Interesting exercise in failure, Jane Stafford

The Story of a New Zealand Writer: Jane Mander  
Rae McGregor
University of Otago Press, $34.95,
ISBN 1 877133 37 X

Name the New Zealand woman writer, born in the late 19th century to a prosperous middle-class family, with an energetic businessman father, who saw herself as an author from an early age and despite a love of the New Zealand landscape and acute perceptions about colonial society, yearned to escape overseas, and in fact spent most of her writing life there?

No, not Katherine Mansfield. Jane Mander, her elder by eleven years, born in 1877, brought up in Northland, left for Sydney in 1907, then onto New York and London. She did not return until 1932, and then reluctantly. “Much as I love New York I do long at times for tents and a New Zealand bay”, she admitted. But such feelings were by no means overwhelming: “There are days of course when I think that the sight of a Kauri tree – but when I feel like that I walk round Westminster Abbey.” She displayed the same wariness and ambivalence about her native land as Mansfield. “I have wished myself out there many times in the last year or two,” she wrote from London, “for the country life in the north is really very lovely. But I suppose I should hate the people.”

If Mansfield and Mander are rarely compared, it is partly because of the difference in their life-span. Mander died in 1949, twenty-six years after Mansfield. If Mansfield had lived as long as Mander, she could have read Owls Do Cry. (If she’d lived as long as Mander’s father, she could have taken part in the anti-Springbok protests, but I digress.)

Yet it is arguable that Mansfield is a more “modern” writer than Mander. Mansfield transformed herself from a colonial author, published in The Native Companion, to a fringe member of Bloomsbury and an exponent of modernist chic. Mander chose not to follow this literary trajectory. Her first and most successful novel was published in 1920. Its title, The Story of a New Zealand River overtly invites comparison with the South African writer, Olive Schreiner’s  novel The Story of an African Farm. But Schreiner’s novel was published in 1883. By 1920 the kind of conventions that Mander was working with – domestic melodrama, romanticised landscape, feminist Bildungsroman, played out against the  exoticism of the bush – were old-fashioned, redolent of Maoriland writers such as Edith Searle Grossmann and Louise Baker – Schreiner’s contemporaries.

By 1920 Mansfield was constructing versions of New Zealand landscape and society sieved through the net of modernism, her aim to achieve that “artificiality” that she felt New Zealand needed. Mander was hostile to the demands of modernism. Gertrude Stein’s poetry seemed to her “written in some gobbledegook known only to Miss Stein”. In 1923 she was present at the Sitwells’ famous – or notorious – performance of Façade, and wrote a scathing account for the Christchurch Sun entitled “Sir Beelzebub and his Syllabub – an evening with the Moderns” in which she hazarded that  “the lovers of Keats and Tennyson have nothing to fear”.

It is hard not to see Mander as an interesting exercise in failure. None of her novels gained much critical or commercial success. Critics found the intensity of their tone strange. Alan Mulgan wrote that “Miss Mander’s chief fault is her obsession with sex; a little more reticence would do her no harm”, while the British paper the Daily News thought that “If Miss Mander could forget Freedom, Independence, Sex, and Equality, she might write a good novel.”

The huge utopian agendas of colonial writing, which were her model, had been superseded by a more nuanced set of literary requirements that Mander never quite managed to relate to. After her return to New Zealand in 1932, she wrote nothing until her death in 1949. Family demands were relentless, and clearly contributed to her silence. She observed: “I am dying to get on with another book, but my family is a terrible detainer.” Her filial compliance could be compared to Mansfield’s single-minded determination not to be drawn back to New Zealand; however she mined its material for her stories. To be a successful writer, especially a successful woman writer, one has to be extremely bloody-minded. But the demands of her annoyingly long-lived father apart, Mander had somehow missed the boat. She befriended and championed Monte Holcroft, hardly a perceptive choice for 1930s literary stardom, and although she was personal friends with Fairburn, Cresswell, Sargeson and Hyde, Sargeson’s description of her as “a terrifically good old scout” says it all.

McGregor’s biography contains a great deal of original material – private letters and published articles of enormous interest, and fascinating photographs, especially of Mander’s early days in Whangarei. However, she makes little use of this material, and her book’s overall effect is clumsy and amateur. Writing from a point of view of gushing partisanship, she fails to ask, let alone answer, the questions Mander’s life raises.

There is little or no attempt to discuss the novels, a pity as most are unfamiliar and long out of print. And what judgements are made are clumsily phrased and tendentious. For example: “She is, perhaps, the only typical New Zealand writer whose characters are unashamedly New Zealanders who move naturally against a New Zealand background, because it is their background, who are of the soil, the sea, the sky, typical of their country.” The style here is incoherent (can something be “only typical”?), and the judgement, such as it is, is arguable.

New Zealand settler writers started writing as soon as they hit the beach, and from the outset the literary challenge of responding to place and difference was an explicit part of their agenda. Mander’s New Zealand novels show her to be an interesting exponent of this, but hardly the first. And as for being “unashamedly New Zealanders”, the complexity and ambivalences implied in such a definition were central to what she – and many others – were exploring. McGregor’s claim that “The Story of a New Zealand River can be looked upon as the great literary bridge which opened the way for writers to depict their country in its true light” ignores the way in which the modernist movement that followed her redefined national literature by claiming to invent it. Rightly or wrongly, it recognised no bridges back.

The evidence of McGregor’s material points to a conclusion she is reluctant to make. Mander did not want to be a New Zealand writer. Success meant success in London and New York, and this eluded her. She returned here as a failure, and it is only her first book, written in the shadow of the vigorous but now neglected literary scene of the late colonial world, that remains of interest.

Jane Stafford teaches in the School of English, Film and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington.

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Posted in Biography, Literature, Non-fiction, Review
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