Letters and Art in New Zealand
6 — Between Two Hemispheres
Between Two Hemispheres
In 1910 Edith Searle Grossman published her last novel, The Heart of the Bush. As its title suggests, it was a simple-seeming romance, placid in tone, restricted in setting, almost banal in plot—different in every way from the writer's earlier novels, with their nervous, sometimes hysterical, manner and violent situations. The Heart of the Bush reflects the calm temper of the years which succeeded the troubled nineties, and, possibly without the author's intention, it supplied a parable for those three expansive decades.
The heroine of the romance, Adelaide Borlase, is a New Zealander who, after being educated in England, returns to her father's home in the back country of Canterbury. In the first part of the novel, 'Between Two Hemispheres', the heroine is shown attempting to adapt her acquired English self to colonial ways and surroundings. 'I feel that I am transmigrating and am a compound of two beings' she says, and once the first mood of exhilaration is past, she finds the farm and all about it Vulgar, page 127jarring, lowest middle-class'. For relief she escapes to a neighbouring sheep station, where things are done in the English manner, where the men 'dress for dinner', and an appropriate decorum is observed. '"It isn't very wicked to be impulsive, is it?"' enquires Adelaide of one of this household. '"It's un-English," said Evelyn, with soft condemnation, stifling like a pillow.'
The conflict finally resolves itself into a choice between two men: a New Zealand-born farmer ('His patriotism was local and narrow, but it was intense. He loved these mountains and these valleys as the Celt and the Gael love their misty islands and craggy hills.'), and an English nephew of the station-owner, sharply caricatured: 'He could not imagine any form of bliss for people who had no hope of ever getting to London.' This choice also involves one between the restricted lot of a small-farmer's wife and ease in the English microcosm of the wealthy, with periodic visits to England itself. Adelaide finally chooses the New Zealander. But the novel does not end here; a further conflict has yet to be resolved. Her husband wishes to give Adelaide the wealth and luxury she has sacrificed in marrying him, and equipped with brains and energy, he soon attains influence as the force behind a refrigeration plant and a dairy factory. Preoccupied with these affairs, he neglects his wife, but at length the two see the situation in its true perspective, and the man returns page 128to that unambitious life of small-farming to which he is suited by inclination and temperament: 'Here he had been born, and here, if it had not been for his wife, he would have been content to do his life-work, and to die, and be buried.'
It is tempting to read this romance as a deliberate parable for the times. But whether or not it was conceived with didactic intention, The Heart of the Bush is of interest in showing the kind of themes which attracted a thoughtful woman who in her earlier novels had already discussed simpler problems. In some degree these had been settled, and more intricate questions—occasionally voiced in the nineties—were becoming insistent as the years went on. What were to be the standards of the New Zealand people as they took possession of the comfortable dominion built by their own efforts and those of two pioneer generations? Would prosperity be used merely to acquire more prosperity and material fripperies, or would it supply the conditions for a more civilised manner of life than had hitherto been possible? It was the ancient choice between God and Mammon, or, substituting local symbols, between FitzGerald and Vogel. Closely related was a second question: Were the New Zealanders to continue in meek subservience to the standards of the old world, or should they essay the more difficult course of shaping their own life as a people?
Complex issues are perceived and dealt with more page 129easily by novelists than by societies; and it is the constant, never-resolved interplay of these opposed principles that lends interest to what would otherwise be the most depressing period of New Zealand history. It would be broadly true to say that New Zealand made a choice directly contrary to the one Mrs Grossman imposed on her protagonists—that its people elected to pursue the phantom of prosperity and the vain ideal of 'more English than England' rather than accommodate themselves to their own surroundings. Such a conclusion would receive some support from the writings of those who visited New Zealand in the wake of Siegfried. It is a conclusion fully documented in the ablest survey of the period, the last chapter of New Zealand in the Making, published in 1930, when the era of prosperity was drawing to its close, and written by J. B. Condliffe, himself a New Zealander. It is a conclusion which must, however, be modified, not so much in the light of a number of small exceptions (important though these are), but because each of New Zealand's 'two hemispheres' was in this period to provide the conditions for the flowering of a major talent. Katherine Mansfield found herself only by escaping to England from the suffocating materialism of New Zealand. In the heart of that same New Zealand, actively engaged in its main industry, Guthrie-Smith wrote Tutira.
One of the results of New Zealand's origins in the steamship age was that within fifty years of its foundation the voyage 'Home' had become an established institution. It was accepted as such in the nineties, and by 1907 it bulked so large that the most considerable novelist of the pre-1914 years, William Satchell, made an overseas steamer the setting of a novel, The Elixir of Life. The passengers, who are returning to New Zealand by the Cape route, form a fairly typical group. There are a New Zealand cabinet minister, a young physician who has gone abroad to gain experience, tourists in search of scenery or health, emigrants crowded into the steerage quarters, and 'colonists returning home from the long-anticipated European tour'. Had the voyage been made in the opposite direction, the list would almost certainly have included one writer or more, for from the time of B. L. Farjeon and Fergus Hume there had been a steady export of New Zealand talent which reached its greatest dimensions in the years after 1918.
