. Dutton Vs. Dutton. Finding of the Jury. Verdict for Mrs. Dutton.” 29 August 1894. The Argus, Melbourne, p6.
8 Jones, Lawrence. 1998. The Novel. In Terry Sturm (ed.), The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature, 2nd edn. Auckland: Oxford University Press. 119-244, p121.
III. Fact in Fiction
The court case story and the plot of The Bird of Paradise largely agree, so it is useful to outline them together. Eugene/William, one of several boys in his family, is a keen student. He travels away from home to study surgery, and returns to his home (broadly) at the conclusion of his studies. He settles down and begins to earn a decent living; he marries a beautiful woman (Marvel/Mary).
It is Marvel who is lauded as 'the bird of Paradise', which develops into irony throughout the book. At first infatuated with her, Eugene comes to see his wife from an increasingly jaded viewpoint: not an exotic, fabulous creature, but more like the jackdaw of fable, who puts on peacock feathers, and is cast down when its pretensions slip. This moral is unsubtly explained in a conversation between two of Eugene's female acquaintances, soon after he marries, when Madame Pompadour innocently asks Guinevere about the origin of Marvel's “feathery name”, and Guinevere, a font of wisdom, explains to her all of the mythical and the ornithological aspects of the Paradisea rubra1. The ironic contrast that is set up between a person and their plumage is reflected in Dutton's writing; it is his style to embellish his subject with language that is more ornate and ostentatious the less they deserve it. Throughout The Bird of Paradise, phrases such as 'the bird of heaven and air' come to be used with an increasingly bitter tone.
Whether foretold or not, it is true for both Eugene and William that after his marriage, his relationship with his wife quckly sours. ('From the very first the respondent was addicted to drunkenness,' alleges Mary2. '[Eugene] discovered that he had to deal with an irritable, captious and absurdly jealous wife,' writes Dutton.3) Either a wastrel, or unable to deal with her capriciousness, our hero takes up social gambling and drinking. He also dabbles in racing, and owns a horse.
The two narratives run in parallel, but not perfectly. Significant cognitive dissonance results from comparing certain episodes from the novel with episodes related by witnesses at the trial. In The Bird of Paradise, our protagonist is gradually established as a competent and caring doctor; in chapter 9 he visits the house of an old friend to operate on her young son, who is suffering from diphtheria and requires a tracheotomy. It is a heartwarming scene and the boy later makes a full recovery. In the trial, another story is related by Dutton's former medical partner: “Dr. Honman, Dr. Dutton, and myself had a consultation about a case of tracheotomy. An operation was performed on the patient – a child – and during the operation the child died. After the operation Dr Dutton showed increasing signs of drink...”4 This is not merely Dutton's plausible version of events, but an authorial hand creating light from very dark materials.
Eugene/Dutton decides to move his practice, against his wife's wishes. Eugene moves to Galveston, or William leaves Castlemaine, and this sets off a chain of unhappy, brief moves, and medical practices which gradually decrease in value. There are periods of happiness. Perhaps the most joyful point in The Bird of Paradise is the birth of a daughter, Pearly (Ruby Oswald Dutton), whom he rhapsodizes with verse by Bennett. She is followed by a son, Valentine (Norman Edward Dutton). A third child dies in infancy. Recorded in fiction and courtroom drama, the cause of this death is unclear; but Mary and William each blamed the other for the tragedy.
Marvel secreted his illness for some inscrutable reason as close as she could from the doctor... For a week, night after night he knelt over the cradle in the vain effort to rock to sleep the fore-doomed baby...
writes Dutton (1896)5.
I rushed outside the house undressed with the baby. I remained outside all night in the open air... It was bitterly cold. I, with two servants, attempted to go into the house at 7 o'clock in the morning, and we were chased away by respondent... The baby died a fortnight after...
states Mary (1894)6.
