Collecting and classifying, Charlotte Macdonald

The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography Volume Two 1870‑1900,
Bridget Williams Books/ Department of Internal Affairs, $130.00

Te Timatanga ‑ Tatau Tatau: Early Stories from Founding Members of the Maori Women’s Welfare League,
Maori Women’s Welfare League/ Bridget Williams Books, $39.95

The career of Austrian taxidermist Andreas Reischek, one of the more eccentric and infamous inhabitants of DNZB Vol 2, reminds us of the collecting and classifying preoccupations of nineteenth-century European scientists. Late twentieth-century New Zealand historians and writers appear to have developed a similar enthusiasm for collecting biographies and life histories.

Very different though these two books are, they form the latest additions to what has become a flourishing genre in New Zealand non-fiction. Some have termed it “collective biography”. These very substantial 1993 volumes offer a dramatic illustration of the divergent origins from which the genre has sprung.

On one side lies Alfred Adams, forester, and the 600 or so others who make up DNZB Vol 2, descendants of the unashamedly élitist dictionaries of national biography, dating from the period when imperial, ethnic and gender supremacy was unquestioned. Considerably modified though latter day dictionaries are, notably in their selection criteria (and here the DNZB has gone further than most), the conventions of the original form are evident.

Te Timatanga ‑ Tatau Tatau stems from the iconoclastic movements within historical and contemporary research. The book comprises a series of personal accounts varying greatly in length and scope. These have been shaped from a series of interviews with early activists in the Maori Women’s Welfare League conducted by Dame Mira Szaszy, herself a central figure in the League’s history.

In focusing on individual recollections, Te Timatanga provides a series of personal perspectives on the early years of the league’s history and a vehicle for those whose voices and experiences have been little heard on the national stage.

Both these books, like their predecessors (among them Judith Binney’s Nga Morehu (1986), Judith Fyfe’s The Matriarchs (1990), Jane Tolerton and Nicholas Boyack’s In the Shadow of War (1990), DNZB Vol. 1 (1990), Macdonald, Penfold and Williams (eds) The Book of New Zealand Women/ Ko Kui Ma te Kaupapa (1991), have found an eager readership. What is fuelling the sustained appetite for collections of biographies and life histories?

Are we seeing at work some process of inevitable disaggregation in the units in which we package our history: the single author, one-volume general histories of Sinclair and Oliver (1959, 1960) giving way to the multi-authored, thematic, 1981 Oxford History, in turn giving way to the many-authored, alphabetically-arranged dictionaries of biography and life histories of the 1990s?

Probably not. But the specialisation does reflect development within historical research.

Collections of biography offer an array of opportunities for one-to-one encounters with the past – whether by way of individual memories or by carefully researched and crafted biographical accounts. Their appeal lies in more than simply providing a personal perspective on larger historical events. It comes out of a decade or so in which there has been unparalleled expansion of interest in history (much of which has focused on groups not previously the subject of historical interest). Many of the orthodoxies of our history have been unsettled, if not completely overturned. The reading public has an interest in making its own explorations within a history that has become more richly populated, more complex and less certain in its contours. Collections of biography provide a convenient and attractive means through which to do so.

At its heart Te Timatanga ‑ Tatau Tatau is a set of encounters. The words of its text come from the 66 interviews which Dame Mira Szaszy had with founder members of the Maori Women’s Welfare League (and Charles Bennett, Assistant Controller of Welfare in the Department of Maori Affairs in the early years of the league). The personal quality of those occasions comes through strongly and is reinforced by Margaret Kawharu’s striking photographic portraits. What Te Timatanga offers is an experience of meeting rather than simply reading.

The book’s power comes from its success in encompassing the qualities of a group of people and conveying these on its pages to readers. This is a rare achievement; it is also an enormously generous gift. To the kuia who shared their lives this should be acknowledged: kia ora koutou.

Each woman’s story is unique; many tell of considerable hardship – though rarely with any sense of grievance; often quite the opposite. “We had nothing, but we were happy,” was Maata Te Maru’s reflection on her early life (p264). For her, as for a number of women in the book, there was a strong sense of sorrow (and sometimes bewilderment) that improvements in material conditions which they had experienced over the course of their lives had not been reflected in the enriching of other areas of life within their communities.