The situation behind this drift to Europe was a complex one. There were cogent economic reasons why writers with ambitions beyond journalism should seek publishing facilities and a wider audience lacking in New Zealand; only in the recent past has the local publication of novels been at all common, and a London imprint still has far greater value in terms of cash and recognition. Again, writers sought in the old world more sympathetic and stimulating page 131surroundings than those of New Zealand. They migrated to London for the same reasons that Americans of the 'lost generation' migrated to Paris. Added to these were reasons the more powerful because they were intangible—reasons arising from the circumstances of New Zealand's foundation and from its status as a colony. In the first years of its history the conception of New Zealand as a 'Brighter Britain' had taken shape, and already in the seventies Anthony Trollope characterised the New Zealander as 'among John Bulls … the most John Bullish'. This imperial sentiment, fostered by successive political leaders and further strengthened during the Boer war and the war of 1914, culminated in the nineteen-twenties, when it found permanent expression in Alan Mulgan's Home (1927). To a reader unfamiliar with the New Zealand idiom, 'Home' might have been thought to refer to the writer's native country, since he had been born in New Zealand and had there grown to maturity. Such a misapprehension would have been quickly dispelled by a glance at the first chapter, where the word is defined at considerable length. The author mentions the powerful associations that gathered round it and describes the literary diet of his youth and manhood, concluding: 'The trend of all this literature read desultorily and with no purpose, was to fix my thoughts ever on England. Nor do I suggest that my experience was unique or even exceptional.'page 132
No New Zealander who grew up in the years centred in the war of 1914 would challenge the essential accuracy of this statement or its wide applicability. Education, reading, prevailing sentiment, economic interest—all turned the New Zealand writer's thoughts and ambitions towards England; and, given the opportunity, it was to England he migrated. 'To London. The Dream and the Fulfilment', so ran the dedication to a novel of this period. A few of New Zealand's literary émigrés were to learn in the conditions of exile a new understanding of their country. But the greater number quickly discarded all traces of their colonial origin, merged themselves in the English literary world, and devoted their talents to the cultivation of some current literary fashion or to the glorification of those circles of English life which they had come to regard as enshrining the social absolute. Lacking well-defined standards and equipped with physical energy and sufficient if limited education, some of these writers were well qualified to succeed in journalism and the underworld of English letters, but neither their country's literature nor the world's has been greatly enriched by their self-imposed exile. With only two notable exceptions, the single ticket to England (as distinguished from the return passage) has proved itself the entrance to a blind alley. It was, however, in the old world that New Zealand's greatest imaginative writer found the conditions she needed for self-expression.page 133
'New Zealand is in my very bones', Katherine Mansfield once wrote, and the remark has a deeper meaning than she herself may have realised. Born in Wellington in 1888, she was of the second colonial generation, the member of a family whose story (given in a detailed biography by Ruth E. Mantz and J. Middleton Murry) epitomises that of British New Zealand. Forced to emigrate by a trade depression, her grandfather, Arthur Beauchamp, landed in New Zealand in the forties with a capital that consisted chiefly of New Zealand Company land-orders, the gift of an aunt. These proved to be worthless, and Beauchamp soon left for the Australian goldfields. His later career seems to have been adventurous and varied enough, but, from a worldly point of view, unsuccessful; he returned to New Zealand, started business as an auctioneer (attracting customers by 'witticism and pun'), took up with gusto the early-colonial sport of politics, and was at different times store-keeper, saw-miller, and government valuer. Like so many of his generation, Arthur Beauchamp was a 'character'—vigorous, enterprising, blessed with the pioneer gift for rhyming and the power to recite Byron 'for a solid hour and a half'—but erratic and unstable. It was left for his colonial-born son, the father of Katherine Mansfield and the Stanley Burnell of her sketches, to establish himself in the country and achieve the material success which allowed him to confer on his daughters the advantages page 134of an English education. Thus the Beauchamps passed through the successive stages of New Zealand social history—from pioneering to a prosperity which made possible an ampler way of life, modelled on that of England.
After three years at a London school, Katherine Mansfield returned to New Zealand in 1906, but not, according to expectations, as a 'finished' young lady ready for the social round of New Zealand's capital. She came back unwillingly, and her adolescent years in New Zealand were dominated by the desire to flee from the provincialism of Wellington, 'Philistia itself', and return to London; 'London—it is Life' she wrote in one of her impassioned diaries, echoing a thousand young New Zealand writers. Finally, in 1909, she did return to England, from which point it is possible to trace from her published works the development of a talent that was to find its perfect material in the experiences of those early New Zealand years.
* The same kind of interest shows itself in occasional paintings by Frances Hodgkins. 'My Landlady' in the Auckland Gallery would illustrate perfectly some of the character sketches in Katherine Mansfield's Letters and Journal.
Contrasting with the slight sketches of pension life and the immature attempts at satire, there are two stories of greater substance, 'A Birthday' and 'The-Child-Who-Was-Tired'. The former, in spite of a camouflage of German names, is clearly an early attempt to handle the characters and scenes of 'Prelude' and the other New Zealand stories. Stanley Burnell appears, under the label of 'Andreas Binzer', invoking 'the government' in characteristic New Zealand terms, and moving against a background that is undisguised and unmistakable. The picture of Binzer peering with disgust into a 'gully', filled with empty tins and fennel, and, as a result, composing 'a letter to the paper', is one that fits with ease into the New Zealand landscape, though scarcely into the Bavarian. The grandmother, the wife, the servant-girl are lightly but recognisably sketched, and we are introduced to the close intimacy of the New Zealand home, with its emotional cross-currents and small page 136antagonisms. The main theme—the conflict between sensitive wife and domineering husband, so much more subtly handled in 'At the Bay'—is one that links Katherine Mansfield with the novelists of the nineties and may, in part, be derived from their pioneer or near-pioneer background.
'The-Child-Who-Was-Tired', like the later 'Life of Ma Parker' and 'Miss Brill', may also owe something to a colonial or, rather, democratic sympathy with the under-dog; an observant and sensitive child could not live through the humanitarian nineties without breathing in some of its prevailing sentiment. What is certain, however, is that the story provides the earliest evidence of Katherine Mansfield's knowledge of Tchekov. Interpreted by Miss Mantz as 'a symbol of her experience of life', 'her first effort to translate that experience into the form of art', 'The-Child-Who-Was-Tired' is, in fact, a version of Tchekov's story, 'Sleepy'. She did not again attempt so close an imitation of Tchekov, but through his example she was helped to a solution of her problems as a writer and as an individual.
