The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Women's Rights. The Utopian visionaries were mostly men. In propaganda for the feminist case, however, it is the women who are to the fore. Louisa Baker has already been noted. Her particular mixture of religious appeal, sex appeal, and championship of women's rights made her one of the popular novelists of her time; her novels even went into American editions. Typical is A Daughter of the King, 1894, set in Canterbury, with chapter headings out of Bunyan, several sickbeds, and a clergyman's unsuccessful marriage ; the climax is the emancipation of the martyred wife who takes to the violin, makes for Melbourne, and ends up resigned to God's will. Independence, writes Louisa Baker, is the "great hunger of the common sisterhood". Women have slowly begun to see "that man— chivalric, deferential, and passionate, or uncouth and uncultured the same—in loving . . . too often is loving self." She sees the women of her time as "in the agonies of the birth pains ... of a larger, broader, purer love, that will triumph over minds illuminated with truth". Local reviewers spoke of Louisa Baker's novels as evil and decadent, but everybody seems to have read them. Constance Clyde's A Pagan's Love, 1905, also pleads for women's independence.
The position of women was a problem occupying the colonial woman even more than her counterpart then campaigning at page 29 Home. In this field, Edith Searle Grossmann is outstanding; she has the idealism and courage of the true pioneers, with notions more advanced than most New Zealand women today would hold. She advocated total equality of economic opportunity, political rights, and social recognition ; she asked for a woman's right to satisfactions in marriage equal to those of the male partner, and for honesty in the relationship of sex. At first her tales were narrow crusading affairs, such as Angela, a Messenger, 1890, set in the Wairarapa. In Revolt, 1893, and its sequel A Knight of the Holy Ghost, 1907, are Australian studies of the feminine idealist dragged down by an evil husband. Hermione Howard wants to learn Latin, and to teach, but are such pleasures womanly? Do "women's rights" include the right to study and to read great literature as well as to bear children and do the household chores?
Hermione marries her wealthy grazier, and finds out. There are swearing, drinking, brutality to man and beast, infidelity, all the horrors. Hermione is caught hard and fast in the matrimonial trap. Several children are born, and then, when she is still only nineteen, Hermione defies her husband Bradley Carlisle in order to give evidence against another wicked husband, this time a wife-murderer. Bradley thereupon beats her up, and causes the death of her little son. She runs away to the wilds, almost out of her mind, while he sinks into drunken delirium. In the sequel, written fourteen years later, Hermione not unexpectedly leads a crusade for women's rights. Bradley, however, with the sanction of society, drags her through the martyrdom of the divorce court, after which she goes forth heroically to die.
The crude exaggeration of this puts it out of court as a serious achievement; nevertheless, Edith Grossmann is dealing with real issues and trying to interpret them, as well as to preach tolerance and independence. There is plenty of evidence in letters and diaries about the moral and intellectual problems which were faced by pioneer women who wished to do more in the world than cook and breed.
Edith Grossmann came nearest to success in her last novel, The Heart of the Bush, 1910. The setting this time is South Canterbury. Adelaide Borlase returns from an expensive English education. Will she marry the bronzed but uncultured colonial, or the too-polished Englishman? Here is dramatised the conflict "Between Two Hemispheres" which was to be acted out in life by so many New Zealanders, from Katherine Mansfield to Robin Hyde. Edith Grossmann gives a crisp amusing picture of Adelaide's struggles to find herself, to know what she really is. Her decision is taken in terms of marriage, when she plumps for Dennis, the New Zealand rough diamond, accepting along with him the diminished prospects of the struggling small farmer. "How will it all turn out," asks the author, "the marriage of the leisured and the labouring class, of art and nature, of civilisation page 30 and barbarism?" Adelaide's father warns her—"You don't know what you are going into—a struggle for years, ... a lonely life on this bush farm . . . work all the year round . . . wait till the children come!" Further problems of adjustment, personal and patriotic, develop. Dennis, attempting to compensate his wife for what she has missed, drives on to success in business schemes of refrigeration. His visits to Dunedin grow more prolonged and Adelaide is increasingly left without companionship or understanding. Only after the loss of a child, and his wife's long illness, does the New Zealand husband accept his lot, as she has to accept hers. They return to the small-scale, local, country life which will give them, if they live it together, a peculiarly New Zealand happiness. Excessive material prosperity, and English-imported culture, are thus both seen to be irrelevant. The future lies in union and compromise. To mark this, Adelaide has at the happy ending "a little secret" to whisper to her husband. Edith Grossmann is no craftsman. Her prose style is bedevilled by the impulses to fine writing which set up a barrier between our early novelists and a truthful perception of emotions or landscapes. But she is still worth reading—where so many of these writers are not—because she has attempted to explore some of the difficulties of life for the women of her time.