Marvel/Mary's family provides her more money than Eugene/William can, and this is a source of tension in their marriage. (Mary's father, Robert Dent Oswald, was the owner of a large gold mine7; Marvel's father, Julian Jasper Gould, is referred to throughout Paradise as 'the mighty coal-king'). Whenever Marvel/Mary can, she takes the children along on extended stays with friends or family. When our hero has been married seven years, his wife's father dies, and she inherits a sizeable income, although it comes with the condition that she use part of it to maintain her children. After this, she leaves William/Eugene entirely. He achieves custody of his children; but his practice is suffering. He appeals, through the court, for his wife's maintenance money, which she is forced to give to him. She seeks a divorce: the court proceedings begin the day after the tenth anniversary of their marriage. Much of the divorce case turns on accusations by Marvel/Mary concerning her husband's conduct with the various servants who have passed through their employ, and especially two sisters: Lillie and Lollie Delaine, or Nellie and Jennie Case. The divorce case is brutal, lasting a month in Australia, and two months in fictional America. During the case, Eugene/William receives an appointment overseas; and he leaves at the end of the trial.
'The Court then adjourned, and the two children were led across by Dr. Dutton and handed over to their mother.'8 This is the scene with which the Argus concludes its thorough coverage of the Dutton trial. In many ways, this is the end of the story, because it is here that fact and fiction begin to diverge. Dr. Dutton moved to New Zealand, and was as itinerant there as he was in Australia, before dying at the early age of 38; but Eugene, living for some years in South Africa, returns after a time to find that his former wife is frail and repentant, and his children are loyal. He dies honourably in the American Civil War. This ending is unconvincing to the historical reader; but perhaps it is more satisfying in the context of "A Romance". After all, that is what we are reading.
1 Dutton, William Henry. 1896. The Bird of Paradise. Dunedin: S. N. Brown and Co., p108.
2 “Painful Divorce Suit. Dutton vs. Dutton. Evidence by the Petitioner.” . 2 August 1894, The Argus, Melbourne, p6.
3 Dutton, William Henry. 1896. The Bird of Paradise. Dunedin: S. N. Brown and Co., p108
4 “Painful Divorce Suit. Dutton Vs. Dutton. Evidence of Misconduct.” 7 August 1894. The Argus, Melbourne, p7.
5 Dutton, William Henry. 1896. The Bird of Paradise. Dunedin: S. N. Brown and Co., p227.
6 "Painful Divorce Suit. Dutton vs. Dutton. Evidence by the Petitioner." 2 August 1894. The Argus, Melbourne, p6.
7 "The Mines of Maldon." 2 July 1886. The Argus, Melbourne, p7.
8 "Painful Divorce Suit. Dutton vs. Dutton. Divorce Granted." 30 August 1894.The Argus, Melbourne, p5.
IV. Domestic Melodrama
To describe a book as a romance, in this period, was to define it much less narrowly than we would now, using the same term. In her article “Romance and the Romance Novel,” Fiona Robertson describes its scope:
The novel in [the period following the French Revolution] often seems a schizophrenic form, generically unstable but also both innovative and exploratory... Works declaring themselves in subtitles to be romances include many we now call “Gothic”... They also include many which explore the meeting points of history and fiction... “Romance” in these subtitles clearly indicates the dominance of fiction or invention over something regarded as “real”.
It is telling that Robertson implicitly overlaps the romance and the novel, because Sir Walter Scott, considered by Victorians to be the progenitor and master of the romance form, clearly distinguished them. As Robertson reports, 'Scott defines romance as “a fictitious narrative in prose or verse; the interest of which turns on marvellous and uncommon interests”, presenting it in opposition to the novel, “a fictitious narrative, differing from the romance, because the events are accommodated to the ordinary train of human events, and the modern state of society.”'2 Presented with this distinction, it is easy to classify The Bird of Paradise. Yet Dutton has made the counter-intuitive choice.
