O M Andresen (trans Johan Bonnevie)
The uses of history are manifold and many-faceted. The literary uses of history even more so. These three works demonstrate something of the range covered by that slippery and much maligned genre, historical fiction. All three use New Zealand’s colonial past as a basis for their stories, whose fictionality ranges from the mild to the complete.
Johanna’s World, translated by Johan Bonnevie from the account by Norwegian journalist Olystein Andresen (now resident in New Zealand), is the most overtly locked into reality. Based on the life and reminiscences of a Johanna Paso, who came to New Zealand in 1873, it includes photographs, newspaper reports, and suggests the authenticity of archival and oral record. The bagginess of ordinary life is reflected in the shape of the narrative, as is its casual tragedy, from flood to fire to child mortality, altogether more than a fictionally constructed account would make believable. With ease and assurance, Andresen manages to convey a balance between the historical facts (personal, local and national) and the dialogue and detail (which must owe more to the imagination, either his own or that of his source). The result is a bleak account of the heroic everyday.
If Johanna’s World strives to convince the reader of its veracity, Mrs Rochester, from the outset, overtly signals its complete lack of historical truth. Other truths are, however, called upon instead. At the end of Charlotte Bronte’s 1848 novel Jane Eyre, we left the narrator married to the gorgeous, albeit mutilated, Mr Rochester, celebrating the birth of their first child. The trouble with realism is that it convinces us the characters have life outside the pages that contain them. The trouble with autobiographical fiction such as Jane Eyre is that we want to know what happened after the conclusion. “Reader, I married him” – but then what? According to Warwick Blanchett, quite a lot. Mr Rochester finds recovery from the Thornfield fire difficult, and succumbs to an early death, though not before losing the family fortune. His children (Hugo and Helen) are safely at school, but what of poor Mrs Rochester? Out on the governess market again, alas, and this time, trying her luck in New Zealand rather than Yorkshire.
The most enjoyable thing about Blanchett’s treatment is the firmness with which his tongue is placed in his cheek. Unlike the intensely mundane world of Johanna and her family, with Mrs Rochester we are always aware of inhabiting not just a work of fiction but a work which plays upon that fiction. Delightful literary jokes abound: Blanche Ingram has married and become Mrs Henry Lynn – a composite created from the real-life author Mrs Henry Wood and the title of her famous Victorian bodice-ripper East Lynne. Lost in a bush burn-off, Jane hears the voice of Mr Rochester calling to her, just as she did first time around, lost on the moors. The place-names of the new colony are strangely reminiscent of the geography of the Brontes’ childhood games, and the bedroom the heroine is placed in is, of course, red. Jane is much as we remember her from the original novel: intense, feisty, and, for some reason, irresistible to men. In fact, the plot of Mrs Rochester consists almost entirely of Jane working her way through a list of suitors, from the dashing Lieutenant Trevelyan to the randy Archdeacon Parfitt to the bucolic/Byronic Caleb, son of Jane Eyre’s Diane Rivers.
Blanchett is wonderfully true to the tone and style of the original. Landscape and setting are appropriately lush and exotic; storms and tempests appear on cue as the emotional weather of the plot demands. Manners and modes of speech are appropriately Victorian: Jane talks of “relieving the island’s ovine population of their winter coats” instead of shearing sheep; women are described as being “the cynosure of all eyes”; Maori singing is described as “keening polyphony”. All this could become a little tedious taken to excess. But Blanchett drives his plot along briskly, and judges exactly how long to play what is essentially an extended literary joke.
Literary sequels or spin-offs have become a little sub-genre of their own: from Emma Tennant’s Pemberley (sequel to Pride and Prejudice) to Joan Aiken’s Jane Fairfax (spin-off from Emma) to the truly dreadful Scarlett (Gone with the Wind Part II). Most confine themselves to a somewhat pedestrian delineation of “what happened next”. Mrs Rochester’s colonial setting (comparable perhaps to Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs, a spin-off from Great Expectations) allows more scope, as Blanchett offers us not just an extension of Jane Eyre, but an imitation of the sort of Maoriland romance that was popular here in the second half of the 19th century.
Carol Thomas’s Consequences, though sharing their 19th-century setting, has neither the historical veracity of Johanna’s World nor the literary allusiveness of Mrs Rochester. This is not just – or perhaps simply not – a historical novel: it is a historical romance. I am sure Thomas has done the required amount of research, and I am sure that the Canterbury Plains described in her narrative in some way reflect historical reality. But this is not the point. Action, rather than setting or ambience, is the key, and melodrama, rather than credibility, provides the overall tone.
We first encounter the heroine, Elizabeth Cawthorne, on board ship bound for 1880s New Zealand. Soon, in breathless succession, we survive the following: secret pregnancy, miscarriage and death in childbirth, illegitimacy, lost heirs and hidden (but noble) parentage, mistaken and/or hidden identity, gun-running, attempted rape and retributive murder, forced marriage, various marriage-bed encounters, the ghosts of dead wives, long-lost children, mysterious Maori customs. (As in Blanchett, Maori exist only as a source of exoticism, mystery, and doomed inter-racial love affairs – pure 19th– century Maoriland, in fact: Alfred Domett lives on!) By now we are still only about a third of the way through the plot, and, given the date and the wonderfully lurid cover picture, can safely bet we have the Tarawera eruption and the destruction of the Pink and White Terraces ahead.
The great thing about Consequences is that it is so firmly and unabashedly in its genre, exploiting every convention, cliché and stereotype to the hilt with no little skill. It is not easy to write good popular fiction, though the more pretentious of our local critics might look down on it. Thomas deploys her complex narrative with confidence and pace. Granted, her heroine is proud, wilful and attractive, her hero dark, brooding and masterful, the villains so obviously villainous they pulsate with it. Granted, it does not take much clairvoyance to anticipate the plot development, and, granted, the setting could be any frontier: the Wild West, the Canadian North or the African veldt. Granted, the level of emotional drama and, in particular, the sexual athletics make the reader feel a little tired, and certainly a little dull by comparison! But such conventions are part of the romance form, and it is a form Thomas understands thoroughly.
It can be argued that the maturity of a national literature is measured not in its production of high culture, but in the ease and adaptability with which it processes and makes use of the popular. Romance was the dominant fictional form in colonial writing. Crude and mechanical as it was, romance helped the new population to read themselves, in all senses, into a landscape, in a way that was not just measured by complexity and seriousness of purpose, but by its ability to give play to adaptations of stereotypes of the popular. We need to do more of it today.
Jane Stafford is currently working with Mark Williams on a study of late 19th-century colonial New Zealand literature.