Lively and perceptive, Elizabeth Marsden

The Selected Letters of Mary Hobhouse
Shirley Tunnicliff (ed),
Daphne Brasell Associates Press, Wellington, 1992, $24.95

Mary Hobhouse came to New Zealand, arriving in March 1859, as the wife of the first Anglican Bishop of the province of Nelson. She recorded her impressions of her new country, life and home in letters to her family and friends back in England. Her correspondence is lively and perceptive, and as she is writing to family she does not entirely gloss over the difficulties and oddities of her life. She is frank in her comments on the various people whom she encounters, and the collection offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of a woman who not only lived in early colonial New Zealand but did so from the unusual position of rank and privilege.

Shirley Tunnicliff begins her edition with a biographical account of Mary and her husband Edmund (there is also a useful appendix giving brief details of the people, family as well as historical, mentioned in the letters). Mary Broderick, born in 1819, was well educated and well travelled. She was also, by 1856, running her own school, an unusual achievement for a Victorian woman of the upper classes. As she also felt the need to perform some positive good in the world, going to New Zealand to help promote the cause of Christianity was an obvious step. The Hobhouses were on their way, on the first steam voyage, in fact, from England to New Zealand. The whole journey took a mere seven weeks. The letters have been divided into chapters covering events such as Mary’s arrival in Nelson, the Taranaki Wars when the Hobhouse home was filled to capacity with refugees, and the General Synod which met in Nelson in 1862. Much of the appeal of the letters lies in the fact that Mary has to explain a great deal so that her readers can gather some idea of her life:

I have forgotten amongst our excitements to mention Sports ‑

12th Aug: Poisoning Rats and Mice with strychnine and dripping.

1st Sept: Hunting after Pig congregated to the number of 8 under our house.

2nd Sept: Catching Peacocks who were not very wisely domiciled in this small garden by our Landlord with such terrible results which might be imagined.

News about her children is sparse but affectionate, and both parents are proud of the steady development and growth of their two boys. An attractive sense of humour enlivens her account of colonial life.

By 1864, a scandal concerning the sodomy practised by Edmund’s cousin and assistant brought on a crisis in her husband’s health, which had never been good. Mary was now pregnant for the fourth time, at the age of 45. However, in the one remaining letter of this time, her only concern was for her husband’s health. Mary and the baby in fact did die in childbirth. Tunnicliff comments: ‘Amidst all the expressions of sympathy for the Bishop, all so concerned for his loss and grief, there is an unspoken acceptance of the inevitability of Mary’s death. That childbirth was regarded as threatening to life was taken for granted, and the resigned way in which the waste of women’s lives was stoically accepted is shocking to modern eyes.’

 

Elizabeth Marsden is a librarian at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

 

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Posted in History, Letters, Non-fiction and Review
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