As can be seen from Scott's definition, the novel was the more realistic of these two competing forms. The novel was more likely to engage social problems directly, even stridently. It emerged in the this period as the grittier form; but the romance, with its quests and marriages, had softer edges, and a more conservative view of gender relations. Specifically, Robertson suggests that the romance, as the Victorians knew it, emerged as a response to the French Revolution, and the problem of chivalry3. That Dutton appreciated these overtones can be seen by the poem he chooses as an epigram for his book: Shelley's 'Revolt against Islam', a poem written in direct reaction to the French Revolution. It had many aims, but specifically sought to evoke 'a thirst for a happier condition of moral and political society...'4 Note, too, Robertson's comment that '“Romance” in these subtitles clearly indicates the dominance of fiction or invention over something regarded as “real”.' Dutton did not intend to recreate reality, but to represent it according to more comfortable ideals.
As for 'innovative and exploratory', few commentators claim that the early novels of New Zealand and Australia met that standard. It is therefore simple to classify The Bird of Paradise within a set of conventional forms. We know that this book is a romance because it has a happy ending; we know that it is a melodrama because the happy ending involves the wicked but repentant ex-wife dying by lightning after a tearful reconciliation with her ex-husband over their dead child's grave. (It is tempting to label this a revenge fantasy in which Eugene/William gets to keep the moral high ground.)
It is also tempting to suggest that the melodramatic content of The Bird of Paradise is in fact stranger than fiction, because some of its most sensational events are based on journalistic report. For example, the episode in which Lillie Delaine, poisoned with tainted beer, goes temporarily mad, seems to derive from Nellie's testimony: '“I don't know. I was out of my mind at Malvern.”... “Was anything given to you which caused you to go out of your mind?”'5 But the trial accounts are another type of story, in which there are many reasons to edit or evade; where sources other than truth may have been the inspiration. As Dutton himself says, denying the evidence of another servant girl, '”She must have dreamt it – read it in some twopenny halfpenny novel.”'6
Regarding such novels, there is a particularly useful genre within which The Bird of Paradise can be analysed: the Victorian domestic melodrama, whose social function is described in a 1981 article by Martha Vicinus: 7
Domestic melodrama was the working out in popular culture of the conflict between the family and its values and the economic and social assault of industrialization... The home was the setting for passion, sacrifice, suffering, and sympathy... Within the home the powerless struggled for recognition, for their values over those of the wider world.
Of the typical protagonist of such a work, Vicinus writes, 'We identify with his goodness and his powerlessness.'9 In the melodrama, these two characteristics are not merely associated, but identical. Eugene, the supposed head of the household, is cast as the struggling figure whose weakness and moral strength are opposite sides of the same coin. He is the model of restraint, or passivity, who comes to remonstrate with himself very late in his relationship with his wife that he should have done more to control her. He loses the divorce case in part because he cannot bring himself to bring charges against his wife's character. Conversely, Marvel's power is entirely negative: her money makes her selfish and shallow, and her strong will and self-interest allow her to tell shameless lies.
Melodrama, says Vicinus, appeals to 'those who feel that their lives are without order and that events they cannot control can destroy or save them.'10; and of the melodramatic hero, 'The faults lie not in him but in society, which must change.'11 Following the divorce trial, Eugene goes to South Africa. There he is entirely beloved and praised: 'The best verdict of the batch of worthies and wiseacres in the jury-box was the fruition of his life in South Africa, where every man thought the best of him...'12 Here a changed society vindicates an unchanging, unresisting hero; the meek inherits the earth.
The faultlessness of Eugene is worked out in a different way regarding the question of alcohol. Dutton's own level of inebriety was a key point in his trial; judging from hostile testimony, he was rarely seen sober, and even his own counsel says, 'Oh, we admit that he was often drunk. We don't deny it.'13 Nor does Dutton's novel – entirely. He seems to use several different textual strategies to explain or excuse this particular charge, worked out in separate characters in The Bird of Paradise.