The work of the next eight years of experiment, posthumously collected in Something Childish (1924), begins with a group of New Zealand stories which seem to have occupied her during the years between 1910 and 1912. Three of them, 'The Woman at the Store', 'Millie', and 'Ole Underwood' are nearer approaches to what is usually expected from the page 137colonial author than anything else she wrote. The settings are usually in the backblocks, the types portrayed are uncouth and red-blooded, and the plots are appropriately melodramatic. The men, like the 'strong' characters of many sensitive women authors (Robin Hyde provided several examples), are uncompromisingly male, the women are quite as absurdly simplified, while both sexes speak and think in a bucolic dialect that only an educated person could have conceived. This was a part of New Zealand that she was ill equipped to treat, and wisely she abandoned it to more informed writers. It is in the two remaining stories of this group, 'New Dresses' and 'The Little Girl', that she is seen approaching her true métier, the sketch of childhood and adolescence based on her own memories; these are, in fact, the main links between 'A Birthday' and 'Prelude'. In technique, in the handling of material, they mark a decided advance on the earlier work, and there is a related development in the range of her sympathies and in her knowledge of human beings: Andreas Binzer, that caricature of the domineering, egotistical male, begins to take on human form, frail though not villainous, as Stanley Burnell; the wife and the grandmother are no longer depressed drudges, but the more plausible managers and diplomats of a middle-class home. Compared with her later work, the two stories are slighter and more mechanical, while the traits of self-idealisation and self-pity page 138(assuming that Kezia and Helen are childhood portraits of the author) are far more prominent. The remaining stories of the volume (except 'Carnation' and two which were written after the publication in 1920 of Bliss) range through the Continent and the various strata of English suburbia and call for little comment: they are usually entertaining, occasionally forced, and (to adapt the editor's curious note), few would have been reprinted had the author lived.
The next published work, Prelude (1918), in which she turned again to the scene of her childhood, shows an immense advance on anything previously attempted and the perfection of a form derived in the first place from Tchekov but now finally adapted to her own needs. Behind this return are certain facts of biography that help to explain the special quality of her later stories. 'The war had come as a profound spiritual shock to her,' wrote J. Middleton Murry in the introduction to her journal (1927). 'For a long period the chaos into which her thoughts and ideals and purposes had been flung remained unresolved. Then slowly her mind began to turn back towards her early childhood as a life which had existed apart from, and uncontaminated by, the mechanical civilization which had produced the war.'
New Zealand, the idealised New Zealand of her childhood, became a refuge into which she withdrew from surroundings that, with sickness of mind and body, became more and more distasteful. With 'a page 139kind of possession', an almost religious self-dedication that distinguishes her later New Zealand stories from those written before the war, she set about re-creating in minute detail the scenes and figures of her life in Wellington. Perhaps only one of her contemporaries or a member of her family can appreciate fully the exactitude of her descriptions and the superb way in which she recalled a Wellington in the awkward stage of transition from small town to city. Its buildings, its social gatherings, its proverbial wind, its smells and sounds and personages, even its special brand of snobbery (coming oddly from the creator of Ma Parker) are evoked with a wonderful fidelity. Over all is cast the rose-coloured haze of nostalgic recollection. The settings are frequently described at dawn or dusk or bathed in moonlight, and pervading the stories is a certain languorous serenity, intensified by the leisurely movement of the descriptive passages. In keeping with the settings are the incidents—for plots, in the accepted sense, are rare. These incidents belong chiefly to the world of children, where a night voyage, a seaside holiday, the removal of a household are portentous events. And when we examine it closely, the world of adults is little more complex or disturbing. The problems are never more serious than those of a tranquil household, the feelings rarely more intense than Beryl's vague discontents or Linda's recoil from her 'Newfoundland dog'. Even in 'The Garden Party', where tragedy intrudes, it is tragedy, page 140intense but not very profound, as seen through the eyes of a young girl, bewildered by the 'diversity of life' and the necessity of fitting in everything, 'Death included', as Katherine Mansfield herself explained.
It was in handling this narrow range of experience during the last phase before her death in 1923 that Katherine Mansfield's genius finally flowered. In the dozen or so New Zealand stories of these years she wrought, as Arthur Sewell* has finely said, 'a new texture out of English words', 'she communicated a quality of emotional experience found nowhere else in literature'. She also realised the ambition, expressed in her Journal, of making 'her undiscovered country leap into the eyes of the Old World'. New Zealanders are apt to regard this as the beginning and end of Katherine Mansfield's achievement, when, in fact, the fame she won for herself and her country is the least important and perhaps the least permanent part of her contribution. She is primarily important to New Zealanders because she interpreted accurately and beautifully a segment of New Zealand life and a part of the New Zealand landscape. And to New Zealand writers she stands as an example of the self-dedication and the never-ending struggle towards personal integrity without which literature, in the highest sense, is impossible.
Some of the disadvantages of New Zealand's native hemisphere in this period may be illustrated from the work of two women writers who employed the same medium as Katherine Mansfield and who, at least in potentialities, were not immeasurably inferior to the author of In a German Pension. Alice T. Webb, the less sophisticated of the two, does not seem to have moved far beyond the confines of the rural and smalltown life which she describes in a handful of sketches, Miss Peter's Special (1926), and while the limitations of such an environment are apparent in the book, they have provided the right conditions for the expression of a slender though admirable talent. The writer's materials are the scenes, manners, social recreations, and figures of a peaceful community, described with humour but without sentimentality. The writer herself is too much a part of that life to sentimentalise it, and yet she is sufficiently 'emerged' to penetrate it accurately and sometimes profoundly. B. E. Baughan, the second of these two foils, is a writer of wider interests and experience, capable of commenting: 'Art comes at all times scantily to the back-blocks; and with what hope can Literature appeal to brains exhausted already by the exhaustion of the body? While, on the other hand, what have we in the place of these to exercise our higher faculties, and so give us, in addition to material existence, life?' This quotation from a book of rural sketches, Brown Bread from a Colonial Oven (1912), indicates both the writer's page 142strength and her weakness. The collection lacks those unpremeditated qualities which have passed into Miss Webb's sketches, and there is a tendency to idyllicise and to moralise rather than to interpret. But Brown Bread also shows, as does Miss Baughan's verse, evidence of a mind uniquely aware at this time of significant New Zealand themes and of related technical problems. She experiments in 'Grandmother Speaks' with the colloquial sketch (a form later to be used more successfully by Frank Sargeson), she treats the situation of the déraciné with sympathetic understanding, and draws an interesting if slightly sentimental portrait of a 'civilised' Maori. But the book remains, like Miss Peter's Special, a series of exercises never followed up by more mature work; and this is the chief point of the comparison with Katherine Mansfield: that these two women, living and writing in New Zealand, were without the stimulus, the critical guidance, and the material advantages which enabled the callow apprentice of In a German Pension to develop into the author of Prelude. Along with many other first and last publications belonging to this period, these two books are evidence of the lack in New Zealand of all but the minimum conditions necessary for the creation of literature.
