Stoic endurances, David Green

‘My hand will write what my heart dictates’: The unsettled lives of women in nineteenth-century New Zealand as revealed to sisters, family and friends
ed Frances Porter and Charlotte Macdonald with Tui MacDonald
Auckland University Press/Bridget Williams Books, $49.95,
ISBN 1 86940 129 8

Each century compares itself with its predecessor, often with some smugness. As the twenty-first century looms into view, the nineteenth is about to be superseded as our benchmark. Frances Porter and Charlotte Macdonald’s collection of extracts from more than 500 documents written by or about over 200 New Zealand women between 1814 and 1912 helps us understand what we are leaving behind.

In some ways, of course, the nineteenth century is still with us. My father has vivid memories of his great-grandmother, who was born in 1840. But while he knew this person whose character was formed before the foundation of the Otago colony, he could not experience how she lived as a child — half-Maori, half-European, at the furthest geographical extremity of both cultures. That inchoate world of turbulent “Tasmen” died long before she did and exists today only in a few scraps of family tradition.

And in documents. World-wide, the written record of the nineteenth century, while vastly smaller than that of the twentieth, is much larger than that of any previous century, thanks to greater literacy, more intrusive governments, the use of acid-free paper and the proliferation of individual and institutional collectors. However, the scope of what
survives is very uneven. While in 1858 seven out of eight adult pakeha could read and write, the quality of education varied greatly and many could do little more than sign their names. Women were somewhat less likely than men to be literate (the official difference in 1858 was 4%). They were also, as “dependants” of men, mostly invisible to officialdom. To “peer over the shoulders” of nineteenth-century women and glimpse the reality of their day-to-day lives is therefore largely to read their diaries and letters.

These sources, as the editors acknowledge, are mostly much less revelatory of their authors’ inner worlds than the title of this book suggests. Such accounts “are not simply mirrors or containers of experience but instruments through which those experiences and events have been given meaning”. Journals could be used as “platforms for self-rectitude” and often contained harsh self-assessments. Reminiscences (often written in diary form) have been used sparingly because of their authors’ natural tendency to gloss over problems retrospectively.

At the core of this volume (comprising about two-thirds of the extracts) are the letters to “sisters, family and friends” (in roughly equal proportions) of the subtitle. For many women of the great nineteenth-century European diaspora, writing letters was a necessity. Correspondence “formed the circle of relationships within which their lives were lived, the means by which … sustaining emotional ties … were maintained”. For most, letters were the closest they ever got again to the loved ones left at Home.

Maori women came from an oral culture and continued to be less literate than pakeha women. Most lived in a largely separate world within which they remained integrated into their whanau and hapu, so they also had less need to write letters. Much of the material in this book written by Maori women comprises letters to officials about land issues. In some cases the authors and/or contexts are unknown. The editors have also included waiata which “originated in a personal episode”. These have generally become detached from the individuality of their composers/protagonists. Thus, little of the material by Maori women has the personal impact of letters to “sisters, family and friends”.

As Porter and Macdonald note, relatively few Maori letters have found their way into research libraries. The same is true for letters by working-class pakeha women, who were undoubtedly less literate than middle-class women and probably had less time or energy to write even when they had both the ability and the desire. The imbalance was compounded by the collecting policies of institutions, which until recently acquired the correspondence of women primarily on the basis of their relationship to “important” men.

This book is based on those collections and overwhelmingly on those in the Alexander Turnbull Library which were catalogued in Women’s Words in 1988. As a result, there is a preponderance of Richmonds, Atkinsons, Hirsts and McLeans, with working-class women appearing as often in the words of their “superiors” as their own. This imbalance has been remedied to some extent by research in government records, particularly applications for maintenance and protection orders, divorce proceedings, bankruptcy petitions, hospital records and inquest reports. But much of this material is written by officials in depersonalising language. The result is that an impression remains of over-representation of “the well-to-do, the healthy and the influential”.