The central character, Eugene, as befits his mild and unreproachable nature, is not a heavy drinker. During the last few months of the novel before the divorce, he is reported to drink beer; this possibly coincides with a similar period in Dutton's life, when he seems to have been drunk frequently, suffering from “worry”. But the charges of drunkenness which Marvel brings against Eugene in the fictional trial are entirely exaggerated, as is their interpretation; 'It was the funniest way of reckoning up a habit I ever heard,' says Eugene's lawyer.14
Meanwhile, Marmaduke Payne, a friend of Eugene's from his university days, is described as his perfect counterpart:
There was but one respect in which these two opposite characters merged into one another; in which for a short period... they ran a parallel course... the one at that point of divergence to exhaust itself in that one particular similarity, the other to pursue its way alone till Fate herself had cut its throat. This it is that will haul down your flying pennons, Eugene Whitworth; this it is Marmaduke Payne, that will hurl you into an early, a watery, and an ignominious grave.15
Marmaduke, the scapegoat, drowns at a shallow beach, after a long period as a hopeless sot.
A third drinker escapes much more easily. Brosie, Eugene's brother – quite possibly based on the brother, Robert Dutton, who gives evidence at the trial – reaches the nadir of inebriation, but towards the end of the book, with relatively little comment, he recovers and is restored to respectable society. It is this character's sufferings which inspire an address from the author:
The habit of excessive drinking is not so much a vice as it is a misfortune – an incompatibility between the virtues of alcohol and certain qualities and conditions of the brain. The finer the brain the greater the incompatibility... Oh be merciful my brother whose virtue sits serene only in the absence of temptation... scorn not yonder bedraggled victim whom you pass every morning on your own triumphant march to business while you make broad your own phylacteries. In the great battle he is but a prisoner in the camp of a truculent enemy, and the day may come when he may exchange places with you...16
During this period, the traditional view of drunkenness as a sin to be punished was being contested by a theory that drunkenness was a disease (curable or incurable) to be treated.17 The sympathetic rhetoric of both of these positions can be seen in this address, as can Dutton's strategies to distance himself from the inexcusable behaviour of which a jury has convicted him: Eugene, Marmaduke, and Brosie respectively illustrate, I never, it wasn't me and it wasn't really ever that bad.
1 Robertson, Fiona. 2004. Romance and the Romance Novel. In Corinne Saunders, (ed.), A Companion to Romance. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 287-305, p291.
2 Ibid, p295.
3 Ibid, pp290-291.
4 Shelley, Percy Bysshe. 1818. The Revolt of Islam; A Poem, in Twelve Cantos. London: C and J. Ollier, preface.
5 “Painful Divorce Case. Dutton Vs. Dutton. Re-examination of Nellie Case.” 10 August 1894. The Argus, Melbourne, p6.
6 “Painful Divorce Case. Dutton Vs. Dutton. Further Evidence for the Respondent.” 22 August 1894. The Argus, Melbourne, p6.
7 Vicinus, Martha. 1981. “'Helpless and Unfriended': Nineteenth Century Domestic Melodrama.” New Literary History, 13:1 127-143
8 Ibid, pp128-129
9 Ibid, p135
10 Ibid, p132
11 Ibid, p135
12 Dutton, William Henry. The Bird of Paradise. Dunedin: S. N. Brown and Co., 1896. p477
13 “Painful Divorce Suit. Dutton vs. Dutton. Cross-Examination of the Petitioner.” 4 August 1894. The Argus, Melbourne, p4.
14 Dutton, William Henry. 1896. The Bird of Paradise. Dunedin: S. N. Brown and Co., p467
15 Ibid, p28
16 Ibid, p120.
17 Garton, Stephen. 1987. “'Once a Drunkard Always a Drunkard': Social Reform and the Problem of 'Habitual Drunkeness' in Australia.” Labour History, 53: 38-53
V. The Past as Foreign Country
When Dutton lost his court case, he fled to New Zealand, where he wrote a book set in America, whose protagonist travels to South Africa. This is an impressive escapist sequence; Dutton is running out of uttermost parts of the sea. The South African episode is short; as it parallels Dutton's life, we know it relates to a brief and unconcluded period. But the choice of America for the main action of The Bird of Paradise is interesting.