To persist as a writer in the face of discouragement or, worse, indifference required the unusual strength of character and tenacity of purpose of William Satchell, the only important novelist of the years page 143immediately before 1914. In his best novel, The Toll of the Bush (1905), and to a smaller extent in The Land of the Lost (1902) Satchell reveals himself as a very minor Thomas Hardy—his Wessex the north of Auckland, his people the settlers and wanderers of that district, urged on by a destiny resembling Thomas Hardy's 'President of the Immortals', though less inexorably tragic in its dispensations. 'The order of things is not changed in deference to human desire', says Mrs Gird in The Toll of the Bush. 'In the end we have to make up our minds to the inevitable.' Like Hardy, Satchell was hampered by adherence to the conventions of nineteenth-century fiction, with its lining-up of 'good' and 'bad' characters and its reliance on coincidence, undelivered letters, and similar expedients, while his extensive use of the remittance man motif points back to a type of New Zealand novel which seemed to have died out in the nineties.
Satchell's strength is not in his plots nor, for the most part, in his principal characters, but in his varied and authentically drawn minor personages and in his power of conveying the atmosphere of what is at once the most tropical and the most desolate part of New Zealand. For perhaps the first time in New Zealand fiction a setting is not described as for an outside audience or smeared on in daubs of local colour, but subtly informs the book, influencing the nature of the protagonists and their actions. Pervading page 144the two novels is a sense of vast natural forces which lends dignity to the efforts of man and at the same time places them in their perspective. It is one of Satchell's achievements that he suggests this background while he does justice to the complex and sometimes very commonplace human scene. The heroes and the villains are drawn much according to an established formula, but there are many intermediate types, ranging from Andersen, the drunken weakling of The Toll of the Bush, to Hamilton, the mellow if occasionally irascible doctor in The Land of the Lost. In the interstices of the novels are packed many fragments of backblocks life, the product, like the minor characters, of a shrewd eye and a quick heart.
The wider setting of the next novel, The Elixir of Life (1907), gave less scope for Satchell's talents. Then, after an interval of seven years, came his best-known work, The Greenstone Door (1914), a carefully written historical novel set in the period between the eighteen-thirties and the close of the Maori wars. Satchell had obviously gone to great pains to reconstruct the life of this time, and both his descriptions of ancient Maori customs and his portraits of historical figures (including one, highly idealised, of Sir George Grey), can be read with interest and some profit. As a novel, however, the book fails. Too much is described and explained, not enough presented through the interplay of characters and the development of action. The characters themselves are too wooden to carry much page 145conviction, the plot is more improbable and melodramatic than usual, and the Maoris do not rise far above the level of those in the novels of Wilson and White. Satchell is not successful in the presentation of Maoris even in his earlier work, where they are usually introduced to provide comic relief. Indeed, the only imaginative writer of this period who did anything like justice to the Maoris was William Baucke. In a collection of sketches, Where the White Man Treads (1905) he sets down, in rapid exuberant prose, sketches of Maoris met casually on expeditions, legends gathered at the hearth-side, debates, gossip, penetrating character studies, comparisons between the old Maori and his degenerate successors. To all this he adds his own incisive commentary and settles moral issues with all the expedition and finality of a backblocks philosopher. Elsewhere, with only rare exceptions, the Maori emerged in crude outline as an inferior version of Fenimore Cooper's Red Indian or as a peg on which to hang some mildly salacious sermon on the half-caste problem. New Zealand society at this time was unable to focus itself; much less could it define and express its attitude towards a native race; and outside the work of anthropologists and the records of the Polynesian Society it was usually the fate of the Maoris to be exploited or sentimentalised.
Satchell's work came to an abrupt close with the outbreak of war, but in the early post-war years the page 146north of Auckland again formed the scene of a group of novels by a writer of some distinction, Jane Mander. The Story of a New Zealand River (1920) and its successors are not so much a continuation of Satchell's early work as a treatment of the same life on gum-fields and in timber settlements from a feminine point of view which brought with it interests and preoccupations linking Jane Mander with Edith Searle Grossman and, more tenuously, with Katherine Mansfield. The first novel (probably, as the title suggests, written in the shadow of Olive Schreiner's Story of an African Farm), has as its principal theme the gradual development of an Englishwoman who marries a colonial and makes her home in an isolated settlement in the Kaipara district. The delicately nurtured Alice Roland (who, as her daughter Asia remarks, 'loves everything that comes from England') is ill-equipped for such a life, and her situation is not improved by the complete lack of sympathy between herself and her able but uncouth husband, 'the boss'. She finds relief and guidance from three sources: from her neighbour, Mrs Brayton, who has established a corner of England in the wilds of Kaipara; more dangerously, from her husband's foreman, an English remittance man doctor; and from Asia, who represents the emancipated generation brought up in colonial surroundings and with the benefit of George Bernard Shaw's teachings. Finally page 147a solution and a happy ending are found (a little crudely) in the boss's heroic death.
