More realist than feminist, Lawrence Jones

The Best of Fiona Kidman’s Short Stories
Vintage, $29.95,
ISBN 1 86941 350 4

Some years ago I was judge for the Bank of New Zealand Katherine Mansfield Awards, and one of the best stories entered, one that made my short short list, was “Honor and La Jane”, which appears in this volume. The authors of the entries for the award were identified only by a pseudonym, and I remember recognising the authors of some of the entries from the stories themselves – especially an entry from Owen Marshall – but I puzzled over the possible authorship of this particular story. The social territory, Lower Hutt lower-and-middle-middle-class, was Lloyd Jones’, but the style did not seem to be his. I remained in the dark as to the author until the judging was completed and I received an author list keyed to the pseudonyms, and was then surprised to discover that it was Fiona Kidman.

Looking back on that experience, I find two aspects especially significant – the relative lack of an immediately recognisable personal voice and, more surprisingly, given Fiona Kidman’s reputation as a “woman’s writer”, the lack of a strong gender-coding in the story. This collection gives an opportunity to look at those two issues across the range of her writing, for this is a generous retrospective volume covering over 30 years of work: six previously uncollected early stories; three of the seven stories from Mrs Dixon and Friend (1982); 13 of the 16 stories in Unsuitable Friends (1988); 12 of the 15 in The Foreign Woman (1993); and three recent, previously uncollected stories – 400 pages in all.

The question of personal voice is not so straightforward as might first appear. Certainly, reading through these varied stories reveals no obvious personal trademark such as one could find in similar volumes by, say, Frank Sargeson, Janet Frame, Maurice Duggan, Owen Marshall, Maurice Shadbolt, or Maurice Gee. There is a variety of modes and types and interests, and the one obvious trademark has been excised, for the stories about Bethany Dixon that have been scattered through earlier collections are not here: they have been collected, augmented, and re-organised to make the 1997 collection of linked short stories into a novel, The House Within. In the volume as it stands, there are recurring themes and concerns but not a distinctive stylistic identifier and personal presence. But is this necessarily a deficiency?

As the Introduction makes quite clear, this volume can be seen as the record of a professional writer’s development, and the movement from the well-made, relatively brief early stories to the often longer, looser, more complex later ones is substantial, so that to Kidman herself that earlier work “now looks like the work of another person”. At the same time, there has been a development in subject and theme, the kind of development that will make the stories excellent material for a future social historian.

That hypothetical historian will appreciate the range and the developing pattern of interests. The settings follow the curve of Kidman’s own life, from the Northland of the 1950s and the Rotorua of the 1960s (viewed as the recent past in the early “growing up” stories, and as the more distant remembered past in some of the more recent stories) to the Wellington of the present. The social range is from the youthful rural Maori narrator of the early “New Shoes and Old” through the aging Newtown mother of the criminal in “If I Should Mourn” to the wealthy old woman in “Again at Batu Ferringhi”, with the centre being the urban professional middle class. Many of these characters are variations on the social outsiders dealt with in so much New Zealand fiction – the intellectually handicapped man in “On the Train”; the unmarried daughter and the hired man in “The Courting of Nora”; the woman from the Greek family in “The Foreign Woman”.

While none of the stories are as overtly political as the novel True Stars (1990), there are frequent reverberations from international political events – the Malayan War in “Circling to the Left”; the Prague Spring in “The Torch”; the Vietnam War in “The Last Shot” and “Border Country”. Likewise, social issues of the last 30 years surface, whether it is the glancing reference to the Employment Contracts Act in “Honor and La Jane”, the focus on radical feminism and the male backlash in “Nasturtium”, or on organ transplants in “If I Should Mourn”.

Our social historian would also note the eye and ear for changing social mores, the concrete signs of the shift from a Provincial scarcity society to an affluent, post-Provincial one in the years in which these stories were written. In this new world, Kidman’s characters travel – to France, to Bali, to Crete, even to Vietnam (although not to the South Island). They eat different things: the fresh peas, new potatoes, and roast chicken for the 1950 Northland Christmas dinner in “Peas for Christmas”, the first story in the volume, has been replaced by a meal in the last story, “Tell Me the Truth About Love”, that only in the urban 1990s could be described as “simple and to the point”– “light spinach soup, Basque chicken with a hint of chillies against the pepper and olives, hot French bread to mop up the sauce, a fresh green salad”.

Perhaps most interesting to our social historian would be the treatment of sexuality in the stories. Those set in the 1950s and 1960s look back to residual puritanism: the embarrassment of an adolescent girl being given a book called Sex for Teenagers for Christmas; a girl excited and embarrassed about possibly entering a bathing beauty contest (and her librarian employer disapproving), while at the same time being coerced into a sexual initiation by older boys. The stories set in more recent times chart our brave new sexual worlds: bisexuality and homosexuality in “The Stung Ones”; the fear and embarrassment of possible STD in “Body Searches”; fashionable adultery in “A Moving Life”; performance sex in “Pudding” and “Again at Batu Ferringhi”.

