The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Light Romances—Exploiting. Third in order of dates in the record of our novels, after Taranaki and Distant Homes, is Lady Campbell's Martin Tobin, 1864. This is a three-volume concoction by a woman whose New Zealand material seems to have come largely from current books. Martin is an emigrant hero, whose lovelife is very complicated, involving an abandoned English sweetheart, a native "wife", and a virtuous high-born maiden, Lucy; he marries Lucy who subsequently kills herself melodramatically upon the grave of her infant son. In the end Martin sails back to England, having met Bishop Hadfield, Sir George Grey, Te Rauparaha and other notables, and taken part in Heke's rebellion. Martin Tobin is a good example of the feminine "exploiting" novel, with a wildly improbable plot and a romantic colonial setting in which, so the authoress supposes, anything may happen.
The next of the women, Charlotte Evans, is, like Major Stoney and Lady Campbell, an exploiter rather than a recorder. She may be said to be the founder of our long line of light love stories. Both her novels, A Strange Friendship and Over the Hills and Far Away, were written as magazine serials, appearing in book form in 1874. They turn on ripe plots, modelled on the worst love mysteries of the English circulating library stock. In A Strange Friendship, Madelaine Ainsleigh, who has emigrated with her brother Alan, turns page 16 out to be no girl at all, but Alan's wicked half-brother Richard. When alongside them somewhere in the wilds of Canterbury settle Dolly and Violet Somerset and their brother Harry, the plot thickens fast. Richard reveals his identity and makes off with Violet. Dolly, in consequence of this, spurns Alan, and Harry loses his money. Then Violet returns to a repentant deathbed, Richard is swept away in a flood on the way to her bedside, equally repentant, and Dolly is left to marry Alan, now the wealthy Sir Alan, a "Carewe of Curtis Knowle". The story is told in turn by different tellers, with liberal doses of the "had I but known . . ." type of suspense. It is obviously a woman's book, with its talk of baby lore, of maids at £30 a year, and its strong (and very silent) men. The love passages must have been quite moving for the times; here is a sample:
"I felt his heavy moustache on my cheek for a moment, then I pushed him away and rose slowly to my feet. I was trembling violently. . . ."
It is only by courtesy of their settings that these can be said to be New Zealand novels. The characters remain nostalgically English, stubbornly elegant and cultivated. They take champagne and turkey for the simple bush picnic, and display on their drawing room shelves, "Kingsley in blue, Macaulay in brown, Thackeray and Dickens in red, and a complete set of the Cornhill Magazine in handsome bindings". The Canterbury scene and life are only incidental; there are some horses, dogs, sheep, paddocks, but the core of the book is sentimentalised personal relationships from the woman's viewpoint, a world into which men enter only as attractive lovers, irritable brothers, or incomprehensible fathers.
The light love story, like the Maorified romance, began early and continues yet. Many New Zealand women write novels at this level, as Maud Diver did for India, Louise Jordan Milne for China. In the 1890s Louisa Baker, who wrote as "Alien", scored up some dozen with titles such as In Golden Shackles, 1897, Wheat in the Ear, 1898, The Perfect Union, 1908, and An Unread Letter, 1909. These have some merit in their kind. The local colour, though a little thick, is well selected, and the stories are refreshingly unselfconscious. Louisa Baker accepts our scene as normal. We are not those distant islanders to her. But there is no character drawing, the New Zealand material is purely external, and the plots are rich in love, gold, piety, violent death (flooded rivers were a boon to the early novelist stuck for a finale), scenic beauty, and Wordsworthian musings. Only the morality redeems these entertainments. They are earnest, feminist, and religious, in spite of a mildly erotic flavour.
More recent writers who have continued the genre have moved with the times in matters of dress, manners, floods, goldfields, tohungas, and the like, but the pattern has remained the same, with its emphasis on the emotional drama swirling about a heroine with whom page 17 the reader is asked to identify herself; probability is sacrificed to plot, and the New Zealand setting is exploited rather than interpreted. At the poorest level the result is as laughable as Charlotte Evans's efforts in 1874. In one recent example of the type, a Maori chief dying in a modern city hospital is restored to life by hearing a golden-throated young Pakeha nurse singing like a bush tui! In more skilful hands, the light romance often has distinct topical interest, but it can seldom survive the passage of time, for its initial assumptions are purely conventional, and date disastrously. Today Louisa Baker can be read only as a historical specimen.