Self-reliant in Victorian New Zealand, Erik Olssen

Nearly Out of Heart and Hope: The puzzle of a colonial labourer’s diary
Miles Fairburn
Auckland University Press, $39.95
ISBN 1869401182

Anybody familiar with New Zealand history is likely to feel a sense of excitement at the prospect of reading something by Fairburn. Most of his scholarly articles are more important and much more interesting than most books and his Ideal Society and Its Enemies, published in 1988, has stimulated considerable controversy. Nearly Out of Heart and Hope will not disappoint those who have come to expect lively argument, polished prose and methodological sophistication. The book is organised as a puzzle; in solving that puzzle Fairburn takes the reader on a journey into another world, armed with all the gadgetry of a late‑twentieth century explorer, and brilliantly illuminates many aspects of colonial society.

There is another puzzle. Why does this original scholar choose to become a world authority on this most ordinary of labourers? The answer given is simple enough. Cox kept a diary from 1888 to 1925, when he died. It contains some 800,000 words, written in pencil on little folios he made from cheap notepaper and it is almost complete. Fairburn found it in the Alexander Turnbull Library, promptly recognised its rarity and decided to publish an edited version. As time went on, however, its mundane and prosaic nature, filled with terse entries on weather and dense accumulations of general knowledge, persuaded him to abandon the idea of an edition and tackle the puzzle in his own words.

The book is presented in three parts. The first provides a lively biography of an itinerant farm labourer who roamed the lower North Island. It provides all the pleasures of a historical journey; it has serendipitous discoveries; it tells us much about important matters of which we knew little; and is written with wit, charm and elegance. As we journey we learn much about his English background and much about little‑known aspects of colonial society: rural contractors, life on the road, poverty, household budgets, “industrial” relations, and social relations generally. The diary’s detail allows Fairburn to reconstruct a finely nuanced and intimate picture of Cox’s world.

As a result Nearly Out of Heart and Hope affords us a finely crafted counterpoint to that other wonderfully evocative account of colonial life, Frances Porter’s Born to New Zealand. Some of the most arresting passages later on also lead us into another world. For various reasons I particularly liked the moment when Cox walked through a door into a radical subculture, read Bellamy (who did not impress him) and George (who did), then walked straight back out again (although he later became a Seddonian Liberal). Here, as so often, my pleasure was deepened by Fairburn’s formidable grasp of the relevant historiographical and sociological literatures, which unobtrusively shapes his telling of that story.

In part 2 Fairburn focuses on Cox’s material and cultural worlds. Here Fairburn takes us on his own research odyssey, establishing his puzzle as he goes. First he establishes Cox’s poverty and then demonstrates that he believed in the Victoria ideology of self‑help and self‑improvement. In the blatant contradiction between two of his worlds that of his material deprivation and that of his “world of ideology” (p119), constitutes the puzzle. How did Cox survive this contradiction? The central argument is simple although the proof is marvellously comprehensive. Fairburn establishes Cox’s poverty ‑ a victim of an unfortunate conjunction of adverse contingency and structural mechanisms.

Fairburn has cleverly posed his puzzle in terms as ancient as civilisation itself: fate, fortune, or character? He insists on fate, dressed in the appropriate scholarly garb. The evidence in the book allows the reader to argue the toss. During a seminar on Fairburn’s book at Victoria University, Bob Tristram argued that Cox was not poor and that in fact he adapted well to the challenges of his life in New Zealand. I questioned the definition of poverty, too, but argued that Cox had not adapted and was the architect of his own miserable fortune.

Was Cox poor? Was he the victim of unkind fate? Fairburn’s answer ultimately rests on the assumption that Cox should have shared in the colony’s prosperity. It is true that the general standards of living rose as the economy boomed between 1896 and Cox’s death in 1925, but is it true that Cox should therefore have maintained at least the average rate of improvement? Now we cannot doubt that Cox was depressed by his inability to save because, once every 365 days he made a diary entry bemoaning this very fact. Much of the evidence for his sense of material deprivation comes, however, from such authorial adjectives as gloomy, moaned and lamented. “In addition to his deficient income and miserable levels of consumption and savings, the other symptom of Cox’s poverty was the staggering amount of time he spent unemployed or underemployed”. (p135) Rhetorical overkill? Surely “poverty” defined in these terms was widespread? Surely, as I argued in Building the New World, at this very time different generations had different definitions?