There are stories of romance (Kahu Jones’ husband traced her from the socks she had knitted for soldiers overseas), adventure (Maraea Tippins’ delightful account of plotting to outwit her mother in order to run away from home to war work in Wellington), and unbounded enthusiasm (at times leading to risqué methods of fund raising for the Maori Education Foundation), as well as tragedy, sorrow and embattlement. The accounts are hugely understated. If there is a simple answer to the question of what impact the MWWL had on this generation of women it can be found in Maude Isaac’s observation: “Our lives have been strengthened by belonging to the League” (p64).

Te Timatanga speaks to its readers and does so in a number of voices. This is literally true, for some of the women’s accounts are in Maori, some in English and many in a combination of both. The most immediate audience for the book is, of course, the women’s families and the league itself. For this is “their” book first and foremost. There is the larger audience within Maoridom and those fluent in Maori language. Some will find familiar faces, but will perhaps be gaining for a first time an account of the lives behind “the league”.

Beyond these lie a number of other audiences for whom Te Timatanga opens up a new world, a world removed by generation, by culture and, in many cases, by language.

The DNZB cannot, of course, “speak” to its readers in the same way. Its subjects are spoken for, rather than speaking themselves. Their lives are mediated by time, by the traces they leave in historical records and by the conventions imposed by the dictionary of biography form itself. Yet between the covers of the DNZB lie a crowd of historical figures of astonishing variety.

Among my favourites in Vol 2 are pedestrianist Joe Scott (plucked from the obscurity of apprenticeship to a career as a champion walker), one-time spa proprietor Edward Lofley (renowned for his “originality of manner”), and boxer Robert Fitzsimmons known to his contemporaries as “Ruby Robert” or “the Freckled Wonder” (a Cornishman, he married four times: his second wife was an acrobat, his third a vaudeville singer).

Alongside the lives of action are those of respectability, triumph-over-adversity and opportunity-carved-out-of-fate (not necessarily mutually exclusive categories). In the same Dunedin where Joe Scott won early fame lived the wholly upstanding Matilda Le Keong, reputed to be the first Chinese woman to settle permanently in New Zealand. Sophia Anstice, businesswoman and draper, was buried under a gravestone bearing the epitaph “She hath done what she could”. A gross understatement of a life of formidable industry and entrepreneurial success. James Teer built a reputation (and very modest fortune) from his experience as a survivor of the General Grant shipwrecked on the Auckland Islands for 18 months in 1866-67. Salvage operators bid keenly for his knowledge of the wreck. Teer himself made the most of his ordeal, touring the West Coast giving lectures about his life as a castaway dressed in the sealskin clothes he had worn on the islands. The West Coasters showed their admiration by pouring a bottle of whisky over his coffin when he died.

The glimpses of little-known parts of the nineteenth century which these eccentric, idiosyncratic and representative lives reveal is one of the major reasons why the eminently scholarly DNZB volumes have won a popular following.

They also provide a wealth of micro-studies in the dynamics of historical interaction. Much of the reshaping of the historical agenda in recent years has revolved around the dynamic relationships between social groups: Maori and Pakeha, resisters and kupapa, men and women, old and young, urban and rural. Biographical studies populate the generalities of these categories.

In dictionaries of biography, as in sport, selection rests on form. And form in this context means a certain level of information. A number of people initially selected for this volume, especially women, had to be dropped, explains general editor Claudia Orange in the Introduction, because “the available evidence of their lives was found to be too slight to provide the basis for full essays”.

One suspects that some of those who appear in Te Timatanga could possibly be seen as falling into that category by biographers of the mid-twenty-first century – though the existence of the book now makes that less likely. The differences between these two books illustrate the value of both kinds of approaches to collective biography, and their interdependence.

Collections of life histories such as Te Timatanga place into the record many people and experiences which otherwise are unlikely to get there. Dictionaries of biography, working in retrospect, amplify, select and adjudge on that record.

 

Charlotte Macdonald is a senior lecturer in history Victoria University. Her most recent publication is The Vote, the Pill and the Demon Drink. A History of Feminist Writing in New Zealand 1869-1993, published by Bridget Williams Books, not Victoria University Press, as we published in our review last issue.

 

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Posted in Biography, History, Maori, Non-fiction and Review
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