A life of relative freedom, Penelope Todd

The Open World  
Stephanie Johnson
Vintage, $38.00,
ISBN 9781869797836

 

The Open World was my introduction to Stephanie Johnson’s substantial body of work. This is a complex novel, not easy to consider as a whole, or to sum up in review, but a pleasure to read for the wit and elegance of its prose. Ferreting out the mystery surrounding her forebear, Mrs Elizabeth Smith, Johnson attempts to give an account of her life. Scenarios are introduced from Elizabeth’s past and present, then her secretive nature intrudes so that outcomes and revelations are postponed time and again. I kept wondering whether the author was going to leave us dangling – but, no, patience is rewarded. However, it’s also necessary to pay attention: Johnson teases as she unfurls her story slowly, slowly.

From the beginning, we see two pictures of Elizabeth: in London 1866, in old age (her 60s), she hasn’t bothered unrolling her little rug in the current, shabby lodgings, since she’ll soon move on. Her small stipend and her addiction to opiates ensure that the next room will be even more confining. Her purpose in life has shrunk down to the exchange of letters with her two sons in New Zealand, and visiting each of the people named on a short list (Bishop Selwyn and Florence Nightingale among them).

Simultaneously, we meet Elizabeth in 1842, “newborn at the age of thirty-nine”, embarking with her younger son for the colony where the older Henry already does the work among Maori that will see him made Civil Commissioner and Judge of the Native Land Court. The colony represents “the open world”, “the man’s realm … of rough work, peril and trial”, which might be the world of multiple choice. Thwarted in her recent efforts to find employment at home, Elizabeth goes to try her own capacities in this new world.

Emigrating on the boat with Bishop Selwyn’s party, she is not truly of it and yet she is subject to him, in part due to the force of his personality and will. She is setting out in “service” to Mary Ann Martin, wife of Chief Justice, William (and thence to various women in need of care during her 20 years in New Zealand), negotiating always between the constraints and expectations of her employers, and the desire to keep her own home, and to be with her sons and see them advance.

One of the complexities of the story lies in the fact that we are never quite certain about Elizabeth. She says of herself, “I am of good character.” But her nature is under constant scrutiny, this woman who fits no mould, who plays both father and mother to her sons; who is neither bound nor free, who is secretive, with a raw and raucous humour, and who has always on hand a supply of “amber solace” to ease pains – her own and others’. She keeps her marital history in a closed fist and resists all attempts by her fellow emigrants to pry it loose.

Hearing, in London, that Mary Ann, who also employed her to do the elephant’s share of work at the Native Hospital in Judge’s Bay, is writing her memoirs, Elizabeth mulls over her own version of events and, certain that she will be misrepresented, begins to tell hers, prefacing them: “[I]f I were to make an account … When I finally make my account.” From the outset there is a piquant sense of her unreliability. Before New Zealand, families would ask for her (as nurse-companion) “by name as being both clever and tender”, and yet we gain a sense of something brash, almost a repressed savagery, in her. The picture of undependability is compounded by the little brown bottle always at hand.

Texture is added by those with whom she’s most intimate: kindly Mr Griggs in London, who taught her sons, found her a capable and dependable general help; her first love, Nick Horelock, sees her as “prosperous and warm and widowed”, whereas the Bishop sees fit to offer his terrible prayer: “Give her the blessing of propriety and the wisdom to know her place.” But Elizabeth is steering through uncharted territory; in the colony, there are no fixed specifications for a woman in her position, so she is constantly trying out what is feasible or comfortable enough. Her own tiny, leaking cottage on the shore of Lake Rotoiti is not. Having no place to settle becomes, in the end, untenable.

Following their men to the antipodes, immigrant women found their niche by trial and error. In Johnson’s New Zealand, there is much falling over and fainting among the women – a dependable way to solicit the help that can’t be asked for directly (“this new doctrine of helplessness”, Elizabeth names it), and in the case of newly married Mary Ann, the need is for sexual release. Johnson’s dry, subtle humour (more readily apparent on second reading) relishes such scenes as Mrs Martin being offered relief with a jet of water, discharged first by her Sydney doctor (a nicely cleaned-up convict) and later self-administered, following disturbing dreams of intimacy with the Bishop.

I admired Johnson’s neatly articulated, often elaborate sentences and her rich vernacular of the kind cherished, I imagine, in an era when a letter was a package rather than a page; a meal, not simply a message. This is the novelist’s knack, as well as the pre-digital age letter writer’s: to observe, analyse and polish the incident, interchange and gesture that are the deft brush-strokes of portraiture. Here Johnson excels. The reverend Bee Cotton, fellow emigrant and bringer of bees to the colony, is a nimble, lovable sort of renaissance man whose only flaw is “a want of ballast”. Rebuked for her high spirits on board, Elizabeth makes allowance for the Bishop, recognising that the ebullient, handsome and capable young man is “yet a cabin boy on the ship of compassion”.

The cold and squalor of London are captured as vividly as the movable feast of light, weather and water that is the antipodes. The New Zealand reader sees afresh the otherness and wonder of early life here. And yet, writes Elizabeth in her imagined memoir, “It is part of life in New Zealand to feel justly at home – of good use and well regarded – and wrongly in residence all at the same time”; then later, “There is a pattern that repeats itself – even a life of relative freedom, such as I have enjoyed, can be walled in by odd, discomforting symmetries.”

In the end, I still have trouble seeing the protagonist of the The Open World as all of a piece. Just as Elizabeth seems to bring clarity to her history, then loses it again in an opiate haze, this reader struggles to link up the strands of her personality. And yet if the reader is prepared to work for it, the engagement with Elizabeth and her bold, brave endeavours in the open world make for a thought-provoking and satisfying if not a settling read.

 

Penelope Todd is a Dunedin writer and publisher. 

 

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