Whether Cox was “poor” remains a question. If you compare his privations with those of Charles J Ayton, another rural labourer of about the same age as Cox, who settled in Central Otago, that question remains open. Only one volume of Ayton’s diary survives and he did not greet the New Year with a Coxian lament that he had not saved more. Therefore he seems happy. Intermittent periods of deprivation, for Cox’s generation, did not mean poverty. Three meals a day, abundant meat most days, tea and sugar almost invariably, plus a roof over his head and enough clothing to suffice, not to mention sufficient tobacco to satisfy his addiction, would still be an elysium of plenty to much of the world’s population. It is likely that he had seen much worse in London’s foetid and foul‑smelling lanes.

Let’s leave the issue of his poverty, however, and agree that he might have saved more, which seems to have been his aspiration, at least on New Year’s eve, most years. Chapter 10 unravels his world of ideology and it is a cracker. Cox subscribed to the ideology of self‑reliance, self‑improvement and self‑help. Samuel Smiles was the best known champion of this ideology. Although often mentioned ‑ though not by New Zealand historians ‑ the world of Smiles has never been so incisively analysed. Industry, application and good habits inevitably brought success in the Smilesian world, or so we are told. Luck had nothing to do with success. In New Zealand “the same notions were also part of the dominant ideology”. (p165) The American counterpart, Horatio Alger, considered luck essential to material success, but as Cox never gambled and appears to have been averse to any form of risk we can assume that he was a Smilesian man.

The Cox diary did not lend itself to this reading and Fairburn is at his brilliant best in unpicking it. His reading of the diary makes it a “sort of nineteenth century version of Pilgrim’s Progress, a daily account of a Victoria man’s endeavours to live up to the Smilesian ideal”. (p169) That ideal is unstitched, strand by strand. Here the intersections between ideology and personality are deftly sketched. His pride in doing a good day’s work, his dislike of loafing, his pleasure in having responsibility, his insistent cheerfulness and willingness to avoid giving pain or offence; his devotion to neatness, accuracy, sobriety and punctuality and his punctilious and indeed fastidious attention to detail, thoroughness and orderliness all speak to the cultural universe of the respectable working man and, indeed, men and women in all walks of life. The obverse also stands. His anxiety and distress, sometimes even his anger, sprang from muddle, disorder, things, matter and noises out of place and irregularity. Drunkenness upset him because it brought disorder. Idleness and incompetence annoyed him. Tidiness and cleanliness were instinctive: everything in its place and a place for everything. Had he not been such a finely wrought representative of the Smilesian worldview we would probably never have had his diary, which would have been our loss.

In trying to explain the puzzle, Fairburn systematically develops a number of plausible hypotheses and then rigorously subjects each to analysis. In the process he develops a powerful statement of the argument that Cox’s “poverty” was “predominantly the result of his own choices, of bad decisions at crucial moments which someone with his comparative social advantages should have avoided”. (p145) Having forcefully put the case for the prosecution, Fairburn then dismisses it but begs the central question. It is quite inadequate to claim that this “is … an unsatisfactory explanation [because] it lacks power”. True, the hypothesis ‑ although the use of that word weights the case and I prefer diagnosis ‑ does not explain why he “was inclined to act imprudently and why the bad decisions had such disastrous consequences”. Nor does it need to explain either of these. Cox’s psychological rigidity made the volatility of the colonial labour market problematic. Fairburn himself notes this but fails to appreciate the significance of the point.

Cox was fussy and rigid, cautious and conservative, in short obsessive and his genius for imprudent decisions, not to mention self‑indulgences he could not afford, merely compounded his problems. The evidence is splendidly summarised (p152). This is indeed a Wiltshire farm boy whose ignorance of farming was almost total. That is never explained. It is even more startling suddenly to find that he received many sizeable gifts from family in England. I almost fell out of my chair to find (on p152) that his mother, who died in 1902, left him a legacy of £200. It disappeared without trace. Think what Shacklock did with £25.