After an introduction which briefly sets the historiographic scene and explains the editors’ methodology, the documents themselves1 are organised into 10 thematic chapters, each with an introductory essay. The latter vary in quality and apparent purpose, with some tied closely to the documents selected, while others, such as that introducing the chapter on land issues, provide a brief general history of the subject. The first chapter, “Entering Nineteenth-Century New Zealand”, begins with the impressions of newly-arrived pakeha, some of whom found it hard to choose between the Maori (“dirty disgusting savages”)2 and the settlers (“many degrees below those of New South Wales”). The bulk of this chapter comprises a miscellany of writings by Maori women, ranging from a waiata written during an epidemic to petitions about land. These two sections don’t really cohere: Maori women, after all, weren’t “entering” New Zealand but were already here.

“A Place to Live” moves back in time to describe pakeha women’s “hopes and fears” about emigration (“it is … an awful step … you can imagine how intensely anxious I feel … My dear husband is … almost too happy at the prospect of emancipation. I wish I could be sure he is not too sanguine”) and experiences of the voyage out (“Cabin stifling hot. Smell of bilgewater very bad … children cross. Feel very sick … the beds and bedclothes are all wet and so are all our clothes”) before turning to the central theme of “settling and unsettling”, the fact that “migration, in whatever circumstances, is inherently destabilising”, involving the severing of old connections with little knowledge as to what form new ones would take (“the poor frail nervous body sinks under hours and weeks and months of loneliness”). For many families disrupted by war and economic imperatives, “unsettlement” was to continue for decades.

“When Land Becomes the Argument” deals with the New Zealand Wars and their aftermath. Pakeha women are shown to have held diverse attitudes to the conflict: “So short-sighted is the policy of the grasping and covetous settlers”; “…as soon as the Home Government becomes acquainted with our situation … she will … pour in troops at all points sufficient to teach the New Zealand natives that our beloved Sovereign is not to be insulted with impunity”. The anxiety and dislocation suffered by those confined to towns that have become “most horridly disagreeable with officers, soldiers, dirty squalid shops and mud” pales beside the experiences of Maraea Morete, captured during Te Kooti’s raid on Matawhero in 1868. Loss of land and restrictions on their rights over what remained continued to enrage Maori women: “I would rather go to Te Whiti for protection than to the Public Trustee.”

“Colonial Housekeeping and Moving in Society” describes the daily round of work, which came as a shock to women from privileged backgrounds: “Although I rise at six and go to bed at 10, I do not lose a minute and, withal, leave many things undone.” Domestic servants were more valued — and better paid — than in Britain. While the necessity to work gave colonial society an initial fluidity, class distinctions were soon reasserted as settlements grew in size and complexity. A woman who married well was “able to snub all the folk that had snubbed her and her sisters … and … avails herself considerably of the privilege”. “Respectable” folk in straitened circumstances had to decode invitations to see if they could accept them; perhaps the sister with “the most decent looking dress and bonnet” would go alone.

The remaining chapters traverse the life cycle, beginning with “Falling in Love — or Lust” (the latter sensation felt only by Maori women, from the evidence here) and progressing through “Husbands and Wives”, “Expecting and Childhood” and “Parents and Children” to “Seeking Independence” and “Death and Grieving”. All these experiences and relationships had meanings both different from and similar to those with which we are familiar.

“Love” didn’t “necessarily convey any sense of emotional intimacy”.  That was something to be shared with sisters and female friends. Men appeared as “virtual aliens in a distant land” and establishing their attentions was a “delicate and uncertain business”. Choosing a spouse involved a “fine balance of considerations”, many of which could not be known at the time of engagement. Marrying “well” without mutual affection was largely unacceptable but so was marrying solely because one was “in love”. The one near-certainty for women, given the imbalance of the sexes (there were two adult men to every woman in 1871), was marriage itself, which was characteristically embarked upon by women in their early twenties and men a few years older.

Spouses occupied substantially separate spheres and, while “becoming a husband could have its difficulties … living as a wife … proved infinitely more demanding” because of the never-ending burden of household responsibilities. In Maori society, by contrast, marriage partnerships were “neither the primary social nor economic unit” and did not entail so complete a loss of property rights. The selection of material in this chapter seems a little unbalanced. More than half of “Husbands and Wives” deals with responses to unfaithful or runaway husbands and many of the (presumably) faithful husbands are absent for long periods. Were things really this bad?