The defects of the book are an excessive emotionalism, which sometimes brings it down to the level of a novelette, and the occasional falsity of the plot. Superior in these respects is Allen Adair (1925) in which the situation is more convincing because it is more banal and at the same time more serious. The central figure of this novel is the son of middle-class parents, who, thinking to establish him in life, determine, in spite of his opposition, to send him to Oxford: 'A son at Oxford. Quite exciting. And they were much annoyed when Allen shrank from the prospect.… Not want to go to Oxford!' The Oxford experiment fails, and Allen finds himself only when he returns to New Zealand and, to his family's chagrin, settles down as a storekeeper on the gumfields. The struggle between middle-class ambition and his own desire for a life of placid mediocrity reaches a more acute stage when his city-born wife, a devoted mother and an efficient housekeeper but vain and thoroughly material in her outlook, urges him to return to the city. There is no 'happy ending' to this book which closes on the more plausible note of stalemate and partial compromise.
Besides the interest they have in the exploration of the problems of pre-war and post-war society, Jane Mander's novels have what may be termed a 'documentary' value. Each one is built up round some page 148occupation or industry: the scene of the New Zealand River is a timber-milling settlement; the heroine of The Passionate Puritan (1922) is a country schoolteacher; small-town journalism and politics form the background of The Strange Attraction (1923), store-keeping and gum-digging of Allen Adair. In thus bringing New Zealand fiction into closer touch with the social environment she not only made a positive contribution but cleared the way for several writers of the nine teen-thirties. Credit is also due to her for introducing a freer and healthier tone into New Zealand letters. As Jean Devanny was to do in a more lurid way, Jane Mander broke many of the taboos which had been too studiously observed by New Zealand writers, though not by New Zealand society. For her temerity she was the object of hostile criticism which, it is said, ended her career as a New Zealand novelist. This was the more regrettable because in all four of her New Zealand novels, and particularly in the first and the last, there are clear signs of that 'something fresh and sturdy' which, in the course of a rather grudging review, Katherine Mansfield discerned 'under all the false wrappings' of the New Zealand River.
Again the stress falls, as so often in this period, on the limitations of the New Zealand environment. But while imaginative writers were succumbing to indifference or to hostile criticism, a distinctive literature, the work of New Zealand-born writers and page 149chiefly historical and anthropological in substance, was assuming impressive proportions. In the nineties, it has already been seen, there was evidence of a growing interest in New Zealand's past, stimulated, in some degree, by colonial and provincial jubilees. A further incentive was the realisation that both Maoris and Europeans of the older generation were dying out and with them oral records of the past. The foundations of a local scholarship owed little to the University of New Zealand, but were due chiefly to the efforts of disinterested men, usually self-trained and often hampered by lack of means and the most elementary facilities for research. It is a scholarship which inevitably reflects these circumstances: it sometimes leans too heavily on the oral reminiscence and may, on occasion, exasperate through its blithe disregard of source and reference; on the other hand, it has the colour and concreteness gained from direct contact with repositories of history, while it shows the zest of work undertaken not for gain nor as academic labour but from deep-rooted, even passionate, interest in the past. It is impossible to review here the voluminous writings of S. Percy Smith, Elsdon Best, T. Lindsay Buick, and their associates and successors, but the interests of this group, as well as scientific interests of much earlier origin, were to unite in one work of the period, Tutira (1921).*
* A second edition was published in 1926 and a third was in the press when the author died in 1940.
Tutira was entitled 'The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station'. Such is the originality of its conception, such the nature of its implications, that it forms, in little, 'The Story of New Zealand'.
In the light of theorisings about a 'native' culture it is a little curious to reflect on the circumstances in which appeared New Zealand's most distinctive work of literature up to that time. Contrary to the assumptions of prophets in the nineties, Tutira owed nothing to a deliberately national movement; its author worked in virtual isolation, and although he was clearly not independent of contemporary influences, they reached him, as it were, 'subcutaneously'. Nor was Tutira an 'imaginative' work, enriched though it is by qualities which both poets and novelists might well envy. Finally, its author was not, in the strictest sense, a New Zealander—thereby, perhaps, escaping the worst effects of a 'mother fixation' which seemed to assume its most virulent form in native-born New Zealanders. H. Guthrie-Smith was born in Scotland, received his formal education at Rugby, and came to New Zealand in the early eighties. After gaining some experience as a cadet in Canterbury, he took up a derelict sheep run in northern Hawke's Bay. This run, Tutira, remained his home for the rest of his long life and formed the subject of his first and greatest book.
As originally planned, Tutira was to have described only the natural history of the run. Later, to the great good fortune of his readers, Guthrie-Smith extended page 151its scope to include 'chapters on physiography, native life, pioneer work, and surface alterations'. Thus Tutira goes far beyond White's Natural History of Selborne and traces the history of a fragment of New Zealand from the hypothetical era of its immersion in the sea until the time when it was occupied and precariously subdued by European man. Most of the book is taken up with that relatively brief moment of time since the arrival of man, but the early chapters, with their account of the geology, physical features, climate, and general configuration of the Tutira area, are interesting in themselves and intimately connected with what follows. As the author remarks of two intimidating pages of tabulated returns: 'These details of rainfall have been given not merely as meteorological data of an impersonal sort; the climate of Tutira has deeply affected the fortunes of the station.… excessive rainfall has been the bane of the place, retarding its development by years.' To which is attached one of Guthrie-Smith's characteristic footnotes, compressing in a couple of sentences the ethos of the New Zealand farming community: 'One observer whose case I recall was requested by neighbours to cease to forward his returns. "Science may be right enough, perhaps, in the proper place," they declared, "but he was ruining the district and hampering settlement with his blessed rainfalls."'
The Maori section, corresponding to White's Antiquities, reconstructs the period of native occupation page 152with the patience, the assiduous attention to detail, and the comprehending imagination that characterise the book. Though he would not have claimed to be more than an amateur of anthropology, Guthrie-Smith made positive contributions both to anthropological technique and, in a smaller way, to Maori lore. His narrowly local method was the perfect one for the study of a people who, in their primitive state, were not a nation but a number of tribes and sub-tribes confined, for the most part, to limited areas. No other writer, except Elsdon Best, brings out so well and so concretely the organic nature of Maori culture—the close connection between locality, occupation, climate on the one hand and tradition, poem, and folk-tale on the other.