I don’t want to belabour a point. My indictment ‑ mainly culled from part 2 ‑ only stands if we assume that Cox actually wanted material prosperity and that he was a perfect example of homo economicus, rational man. There seems little evidence of the former. After all, if he disliked the life he had chosen so intensely, why didn’t he try to obtain work for which his background, education and prior employment experience as a clerk for the Great Western Railway suited him? The diary indicates that he never looked for such work. When desperate he walked away from Wellington, where he might have sought clerical work in the railways or the post office, not to mention the private sector. True, the “long depression” might have made such work hard to find, or even impossible, but we can’t know because he didn’t try! Instead he walked into the unknown. The earlier reference to Pilgrim’s Progress makes one wonder, suddenly, about what he was doing, what made him tick.

In the end the book’s interest lies in the way Cox is used as a means of investigating a culture rather than its specific verdict on Cox’s failure. The methodological pyrotechnics leave us conscious of the opacity of another cultural world and yet Fairburn’s methodological rigour, whether we agree or quarrel with his conclusion, greatly enlightens us.

Fairburn opens part 3 by dramatically posing his puzzle. “Although he became permanently poor from an abnormally early age, his ideology told him that he would be saved from poverty, if not enjoy upward mobility, by practising the self-help virtues.” (p183) The last three chapters attempt to unravel this paradox. Immediately we return to the issue of Cox’s sanity, posed now as a “mental disorder…”, which, intriguingly, Fairburn concedes to be an “issue that has kept on haunting us throughout the book”. (p188) We again get the relentlessly systematic exploration of the conclusions that might be deduced from a false premise. Fairburn sets out systematically a number of possible psychiatric diagnoses, rejects each, then looks at various coping strategies, including radicalism and explains why they didn’t work. Oddly enough he does not read the diaries for what they might reveal about Cox’s sexuality, a potential starting for any psychiatric diagnosis (indeed he ignores the literature on the Victorian psychic). We then get a systematic investigation of the possibility that Cox did not notice the paradox because of his conditioning or his experience. Although Fairburn concedes that he has built a powerful case, he rejects it too.

The book develops its dramatic tension from the unresolved paradox and the tension sufficed to keep me reading. The final resolution is not entirely satisfactory, however, for the artifice is finally confessed. That dramatic tension was created by assuming that Cox wanted material success and only subscribed to Smilesian values in order to achieve success. This is not only constantly repeated but the very language used reinforces the argument. At the end ‑ pp236‑7 ‑ this claim is declared an assumption and quickly proven to be a false one at that. One feels cheated and even a little impatient, much as a customs official might feel after wasting several hours listening to an elaborate yarn which, suddenly, is dismissed as fiction by its author, who then expects his next yarn to receive equal attention.

Now we learn that Smilesian self‑help operated at two levels. First, it contained the instrumental promise of wealth and success which has been belaboured for several chapters; second, however, “the cultivation of the self‑help values was seen as an end in itself…”. (p237) There has been no paradox. We have been tricked. I find the artifice too transparent, the deception unnecessary. We end by returning to Smiles’s Self Help (1859) to see that Smiles knew this all along. It is almost as if the author had lost all belief in the epistemological justification for his ethno‑history. By sleight of hand Fairburn’s journey of discovery has become a straitjacket for Cox’s life. But oh! what a great time we have had quarrelling with the unfolding argument. And we now know much more.

It becomes apparent that Nearly Out of Heart and Hope consciously operates at two levels, the methodological one and the historical one. I felt, as I did on reading The Ideal Society, that the author was as interested in the method of historical inquiry, especially in social history, as he was in his Coxian puzzle. And I was not surprised.

Historians are notably ignorant of epistemological and methodological issues relevant to their craft. Fairburn is not. Hence we watch him proceed, constructing hypotheses, testing them systematically, weighing them and discarding them. In some contexts this method works well ‑ driven as it is by Popper’s view of science (that is, the recognition of fallibility must be built into our cognitive claims, although there is no provision for a “Fair Cognitive Practices Board” to monitor evasions). A familiar concept, such as poverty, is neatly deconstructed into its various meanings and each is investigated carefully. In other contexts there is something rather mechanical about the procedure, however, and it presupposes the validity of constructing “either‑or” propositions, only one of which can survive the encounter. Even the dialectic allows more. I certainly don’t reject the view that “adverse contingency” and “structural mechanisms” contributed to Cox’s fate, far from it, but they are never proven to operate despite Cox’s personal character. Structure, contingency and personality conspire to frustrate Cox’s dream of material affluence or adequate savings.