The Bird of Paradise opens with the following disclaimer:
In disclaiming any allusions to characters or parallel cases connected with the Australasian Colonies, and with the assurance that it is entirely founded upon occurrences in the United States of America whose history has been communicated to the Author...1
We know that the disclaimer is a fiction; but the assurance is probably true. Dutton's brother Robert, a dental surgeon (as is his fictional counterpart Brosie), appears to have received his qualification at the University of Philadelphia.2 In his brother, Dutton may have had a contemporary source for his setting; but The Bird of Paradise is not a history or a travel novel. Dutton's America is a balmy place where pine trees grow in river valleys with tobacco and cotton, and it never seems to be winter: Australasian place names (Bendemeer, Summer Hill, Myamyn) creep in towards the second half of the book, and the distinctive nature of the country is not convincing. Perhaps the greatest omission in a novel about American society is American people. Eugene belongs to a family of English immigrants. Marvel is part Scottish and part Welsh. Eugene's loyal groom, Patrick Flynn, is Irish with a comic accent; another source of comic relief is the “Gallic” woman, Madame de Pompadour. Many minor characters are identified by similar origins; no one is from here. A colonial preoccupation?
Dutton begins the story in Texas in 1833, portraying it as an idyllic southern state of America; this was actually one of the most exciting periods in Texas's history, during which it won independence from Mexico, later joining the union in 1845. The text is scattered with references which were contemporary for the author but impossible for his characters. Some appear to be merely indulgent; Dutton, apparently fond of racehorses, gives his protagonist's family a filly bred from Kirkconnel (winner of the Two Thousand Guineas in 1895) but also Alice Hawthorn (a more contemporary champion). The reason for Dutton's choice of historical setting is obscure. It is possible that he simply chose the most well-known event in American history – the Civil War – and counted backwards to place his protagonists at a point where their personal histories could fit nicely into the intervening time.
The choice of setting, then, may be of more interest from a reader's point of view than from the writer's. What appeal might a story about pre-Civil War America have had to the reading public? This is a question which would bear further research, but some scattered facts suggest a context. Lydia Wevers, describing a contemporary New Zealand collection, notes, 'About 140 of the 2000 books in the Brancepeth library are by American authors... There is also a small but clear emphasis on Civil War novels, and regional or historical fiction...'3
That history, and the Australasian region, intersected in a curious way, which is described by Paul Giles in an article concerning “Antipodean American Literature”:
There was a particular antipodean coda to the American Civil War when the Confederate warship Shenandoah arrived in Melbourne in January 1865 and, in breach of the neutrality rules officially laid down for all British subjects, was refitted by Australians sympathetic to the southern cause. Though opinion in the city was generally divided, there was widespread support for the traditional society of the American South within Melbourne's social establishment.4
Dutton was from Victoria. (He would have been six years old at this time of this incident).
A much later event may also have influenced his choice. Just five months before The Bird of Paradise was published, the American humorist Mark Twain visited New Zealand and Australia. He was a international celebrity who received great acclaim.5
1 Dutton, William Henry. 1896. The Bird of Paradise. Dunedin: S. N. Brown and Co., p.iv
2 “Painful Divorce Case. Dutton Vs. Dutton. Mr R Dutton in the Box.” 15 August 1894. The Argus, Melbourne, p6.
3 Wevers, Lydia. 2010. Reading on the Farm: Victorian Fiction and the Colonial World. Wellington: Victoria University Press, p198.
4 Giles, Paul. 2008. “Antipodean American Literature: Franklin, Twain, and the Sphere of Subalternity.” American Literary History, 20(1): 22-50, p39.