When man enters for the second time, the longest and most interesting part of the book begins, the account of the acclimatisation of Europeans on Tutira—European man and the birds, animals, insects, plants that followed in his wake or preceded him. Man, the author explains in his preface, is to be treated as 'a beast of the field': 'The early failure of homo sapiens on Tutira, his ultimate acclimatisation, has been noted, as far as may be, in terms of the weasel or the rabbit.' The qualification is necessary, for the adaptation of man proves to be a long and complex process; it involves the acquisition of business experience, the ability to handle a tribe of Maori landlords, and sufficient shrewdness to circumvent page 153sinister loan-sharks in the town near by; more important, it means the attainment of an intimate knowledge of the run—its soil, its climate, its bearing capacity, its suitability for this or that breed of sheep. Guthrie-Smith comments on the failure of the first owners: 'The truth is, that from the beginning these pioneers were doomed—they were predestined—to failure. Conditions in the interior were in those days quite unknown; knowledge of local conditions—the most important knowledge of all—had to be purchased.'
In his descriptions of the New Zealand bush the author has already shown himself to be something of a poet. Signs of the latent novelist now appear. Despite the professed aim of studying homo sapiens in terms of the weasel or the rabbit, the story of early failures and ultimate success on Tutira is told with humour, understanding, and imagination. For example, Guthrie-Smith sees behind the rough jottings of a farm diary a picture of 'smoky huts lit by candles guttering in the draughts, the writer, with hard hands and broken nails, rising from time to time to turn the frizzling chops, to prong the simmering joint, or to pile fresh embers on the lid of the camp oven.' The same power of discerning the manifold associations which surround an object is again seen when Guthrie-Smith turns to consider the aliens of Tutira, the plants and animals brought to the station deliberately or by chance. A clump of mint on the page 154site of a deserted pa, an aged grove of peaches, a patch of ryegrass—these and other 'children of the church' are traced back (here with the addition of an anecdote, there with a vividly described scene) to the Bay of Islands, whence they were dispensed by missionaries, neophytes, and scholars. The progress of the blackberry, 'that fatal and perfidious plant', is reconstructed as a master-detective might some ramifying conspiracy. And so, with the method and the emotions appropriate to each, Guthrie-Smith treats the many aliens with which man in his wisdom and his ignorance has planted a hitherto virgin tract.
When European settlement of New Zealand was beginning on a large scale, Dieffenbach had reflected: 'What a chain of alterations … takes place from the introduction of a single animal into a country where it was before unknown!' It was New Zealand's good fortune that one of her later colonists was superbly equipped to observe and record this basic phenomenon—basic because it is, in essence, the phenomenon of colonisation itself. For some forty years Guthrie-Smith noted the results of each fresh impact on his chosen area and the gradual, never-completed process of adaptation which followed. As he well knew, it was a process to which man was subject no less than the rest of nature, and Guthrie-Smith no less than other men. Not the least interesting theme of Tutira is the transformation of the young Scot who originally took up land hoping that it would 'provide after page 155a few seasons easy enlargement of … minds and fortunes, endless rivers, moors, and forests in Scotland.' The change of outlook is made explicit in Guthrie-Smith's tribute to 'his dear adopted land' on the last page of Tutira; it is implicit in the whole book. The exile had become a New Zealander—a New Zealander in accord, as few have been, with his country in all its diversity of land and water, plant-life and animal-life, nature and man.
In the course of time Tutira did provide some enlargement of fortune, a considerable part of which Guthrie-Smith devoted to a more extensive study of nature (particularly bird life) than was possible within the confines of Tutira. The results of these excursions to many districts of New Zealand and to some of its outlying islands were published in a series of books which closed in 1936 with Sorrows and Joys of a New Zealand Naturalist. Though they cannot compare with Tutira in breadth of scope and originality of conception, these pleasantly discursive volumes add not only to the knowledge of New Zealand nature but to the portrait of Guthrie-Smith. Increasingly with the years he indulged a reflective bent—part serious, part dryly humorous—already manifest in Tutira, but expressed in fuller terms in the masterly opening chapters of the Sorrows and Joys. There he looked back, as a naturalist, on the history of New Zealand from the time when, in 'the landing of Cook, nay in the momentary glimpse by Tasman of that "large high lieing land"', page 156came 'the seeds of death' to this country. Reproaching himself for his share in the 'ravishment of the Dominion' he concludes: 'Only that it is impossible for any individual to withstand the stream of tendency, to divaricate from lines aeons ago laid down must be the writer's partial exoneration.' So Guthrie-Smith called the shades of determinism to his aid. Seeking some further atonement for its crimes, European civilisation in New Zealand might point to a few of its finer products, among them the works of Guthrie-Smith himself.
The basic cleavage in New Zealand life during these years shows itself again both in painting and in poetry. As early as 1886 pupils of the Dunedin School of Art had left for London 'to complete their studies', and at the beginning of the nineties, reported a writer in the New Zealand Illustrated, three New Zealanders were among the students at Julian's Academy in Paris. For the next forty years pupils from the local schools of art continued to go overseas in a steady stream, to which the war of 1914-18 added a small tributary. Usually, after gaining experience abroad, the artists returned, and New Zealand art during this period was dominated by a group of men and women who had studied in the art centres and galleries of Europe. Occasionally a painter, like Sydney L. Thompson, divided his allegiance between the two hemispheres, page 157while a few, of whom the most notable are Frances Hodgkins and David Low, established themselves permanently abroad.
Returning with improved technical equipment and the cachet of Paris or London or Edinburgh, the artists found conditions more hospitable and at the same time perhaps more restrictive than those which had existed in any earlier phase of New Zealand history. Teaching provided a modest but assured living for some, and patronage came from galleries, now attracting occasional endowments, from an increasing class of 'art lovers', and from those men of substance who wished to adorn their homes and to perpetuate their families within the limits of accepted taste. The years between 1900 and 1930 are, in New Zealand art, the period of the studio and its two characteristic products, the portrait and the still life.
