Catching the post, Linda Burgess

The Penguin Book of New Zealand Letters
ed Louise Lawrence
Penguin, $34.95,
ISBN 0143018663

Oh friends, friends – where would we be without them? Sometimes they move far away, as did Charlotte Bronte’s school friend and confidante Mary Taylor, who in 1845 arrived in Wellington, where she built and ran a draper and general goods store which, you may be interested to know, later became James Smith’s. So far apart – but there were always letters.

“About a month since I received and read Jane Eyre,” writes Mary to Charlotte in 1848.

Oh goody. And? “It seemed to me incredible that you had actually written a book.”

And? “Such events did not happen while I was in England. I begin to believe in your existence as much as I believe in Mr Rochester’s.” I say Mary, isn’t this a little … ambiguous? And? “After I had read it I went to the top of Mt Victoria and looked for a ship to carry a letter to you.” Cut to the chase – did you like the book?

Pages later, after much talk of ships, and references to the books of Bronte’s sisters: “I mention the book to no one and hear no opinions. I lend it a good deal because it’s a novel and it’s as good as another! They say ‘it makes them cry’. They are not literary enough to give an opinion. If ever I hear one I’ll embalm it for you.”

But Mary – you are literary enough to give an opinion. So? “As to my own affair I have written 100 pages, and lately 50 more.”

I am very grateful to Louise Lawrence who must have had a wonderful, albeit exhausting, time ploughing through the mountains of letters from which to choose those in this book. There were very few which were not completely riveting. Indeed I don’t want to review this book at all; I simply want to cut and paste epistolary gems for you to read for yourself.

I enjoyed the earlier letters most. Lawrence has included those from both the famous – Samuel Marsden, Charles Darwin – and the now forgotten. Often it was the letters of ordinary people setting out from England to a new land that I found the most poignant. The hardship suffered on the voyage out is encapsulated heartrendingly in a two-part letter from John and Harriet Lodge to John’s mother. John writes of a safe arrival, of the kindness of missionaries, of the natives, of the food. Following on from his part of the letter, his wife tells of a detail that he does not – perhaps cannot – mention: their little boy died on the voyage out.

It was almost too much for me. I always built too many hopes – could not give him up – was obliged to be dragged from my child … all attended [the funeral] but his father and I … I had him opened by the doctor – a skilful man – and he gave us every satisfaction that if he had been on land he would not have lived more than 6 months.

 

So what do people write about? About arriving in a strange country, facing sometimes fierce Maori, often helpful, friendly Maori. They write about the unusual customs of the indigenous people:

My attention was suddenly arrested by a very extraordinary sort of bundle under the arm of a man who was passing me on the footpath … judge my astonishment and horror, Sir, at beholding a human head, with long black hair, in a state of perfect preservation.

 

They write of the introduction of Christianity: “I think it has done them some good, as it gets them a little in the way of regularity, and in a great measure puts a stop to their eating one another.” And “Pray join us,” writes Amelia Riddiford, “For we feel quite convinced it will soon be a little England.” Young Maori write home from England.  Octavius Hadfield, the first priest to be ordained in New Zealand, writes of the Wairau Massacre with huge sympathy for the part played by Te Rauparaha.

Most riveting of all are descriptions of some of New Zealand’s natural disasters. In 1886 Gilbert Mair displayed a huge talent for purple prose as he wrote about the eruption of Mt Tarawera. Much more accessible is Dorothy Campbell’s letter from Napier to her aunt 45 years later:

We were facing the sea and I saw an island jump, as I thought, about fifteen feet out … & at the same time a reef of rocks which I had never seen before appear between the island & the mainland. The question was, had the sea receded or had these things come up?… Nurse was sitting with Anne [aged two] who was repeating over & over, ‘Never mind Mummy, never mind Mamma.’

 

As the collection progresses it feels more scanty, somehow. While eras of such huge significance as the two world wars and the Depression are referred to in several letters, many significant events in New Zealand history are not referred to. No one writes of the waterfront lockout of 1951 or of the Springbok tour of 1981, though there is a memorable exchange of letters between Trevor Richards of HART and Spike Milligan, in which Milligan agrees to accept Richards’ advice and cancel his tour of South Africa. Politics is mentioned only in passing – Muldoon, who had such a huge effect on the psyche of our country, being in some ways the catalyst for profound divisions in it, barely rates a mention. Did we not write about him in our letters?

Interestingly, perhaps our sharpest prime minister, in recent memory anyway, is included. Lange’s famous letter to Bob Jones, asking him – as requested by Mrs Lange senior – to desist from swearing on television is here. Perhaps this is how we like to remember him, the sharp, witty person who just can’t resist a good line, and of whom we were so proud when he debated at Oxford, as opposed to the man in charge when the Labour Government brought in its monetary reforms in the 1980s.

Writers – whose letters are perhaps kept by their friends – are well-represented. There are New Zealanders who have exiled themselves overseas – Katherine Mansfield, Robin Hyde, Dan Davin; those who are just away briefly – Lauris Edmond, Marilyn Duckworth, Vincent O’Sullivan; those who visited – Samuel Butler, George Bernard Shaw; and in the case of Charles Dickens, those who nearly visited – “Hardly able to work. Disposed to go to New Zealand and start a magazine.” New Idea? North and South?

It’s churlish and somehow pointless to go on about what’s been left out. Far better to celebrate what’s been left in. How great it is to see that time passes but that humans are always just that – human. Who could not relish New Zealand’s first judge Henry Chapman’s letter to his father?

In person he is very tall, very thin, and not well made. He is narrow chested and has a bad tailor which makes things worse. His countenance is not agreeable and he has what the phrenologists call a bad head … it is small and contracted indicating something materially short of full capacity.

 

He was writing of Eyre, the newly appointed Lieutenant-governor of New Zealand. Chapman has been asked by Governor Grey to:

give [Eyre] all the support and assistance I can consistently with my station. That of course I shall do, and should have done without any request …. Grey’s fault is a want of sincerity – a fault which makes him believe all others insincere.

 

Thank goodness every one of these letters was kept by somebody. With so many fingers poised above the delete button on the sending or receiving of emails, will we ever again have such records of the human condition? In many ways, books like these will become historical treasures in themselves.

I just can’t resist going back to Charlotte’s buddy Mary for the last word in letter writing:

I have now told you everything I can think of except the cat’s on the table and that I’m going to borrow a new book to read – no less than an account of all the systems of philosophy of modern Europe. I have lately met with a wonder, a man who thinks Jane Eyre would have done better to marry Mr Rivers! He gives no reason. Such people never do.

 

Linda Burgess is a Wellington writer and television critic.

 

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Posted in Letters, Non-fiction and Review
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