Motherhood was the ordained lot of mid-nineteenth-century women, with six or seven children in a family the norm. In the absence of significant medical interest, let alone effective intervention, in maternal health, childbearing was hazardous and anxious: “My reason tells me there is a considerable risk both for the child and myself.” Many babies were stillborn, which was both distressing and dangerous for the mother: “The doctors had to tear the baby from me or I should have been gone. I could not describe the agony I have suffered.” Until late in the century more than one baby in 10 died before its first birthday. By then, however, the birth rate was falling as birth control and abortifacient devices came into widespread use. By 1913 the average pakeha family had only three children and their upbringing was becoming a less all-consuming occupation for women.

Relationships between the generations were altered by the experience of emigration. Parents hoped to secure their children’s future by emigrating and close family bonds were forged during the long voyage. Grandparents were largely absent in the early decades of pakeha settlement. Even in 1881 only one pakeha in 70 was aged 65 or more. Childhood itself was both shorter and less formally structured than today and, while its separate status was underpinned by the introduction of compulsory education for ages 6 to 12 in 1877, the physical demands of maintaining a household and (often) running a farm meant that much child labour continued to be necessary. While the sons of the well-to-do had greater physical freedom and could escape into the world of higher education and work, daughters “were trained to be useful … and submissive to their parents” and to cultivate “accomplishments” rather than vocations.

Nevertheless, women increasingly sought financial independence from men. Self-employment was most often found in ‘“supplying board and lodging” which occupied nearly 7000 women by 1901. In that year there were more than 5000 female teachers of all kinds, over 2000 nurses and 1300 shopkeepers. Nearly 66,000 women in total had paid work, including 2000 who employed others. There were 21,000 domestic servants, while 14,000 women made, repaired or laundered clothes. Towards the end of the century some women also experienced “the freedom of being without tempestuous petticoats” through playing sport and travelling, “roughing it as in all probability you never did before”.

The threat of bereavement loomed closer in the nineteenth century than today. In addition to the greater hazards of birth and infancy, infectious diseases, appendicitis, broken limbs and specifically colonial hazards such as crossing rivers and tree-felling often proved fatal. Belief that families would be reunited in heaven was “a necessary rationalisation … not simply a hope based on faith”. In 1901 Maori life expectancy, limited by susceptibility to disease, remained in the early 30s, little higher than when the first pakeha arrived (albeit comparable to Spain) but declining infant death rates had seen pakeha women become the first population in the world whose life expectancy exceeded 60 years.

One wonders a little at the purpose of this volume. Is it primarily an educational resource or was the intention to present an argument that the experiences of nineteenth-century women were more diverse than has been portrayed by the Richmonds and Atkinsons and “colonial helpmeets”? If the latter, has anyone doubted this lately? Paradoxically, however, the limitations of the available material produce a cumulative impression of stoic endurance not completely unlike the “pioneer woman” of popular legend.

Notwithstanding these caveats, this is a diverse and frequently moving book. Its faults are those of any such collection: the available material is less than fully representative; choices of inclusion and exclusion must be made both between and within documents and these can be disputed; many of the extracts are tantalisingly fragmentary and it is not easy to develop a coherent picture of the lives of those who appear in a number of different chapters. An indication of the women with entries in the Book of New Zealand Women and/or the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography which could be consulted to flesh out their life stories would have been useful. About 20 appear in the former.

Nevertheless, the distinctive voices, concerns and opinions of enough women come through for us to see their experiences as after all not so very different from those of our own century. For this, perhaps above all, we should be grateful to the editors. We should also be thankful that the publishers have used a clear typeface on sturdy paper and included a 30-page index which contains brief biographical notes on the documents’ authors.

David Green is an editor in the historical branch of the Department of Internal Affairs. 

1   Usually excerpts from documents which “begin at the point of interest” and are “true to the original” apart from “minor modifications to enhance readability”.

2   Extracts from documents reproduced in the book being reviewed appear within double quotation marks to distinguish them from quotations from material written by the editors.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction and Review
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