Away from Home: The Story of Victoria House
Bridget Williams Books, $29.95,
Girls “on the cusp of independence”, as the back cover of this book puts it, are the stuff of many a story. But that story is not told here – in spite of the title and the beautiful cover.
On that cover, two young women stride happily down a Wellington street. Printed in large capitals next to them are the words of the title: Away from Home. These young women are clearly not wealthy; you can see that from their sensible shoes and skimpy cardies. But they are happy. They are “on the cusp”, “away from home” – and revelling in it. This is cleverly emphasised by the treatment of the old black and white photograph. The girls have been coloured up, while the other Wellingtonians, mainly male and hatted where the girls’ hair is free, remain grey. The young women launch forward with an air of happy freedom while the others disappear into the background.
These girls live at Victoria House, the first women students’ hostel in the country, and the subject of this book – written by one of those very girls, Frances Porter, née Fyfe, author of the award-winning biography of Jane Maria-Atkinson, Born to New Zealand, and co-editor of the women’s correspondence collection My Hand Will Write What My Heart Dictates.
Although the picture and its colourful treatment perfectly illustrate the away-from-home theme, it is the picture beneath it, of a row of old houses built too close together and in need of new roofs, that more appropriately fits the contents of the book. These deal very little with the women who lived in Victoria House and much more with the committee members, “lady principals”, matrons and wardens who worried their way through almost a century of mortgage and maintenance issues. These issues form the book’s major plot line – just when things are sailing along nicely, sewer pipes look worrisome or a retaining wall collapses. The inhabitants’ morals and manners provide a sub-plot with drama around late leave and latch-keys.
In the introduction, Frances Porter gives us her own memories of arriving at Victoria House with her mother at the beginning of March 1943, and her picture of her former self as a girl “on the cusp of independence” makes a strong beginning to the book, a perfect opening to the topic:
I was seventeen. Mrs Balharry, the warden, showed us what was to be my room. It was small, with no sun, no view, tacky wallpaper … but none of that mattered. It was to be my place. A little later I said goodbye to my mother at the hostel gate – she on one side, I on the other. It was a moment … of pure elation …. exuberance at being on my own and free to make my own decisions. These were scarcely revolutionary: perhaps I might wear my Sunday clothes on weekdays. Most certainly, on social occasions, I would no longer be in my mother’s shadow.
The reader does not find out whether elation ebbs in the “burries”, as the study bedrooms at Victoria House were known. And though Porter later notes that “Freedom from family ties, a little earned money and a room of one’s own were a heady mix which could also be overwhelming, depressing, even defeating”, we don’t hear more than a sentence or two from anyone who either sank or swam.
When other women’s reminiscences are used, there is often no explanation of who they are so that if you come from Wellington, and a certain part of the city’s society, you may well know all those mentioned but otherwise probably not. The exception is Lauris (Scott) Edmond, information about whose student days was included in her autobiography with extracts from letters home. In this volume, she’s seen in an elegant street photograph, and heard in character run-downs of several wardens. (One was “dumpy, middle-aged and a busybody”; another, a “big ugly woman with a booming voice – she wasn’t just bossy, she was savage”.) The 1942 house committee’s contention that “We should like to feel that the rules of the house were drawn up and enforced by us” is attributed to Lauris. Couldn’t a student rather than the warden wait up for girls returning after late leave? No, was the reply.
In her second introductory paragraph, Porter notes that her own first-day experience would have been replicated thousands of times “over the near-century history of Victoria House. But some things have changed, and here the house has reflected society.” Perhaps it was because she felt her experience was “replicated” that Porter did not feel the need for inclusion of others’ memories. But this exclusion robs the book of the sense of “reflecting society” that she mentions.
We do hear a bit about wartime – perhaps because Porter was there then, and remembers the shout going up from some student holding the telephone: “Anyone want to go out with a Yank?” What about the 1960s “sexual revolution” and the effects of student loans in the 90s? (I remember arriving at my women’s university hostel in the mid-70s and being aware of being a baby boomer, part of a generation that was looked after in the way that the current one is not. Standard tertiary bursary and a practically new purpose-built hostel was not only freedom, it was freedom financed and beautifully furnished.)
The sense of social change could have been knitted into this book had Porter found a way of including longer reminiscences – perhaps in boxed first-person pieces, separated out from the text. These could have been specially written by past residents or taken from interviews and letters home, like the mid-30s ones Wynne Costley is reported to have read at the hostel’s 90th birthday celebrations. This approach would have meant Frances Porter could have continued her own story, and would have saved her from the awkward device she is forced to use: of referring to herself in the third person and then entering the narrative with reflective rhetorical questions on the moral tone of her time in the hostel.
Without other students’ personal stories, time tends to march on in the minutes of hostel committee meetings. And rather than an account of student life at the hostel, it becomes more of an account of the accounts. This does,in fact, make a riveting story in itself, and one Porter tells well. It’s the details she picks that do it – small details that shout about the situation of women at the time, some so appalling they’re amusing. As with Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, there’s a comparison to be made with the men’s hostel Weir House, well funded by a benefactor from the beginning, whereas Victoria House (which opened as the Women Students’ Hostel in 1908) had as its only endowment for its first 50 years “the commitment of a small number of women from Wellington’s Anglican and Presbyterian churches”, women who were prepared to get out their own sewing machines and bid for second-hand goods at the auction house.
Some descriptions of the early days make Woolf’s version sound almost luxurious. “May we have a good large hearth rug in the Common Room,” a lady principal’s report asks in 1923, adding a little plaintively: “The carpet is shabby but is at a comfortable stage and will hang on for a couple of years.” In 1942, a mother writes:
Imagine my disappointment to find my daughter was boarding and trying to study in a dingy old building with no heating, no healthy outlook, insufficient and entirely the wrong kind of food, having her own room to attend to as well as cut lunch …
Girls studied wrapped up in dressing gowns and rugs – until the supper bell, and then, during the dance craze of the early 20th century, the carpet was rolled back. Dancing was encouraged as it warmed everyone up, though an early matron didn’t like her piano constantly used and had to be placated by a bonus. The principals and matrons were expected to manage “frugally, but not meanly”, to keep accounts, give advice and generally act as chaperones while also washing dishes, cooking meals and mending sheets when required. Some matrons certainly had a difficult time of it, particularly imported ones, a number leaving shortly after arriving. But there were also some like Moira Kelly – warden from 1988-2000 – who not only took the difficult task in their stride but made it look enjoyable.
This is a tale of soaring vision – and scraping reality. “Faith and hard work built Victoria House,” Porter concludes, and it certainly was hard work to achieve what founder Margaret Wallis envisaged as “an orderly, cultured atmosphere” against the odds. Previous inhabitants of Victoria House will probably be the main readers of this book, and they may be surprised by how much effort and thought went in on their behalf.
Jane Tolerton is a Wellington writer and reviewer.