5 Parsons, Coleman O. 1962. “Mark Twain in Australia.” The Antioch Review, (21)4 :455-468, pp455-456
VI. Made in New Zealand
The Witness review of the Bird of Paradise ends:
A meed of praise is due to the publishers of the book, Messrs S. N. Brown and Co., for the excellent manner in which they have performed their part of the work.1
The technical side of the origin of this book – printed and distributed perhaps exclusively in New Zealand – is a greater achievement than may be apparent to a modern reader. For longer works, published directly in book format, the local printer was at a considerable economic disadvantage. There were general obstacles associated with the newness of the industry (uncertainties of readership, distribution networks, materials, and so on); but also, particulars of the international book trade meant that the local printer faced stiff competition from American and British companies.
The first European settlers brought their books with them. Then they wrote back Home to ask their friends for more. The demand for literature was high enough that the importing of books could be considered a promising enterprise as early as 1841: Katherine Coleridge has described how in this year, newspaper proprieter Sam Evans wrote to London, 'Books of various kinds will now be saleable...'2 The New Zealand bookselling industry, naturally, began with a dependence on British supply; and as the population of the colony grew, so did the value of this market to British suppliers. Luke Trainor notes, 'The Australian colonies and New Zealand... became, by the 1890s, the largest single market for the British book trade.'3 British publishers began to cater to this market thematically – 'by the turn of the century, most major British publishers had developed special colonial lists, and encouraged at least some fiction with local colonial settings and themes,' 4 – and also financially. The need to keep prices competitive came from the threat posed by the American trade:
The United States publishing industry of the nineteeth century often disregarded copyright laws and systematically pirated British copyright works... Large quantities of reprints were exported... some even found their way into the Pacific region.5
Questions of international copyright had led to the Berne Convention of 1886, which the United States did not join.6 (1886 was also the year in which Macmillan launched their 'Colonial Library'.7) As a compromise:
The British... [made] inclusion of Australasia in the British market area a condition of agreement with American publishers when they wanted to sell in Britain; thus, one bought US books from Britain. In this period, the Australasian market became something of an Anglo-American battlefield in which local publishers competed at some disadvantage.8
It may be noted that for this period in New Zealand, 'publishers' is misleading. There was really only one company that could claim that name, which was the remarkable Whitcombe and Tombs of Christchurch. A bookselling business started by George Whitcombe in the 1870s expanded to printing when H. H. Tombs joined the concern in 1882, becoming a firm that was 'large even by world standards'9. But its mark was primarily made with educational textbooks, and after that, non-fiction10. Whitcombe and Tombs published 'virtually no prose fiction'11
Not that it would sell. Although the colonies were not precisely a captive market for English fiction, its prestige was noticeably higher. Jones notes, 'despite the hopes and efforts of some novelists there was still no significant local readership for New Zealand's novels... only about a third of the novels were published in New Zealand, and these were mainly the lesser ones.'12 New Zealand readers wanted to keep up with the romances and histories that were popular in the centre of empire.13
New Zealand fiction did have other outlets. Sturm notes how, 'in the 1880s and 1890s, ...the emergence of a relatively stable base of regular weekly journalism, alongside the older established newspapers'14 provided a vital medium for local authors. Along with the Sydney Bulletin, many New Zealand periodicals offered space for local literary efforts. Generally, local prose and poetry appeared alongside foreign work: NZ newspapers frequently published Australian and other literary content to supplement their own material, as Ross Harvey, among others, has shown.15 Too, as Blanche Baughan complained (in 1908), not all New Zealand publications paid local authors for their work.16 On the other hand, this was a period during which a sort of nationalism was beginning to emerge; in 1889, Zealandia debuted with a stirring manifesto: 'Zealandia has been established as a distinctly national literary magazine. Its contributors will be all New Zealanders...'17 and the New Zealand Illustrated Magazine started up in 1899, with much the same promise of a 'distinctive New Zealand colouring'.18 There were more; their other common feature was their brief lives. Zealandia lasted a year, and the Illustrated lasted six, which was typical at the time. The content varied (perhaps due to variable remunerations) but the economic depression of the 1880s, extending through the 1890s, also suggested that in many of these enterprises there was undue optimism for success.