Portrait-painting in New Zealand, no less than portrait-painting elsewhere, has its peculiar dangers and limitations; many of the canvases hanging on the walls of New Zealand homes and galleries cannot be regarded as more than tributes to civic virtue or expressions of domestic affection and very human personal vanities. In spite of the restrictions imposed by public and private commissions there is, however, a residuum of portraits which, through their revelation of character and their more formal qualities, justify the continuance of portraiture in an age of photography. One may cite, for instance, the work page 158of two Christchurch artists, A. Elizabeth Kelly and Archibald F. Nicoll. The more mature portraits which have brought Mrs Kelly recognition beyond New Zealand are not in public collections, where she is represented as the portrayer of youth. The National Gallery's 'May' and 'Youth' in the McDougall Gallery are incarnations, in another less complex medium, of the eager young womanhood so often found in Katherine Mansfield. On the other hand, 'Lady Stout' and 'G. Harper, Esq.', in Wellington and Christchurch respectively, suggest that Nicoll is at his best in treating old age. These two contrasting studies, handled with penetration and great technical skill, go beyond the mere individuals to suggest, as good portraits often do, the circumstances and the people who have helped to shape those individuals.
C. F. Goldie: The Widow (1912)
Maori Woman And Child (1901)
One of the results of overseas training, a rise in the level of purely technical competence, is seen in the still-life work of such painters as D. K. Richmond and M. O. Stoddart. The lustrous zinnias of Miss Richmond and Miss Stoddart's roses have become part of the tradition of New Zealand painting, as representative of the taste and achievement of their time as Gully's landscapes are of his. To make a broad generalisation, less true of Miss Richmond than of Miss Stoddart and most of her contemporaries, painters at this time selected a narrow range of subjects to which they returned in painting after painting. They were less catholic than their immediate predecessors, selected rather less ambitious subjects, and concentrated on solving technical problems raised within the chosen bounds. This applies to landscape as well as to still life and portraiture. Thus Nicoll, as a landscape painter, is associated with page 160autumnal settings in which haystacks usually have a prominent place, Nugent Welch with scenes of cliff and sea and an amplitude of sky, Sydney Thompson with the life on farms and quay-sides, conveying an aroma of Concarneau and Brittany even when the locality is New Zealand.
In the most distinctively New Zealand work of the period, the numerous paintings of mountain scenes, a similar contraction in scope and a similar stress on craftsmanship are noticeable. Artists rarely attempted the comprehensive panoramas of an earlier day, preferring to treat the selected scene at close quarters, each artist in his own manner. A. E. Baxter's 'Mount Eliott and Jervois Glacier' (McDougall Gallery) and Cecil F. Kelly's 'Mount Cook' (National Gallery) both show vigorous handling and a cleanness of line. But no other artist succeeded so well in painting New Zealand mountain and bush as Alfred W. Walsh, who, alone among the leading artists of these years, had no experience abroad. Like Buchanan before him, he was by training a draughtsman, and by assiduous study of nature, with perhaps some help from the work of W. M. Hodgkins, he achieved over the New Zealand landscape a mastery which is only imperfectly shown by the McDougall Gallery's 'In the Otira'—for the best work of this truly indigenous painter is in private hands. The achievement of Walsh raises a question fundamental in a consideration of this period. It may be doubted whether the stimulus page 161of Paris or a training at the Slade were indispensable prerequisites to a career in New Zealand art. Sometimes, it is evident, they led to a confusion of aims and an evaporation of self-confidence such as Henry James observed in Americans who had crossed the Atlantic to learn from the old masters. Both human nature and art are full of complexities, and there can be no one answer to this question, no all-embracing generalisation; but the example of Walsh does make it possible to say that a talent such as his, drawing its strength from familiar surroundings, could reach maturity in New Zealand, and would, almost certainly, have suffered fatally by transplantation.
The same general problem is raised by the poetry of these years, though more indirectly and in a more acute form. Few New Zealand poets were in a position to embark on the voyage 'Home', still fewer emigrated permanently, but all—or nearly all—were in one degree or another spiritual exiles. Not infrequently they indulged in nostalgic dreams of the old world. They found it more natural to use the traditional language of English poets than the very different idiom of their own country. The swallow and the nightingale came to their minds almost as readily as the fantail and the tui—and the tui was sometimes no more than a nightingale in New Zealand garb. Physically they remained in New Zealand; as poets they dwelt twelve thousand miles away. The reasons for the poetic malaise of the page 162nineteen-hundreds and nineteen-twenties are not far to seek. As the most delicately constituted members of the community, poets were more sensitive than others to the dominant emotion of their time, an emotion that was strengthened by their almost complete dependence on English literature. For the dangers inherent in New Zealand's colonial status were most noticeable in the very period when the country became a Dominion and acquired an indeterminate measure of nationhood. That the Bowens and Dometts should read and write as Englishmen was natural, indeed inevitable; though they had set up homes in the antipodes they were, after all, still Englishmen. For New Zealanders, sometimes of the second colonial generation, to visit in their literary excursions solely a region of scenes, images, and ideas not merely foreign to them but, in some respects, contrary to the facts of their experience—this was different and more dangerous. The most serious effect was not, however, the occasional confusion of seasons in the minds of young readers but the creation of an abstract, idealised, often sentimentalised 'literary' world, remote from both poles of reality, the English writer's and the colonial reader's. This was the imaginative world of all but a few of New Zealand's versifiers and poets in the years under review.
It was symptomatic of the times that poetry tended, after the nineties, to become increasingly 'private'.page 163
The work of Jessie Mackay and Pember Reeves had its limitations, but much of it did at least spring from interests shared by all New Zealanders. Their successors, quite comprehensibly, found little to inspire them in the spectacle of New Zealand's increasing prosperity. So they turned either to the trite exaltation of natural beauty or inward to the examination of feelings which, in the absence of literary distinction, could have little more than a personal reference. Thus New Zealand poetry retired into the isolation it had known in the years of 'opening up'. But the robust self-assurance of Domett and his fellow-writers had vanished. The poetic flood now dried up to a thin trickle of lyric verse, sonnets, triolets indicative of a final stage in the exhaustion of the Romantic tradition. When an external influence made itself felt, it was in the pre-war years the degenerate classicism of trans-Tasman Bohemians and later the work of Rupert Brooke, not without its virtues in expressing a phase of early-Georgian England, but wholly disastrous to its colonial imitators.
