Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 1991, $29.95
This is more a meditation on a book than a detached and ruthless review. I must declare bias on two counts. First I was a pupil and latter-day friend of Ngaio Marsh and so to preserve my own awe and affection for her, I may, like most of her devotees, be over-protective of her memory. Secondly, in the course of the author’s research and composition of the book, I came to know, respect and like Margaret Lewis greatly. She interviewed me several times. The results emerge both in direct attributions and in various discrete guises.
Two things make me think the book excellent – recognition and surprise. It is cause for wonder that Lewis, who never met Ngaio Marsh, can so frequently conjure up her presence. Lumps in the throat came often as some forgotten gesture or comic turn of phrase was recreated in invisible prose. The biography also re-enforces that old cliché that we can never really know another person. I was fairly close to Ngaio in her last years and although toward the end the awe dissolved and a warm and gossipy affection was established, I never flattered myself I got anywhere near the core of the Marsh mystery.
Lewis acknowledges a central inaccessibility to Ngaio’s character. She was a creature of constantly changing masks. Yet the book was full of surprises to me. For example, Lewis has done a great deal of research into Ngaio’s background. She shows in the contrasting natures of the families of her mother and her father the origins of Ngaio’s notorious cultural schizophrenia. Ngaio seemed more proud of her father’s tenuous connections with English aristocracy than her mother’s humble but outstanding pioneering parents. Ngaio’s grandfather was Edward Seager, an enchanting Victorian autodidact, who founded Sunnyside and developed astonishingly advanced treatments for the mentally ill. Among these were the performance of plays by and for the patients. It is obvious from which quarter Ngaio caught the theatre bug.
Ngaio both loved and loathed New Zealand. In England she was a different and glamorous being. Yet, despite her connections, she was not at home there either. Her England had a dangerous fictional element. I discovered this when I found the lofty picture of British theatre she had conjured up in Christchurch to be a fantasy – even in the kind of pain and sordidness she described.
On reading Margaret Lewis’s book, I felt like Marcel at the party in the last volume of Proust. Facts that I had not thought were connected were indeed connected and motives I thought innocent were not as innocent as all that. It was a personal revelation. I would support Margaret Lewis’s own claim that she may have come to know the almost pathologically reticent Ngaio Marsh better than any other being.
Incidentally, Margaret Lewis berates New Zealanders like myself for being snobbish about Ngaio’s ‘tecs’. She suggests we made Ngaio’s insecurity about her fiction worse and re‑enforced her snobbery both literary and social. She may be right.
Either as a result of a publisher’s demands for brevity or an innate sense of form on the part of the author, Margaret Lewis’s life of Ngaio Marsh is compact and elegant. Those who want ultimate answers to the central enigma and confirmation of their speculations about the sex life of Ngaio Marsh will be disappointed. Those who want a vivid portrait of an immensely gifted, intensely warm but inveterately private woman will not be.
Elric Hooper is the Artistic Director of the Court Theatre in Christchurch and has recently become an opera director. While a student at Canterbury University he appeared in three productions of Dame Ngaio Marsh who encouraged him to study acting, which he did at The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.