The variability of the industry was something that was well understood by Stephen Noble Brown, senior, proprietor of the printing company which published The Bird of Paradise. As Debby Foster has discovered, Brown practised his trade in at least seven newspapers from 1861 to 1891, before starting S. N. Brown and Co. in 189119. The second of these (the Riverton Times) and the seventh (the Dunedin Evening Herald) both collapsed; in the latter case, Brown had been the editor. That their failure was due to the times and not his skill can be seen by the fact that S. N. Brown and Co., which remained in the family for some time, did business until 1988 when it merged with Taieri Print.20
S. N. Brown and Co. was a versatile business. An early advertisement offers their services for anything from grain sample bags to law stationery, concert tickets to wool catalogues.21 One particular area in which they made their money were race books; another was the stationery requirements of the entire national concern of the National Mortgage Company.22 A picture of their premises in 1935 declares them to be 'General Printers, Publishers and Bookbinders &c', but The Bird of Paradise actually appears to be a novelty. Foster suggests that it may have been a 'once-off';23 it is highly likely that its printing was paid for by Dutton himself.
The extension of general printing to occasional publishing, as in S. N. Brown and Co., rather than the expansion of bookselling to publishing, as in Whitcombe and Tombs, was the more usual pattern within the early print industry, whose players were well known to each other. When the Witness's literary reviewer complimented the quality of publishing, it was not just an objective appraisal, but a nod to a fellow craftsman.
The Bird of Paradise was advertised for sale first generally in the Otago Daily Times24, then specifically in the Otago Witness, in an advertisement for Braithwaite Books25 (see the Cyclopedia), where it was offered for seven shillings. This, of course, brings up more questions than it settles. What set the price? Was it a good price? How did it sell? Who bought The Bird of Paradise? Who read it? Few enough, it would seem, judging from the review – and obituary – which followed it: the one was lukewarm, the other apologetic.
1 "Among the Books." 16 August 1894. Otago Witness, Dunedin, p43.
2 Coleridge, Katherine. 2005. "'New Books, Just Received from London.'" Script and Print, Special Edition: Paradise: New Worlds of Books and Readers, 29(1-4): 57-65, p59.
3 Trainor, Luke. 1996. "British Publishers and Cultural Imperialism: History and Ethnography in Australasia, 1870-1930." BSANZ Bulletin, 20(2): 99-106, p100.
4 Sturm, Terry. 1998. Popular Fiction. In Terry Sturm (ed.) The Oxford History of Literature in New Zealand. 2nd edn. Auckland: Oxford University Press. 575-630, p576.
5 Liebich, Susann. 2007. "'The Books Are The Same As You See In London Shops': Booksellers in Colonial Wellington and their Imperial Ties, circa 1840-1890." Script and Print, 31(4): 197-209, pp205-206.
6 Trainor, Luke. 1997. "Imperialism, Commerce, and Copyright: Australia and New Zealand 1870-1930." BSANZ Bulletin, 21(4): 199-206, p200.
7 Trainor, Luke. 2005. "New Zealanders Seeking Overseas Publishers 1870-1914: some issues of Nation and Empire." Script and Print, Special Edition: Paradise: New Worlds of Books and Readers. 29(1-4): 311-322, p317.
8 Trainor, Luke. 1996. "British Publishers and Cultural Imperialism: History and Ethnography in Australasia, 1870-1930." BSANZ Bulletin, 20(2): 99-106, p100.
9 Willament, Tolla, ed. 1985. 150 Years of Printing in New Zealand. Wellington: Government Printing Office, p32.
10 Willament, Tolla, ed. 1985. 150 Years of Printing in New Zealand. Wellington: Government Printing Office, p32.
11 Gibbons, Peter. 2005. "Early Castings for a Canon: Some 1920s Perceptions of New Zealand Literary Achievements." Journal of New Zealand Literature, 23(1): 98-108, p101.
