Preserving the institutional memory, Doug Munro

Eminent Victorians: great teachers and scholars from Victoria’s first 100 years
ed Vincent O’Sullivan
Stout Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington,
$24.95, ISBN 0 473 06487 1

As every schoolboy and schoolgirl doesn’t know, a book called Eminent Victorians appeared in 1918 under the authorship of that iconoclast Lytton Strachey. It was a collection of scurrilous essays debunking four 19th century English greats and exposing them as flawed and rather pitiful mortals. Some 80 years later a book of the same title, though with very different intent, has been issued to commemorate the great teachers and scholars of Victoria University’s first 100 years. Strachey enjoyed ironies but he probably would not have appreciated this one.

The latter-day Eminent Victorians originated from a lecture series organised by the Stout Centre as its contribution to the University’s centennial celebrations. “Two owls and a hen, four larks and a wren” sums up the collection’s serendipitous approach as speakers from a broad range of disciplines hold forth on subjects equally diverse, ranging from the hard rock scientist Sir Charles Cotton through to the “heretic” Lloyd Geering. Although many of the subjects have had University buildings named in their honour (Sir Thomas Hunter, Richard Cockburn MacLaurin, Harry Borer Kirk, Sir Charles Cotton, George von Zedlitz, Crawford Somerset) or have rooms named after them (J C Beaglehole), there is always a need for commemorative volumes as the institutional memory recedes and public recognition fades. Their faces may stare down from the frames of their portraits in oil from various vantage points around Vic, but what manner of man lay behind the face?

And all but one of the subjects are men – with the educationalist Gwen Somerset stepping out of the shadows as the token woman. All but one of the subjects are Anglos, with a token German. Those were the days also when bright young men could expect to occupy professorial chairs before they were 40 – and sometimes even before 30 – on the basis of a slight record in scholarly publishing. Those were the days of the cultural cringe when overseas degrees were held in exaggerated esteem; a definite disability attached to being locally educated.

Whatever the uniformity of milieu, this book is characterised by an infinite variety of approaches. The contributors were allowed to tackle their task from whatever angle they thought best. In some ways this is where the book’s strength lies – in suggesting so many different biographical styles. W L Renwick and Nelson Wattie, for example, ask what made Hunter and von Zedlitz, respectively, tick. Kenneth Keith (MacLaurin), Alex Frame (Sir John Salmond) and Paul Morris (Lloyd Geering) concentrate on aspects of their subjects’ intellectual thinking. John Andrews and Rodney Grapes steer between these two approaches, writing about the scientists Kirk and Cotton. Margaret Clark explores the possibilities of ventriloquist biography by allowing the political scientist Leslie Lipson to speak for himself while W H Oliver, the master essayist, provides a well-crafted memoir on the historians Freddie Wood and J C Beaglehole.

Lack of uniformity does, however, have its disadvantages. It gives the volume as a whole a free-floating, happenstance quality. To my mind, the most successful and satisfying essays are those that concentrate on character and which most firmly link the person to the University. Alex Frame’s piece, to give the obvious example, is an excellent analysis of Salmond’s legal “fictions” but will be of limited appeal to the wider reading public, at whom the volume was directed; and in any case Salmond only spent two years at Vic.

The outstanding essay is Bill Renwick’s on Tommy Hunter, the long-serving Principal and guardian angel of Victoria University College, which gives the lie to the assertion that a biography well-written is even rarer than a life well-spent. Hunter was an “unabashed rationalist”, who abandoned an academic career to pursue educational reform and about whom the term “Victorian values” can be applied in a positive (non-Thatcherite) mode. The content of his character is summed up in many ways by Renwick’s suggestion that he “rejected religious faith but the fervour with which he championed his causes had a religious feel to it”. The other really notable essay is Nelson Wattie’s on von Zedlitz, the “civilised” Professor of Modern Languages, whose feelings of fractured identity came horribly true with a xenophobic government forcing his dismissal on a reluctant University, thus cutting short an illustrious career. Like Hunter, von Zedlitz passionately believed in academic freedom. Ironically, he was ill-served by it. Ironically, also, the University Council which so reluctantly acceded to his dismissal was the same body which, over 20 years later, refused to appoint John Beaglehole to the Chair of History, supposedly on account of his political views.

Bill Oliver’s essay on Beaglehole and fellow historian Freddie Wood gives the book an unintended spice. The lecture itself caused quite a stir, and Oliver acknowledges that he misjudged audience expectations for praise and deference. His listeners grew increasingly twitchy at being told that Wood’s and Beaglehole’s writings on the Maori would not pass muster by today’s standards and were unappeased – if they even heard it – by Oliver rightly remarking that this was not a matter of “ignorance but of perspective”. By the same token, Oliver’s own earlier treatment of Maori issues in, say, The Story of New Zealand (1960) would also be judged deficient by today’s standards. One appreciates – and defends – Oliver’s attempt to make a novel point while regretting that his focus on Beaglehole’s and Wood’s work in the 1930s and early 1940s freezes them, historiographically speaking, and precludes an examination of their later scholarship.

Overall, the essays are commemorative in content and celebratory in tone as former colleagues stepped forward to pay tribute to Victoria’s great teachers and scholars. The book is also an unintended tribute to the late John Mansfield Thomson, that denizen of the Stout Centre and himself an eminent Victorian, whose fine essay on Douglas Lilburn and Freddie Page was the last thing he wrote before his death.

Vincent O’Sullivan, in his editor’s introduction, speaks of Victoria University’s “values”, which Hunter and his colleagues exemplified. One might seriously wonder whether these values are still alive and well at Vic. For all its past difficulties, the University has never experienced anything approaching its recent “troubles”, with the university community in turmoil, revolt and disarray. To have
troubles of this sort is unfortunate; to have them during a centennial year is sheer carelessness. Echoing their royal matriarch’s famous euphemism, the eminent Victorians of this Stout Centre publication would not have been “amused” at what their university has come to. Lytton Strachey would have agreed with them on that point.

Doug Munro is a Wellington-based freelance historian. He is currently working on a biography of another eminent Victorian,
J W Davidson.

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Posted in Education, History, Non-fiction, Review
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