The difference between the early and the late periods is shown most strikingly in “Nobody Else”, when the mother’s story, told to her university student daughter, of the oddly indirect courtship of her husband-to-be is juxtaposed to the courtship of the daughter by her lesbian lover. But here the differences are perhaps less important than the continuities, the way love, whatever the sexual orientation, reads the signals to determine that this is the person desired, and “nobody else”.

Kidman’s way of dealing with such social change is very different from, say, Sargeson’s. He had to jettison his “classic” method of his early stories and adopt a quite different (but equally distinctive) mode to deal with the different Post-provincial reality of his later stories. There is no such break in Kidman’s development, but rather a fairly smooth transition as she moved through a variety of modes in learning to deal with a changing society (although Alice Munro may have served almost as much as a model for her later work as Sherwood Anderson had for Sargeson’s early work). One result of this development has been that while one recognises a maturing implied author linking the stories, there is not, for better or worse, the immediately recognisable personal trademark that one finds in a Sargeson story.

But what of the question of gender? Kidman has been praised or condescended to as a “woman’s writer” from the time of the notorious double review of A Breed of Woman in Landfall in 1980. Cathie Dunsford found that the book “pulls out the mandrake root of complacency, self-deprecation, false pride, hypocrisy, sexual, religious and racial corruption, and lets its primeval scream rebound from Cape to Bluff”; while William Broughton dismissed it as a book “that pretends to be a novel in the vogue of modern feminist writing”, but that “reads like a thinking woman’s Mills and Boon”.

In an interview with Sue Kedgley in 1989, Kidman described the book as a consciously feminist one and characterised herself as a writer who was attempting to speak for, to, and of women; and it is a commonplace of bookselling that her works have a large audience of women that puts their sales well above that of most serious New Zealand fiction. But in that same interview, Kidman said that despite her feminist intentions in that first novel, “the storyteller in me took over and it became a book about people”, and went on to say that her characters usually came to be like friends she got to know better, and that dictated the shape of her stories.

Such is clearly the case in “Honor and La Jane”. The point-of-view character is Roy Turner, and the story sympathetically but unsentimentally traces his guilt and indecision between the desirable Honor and La Jane, whom he married four years before when she was pregnant, his decision to commit himself to La Jane and then his realisation that she is leaving him for her terrible mother’s awful boyfriend, and has been using him all along. It is not a doctrinaire feminist story, but rather one that sympathetically follows its characters in attempting to understand them. The majority of the characters who receive such attention in the book are women, but a significant minority have male focal characters, and in all of them – except for a few rather brittle satires such as “Earthly Shadows” – exploration of character and the relation of character to environment take precedence over idea. Which is perhaps just to say that Kidman is a realist writer more than she is a feminist one. Her kind of realism provides a necessary corrective to the often misogynistic tone of much masculine fiction in the New Zealand realist tradition, but it is still part of that tradition.

Integral to the New Zealand realist tradition is a kind of liberal humanism, an antidote to the puritanism under which most realist writers of Kidman’s generation (born 1940) and of the two previous generations (those born, like Sargeson, before World War I, and those, like OE Middleton, in the 1920s) were raised. Such a humanism puts great emphasis on genuineness as a value (assuming a potential genuine self), and on the hard-won knowledge of the self and the environment, and on the courage to face the truth of that knowledge.

Such values underlie these stories, developing through them, and emerging most movingly in the last one, “Tell Me the Truth About Love”. The “truth about love” that Veronica, the focal character, learns is a complex one. She must come to see that her marriage to the poet Colin and their relationship to their best friend Lewis was really a complex sexual triangle in which Lewis was in love with Colin, she was at least half in love with Lewis, while Colin enjoyed being loved by both, and that Colin’s friend Cam was really a closet homosexual in a farcical disguise of a marriage, that he took Colin away from Lewis, that Lewis’s marriage was on the rebound from that, that Lewis’s wife is now dissatisfied and cheating on him, that she is still half in love with Lewis, and that she must break free and make her life on her own. A history teacher who knows that history is a story we make up from our own interpretation of the jigsaw pieces with which we are presented, she is late in seeing a pattern in her own story, “a short history of love or a long history of innocence?”

Such a story with such an implicit vision has more in common with the work of Maurice Gee than with that, say, of Emily Perkins, and takes its place in the New Zealand realist tradition to which this volume makes its contribution of 30 years of work.

Lawrence Jones is Professor of English at the University of Otago.

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Posted in Literature, Review and Short stories
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