The method works by excluding possibilities. one could proceed by opening possibilities, calling in question the unified and rational subject or treating the diary as a text in problematic relation to its context and its author; using its resounding silence about its author’s inner life, including his sexuality, as a goad to reflection about the relationships between subjectivity and objectivity, biography and sociocultural contexts or micro and macro levels of analysis. The narrowly instrumental view of belief declares its own limitations. We don’t take beliefs on and off like coats. Their relationship to our lives is much more complex.

A Wiltshire man ‑ as Cox was ‑ might be expected to subscribe wholeheartedly to the Smilesian worldview. Wiltshire and the counties around London constituted the eye of the hurricane, the storm centre of “modernity” in England. The universalistic ethos was a prophylactic against particularism. Cox might be considered the embodiment of Talcott Parsons’s “pattern variables”, which (on the right hand side) define “modernity”: affective neutrality, merit etc. It is interesting in this respect to note how the child of an ancient cultivated landscape never warmed to the untamed wildness of his adopted home. He disliked roughness.

As Fairburn remarks, “‘rough’ is the diary’s most popular epithet…”. (p181) He was also sensitive, as his biographer explains, to the feminine variant of Smiles’s universal ethic with its stress on kindness, attentiveness, solicitude and consideration. (p177) These virtues governed the treatment of strangers, too, and defined the essence of modernity, a new and radical form of universalism which went beyond “tribalism” with its requirement that strangers be treated either like kin or like enemies.

Such ethical principles were stated as eternal, beyond the reach of time or place, yet they represented an historical achievement. Industry, competence and character went together. Refinement, in a word, measured the degree of civilisation, of improvement. Here, I think, Fairburn’s analysis pushes hardest at its explanatory use of Smilesian ideology and I’d have liked a longer exploration of other and pre-Smilesian dimensions of civility and refinement which, one readily imagines, a Wiltshire boy absorbed. I’d have also liked an analysis of the relationship between Smilesian ideology and mid‑Victorian protestantism. Norbert Elias’s work, The Civilising Process, springs to mind as a potentially useful framework for analysing Cox’s life, although he had little to say about the nineteenth century. So does Michael Cuddihy’s The Ordeal of Civility. Improvement, apparently another common term in the diary, takes us beyond Smiles into a larger cultural milieu where scientific agriculture, civility, refinement and improvement intersect.

It is a milieu not far removed from that of Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s ideal society. Indeed, Cox represents an intriguing representative of those labourers once thought common in Wakefield’s settlements, long the target of revisionist assault. The extended discussion, pp 233‑5, of Cox’s skill in forming relationships with women etches that point more clearly, for Wakefield believed women central to civilisation.

In this context Cox’s relationships with those few Maori he met and worked for also takes on another significance, although he did not comment. Perhaps Cox’s inner peace came from his inner certainty that he was part of a civilising process. It should also be noted that this ideal citizen of the ideal society, although so different to the anomic citizen of Fairburn’s Ideal Society, was not peculiar within the subculture ‑ if such it was ‑ of rural labourers and settlers in the Wairarapa. The idea must arise that Cox was not alone in seeing in self‑improvement ‑ in making himself a better person ‑ a link between his private world, his social context, and the larger purposes implicit in colonisation. The Smilesian view, distilled from a secularized protestantism, defined by Cuddihy as the essence of “modernity”, reconciled atomised man ‑ the only man to exist in a modern democratic society ‑with the larger progress of civilisation, with the survival of social order on the basis of the consent of the governed and with certain ethical principles, often (then) expressed in words such as justice and fairness. Whatever one thinks of such a speculation, Cox, with his distaste for “roughness”, belongs to the cultural world which Elvin Hatch anatomised in South Canterbury two generations later.

