An Unsettled Spirit: The Life & Frontier Fiction of Edith Lyttleton (G B Lancaster)
Auckland University Press, $44.95,
I first came across G B Lancaster in the reading room of the Mitchell Library in Sydney. Her stories, as Keron Hale, in the New Zealand Illustrated Magazine leapt off the page at me with the ferny, windy smell of home, or home as I fondly imagined it, a green 19th century backwater far from the resinous fumy metropolis of Sydney. Since then I have had a number of encounters with Lancaster, most extensively when researching and writing the short story section for the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English, edited by Terry Sturm. Sturm’s interest in her was also a result of his innovative and comprehensive work on popular fiction for the Oxford History. Becoming aware that Lancaster was one of New Zealand’s most widely read authors of popular fiction, both here and overseas in the first half of the 20th century, Sturm set out to find out about her and why she has been almost entirely forgotten since her death in 1945; An Unsettled Spirit is the result.
First off, I want to say that I have been looking forward to this book for a number of years, even to the point of wondering crossly why it was taking so long, and it is totally worth the wait. Sturm has done a wonderful job. This book is packed full of detail about Edith Lyttleton, who wrote under the pen name G B Lancaster, her family, her truly appalling mother about whom more in a moment, her brilliant career as an author, her travels, and her publishing history. It is also a wonderful gender history and work of book history. Tracking down all Lancaster’s stories alone, through the British, Australian, American and New Zealand magazines is a mammoth accomplishment, and exceedingly valuable to the literary historian. Sturm gives not only the hard-to-come-by career path of a medium-famous (but very successful) author, in itself a fascinating glimpse of cultural history, but also a rich description of a vanished world.
As Sturm points out, the literary magazine market which dominated the life of a working author in the first decades of the 20th century has, with a few exceptions like the New Yorker and Harper’s, disappeared. Lyttleton derived most of her income in the middle part of her career from the stories she sold to British and American magazines, rising to become an author featured on the cover and earning as much as £50 for an 8,000-word story. Lyttleton’s financial career is illuminating not only about readers, writers and markets before WWII. It also shines a light on the cut-throat world of literary agents, and publishers, on trans-Atlantic differences, and on the yawning gap between professional popular fiction and what literary historians like myself think important, namely the advent of literary modernism.
It’s fascinating to think of Lyttleton as a fellow traveller with Mansfield, Mander, or even, stretching it, Virginia Woolf. Much of Lyttleton’s life and experience exemplifies the woman writer’s conditions and needs, as described in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (£500 a year and a room with a lock on the door). Lyttleton and her sister Emily (Bing) were not even allowed to share an undisturbed bedroom. After their father died, their mother built herself a new room whose only entrance was off their room, and would never allow them to be alone together. Lyttleton’s extreme family circumstances make you appreciate the force field that Mansfield generated, bursting through conventional family pressures and a lot more besides, and their two careers as writers are soberingly reflexive. Both women struggled to win a place and an income, despite the inherited advantages each of them had. Lyttleton’s family was indeed quite aristocratic: her great-grandmother’s aunt, Anne de Gouges, had been lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette and was guillotined on the same day. Her father’s family were army and colonial administrators from way back, and her long association with Canada (Nova Scotia) and Tasmania is reflected in both her travels and her novels.
Lyttleton grew up near Rakaia and many of her early stories, including her first successful book Sons o’ Men, take place on the Canterbury Plains and are about the working lives of men on sheep stations. Confusion about the gender of G B Lancaster continued for many years, at first deliberately encouraged by Lyttleton to prevent her mother finding out she had become a published author. The most shocking part of the story Sturm tells, remarkable in many ways as a tale of talent, courage and endurance, is about the neglect and psychological abuse suffered by Lyttleton and her sister. They were given no formal education and, as she described years later in a letter to her sister-in-law, were treated “as having no brains or souls. And, of course, no rights.” Their brothers were allowed to develop more or less normal male lives – though from Sturm’s account it is hard to imagine even that was a happy experience – but the girls were treated as disposable. Lyttleton once asked her mother how she was to earn an income to support herself after her mother’s death if she wasn’t allowed to write, since all the money was left to the boys. To which her mother replied: “’What on earth does it matter what happens to either of you when I don’t need you any more?’”
Such callousness and discrimination seems pathological now, but it recalls Linda Burnell’s chilly distance from her children and Annie Beauchamp’s disinheriting of her wayward daughter. Perhaps Mansfield’s luck was that her father outlasted her.
Sturm’s emphasis, however, is not on Lyttleton’s family biography but on her life as a writer. While I wanted more about the family (Bing whom she loved most in the world remains an indistinct, captive figure), I think he puts the emphasis in the right place. What is abundantly clear is that, through her fiction, Lyttleton experienced what the world can offer. From a frighteningly sequestered life, she took herself into the heads and lives of Canadian Mounties, Cuban revolutionaries, and Yukon goldminers, and all over the world.
One of the astonishing aspects of Sturm’s research is the sheer quantity of published stories, novels and film scripts he has located and discusses. Lyttleton was a demon for work (well, what else was there?) and ran herself ragged publishing 12 novels, numerous articles and poems, and sometimes as many as 13 or 14 stories a year. Five novels were turned into Hollywood films, and she moved ceaselessly, travelling into the Far North of Canada on dogsled, walking in the Ureweras, crossing the Rockies. Packed around all this activity is a fascinating narrative about her struggles with her agent, and with magazine editors. Lyttleton became a tough contract negotiator, and learned how to manipulate the American and British story markets to her advantage, though her later experiences with the contracts for her most successful novel Pageant were disappointing.
Sturm gives a full description and analysis of Lancaster’s novels and a number of the magazine stories, locating her work in what Robert Dixon has described as colonial adventure narrative. In a letter to her friend Paul Wallace she wrote: “I’ve been called ‘as unreal as Kipling’, as ‘obvious as Jack London’, as ‘obscure as Meredith’ … but since the war I’m afraid I’ve just developed into a literary hack.” Those are interesting references. Sturm notes her indebtedness to Kipling and the racy vigour of some of her writing is reminiscent of London – she can tell a good tale. But he also, and fairly, points out that though Lyttleton was pre-eminently aiming at a popular readership, she tries – often with success – to analyse what it means to see the world from a colonial viewpoint and to inspect the great essentials of human behaviour.
One of the great services Sturm has done in researching Lyttleton’s life and work is to give us a salutary history lesson. It is easy to forget in the yearly round of reviews, literary prizes, feuds and funding rounds that most novels vanish in the smoke of time. Sentimentality and conservatism may have dated Lyttleton’s novels for all her brave attempts to speak the truth and write with muscle. But to rediscover a writer like her, celebrated in her time and very much of her time, is to open a window on sights and smells, people and a past we don’t think about anymore. Sturm’s marvellous book restores a history that is always being lost.
Lydia Wevers’ Country of Writing: Travel Writing and New Zealand, 1809-1900 was reviewed in our March 2003 issue.