Reading the past, Anna Rogers

Reading on the Farm: Victorian Fiction and the Colonial World
Lydia Wevers
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9780864736352

 

The big sheep and cattle stations of 19th-century New Zealand and books were tough, physical, practical places, where men (and a few women) worked hard in all weathers and often in considerable isolation. Reading does not initially seem a likely activity in such an environment, and for such people but, as Lydia Wevers points out in her accessible and readable study, it was a very common form of relaxation and escapism. Several large properties had their own libraries, among them Brancepeth in the Wairarapa, which is the subject of Reading on the Farm.

Before its contents – just over 2000 books – were removed from the original home and taken, in their wood and glass bookcases, to Victoria University of Wellington, the Brancepeth library was an essential and well-used part of the station’s life. It was Wevers’s encounter with these volumes, now dirty and in faded covers, that led to an exploration not only of this collection, and those who created and used it, but of Victorian reading in general. As she writes:

I thought it would become the subject of an elegant essay about past reading habits, a little excursion into the back waters of a Victorian library. Then I opened the books, and immediately and vividly became aware that I was looking at their readers …  .

 

It is this personal connection and enthusiasm, and the affection Wevers clearly has for Brancepeth and its former inhabitants, that give the book much of its appeal. She is charmed by this place, as her evocative opening paragraphs demonstrate. She describes arriving at the station on a summer morning, finding the rusty key that opens the combined office and library building, seeing the files and administrative bric-a-brac left as it was when the last occupant departed. It is an alluring prospect for any bibliophile with a sense of history.

It is also a clever and original idea for a book, an ideal entrée into a world so different from ours, and into a kind of fiction, in particular, that is distinctively of its time. The great proportion of the Brancepeth books are novels. Some, by great names such as Dickens, Thackeray and George Eliot, are classics, but most are by popular writers such as Sarah Grand, Marie Corelli (devoured by Queen Victoria and Gladstone) and Mrs Henry Wood, long since out of fashion but thoroughly and enthusiastically read in their day.

With her customary intelligence and wit, Wevers anatomises the social world that revolves around books and considers the cultural significance of reading: how and why and where we read. Both the contents of the library, and those who used it, are the stars of Reading on the Farm. The books become archaeological objects, examined minutely for the clues they contain – the dirt on their pages from muddy hands, the food dropped as they were handled by hungry men eating their dinner, the scorch marks from inattentive reading near fires, the occasional flower left between the leaves. Wevers also investigates the borrowing history of the various volumes, which gauges the popularity of certain titles and genres. Writing comments in books was a practice encouraged rather than frowned upon in Victorian times and in the Brancepeth marginalia lie other rich and intriguing clues to contemporary habits and interests, and to the personalities of the readers.

The people of Brancepeth are Wevers’s subjects too: the Beetham family who owned the property; the farm workers; local Maori who, unusually in that period, were valued friends of the Beethams; the swaggers who often passed through looking for work in the tough years of the late 19th-century Long Depression; and, above all, Brancepeth station clerk and librarian, John Vaughan Miller. He is a dream subject: a vigorous and often funny writer, opinionated and articulate, well educated but not wearing his learning at all lightly, petulant and prickly about his uncertain social position in the rigid class hierarchy of station life. A copious and forthright annotator of the library’s books, he was also a frequent contributor of articles to the local papers on a daunting variety of subjects.

Reading on the Farm abounds in admirable and careful scholarship and is generally written with ease. This is territory that literary critic and historian Wevers, who is a specialist in New Zealand and Australian literature, has made her own, in such books as Country of Writing: Travel Writing About New Zealand 1809–1900 and in the many anthologies she has edited, including Goodbye to Romance: Stories by Australian and New Zealand Women 1930s –1980s. In evidence, too, is a pleasing wit, as in the description of the ubiquitous Victorian literary character who is “angelically sweet-tempered but has weak health in some unspecified but immobilising way”. Wevers is adept, too, at the forensics of personality, especially for Miller:

[He] was clearly a fastidious man, but his fulminations against the way other employees ate and behaved, like the close attention he paid to the activities of the Beethams and every shade and nuance of Hugh Beetham’s interactions with his employees, were also a fairly direct expression of his feelings of social displacement and superiority.

 

There is, however, an irritating and distracting amount of repetition in this book, which can blur the reader’s enjoyment. Wevers too often re-emphasises points and themes, particularly where Miller is concerned. There is an impression, at times, that chapters have been written and/or treated as discrete identities rather than as part of a complete work. More specifically, there is a good deal of repeated detail. For example, we are told twice (pages 21 and 89) that 88 per cent of the Brancepeth library was made up of fiction. On page 97 we learn that puns were Miller’s favourite form of humour, on page 98 we are told that “he was given to outrageous puns” and on page 102 that he “loved puns”. Itinerant labourer and diary keeper James Cox is introduced in almost exactly the same words on page 74 and again on page 100. An anecdote about a malingering shepherd with an inflamed eye is given all but identically on pages 91 and 115. The private food supplies that Miller organised for himself – biscuits, Spanish olives, nuts and tins of fish – are repeated with only one difference on pages 79 and 118. Such repetitions are perhaps forgivable in a vast tome but not in a book with a text running to fewer than 300 pages. No reasonably alert reader is going to forget information that quickly.

People are not always introduced fully the first time they appear. Henry Lawson, for instance, is described, on his first appearance (page 73), as “the best known of the many Australians who travelled to New Zealand in search of work”; not until page 103 are readers who may be unfamiliar with the name informed that he is “the writer and journalist Henry Lawson”. The teacher Joseph Guest pops up in various guises after his introduction on page 125: he is “the station schoolteacher, Mr Guest” on page 140, “the schoolmaster J J Guest” on page 160, “J J (Joseph) Guest, who was the schoolmaster in 1895” on page 219 and Joseph Guest on page 230. Some of these hiccups can be laid at the editor’s door, as can the overuse of subsidiary phrases framed by dashes, the irritating frequency of such words as “unsurprisingly” and “heavily used” and too many unnecessary introductory explanations of what is clear in following quotations. Missing are many of the closing commas surrounding a subsidiary phrase and there are some oppressively long paragraphs that could have been shortened.

The book would have been a little happier, too, without the occasional academic jargon: “know-ledges”, reading described as “a situational activity”, “scribal”, “reflexive” and “valorisation”. Wevers is a great quoter, to varying degrees of usefulness, but these excerpts would have blended more smoothly into the narrative if the name of the source were not so often given: “as so-and-so says”.

This book is, like Miller, suffering from a slight identity crisis. It is, of course, a work of scholarship, written by an academic, but the idea behind Reading on the Farm is so immediately attractive that it deserves, and will win, a wider readership than might be signalled by its publisher and presentation. Could that audience have been even wider if Wevers had stepped a little further away from the conventions of her discipline?

 

Anna Rogers is a Christchurch editor, writer and reviewer.

 

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Posted in History, Literature, Non-fiction and Review
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