Shedding light on an unknown place, Lauris Edmond

Maud and Amber, A New Zealand mother and daughter and the Women’s Cause, 1865 to 1981
Ruth Fry,
Canterbury University Press, $29.95

Mihipeka: Time of Turmoil
Mihi Edwards,
Penguin, $24.95

For the past twenty years or so historians and biographers (including autobiographers) have been showing us the secret aspirations, denials and compromises that have long remained hidden in women’s experience. Women are at last coming out from their position behind the men who filled history like the invited guests at a party.

These two books, vastly different as they are in style, method, tone and period, have this common intention. And each fulfils it, shedding light on an unknown place in our past. Not surprisingly, both also share a common fault – a failure, at crucial moments, to bring the subject close enough for full comprehension. Both avoid intimacy just when it is needed, and fade instead into historical generalities.

Maud and Amber, the women of Ruth Fry’s biography, actually have already a subdued place in historical records by being the wife and daughter of William Pember Reeves, who as both politician and poet has long been recognised as a significant New Zealander. Fry remarks in her Preface: The life stories of Maud Pember Reeves and her daughter, Amber, provide ample evidence of the slight value that has been placed on women’s archives compared with the weighty importance given to the documentation of the men in their lives. She sets out to find what was there for the unearthing, and does so with careful attention to the records available to her.

As it happens both women led active public lives in their own right, working for the Women’s Cause, teaching, lecturing, politicking for the suffragette movement in London in the early years of the century. This means that their activities are documented in minutes of meetings, records of speeches and occasions. Family life however is still shadowy, and this is no doubt partly because for upper class women in England at the time domestic systems and child rearing were managed by servants and nannies. In the words of the French writer Villiers de l’Isle Adam: As for living, our servants will do that for us.

How the public/ private balance really worked we cannot know. To this extent the frustrations of history persist, one silence generating another. However there is here one partial exception. Amber had a well-publicised affair with H G Wells, a daughter born of the relationship, an apparently affectionate friendship with his wife, and – in time for the rudiments of respectability to be preserved – a marriage arranged by Wells with a young man already in love with the talented girl. She is the prototype for Ann Veronica in Wells’ novel of that name.

But Amber’s real emotions? The conflict? The trauma? We know almost nothing of that. Nobody documented such material, and to twentieth-century readers with their taste for candour and detailed psychological speculation this is a disappointment.

Mihipeka’s case is quite different. In her first volume she described her childhood in a poor Maori family in Maketu near Rotorua, the shock of going to school to find herself punished for using her own language, derided for her dowdy home-made clothes, rejected for everything she was, in the rejection of her Maoriness. This second volume records her struggle to establish her own credibility – and in the end considerable authority. Years of effort went into trying to drown out the insults (stinky, black nigger) that were the evil legacy from those early classrooms and playgrounds. The only way seemed to be to become a Pakeha. She learns to dress well, to speak posh, to hold herself apart. She had to wait to re-enter her own tradition as a Maori – and her readers do too; this is the subject of a third volume.

The story reads like a conversation written down, and has both the advantages and disadvantages of such an approach. It is forceful, yet repetitive, direct yet arbitrary in its omissions. Mihipeka, my real name. My Maori name given to me at birth, a name to be carried on. I am supposed to be proud of it. Instead I hate it, because Pakeha people used to tease me about it. This is simple and revealing. But the gradual collapse of her marriage (We both stay together for the sake of the children) is the merest sketch. And I found it distracting that instead of telling the truth of necessarily complex inner feelings, the author tends to fall back on general information about Maori traditions and tastes.

But both books tell important stories. The lives documented in each would be almost unrecognisable to the other: the fact that both are published in the same year and lie side by side in the nation’s bookshops is perhaps a measure of the diversity in ourselves that New Zealanders must sooner or later come to understand and accept.

 

Lauris Edmond is a Wellington writer.

 

 

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Posted in Autobiography, Biography, Non-fiction and Review
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