12 Jones, Lawrence. 1998. The Novel. In Terry Sturm (ed.), The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature. 2nd edn. Auckland: Oxford University Press. 119-244, p135.
13 Wevers, Lydia. 2010. Reading on the Farm: Victorian Fiction and the Colonial World. Wellington: Victoria University Press. P174.
14 Sturm, Terry. 1998. Popular Fiction. In Terry Sturm (ed.) The Oxford History of Literature in New Zealand. 2nd edn. Auckland: Oxford University Press. 575-630, p578.
15 Harvey, Ross. 2003. "Sources of Literary Copy for New Zealand Newspapers." BSANZ Bulletin, 27(3-4): 83-93.
16 Trainor, Luke. 2005. "New Zealanders Seeking Overseas Publishers 1870-1914: some issues of Nation and Empire." Script and Print, Special Edition: Paradise: New Worlds of Books and Readers. 29(1-4): 311-322, p311.
17 McEldowney, Dennis. 1998. Publishing, Patronage, and Literary Magazines. In Terry Sturm (ed.), The Oxford History of Literature in New Zealand. 2nd edn. Auckland: Oxford University Press. 631-694, p637.
18 Ibid, p638.
19 Foster, Debby. 2003. "S. N. Brown & Co.: 1891-1988." Unpublished essay submitted for the requirements ofENGL 368: Approaches to Writing about Literature. Dunedin: Otago University. pp2-3.
20 Ibid, p8.
21 Ibid, appendix IV.
22 Ibid, p6.
23 Ibid, p5.
24 "Special Advertisements." 23 May 1896, Otago Daily Times, Dunedin, p4.
25 "New Books at Braithwaite's Book Arcade." 4 June 1896. Otago Witness, Dunedin, p28.
VII. The Final Word
The careful historical reader may wonder at a discrepancy; Dutton's daughter and son, as recorded in print, were named Ruby Oswald Dutton and Norman Edward Dutton, but The Bird of Paradise is dedicated to Victoria Ruby and Norman. This is explained within Dutton's fiction, when Eugene finally obtains custody of the children: 'To him their return was a foretaste of Heaven. He had but one poignant regret – the regret over the treachery of Marvel. From Pearly's name the name “Gould” was expunged and he called her instead “Guinevere”.'1
We have been mostly concerned with the act of using a historical story to read a work of fiction; the case of Ruby's name is an example of the opposite strategy, and this strategy may be followed in many subtler ways. Although Mary won her divorce, kept her children, and survived her former husband, it is his novel that has remained, to be made available online, and her story that must be extracted from old newspapers. Reading this novel, and then learning of its darker parallels, suggests a moral dilemma; does sympathy with Eugene imply a sympathy with Dutton? Are we taking sides by giving Dutton the last word? Perhaps we can draw some comfort from the death of the author, both specifically and formally; and return to being the “ordinary novel reader” described in the Witness review. But an introduction, which offers context, intrinsically defies the doctrine of the Death of the Author; so that any who have read thus far may simply have to live with the shades of William and Mary that lurk behind the page.
A postscript: I received a surprisingly large array of help for such a small piece of research. I wish to thank my supervisor, Jane Stafford, and my unofficial supervisor, Pip Howells, for inspiration and direction; Peter Whiteford, Sydney Shep, Nicola Frean, Noel Waite, Shef Rogers, Jennie Koerner, and Lydia Wevers for their interest and assistance; Max and Stuart for their patience and technomagery; Debby Foster for generously sharing her work; Joel for making my life easier with Science; and Nik, Cordelia, Tui, Amanda, Alana, Sam, Russ, Katie, and Matty for their sense of the absurd. May the sum live up to all who took part.
1 Dutton, William Henry. 1896. The Bird of Paradise. Dunedin: S. N. Brown and Co., p305.