Cox’s life contradicts widely held beliefs about colonial society (oddly, the Ideal Society is rarely hinted at). At the end Fairburn touches on these issues obliquely by using Weber’s distinction between instrumental and value rationality to clarify the economic and moral dimensions of self‑help. The end pursued is “manly character…”, “to work out the best development possible of body and spirit ‑ of mind, conscience, heart and soul. This is the end: all else ought to be regarded but as the means.” (cited p238)

Smiles was quite adamant that wealth in itself was not a worthwhile end. Many readers missed the point and saw in Self Help (1859) a justification for selfishness. In his second edition, published in 1866, Smiles emphasised further that this was a misreading. Making yourself a better human being was the raison d’être of life. This brings us back to civility, refinement, improvement and civilisation. Self‑help reconciled atomised and democratic man with the progress of civilisation. If Fairburn is right in concluding that Cox found self‑respect and spiritual contentment in his moral improvement, in achieving more control over his passions and instincts, then Cox was celebrating his own role in the civilising process. The diary was an instrument.

Recently in the Sir Keith Sinclair Memorial lecture at the University of Auckland I discussed Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s role in making New Zealand an experiment in post‑Enlightenment planning and claimed that it is time we returned to analyse the centrality of civilisation in his thought. In passing I remarked that the belief in civilisation may well have featured largely in the British diaspora of the nineteenth century, part of which trickled here. Cox underlines that point memorably. And as we read the endnotes the impression is strengthened. In those for chapter 12, for instance, Jock Phillips’s claims about the construction of a masculine culture are nicely pruned back to size. Mate, for Cox, never meant what Phillips thought as integral to the sub‑culture of rural labourers in A Man’s Country?.

Perhaps New Zealand historians have been transposing Australian themes home from across the Tasman and missing the differences.

This is, I hasten to say, yet another reading. Before concluding let me briefly persist with the idea that the text ‑ 37 volumes and 800,000 words ‑ might more fruitfully be opened to a variety of readings, not in the belief that one must conquer and the others retreat from the field, but because such a text, so eloquent about some matters and so silent about others, might provide a range of suggestions, a prompt to further speculation at precisely this important intersection between public and private which Fairburn has identified and explored.

In reviewing Brian Vincent’s volume on British working class autobiographies Regenia Gagnier anatomised a variety of genres in which people reflected about their lives. Her complaint, in part, was that one form, life as a meaningful quest, had been privileged over all others. She discussed the classic form, bourgeois autobiography (ignoring that its origins can easily be traced back to Augustine) and looked at autobiography as self‑examination and confession (she also looked at older, or archaic, forms of story‑telling which lent themselves to the sort of analysis now associated with Bahktin’s name).

To interrogate the diary with a taxonomy of genres and to interrogate the genres with the diary might have proved fruitful. As it is ‑ and this is my central complaint ‑ the Fairburnian method precludes such open‑ended approaches. Instead, the only discussion of genres appears near the beginning as a way of ascertaining why Cox became a diarist.

Nearly Out of Heart and Hope prompts debate and reflection. It also offers a unique lens for investigating colonial life between 1880 and 1925. Fairburn’s wide knowledge and his deftness of touch impress throughout the book. We now know much more about “working‑class language”, popular holidays and festivals, a discussion which leads on to race days and gambling, various forms of agency for workers, poverty, unemployment and underemployment, life on the swag and the rituals of everyday life. We learn about diet, the psychological significance of animals and pets, the way in which networks were established and the rhythms of a farm‑labourer’s life and work. It might be objected that one cannot have an ethno‑history of one man, but I disagree. How typical he was remains, however, an unanswered question. Yet the rewards of Nearly Out of Heart and Hope come from the questions asked and the stimulating and clever way in which they are systematically answered.

We are the wiser for the journey. It has also been enjoyable. And Cox’s life ‑ thanks to this book ‑ compels us to confront many important questions. Even if we conclude that Cox was not typical, no future account of colonial society can ignore him‑ He assumes an importance that he never had in his own lifetime. Besides, those things which make his motives impenetrable, including those resounding silences, constantly remind us that the late Victorians were not like us, that they remain as a closed book, different, other.

That surely is the final puzzle. We might choose to unstitch the cloth in some other way, but the method chosen has opened many fruitful questions. We can thank one Wairarapa boy for having paid another one such homage, for having introduced us and at the same time for having made us more self‑conscious about the methods of inquiry that we unthinkingly deploy. No mean feat, but then we would not expect less.

Erik Olssen is Professor of History at Otago University. His Building the New World: Work, Politics and Society in Caversham, 1880s‑1920s was reviewed in New Zealand Books in October.

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