That the poets were wholly sincere and wholly disinterested there can be no question. The returns from their labour were too meagre for any other conclusion to be possible. It is also quite clear that this view of the poetic landscape is true only in its general outlines; apt turns of phrase, flashes of wit and imagination, a few wholly satisfying poems modify the picture of unrelieved mediocrity. And even in the page 164pre-war years, notably in two collections of verse by B. E. Baughan, there are signs of fresh life and experiment. The use in Reuben (1903) of a colloquial ballad form, borrowed from Australia, showed a desire to break with the prevailing conventions, and in Shingle Short (1908) Miss Baughan came to grips with local material in several interesting experiments. The title-piece is a lengthy rhymed monologue, written in a hybrid dialect of New Zealand rural slang and literary Australianese, and placed in the mouth of a half-wit:
'Thank God for this ungodly rain!
Paddock's a puddle, creek's in flood,
Road's like a river mix'd up rich—
Pea-soup, treacle, pudd'n an' sich—
Reggular marmalade o' mud.'
It is obvious that this is too deliberately colloquial, too consciously masculine, and sustained through some thirty pages and combined with pseudo-philosophical trimmings, it becomes extremely monotonous. It is, however, of great interest as an early attempt at stylisation in terms of New Zealand rural idiom and domestic imagery. The same originality is shown in several other poems of the collection and even where the form is traditional a shoot of new life may be seen breaking through the old integument. Something similar might be said of Whitman's early work, and Whitmanesque (though not derivatively so) is the closing invocation of 'Maui's Fish'.page 165
'Alive! Yea, Te Ika—
Of the Bone of the Past, of the Blood of the Present,
Here, at the end of the earth, in the first of the Future,
Thou standest, courageous and youthful, a country to come!'
This frontal attack on the special problems of New Zealand verse cannot be paralleled among native New Zealanders—for Miss Baughan, like Guthrie-Smith, had the advantages of birth and education in Great Britain. England was to her a reality, not a dominating abstraction, and her boldness stands in marked contrast with the conservatism of the two New Zealand-born successors of Reeves and Jessie Mackay.
The affinity between Reeves and Alan Mulgan is shown in their strikingly similar 'The Passing of the Forest' and 'Dead Timber', more indirectly in the younger writer's occasional handling of genuinely apprehended local themes. For example, 'Soldier Settlement' is inspired by a social conscience more in evidence in the nineties than in the easy-going years that followed:
'Haggard he looks about his world—
The leaning shack, the broken fence,
The little flag of green unfurled
Before the forest's walled defence'.
The theme of these verses, like that of Golden Wedding (1932), a pleasant descriptive poem in rhymed couplets, is indigenous enough, but in both cases one feels that the form is not well chosen and, moreover, not thoroughly acclimatised. A pervading unsureness page 166of touch and lapses into self-conscious magniloquence betray the writer's loose control of his medium and, perhaps, his inhibiting sense of the prestige of English literature.
Eileen Duggan, the poetical heir of Jessie Mackay and the most promising talent to appear in the immediate post-war years, seems also to have suffered from a feeling of New Zealand's insignificance and remoteness. 'New Zealand Art' in Poems (1937) begins:
'We are the wheat self-sown
Beyond the hem of the paddock,
Banned by wind from the furrows,
Lonely of root and head'.
'a restless, daring child
That thirsts to drink up life and scale the stars;
Her parted lips and wondering eyelids chide
The world's gnarled wisdom and its mystery.'
Several poems in this first collection gave some justification for Jessie Mackay's hope (typically self-effacing) that Eileen Duggan and Robin Hyde might between them 'lay the foundation of a New Zealand literature.' The sensitive young poet revealed in the collection did, in fact, share a great deal in common with Jessie Mackay—a hatred of tyranny, sympathy with the weak and the oppressed, and devout religious feelings that corresponded to the more diffused humanitarianism of Jessie Mackay. Ireland and Irish page 167legend had the place in her work held by the Scottish element in Jessie Mackay's, while an interesting use was made, often in a religious context, of New Zealand words and imagery.
Eileen Duggan's later work has shown continuous development, though in some respects the early promise has scarcely been fulfilled. With a loss in vigour, there has been a progressive refinement of sensibility, seen in the felicity of
'The tussocks were brittling from dew into frost'
'The great Pacific salt so steeps our air
That noon-tide burns it to a driftwood blue.'
But her sensibility is one that is expressed more often in single lines and phrases than throughout whole poems, and she is sometimes unable to discriminate between the apt image and the forced conceit. Like some of the New Zealand birds, about which she has written with such charm, she has a lyrical gift capable of short flights and, on occasion, falling abruptly from the note of music to the unintended discord.
As a 'national' poet in the sense probably intended by Jessie Mackay, Eileen Duggan has gone farther than any other writer of recent times in drawing on Maori words and mythology and the personages and events of New Zealand history. This element of her work is most fully developed in New Zealand Poems (1940) which opens with a 'Centenary Ode', essaying the difficult task of celebrating New Zealand's history page 168from the time of Kupe. There is scholarship in the ode and a profound, almost mystic feeling for New Zealand, expressed more eloquently elsewhere in the volume in 'The Charting'. The conclusion, however, is inescapable: Eileen Duggan's work is not a beginning but a refined and beautiful close to a long chapter in the history of New Zealand writing. In her own delicate fashion and adding her own unique contribution, she has summed up the achievement of a line of New Zealand poets. New Zealand Poems fitly consummates the desire for a 'national literature' seen in Jessie Mackay and even before her. As a possible point of departure for the future it cannot, however, compare with several other publications of New Zealand's centennial year.